Successful Statement of Purpose: The Go-to SOP Writing Guide

Every application season, students pore through limitless webpages to find the most go-to-guide for writing the statement of purpose. These are then presented to the holy admissions committee to determine one’s fate.

What is a statement of purpose?

Statement of purpose, also known as SOP, is an essay that tells the admission committee about your academic objectives.

The goal lies in the three main objectives:

  1. Solidify your candidate image, in terms of academic background, experience, or qualifications. 
  2. Answer what would you want to achieve (your purpose, well said) in the area of studies in which you are applying. 
  3. Why did you choose to apply to the specific school or university?

One can also include reflective insights into their own academic weaknesses or blemishes. However, keep in mind from tragic descriptions or poetic lines that sound like one’s the ultimate victim of the world. It’s best to stay honest, concise, and straightforward. Share what negatives have happened, how you have overcome such obstacles, and “evolved” into this better version of yourself.

Personal Statement vs. Statement of Purpose

Coming across application materials, two terms that appear the most often would be personal statement and statement of purpose. While both serve to showcase yourself as THE ONE for the program or school to which you’re applying, the two items, in their essence, have some apples-to-apples comparison. 

In short, a personal statement speaks of your identity, while a statement of purpose answers the question of who you want to become (goals-oriented though). 

A statement of purpose for graduate school, for example, should talk about the specific research or professors you want to engage in, what related experiences have you done previously, and why do you want to get into this school.

P.S: For those who HAD experiences in college applications, it’s basically an extended, academic-focused version of the Why-School essays. The more detailed, academic, and intellectual the better.

A Personal statement, on the other hand, focuses on one’s personal background. It has more flexibility and gives much more breathing space. It’s the go-to essay when one wants to stress one characteristic, experiences, or identity-related to you as a person, rather than just focusing on academic/professional oriented details.

How to format a statement of purpose?

While each school generally will provide their preferred statement of purpose format, the most common statement of purpose formatting is also listed below. When there is no specific requirement for formatting, it’s best to go with these guidelines and play it safe.

  • Times New Roman font + 12 font size is the go-to choice for any formal submission. 
  • 1-inch margin (or 2.54 centimeters) 
  • 1 or 1.2 or 1.5 line spacing, keep it within 2 pages long.

How to write a statement of purpose?

WOW and here comes the most exhaustive, difficult part. Even the best receipt shall struggle to capture the complexity of how a statement of purpose should be. To be honest, there are no magic tips and tricks that guarantee success. It presents an unsolvable challenge in the best of circumstances, requiring a combination of heart and mind. 

Here are some general steps to follow for your upcoming endeavor, no matter if it’s a grad school statement of purpose or a Ph.D. statement of purpose, it should be the same: treat them with absolute consideration, reflection, and sincerity.

Step 1. Find your story.

Squeeze every part of your brain and mind.

While most applications ask about different questions. It might be an instruction as broad as “submit your statement of purpose”,  “describe your reason for applying and your preparation for this field of study”, or specific as “Provide a recent example where you have demonstrated leadership and created value. What challenges did you face and what did you learn?” (extracted from Northwestern’s MBA statement of purpose prompt). 

Nevertheless, they ask for the same thing: their underlying goal is about knowing you as a person, what kinds of persons have you been, and what kinds of people you wish (or will) become.

A simple-minded statement of purpose examples (in other words, a bad one) may look like this:

I am applying to the MBA programs at Northwestern University because I believe my leadership skills and knowledge will blossom at your program, which provides countless challenges for its students.

That’s even vaguer than the mist in the sky. Indeed, it’s direct and straightforward but tells literally nothing about yourself. Besides submitting the statement of purpose, a candidate will also fill up various forms and charts and applications: the admission committee definitely knows what department you are applying to when they receive your application. There’s no need to praise their program: they definitely know more than you do.

Here's what to do...

- Question yourself. 
- Question your life.
- Question your existence of purpose (a bit far stretch I know). 

This will probably become one of the most introspective periods of your life.

Sometimes you’re unaware, but there are definitely some events that have led you to the place you are. Do not be satisfied with “I enjoy this field”. 

  • Why do you hold your interest in this field? 
  • What do you want to achieve in this field? 
  • Why does it matter to you? 
  • What is your story, your past, your memory?  

Find it.

