Musings on Statements of Purpose (SOP) for graduate school

Some unsolicited advice on writing a compelling statement of purpose (as with any other advice, take it with a pinch of salt):

Depending on your field, an SOP and a resume may not have a big impact on your chances of getting admitted to a particular program. In most of the technical fields for instance, as far as I know, your letters of recommendation and/or your publications, along with your academic record, form the bedrock of the decision making process, at least for Masters admissions. Considering that most students who are spending a serious amount of money for the applications process might roughly know that this might be true, it is reasonable to assume that they would not spend as much time on an SOP as they would in developing a good rapport with their recommenders, getting good grades and getting involved in impactful projects. But an SOP is also an element of their application that is their own creation, is to be judged subjectively (as opposed to GRE scores), and therefore one that they can optimize on, even at the last moment. So it makes sense to get them reviewed by people who’ve gone through the grind earlier and/or your recommenders before sending it out to universities in hopes of catching eyeballs and the coveted congratulatory letter.

I’m not an expert at writing SOPs, but since I’ve been asked many times to review those of others, I have noticed a few common themes that differentiate good SOPs from great ones. And while optimizing on an SOP can only get you so far, for the above mentioned reasons, people try to do it anyway, and it makes sense to do it as well, especially if you’re applying to ambitious schools and the margin of error is razor thin. If I were to leave you with one general piece of advice, it would be that you should write for your reader, and not just for yourself.

This sounds obvious, but most people don’t do that on a regular basis. A piece of writing is a product, one of the oldest ones in fact, and a product is only successful if it has users who love it. You may be writing an SOP in isolation, but your users are the people on university admissions committees, and not you. So unless you empathize with these people, chances are that you won’t be able to write something that engages them to read your statement beyond a few lines, if at all. After all, they have hundreds of other statements to read.

So you might ask, what do these people care about? In my experience, it is reasonable to assume that they care about figuring out if the applicant is a good fit for the program that they are applying for, and if the program is a good fit for the applicant. What a “good fit” means would vary by university and by program, and sometimes even dramatically, and that is what makes it almost non-negotiable to cater your SOP to the specific program that it’s being written for up to a reasonable extent. A generic, templated SOP can only go so far.

Attributes like academic excellence, integrity, ability to gel in with the rest of the class, independent thinking and leadership might just be some indicators of a good fit, but this list varies among programs. It’s important to ask yourself: can you demonstrate that you have what this specific university and program are looking for? Can you show that you bring something to the table that is unique, while still being a good fit for the program? These questions would help you assess fit from the end of the university. Moreover, you also need to ask yourself — how does this program fit into your career goals and where will it get you? It’s the whole point of asking an applicant to write about their purpose, and is the most important point that you need to address — what is your purpose, and how does this program help you achieve that?

I’ve generally seen that those with clear research goals answer the last question the best. Those with clear goals in the industry (I am good at mechatronics and want to get a foot in the door in the autonomous vehicles industry) also typically do well here. Most other SOPs have a general form that goes like this — I am good at X, have good grades and decent experience in X, and I think that this program in X is the logical next step in my career. While this is definitely not a bad motivation, it is not a strong one either — it just shows that you haven’t spent the time to think deeply about why this program makes sense for you. Mimicking other good people in your field, or worse, mimicking your friends’ career choices, is not a great signal for the reviewer. They are likely screening for first-principles thinking.

Given the above arguments, and the fact that most admissions committee members might not spend over a minute on your SOP, I believe that it’s reasonable to state your purpose as clearly and succinctly as possible in the first paragraph itself. Spend the rest of the essay carving a narrative around what led you to it, and why you believe that the program would help you in your quest. Such SOPs generally seem to be the most coherent and purposeful, and make it easiest for an admissions committee member to ascertain fit. And given that independent thinking and drive are important traits to screen for in most universities, the decision about fit only tilts in your favor if you can write compelling prose about why they should consider you seriously.

So I think one should treat the SOP as a statement of purpose, lest you forget the meaning of the unabbreviated form. It’s not your autobiography; it’s an argumentative piece, whether the program website explicitly states that or not. It’s your job to convince them that you fit into their cohort, and the program fits into your career.

Graduate Student at Stanford University. Interested in Machine Learning, entrepreneurship and literature.