What is a statement of purpose anyway? Perhaps you have been looking more closely into what requirements your program(s) of interest require and you have some confusion over what this document is supposed to do, and just as importantly, how to write one! In this blog post I will catch you up to speed on how to write an SOP, provide some tips on how to nail it, and offer some examples for your reference.
What is a Graduate School Statement of Purpose (SOP)?
The SOP declares and describes what your purpose is for attending a program and developing research, or acquiring the skills within the program to apply towards a field, industry or endeavor. Think of it this way: you have submitted your transcripts which provide your GPA and course history, and you have taken the required entrance exam. What the graduate admissions committee still doesn’t know about you is why you are applying and what you plan to do within the program and after. Oftentimes, a personal statement may fulfill this requirement and you will find that many programs require this document instead (here is a link to a blog post about this). However, it is important to be able to distinguish between the personal statement and the statement of purpose. In my experience, the statement of purpose will be more technical, it will focus more on the details of the work that you are interested in pursuing. Whether your program is a masters or a PhD, you will be required to know what it is you are studying and why, or what technical skills you are looking to develop for a given career. So, to recap:
The SOP is a formal introduction to the graduate committee readers that introduces who you are through a brief summary of your background with a stronger focus on what you plan to do, as in what do you hope to accomplish? What do you hope to be able to “deliver” (towards a career or industry) upon completion of your degree?
The SOP is not a personal statement. This document is focused on the technical and specific details of your research, your previous experience/preparation, your current involvement with said topic/industry and your future goals.
What information should I include in my SOP?
The information you choose to include in your SOP is entirely reliant upon who you are (your experiences and interests) as well as the specifics of the program you are applying to. That being said, there are still some general rules of thumb that you can modify for each program.
Who you are
When writing about yourself, try not to have too much “humble pie”. Yes, you do not want to brag, but you also do not want to exclude or discredit your hard work over the years! Oftentimes, when reading application materials of my students they somehow manage to forget to include important details about their work.
Pro tip for writing: Do create a list of research experience, volunteer work, employment and awards/accolades that are relevant to your desire to apply to graduate school or that you believe have prepared you in some way. You will be surprised how backtracking your progress can unveil some unique and important experiences you may have overlooked!
Why THIS program
It’s super important that you be able to demonstrate who you intend to work with (particularly for PhD programs). This may differ for shorter MA programs, or more technically driven PhD’s as you may be working with and learning from everyone. With a PhD program you are more likely to really niche down and work with 1-3 people very closely for years! It is important that you be able to describe this with confidence and in a way that demonstrates your overall commitment. Essentially, this works towards demonstrating that you are a good fit for the program. More on this in writing examples provided below!
What has prepared you for this level of study?
As you prepare to send out applications, it should be clear to you in the back of your mind what your “pitch” is. This will set you apart from other applicants as well as what has prepared you to pursue this level of study. This should be clear and easy to find within your writing and builds off of your professional, research and lived experience as well as your unique research or career goals.
How to organize your SOP- A simple format to follow:
- Capture your reader’s attention through a hook: It should demonstrate your interests and passions for the field
- Transition sentence to provide a brief summary of your background (academic and/or professional)
- Details about your background and preparation:
- This is where you will delve into specific classes or research projects that have prepared you for your research
- Specific extracurricular work that also supports your interests (such as additional training, awards and larger projects or current endeavors that relate to your field)
- Mention professors you have worked with, particularly if they are letter writers for you, this will create a level of coherence throughout your application.
- Why? Provide something clear and concise about why this program (refrain from over generalizations or from listing the universities location as a reason). Be sure to touch on why now? Is this a good time for a career change? Are you prepared for a PhD program because of your work or academic experience thus far?
- Conclude by demonstrating that you are grateful/hopeful for the consideration and the opportunity. Sum up your major points within the essay (repeat your purpose in a new phrasing to leave a lasting impression on your reader).
If you have read this far, you might be thinking how does this all come together, and how do I know if I am doing it right? Don’t worry, I have some examples of the more crucial components of the SOP, the intro, and body paragraph.
As I have mentioned previously, every program is different and so is every applicant, therefore the contents can’t ever really be generalized or reappropriated. That being said, take a look at what the “strong” examples are doing, and what the “weak” examples are lacking to consider as you prepare for writing.
Introduction Paragraphs: “Strong” Example for PhD in Sociology:
Have you ever noticed a blood bank donation business and thought, how does that work? Have you ever noticed that they are usually in neighborhoods of a lower socioeconomic status? Blood donation services carry a complex and unique history as well as very distinct societal implications and repercussions. During my undergraduate studies at UC Los Angeles I double majored in Sociology and Psychology. My senior thesis focused on the development of the blood donation industry as it relates to the history of HIV in the African American community. My previous research has prompted me to ask two questions that I will pursue in my graduate studies: What are the ways in which blood donation businesses select where they will have a strong donation supply? How does this impact societal understandings of biological donations and the industry writ large?
If I got accepted into UC Berkeley for a PhD program in sociology, I would probably focus on the blood donation industry. I did some research on this topic in my undergraduate thesis and I still have lingering questions and a desire to know more. If I moved to Berkeley I would be a lot closer to better schools for my daughter and be able to focus on her education while I complete my degree as well. My research mostly focuses on the impact that blood donation has had on the African American community.
What is the “strong” example doing?