Step 2. Brainstorm (multiple versions)

Then find a way to say your story. The best option is to brainstorm multiple versions, with different approaches, different structures, different openings. It’s like writing a novel: would you prefer first-person limited perspective or third person omniscient? Narrated in chronological order or flashback? Transitional or non-sequitur? (the last option is not recommended as it will very likely cause confusion) 

It’s great to create several statements of purpose outlines, then choose from one of them.

Step 3. Unified Narrative & Theme

Since the era of Normandy tribes, humanities have created folklore and myths. These languages of the soul accompanied each individual from childhood to age. So speak of a story, not statements. While inserting what you have accomplished and your interest in the field, make them vivid and thematic, tie into specific incidents or challenges that hit hard.

  • well-prepared academically and emotionally for graduate school (translation: know what you are doing)
  • able to take on both intellectual and professional challenges (translation: have some prior experiences and preparation)
  • hold great passion for the field (translation: show some commitment and the reason behind it

It’s definitely an option to refer to a specific professor, research, or special program conducted in school; it shows how you have done your research and also say something about yourself. However, don’t mention a professor for the sake of mentioning, be honest and true to yourself.

Some Statement of purpose Sample Ideas:

  • An essay stressing how family background prompted you to apply for graduate school in information technology. What’s your note on cybersecurity, or free speech? What have you experienced personally that prompted you here? 
  • An essay stressing how your loved ones or your patients suffered from depression prompted you to study Psychology in advanced academics; you wanted to study clinical ethic or social psychology with two prominent faculty members.

Choose a specific angle to slice that cake. Don’t blabber about your art background if it has no correlation with your study in computer science in your statement of purpose (Of course, if you’re applying for an interactive design program that requires computing knowledge, it’s sure a plus to include that information!). The same goes for other contexts: provide those that matter to both you and the admission committee.

Step 4.  Proofread & Ask for Peer Edits

Always check your writings. All means avoid any simple grammar mistakes or spelling error: definitely not a bright sign for a statement of purpose for masters/doctors. You will most likely leave an incautious and irresponsible first image (BAD BAD BAD!). 

Grab a Ph.D. statement of purpose example in the same field and compare its bright sparks with your own. Read some novels or other’s statement of purpose templates to spice up your neurotransmitter and get inspiration. Do “clocking” with your peers and ask for suggestions.

How to start a statement of purpose?

Hook: catch the fish

The admission committee is probably reading hundreds of statements of purpose with 5-10 brains a day. It’s crucial to leave a strong impression. Indeed, the primary job should go to the whole writing. Yet the first step to that is the opening sentence —— a hook is what you need to capture the attention(s). 

    Here's a list of common option that might work for your hook:
  • Anecdote 
  • Quote 
  • Thesis 
  • Subvert expectation with statement / statistic / question 
  • Draw a scene (imagery)
  • Short, strong, bold words.

Hook from a statement of purpose for graduate school examples:

  • Asian, a land where single-parent families are stigmatized, fostered my close relationship with cultural anthropology. (Applying for Anthropology)
  • Anorexia. Bulimia. Binge Eating. (Applying for Biology / Psychology)
  • 0x=0. The mathematical mockery knocks me with pure ignorance. I know nothing. (Applying for Applied Math)

How to end a statement of purpose?

Ending: Bring in the net.

The conclusion will become the last writing impression the committee holds on you: it’s as important as your introduction, if not more. All techniques for the hook can be applied here too. Beware: It needs to be consistent with the whole writing, and best with the hook. 

Samples from Statement of Purpose:

  • I’m ready to carry the purple torch to the world of academia and beyond. (from NYU stern graduate school application) 
  • Carrying profound appreciation for medical research, I cannot help but hope to soon embark on the journey in search of cures to dementia. (from Neurobiology program, graduate school application)

How long should a statement of purpose be?

The length of a statement of purpose differs from school to school, normally ranges from 300 words to 1,500 thousand. 

There’s a lot of information and personal stories to cover in a few hundred to thousands  of words. Sometimes, poetic or narrative styles could extend the writing to several pages long. The utmost suggestion is to:

Write more. Delete Later

Let your brain flow naturally with all of its vivid imagery and phrases. It’s okay to be fluffy at first. But after numerous drafts of editing, it should be as concise as possible. Do not linger on confusing metaphors if it needs to be explained further.

Some Final Notes

Try to peek underneath the mystical veil and craft your own story. Try to produce real emotions in your readers. Try to be evocative, creative, and authentic. 

Going to a graduate school is a true commitment. Hang in there.

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