The art of stating your purpose

As with everything else on life, the application process too starts with a purpose; the statement of purpose is what they call it. A statement of purpose (SoP) is a statement of who you are, what has influenced your career path so far, your motivation for this new endeavour, and why you would be an asset to the program you are applying to. The SoP is undoubtedly the most important and the most influential part of your application and so it goes without saying, that this will probably be the hardest thing you’ll write.

The motivation:

Why do you think the schools want you to write an SOP? What skill of yours will they test through the SOP? Think of it in this way, you’ve already proved your mettle for your line of study by the grades on your transcript. You’ve already made clear that you have good reasoning and critical thinking through the GRE. You will establish your skills of being a hardworking and devoted student through the Letters of Recommendation. So what exactly are those people looking out in a SoP?

If I could give you a one word answer to that, it would be passion. What exactly is passion, you ask? Wikipedia defines passion as an intense emotion, a compelling enthusiasm or a desire for something. This could be the closest anyone can get to the real meaning of passion. Now pay special attention to the words used in this short but very straightforward definition. These words depict an urgency to do something, these words portray something that you can not live without but more than anything else, these words define who you are. Schools often look for creativity, desire to learn, curiosity and uniqueness in your application, all of which stem from your passion.

People can achieve real wonders if they really follow their passion and this is the only thing that any school would want: to see its students doing the unthinkable. This is precisely the reason they want you to write an SoP: they want you to bring out your passion and see if they can hone your passion into a skill that would help you achieve unfathomable heights. It is very important that you are passionate about the field that you’re applying to, not only to write a good statement, but to survive through the thick and thins of the course.

One thing to note here is, in the process of depicting passion through your SoP, you shouldn’t lose your identity. Put in other words, don’t fake a passion that you actually don’t have, just because you think the school would like to see that quality in its students. The admissions committee at those schools has been in this business long enough to distinguish the real from the fake, much like the experienced Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men :P.

The burning start

Ask any author and they’ll tell you; knowing your reader is the foremost thing that needs to be done before you start writing. So who is your reader in this case? Most likely it would be a group of 4-5 professors at the university you’re applying to, who have to go through a pile of over 500 SoPs to select a few students they deem fit for the program. Put yourselves in their shoes for a moment, would you even care reading the whole SoP which starts on a boring note, or which does not have a hook.

You need to give an extra-ordinary start to your SoP. Write a story from your childhood that you think generated the interest in the field that you’re applying for or start with a quote that defines your philosophy in life or even talk about that one moment when you were sitting alone that it struck to you what you actually want to do. Do whatever you feel will keep the reader hooked on to your SoP till the very end. This piece of paper will be the only way to make your mark on those 5 professors whom you’ve never ever met in your life. Your statement of purpose should portray you as an individual, not just an application for a graduate program.

The content

You should try to demonstrate all the qualities that you feel would be helpful in your graduate program but don’t repeat the stuff that is already available in your resume, or in other parts of the application. Extra-curricular activities should not take up a more than 2-3 sentences, unless you specifically want to use them to portray some exceptional quality you might have. Further, instead of blatantly mentioning your qualities, you should try to back it up with an example. For e.g. if you  want to say you’re interested in robotics, write how you stayed up for N nights to design that robot to participate in that event, where even though you couldn’t win for some ABC reasons, you learned how  XYZ modifications in your bot would have increased your chances.

Some things that your SoP should highlight, apart from your passion, are

  • your intelligence,
  • your preparedness for the program – both academically and personally,
  • your ability to face the challenges of the grad school, and
  • how this school would help you reach closer to the goals of your life.

You can display your intelligence by the way you write and frame the SoP. Try to maintain a logical flow in the essay where one paragraph merges into the next one in a very subtle manner. Don’t wander away into personal stories, try to keep it as focussed as you can. Every sentence you write should increase your chances of being selected

You can include a few relevant projects and other accomplishments like publications or some award, in that field to show your preparedness for the course. If you were really influenced by some particular class in your undergrad, you can talk about how that class motivated you to pursue higher studies in that field. A few anecdotes about how you went through a rigorous training in your undergraduate studies can display your abilities to face the challenges that the grad school has to offer.

The final part is to show that you are really interested in joining the school that you’re applying to. Please research in great depths about the concerned program/department, and make sure your SoP shows those efforts. Avoid writing a generic concluding paragraph and just replacing the name of the college in all your applications. Include a sentence or two very specific to the school. For e.g, you can write about how a specific research project of professor X at the school resonates with your own interests or how you’d like to be a part of professor Y’s team.

The SoP can also be a platform for you to cover up for any shortcomings that you might have in your application package. If you had bad grades, for e.g., you could maybe talk about how your curriculum doesn’t let you choose subjects that you wanted to study and you didn’t really like the major that you were in. However, for the subjects in the field of study that you’re applying to, you had exceptional performance and that you focussed on projects in that field rather than studying for the subjects in which you weren’t interested at all. Again don’t try to make up stories to explain your poor performance, it is very easy to get caught. All your efforts and the fees for the application would amount to nothing with a fake SoP.

The bloopers…

For God’s sake, don’t make a freaking grammatical or a spelling mistake in the essay. Proofread it twice more than what you had planned earlier and get others to read it and have their opinion too. A mistake of that kind in your SoP depicts you as a careless student who doesn’t even care to present himself in a professional manner. Just like how one missing button brings down the whole appeal of the suit with itself, a grammatical mistake takes off the feel of a very well written piece. Make sure to use free tools like Grammarly to check your SoP for grammatical errors. Additionally, you can share the final drafts with your professors and get their feedback before sending it in.

Keeping it short while touching all the points mentioned above is the secret sauce to a good SoP. No one will even bother to read the whole thing if it is too long. Consider it like a girl’s skirt, long enough to cover all the necessary stuff, but short enough to invigorate the interests of the viewers ;). The SoP is like a canvas and the words are the palette of colours; paint the most beautiful picture that you can to express yourself.

We have gathered a list of SoPs that can help you get off the hook and give you ideas to start writing your own. Happy writing!

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