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Writing a Statement of Purpose



As I am in the process of writing my statement of purpose from scratch, having decided that my SoP from last year was simply not good enough, I've decided to put together a blog post with some of the best advice on writing SoPs I've found in the last year or so of thinking about applying to grad school and perhaps the advice below from various sources can be useful to people putting together their statements now. Some of the advice is related to my field, Computer Science, but I believe that it is general enough to be applicable to most, if not all, fields. The SoP after all, is probably the most important part of your application that you have direct control over.

What is the SoP?

The first thing to consider is what exactly is the Statement of Purpose? Matt Might from the University of Utah advises that even though some places might call the SoP a 'personal statement', the SoP should be all about your research;

Use this statement to answer the following question in essay form: "Why should we, the admissions committee, believe that you, the applicant, have the potential do research in field X?" and "What kind of research could you see yourself doing and why?"
The fact that you always dreamed of working in your field since you were 12? Your childhood love of science, maths, books, etc? Forget about it. Not relevant, plus the vast majority of applicants would probably be able to say the same thing. He continues stating that a really good SoP will discuss research you've done and any publications you have. If you don't have any publications he writes that "You have to convince the person reading your application that you have theinterest, experience and potential to do research." and that "You should treat the personal statement like a letter to the professor at the top of your preferences list, because there's a reasonable chance that's what it is." BTW, Prof Might also has an awesome illustrated guide to getting a PhD.

How should you begin the SoP?

This is often the source of much debate and many differing view points. Some, like Arun Vasan, from the University of Maryland, College Park, says cut to the chase: "State upfront who you are and what you want. One should not have to search using a word processor whether you want an MS or a Ph.D."

While others prefer having an interesting, attention grabbing opening, also known as 'the hook'. David Rubin from Emory says [.pdf]

You want your statement to open with a bang! You want to begin in a way that pulls your readers in and makes them want to read more. This is called a “hook.” To develop a good hook, you’ve got to be creative and original. Neither cliches nor generalizations will do the trick.

He also suggests that the conclusion can tie in with your hook, providing a bookend to give your SoP a sense of coming full circle. Perhaps a hook followed by a sentence or two stating upfront what exactly it is you want to do?

More controversial, though, is the use of quotes as the hook. Berkeley has an annotated SoP from a successful applicant which comments that "The writer begins with a vivid quote that grabs the reader's attention right away."

The aforementioned Prof Might cautions however, "If you use a quote, make sure it's witty, relevant and one that the reviewer has never seen."

I opened with a quote last year and looking back it was probably too famous a quote (in my field at least) to do me any good.

Arjun Vasan flat out doesn't like quotes

Avoid quotations. You may have "miles to go before you sleep", "chosen the road less travelled", or "your-favourite-cliche-quote-from-high-school-here", but it ain't a personal statement unless you are quoting yourself, is it ?

I guess the moral of the story is, if it isn't a fantastic, witty, obscure quote that will grab your readers attention, then you're probably better served not having it.

What about the body of the SoP?

Here is where you will generally discuss a few things in paragraphs that flow naturally from one to the other. Generally you want to mention your background, research experiences, why you would be a good fit at the school you're applying to and your future plans. intextrovert from thegradcafe.com summarises that and with 'Focus', 'Fit' and 'Future'smile.gif

Focus. Like it or not, they want to be able to categorize you. You can have secondary interests, but they have to be clearly secondary and bear some relation to your main Focus.

Fit. Everyone tells you this, but it's true. I spent a lot more time really researching profs on the websites, then looking up and scanning through a few key articles, and skimming through the courses they taught. It really gives you a better idea of whether their interests and methodologies ACTUALLY fit yours, or whether it just looks like that on paper

intextrovert tailored the SoP to demonstrate how each school matched well with his or her interests, then focused on the future, saying that the

best advice I got for my SoP was that you should think about demonstrating that you are capable of conceiving of a larger project; whether or not you end up doing that project is irrelevant, as you probably won't and the adcomm is well aware of that - the point is that you are CAPABLE of conceiving of a future direction for yourself.
BTW intextrovert's post is one of the best I've ever come across on theGradCafe. You should read it if you haven't already.

Some other great advice for fleshing out your SoP that I've seen on this forum was provided by jasper.milvain who says

Show, don't tell. This is an old piece of writing advice, but an excellent one. Instead of telling them that you're an ideal candidate ("I am an ideal candidate because of my experience, my passion for research, and my dedication to the field"), SHOW them those characteristics through your writing.
(emphasis mine)

One way of showing them those characteristics is to talk about your research experiences in detail: "Explain a select few projects you did in gory detail and why that got you interested in research."

Ideally, there wouldn't be any gaps or shortcomings (such as a low GPA) on your application. If this is the case, however, you may have to spend very valuable SoP space that would be better spent on your research, to explain the aberration. Berkley advises: "If there is an aberration in your record, explain in positive terms what happened with that particular course or semester."

The Fit Paragraph

As inextrovert pointed out, demonstrating how well you fit in with a particular program is pretty important to your SoP. Some prefer having the fit paragraph towards the end, some prefer having it earlier in the SoP, so the readers will see right away which profs you're interested in working with. Either way works well I think as long as you weave it into the narrative of your SoP and demonstrate how your interests, experiences and skills will be of benefit to the department. As rising_star from this forum 'You have to show the department that they are the right place for you to study. If you can't do that, why should they accept you?'


As for the conclusion, which can give people fits [see perhaps David Rubin has an excellent idea with the bookend to pair with your hook. I tend to like mims3382's answer in the linked thread though.

hey no one is looking for a novelist!they won't want to be made to laugh, learn the secrets of the universe, or who dunnit.

you dont even need a clincher to end it. just something pleasant enough to leave a nice and unobtrusive aftertaste.

I think its universally agreed that after having done all of this, you should solicit feed back from friends, advisors, professors and lather, rinse, repeat until you have an SoP that you are pleased with. This has been a long post and thank you for bearing with me to reach the end. Perhaps a better writer could have written this in fewer words. What about you, though? What's been the best SoP advice that you've come across as you write yours?


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I just saw this post, and wanted to say thanks for the props! I'm glad it was helpful!

You're welcome and thanks for the great advice!

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