The strong example has provided a hook to captivate the reader. It actually asks the reader two questions that forces them to pause and look for some examples in their own life, this is a writing strategy that increases the intrigue of the reader. This example then provides some general context to demonstrate that they have been thinking about this issue for a while and that they understand the complexity of it. This example also provides enough educational background to segue into their current research questions, which also demonstrates their genuine interest and preparation to apply. All of this is done in a matter of a few sentences, it is clear and concise. Also, be sure to notice how this example touches on just enough of the important stuff to get your reader’s attention, the necessary important details will follow in the body paragraph(s).
What is the “weak” example lacking?
For starters, the “weak” example jumps right in, there is no hook to captivate the reader. Always keep in mind that admissions committees are likely reading many applications on top of their other work, so do your best to draw them in and capture their full attention. Secondly, this example is using some hesitant language, stating that they “probably” would study “xy” and “z” is not helpful to their case. It reads uncertain and as if they are not clear on why they are pursuing a PhD. Lastly, while moving to Berkeley may have advantages on a personal level, that should not make its way into any of the essays for admissions. The reason is that it creates an image of an applicant who may be interested in admittance into the program for reasons other than the work they intend to do there. This ultimately draws attention away from the applicant’s overall contributions on a scholarly level.
Let’s take a look at some body paragraphs…
I would like to say that the introduction may be the hardest paragraph to write. You are working to captivate your reader, and to set the stage for what the essay will cover. If you do a good job, then your body paragraphs should be easier to construct as you already know what the content will be. Let’s take a look at what a “strong” body paragraph will do as opposed to a “weaker” version. To switch up some of the content, these examples will be directed towards a masters degree in Environmental Science.
Body Paragraphs: “Strong” Example for a Masters Degree in Environmental Science
My experiences as a research assistant during my undergraduate studies at the University of Boulder Colorado helped me to clarify my career goals. I worked alongside Dr. Turner in her lab for two semesters where I worked on cleaning and transcribing her field interviews. This was a rewarding experience that culminated in attending two of her graduate Global Studies seminars where I focused on the writing of my senior thesis titled Degradation in the Amazon: An Intersectional Analysis of Time, Gender and Private Land Ownership. This prompted me to further pursue my research interests with a research fellowship with Amnesty International throughout the summer of 2020. Although there is much work to be done to preserve our Amazon rainforest, I feel that a good way to start is to consider the current environmental impact that cattle ranch farming has made in a short amount of time. This is why I am fusing my interests with rainforest preservation with my love for science to pursue a masters degree in Environmental Science with an emphasis in Global Studies from the University of Maryland Washington. If accepted into your program, my research would most benefit from working directly with Dr. Aldana, who has done significant work on rainforest preservation. Through our email correspondences, Dr. Aldana has shared their current work and how they approach the topic of cattle farming from a global perspective. I was thrilled to learn this! The opportunity to complete a masters degree would support my career goals of working with Amnesty International on a greater scale and helping to organize a campaign focused on assessing the impacts of cattle ranching for the next few decades.
Body Paragraphs: “Weak” Example for a Masters Degree in Environmental Science
Although I haven’t thought about my research all the way through, I do know that I desire to be at the University of Washington for graduate school because everyone I know that has gone there has loved it so far! My research has mostly focused on rainforest preservation and I even got to work with Dr. Turner. Then I worked with Amnesty international. If it weren’t for Dr. Turner I wouldn’t feel as prepared as I do now! Personally, cattle ranching is what all environmental scientists should be looking at when it comes to the preservation of the Amazon, that’s why I am focusing all of my energy here. Plus, it would be so cool to eventually visit the Amazon for my research too! I just want to be able to direct my own campaign with a major non-profit one day so I will need a masters for that.
What is the “strong” example doing?
The strong example has a clear and strong narrative. Starting with undergraduate experience with details provided, to industry/work experience and eventually to future career goals and correspondences with professors within the program that they are applying to. All of this makes for a strong body paragraph that provides the information a committee needs to base their decision off of, and follows an easy to follow format. Also, pay attention to the language, its not too casual but it also does not use jargon that could cause confusion or bore the reader. As far as jargon goes for your own applications, consider how much is needed for a committee to make their decision over demonstrating how much you know about the field/industry.
What is the “weak” example lacking?
The weaker example starts off on a negative note by bringing attention to the holes in their own research approach. While this may be true, it is not something you should mention! Negative or less than positive aspects about your own preparation for graduate school should not make it into your SOP because it detracts from your overall profile as an ideal candidate. This example also references wanting to be at the University due to hearsay from others who have attended. As a rule of thumb, mention reasons for attending that are in some way related to your program and your desired outcome upon completion of the degree. The city, the weather, the nightlife etc. is not a strong enough reason to pursue a graduate degree. Same thing goes for wanting to visit the Amazon rainforest. This is fine and while it may be a positive aspect, it is not a guarantee as a graduate student and therefore is not a strong enough reason to attend a graduate program. Lastly, the narrative of this example is harder to follow, there is also a usage of language that is too casual for graduate applications. Try to remain professional while you create a narrative that is easy to follow for your reader!
Take-Aways and Tips to Get Started
As you prepare to write, remember that your first draft is never your last! Give yourself some grace as you move through the process and remember to breathe! Always reference the program’s website for what their specific guidelines are and remember how important it is to seek out graduate students or others with experience with graduate school to read your drafts. Happy writing, and best of luck on being accepted to your ideal program, no matter what, they will be lucky to have you!