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Grad School 101: How to write a truly effective statement of purpose

This final instalment of our series dedicated to graduate applications focuses on writing a great statement of purpose. Here are 8 insightful tips.
BY Mallika Khanna |   21-10-2019

Grad School 101

Now that admission season is in full swing, it’s time to tackle the most crucial part of the application: the statement of purpose. While this changes from discipline to discipline, and from school to school, the statement of purpose is the document that allows you to contextualize your achievements and fill in nuances that make you a person and not just a set of numbers and awards. Read on for our eight top tips for writing an effective SoP:

  1. Give yourself time: If you haven’t started drafting your SoP, you are already behind the curve! Ideally, you should be giving yourself at least three months to work on it so you can brainstorm, reject ideas that don’t work, get good feedback and have time to revise before submitting.

  2. Don’t fill space with meandering stories: Since the SoP is the most personal part of your application, it can be tempting to dive into a deep narrative of your life’s most meaningful moments. This is not the place to do that. Unlike an undergraduate application essay where you are expected to talk about your traumas and successes, an SoP is purely about your academic and intellectual life. Use this space to delve into your academic goals, your research interests and, if you are able to come up with one, a potential dissertation/ project you could work on once you’re actually at the university.

  3. Talk about achievements, don’t list them: It’s a good idea to include achievements that relate to your academic interests, but only if you can actually associate them with other parts of your SoP. You don’t want your statement to read like a CV- there’s a whole other section of the application for that. Instead, you should fit your achievements/ awards in as you naturally would in conversation.

    For example, if you are writing about an undergraduate paper you wrote that relates to your future interests, it’s encouraged to mention if it won an award or was selected for publication in an academic journal. On the flipside, it’s a bad idea to mention that you had a 4.0 GPA throughout your undergraduate career even if it paints you in a positive light because it has no real relevance to the work you will be doing in the future and doesn’t highlight your unique relationship to your field.

  4. “Why” is less important than “how”: This is a very key piece of advice in structuring your statement. While giving background for why you chose your field of study or research interests can be useful, this should be kept very short. Most of the space in your statement should instead go to the “how” ie. how you’re actually going to execute the work you want to do in graduate school. Think about research methods you will apply, scholars you will consult, and experiments you will conduct to develop your work.

  5. Customize your SoP for each school: Writing an SoP is, without exception, a long and tiring process. It can be very tempting to write one version of the SoP and use that to apply to every school on your list to get out of the extra labor of customization. But a big part of what admissions committees are looking for is fit. It’s not enough to just show schools that you are a promising candidate who can do reasonably well in most environments. You have to show them that you are specifically equipped to thrive at their school, and that you can provide something to their school that other candidates can’t. Consequently, you should be devoting a full paragraph to the specific school you’re applying to, mentioning professors who work there who can help you with your research, resources the department offers that you couldn’t find elsewhere and, if possible, something that makes your work/ goals uniquely suited to what the school needs at the time.

  6. Your vocabulary should be precise, not flowery: Once you have the content wrapped up, you can move on to cleaning up your writing. It’s crucial that all the words you use actually add value to your statement. Remember that most programs in graduate school expect you to have some sort of familiarity with higher level writing. It shouldn’t seem like you’re just throwing in words to sound smart or familiar with the field. Instead, choose your words with great care and precision.

  7. Feedback is key - but make sure it’s the right kind: Once you’ve finished your first draft, you can move on to sharing your work. It’s really important to get feedback on your writing, but you want to make sure it’s from someone who can constructively engage with your field. This means the best people to ask are professors and graduate students in your field. People you should not be asking: anyone who doesn’t know anything about your field, overindulgent family members and friends. You want the feedback to be critical and a little deflating, so you actually have constructive comments to work on, instead of just being a pool of praise that gives you little to build on.

  8. Revise, revise, revise: Once you’ve received feedback is when your work really gets started. As much as it might feel like your statement is complete after the first draft, it almost never is. This is why you start early! Revise by reading the statement aloud to yourself, catching slip ups in diction, grammar and tone. Then move to the next layer of revision, digging into content level changes you might have to make.

You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that this is a lot to take on for something that’s only two pages of your entire application at most. But so much of your entire intellectual life is condensed into these two pages that without such time and care, the application would fall flat. Admissions committees frequently point to the statement of purpose as the deciding factor in whether a student was admitted to a grad program or not. For that reason alone, your SoP deserves that extra effort.

Do you want to figure out how to choose the right grad school? And whether rankings should have a huge say in the process? Or how to use social media to your advantage? Our Grad School 101 series has you covered.



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