23 Oct 2018 21:09 IST

How to write a winning statement of purpose

Here’s a simple framework to attack this critical part of a college or graduate school application

If you’re a student about to embark on writing your first graduate school essay, personal statement, or statement of purpose (SOP) for admission to an MBA or MS programme, you’re probably confused and don’t know where to start.

Students from India, China and other parts of Asia are rarely asked to write creative essays through their high school and undergraduate college years. Engineering students are at a special disadvantage here. Semester exams never test creative writing. Reports written at the end of projects, internships or for conferences are far too technical.

I like to define the SOP as the essay version of a Google roadmap for a person. Describe who you are today (origin), describe where you want to go and why (destination), and articulate how you want to get there (the direction map).

Writing an SOP is not easy

All writing is made up of key elements. As described by the English Department at Brown University, an Ivy League school, these are: Idea, Motive, Structure, Evidence, Explanation, Coherence, Implication and Presence. Lack of one or more of these essential elements results in a poor essay.

In my experience as a professional reviewer of student essays, I find several recurring patterns. Most students overestimate their ability to write and are unwilling to accept genuine criticism of their writing. International students, in particular, consider the SOP as a necessary evil to complete the application and are willing to use boilerplate SOPs written by someone else. Indeed, cloud versions of SOPs for every branch of study are already available — all you have to do is modify the statement just a bit for your use

International students would also much rather engage in peer reviews of their essays which are free, although the peer has no professional writing experience. Lacy Crawford, author of the book Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy, highlighted this practice best in an article in The Wall Street Journal of August 24, 2013 and provided the following advice: “Find someone who did not raise you from infancy to proofread your essay.”

Breaking down a world-class SOP

To help students, my company has constructed a simple framework to attack this critical part of a college or graduate school application.

A good SOP has the following structure: 1,000-1,200 words long, with each paragraph highlighting certain points, as described below:

Paragraph 1: Write something about yourself, a personal story about what drew you to your current field. If you’re an electronics engineer, perhaps your father had a garage at home that got you interested in electronics. Make it personal. This should be a pre-12th grade experience. Limit: 100 words.

Paragraph 2: What really interests you? What is your passion? Preferably this should be a class of problems that you want to solve — nothing as generic as solving world hunger but nothing as specific as a particular problem at a particular enterprise. It should be something in between and be bite-size. For example, if you are an applied physicist interested in the dynamics of fluids, you could say you want to develop solutions for a class of aerodynamics problems in moving objects that encounter drag — cars, boats, planes, etc. Limit: 250 words.

Paragraph 3: What is the current state in this field? Which companies or organisations are doing outstanding work that inspires you? Why? Look for information about the departments you’re interested in at your target institution, including professors and their research. Are there academics whose research interests parallel yours? Check the specific programme; it is recommended that you name a professor or professors under whom you might want to train. This is where you need to convince the faculty of your target school that you understand the scope of research in their discipline, and are engaged with those research themes. Limit: 250 words.

Paragraph 4: This is about why you are particularly qualified to dream this big. Give the reader what your accomplishments were in college (academics); practical work outside a pure class setting (project) and outside college (internship) —— all should point to what you learned and how this prepares you for doing what you want to do. These paragraphs should not be long recitations of your resume but highlights that can help the reader connect the dots to Paragraph 2. They should also highlight your other skills — communication, teamwork, planning and organisation — and how these have helped make you who you are. You could break this into multiple sub-paragraphs if you like. Limit: 300 words.

To conclude, ask for admission, assuring the committee that you will do well, contribute to the student body, and learn from it. Limit: 100 words.

Describe your personal vision

Remember that applications made to international institutions consist of the objective piece (measurable elements such as grades and test scores), and a subjective piece (hard-to-measure elements such as the SOP and recommendation letters).

The SOP is the single most important part of a student’s application package because it describes the student’s vision in deeply personal terms. It humanises a student beyond a set of numbers. Aspiring students would do well to take this part of an application really seriously. It could make all the difference between getting into a school or not.