Writing an SOP that will Get You Accepted in the Graduate Program of Your Choice
What is a Statement of Purpose?
The Statement of Purpose (or “SOP”) is a key component of your application materials for most graduate schools, MBA programs, and Ph.D. programs in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and in other countries around the world with an English-language curriculum. The most important thing about the statement of purpose (or personal statement) is that it ties together grades, test scores, and application and expands upon it, giving admissions officers a much more expansive window into who you are as a student and a person.
Although the graduate application and academic CV provide a lot of information about you as a candidate, the letter will tell them “who you are” and “what you want to be” in a much more detailed and personal way than the other components in the application package.
What information should I include in an SOP?
Before entering a graduate program, the graduate faculty need to know why you are interested in coming to this institution or program and how it will help you achieve your larger academic and professional goals in life. They also need to see that you are a person capable of high academic achievement in their given program. This means an extended history of your academic achievements during your undergraduate career (and graduate career if you have attended grad school), as well as the goals and objectives you have set out for yourself. Ultimately, you need to stand out as a candidate among the field, showing why the admissions officers should accept you over the many other strong graduate candidates. The Statement of Purpose should highlight the reasons why you are more than just your test scores and grades—it could even help you overcome a less-than-perfect score in a class and account for any missing years in education. Therefore, keep in mind that your SOP should be honest, candid, and most importantly, complete.
Which questions should I answer in a Statement of Purpose?
The following questions should be clearly answered in your SOP (in relatively this order):
- WHO are you (as a person and a student)?
- HOW did you become interested in this topic/field of study?
- WHAT have you done so far in the field of your choice?
- WHY/HOW do you want to study this field?
- WHY do you want to study at this university/program and WHY are you a good fit?
What kind of writing is needed in a Statement of Purpose?
Although the SOP is more informal than a research paper, you should make sure that your language is not only free of grammatical and mechanics errors but that it is of an academic level that reflects your educational level and qualifications. Apply the following standards to the writing and the essay-drafting process:
- Compose using “graduate-level” academic writing.
- Make your language more personal in tone than research writing.
- Use the active voice and first-person point of view more often.
- Write chronologically, starting from your most important actions and achievements during your undergraduate years.
- Use lots of details—list course names, professors, methods, and specific schools and programs.
- Write several drafts of your SOP, giving yourself time to edit, revise, and edit again before submitting your essay to the graduate admissions faculty.
How Should I Organize my Statement of Purpose?
A well-structured SOP allows readers to see your growth and development as an individual and as a researcher and student. You can think of the SOP like a story, where all parts are in sequential, chronological order. The following is the most standard structure of a Statement of Purpose. For each “section,” you should write at least one paragraph but no more than two paragraphs, depending on the word-count limit indicated by your graduate program:
- A “hook” that demonstrates your passion for the field
- Segue (transition) to your background in the field
- Description of your academic background in the field
- Specific classes you have taken, given by name
- Specific professors you have had, especially if well-known
- Extracurricular activities in the field
- Publications and other professional accomplishments in the field
- Explanations about problems in your background (if applicable)
- Explanation of why you have chosen the specific grad school
- Mention one or two professors whose work you appreciate
- Specific features of the grad program which attract you
- A brief conclusion repeating your purpose for applying to this program
Brainstorming answers for each section of the SOP
As we mentioned above, it is critical that you answer all the questions expected in a Statement of Purpose. While graduate programs almost always provide specific prompts and instructions on their university/program website, the list below gives much more in-depth questions that you can answer to ensure impressing the graduate admissions faculty at your program. Use these as prompts to answer and brainstorm your more complete answers in each section (see the examples in the images below).
Academic/Professional Interests and Motivations
- What most interests you about this area of study?
- Why are you interested in this area and topic?
- When did you first start to show an interest? How did you exhibit this interest?
- What majors, classes, or other academic experiences have you had in this field?
- Which of your work, research, and/or extracurricular experiences are related to this field?
- What work have you published or written (thesis, dissertation, etc.) related to this field?
- Which awards have you received that show my ability?
What are your short-term and long-term goals?
- What do you hope to accomplish academically?
- What sort of research or professional work do you want to do in the future with your graduate degree or Ph.D.?
Recent Research/Professional Activities and Preparation
- What work have you been involved in recently that has prepared you for this program?
- What have you been involved in recently to show your interest in this field?
Why are you interested in this university and program?
- What does this university/program offer you that other schools don’t?
- Which courses and professors most interest you?
- What makes you a “good fit” for this institution?
- What will you bring to this program?
What makes you special?
- What other information about you should the school know that will attract them to you?
- Do you have any unique abilities or circumstances?
Do you have any weaknesses or missing elements you need to explain?
- Do you have any semesters of low grades that you may need to account for?
- Any inconsistencies or big changes in your academic or professional direction?
Examples of SOP Prompt Answers
Think of the following questions and their answers as topic sentences or “mini-theses” that will guide the information and details in the rest of the paragraph. Answer each question during the brainstorming process and write it in a simple sentence or two. After answering these important questions, you will have a complete working outline (nearly a first draft!) in which you can later fill in the details, edit, and revise.
Paragraph 1: Introduction and Intended Program (“hook”)
University/Program: NYU Anthropology Department
Major: East African Studies
Paragraph 2: Background, Interests, and Motivations (“segue”)
Paragraph 3: Elaborate on your academic background
Paragraph 4: Extracurricular Activities
Paragraph 5-6: Publications and More Recent Activity
Paragraph 7: Why are you and the school a good match?
Paragraph 8: Conclusion/Commitment Statement
Further Tips for Writing Admissions Essays
- Highlight your self-motivation, competence, and potential in this essay
- Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in the active voice.
- Demonstrate through examples; don’t just write that you are a “persistent person”—show it!
- Approach every topic with continuity and focus.
The Final Step: Editing Your SOP
As any good writer knows, it takes more than one draft to create a strong and compelling work of writing. After you have brainstormed for your SOP, answered key questions, created a working outline, and written your first draft, there is still a lot of room for revision. Share your work with a friend or peer whose opinion you trust.
Even better, let a professional editor such as Wordvice Editing Service edit and proofread your essay so that it lives up to its full potential and helps ensure that you will be admitted to the graduate or doctoral program of your choice. For more academic resources on writing and editing your essays and academic work, check out the following articles and videos.