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The Ultimate Guide to Drafting a Stellar Statement of Purpose (SOP)

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A Comprehensive Guide to Crafting a Winning SOP for your University Applications

Let’s first be very clear about the end goal behind the whole exercise of writing a Statement of Purpose (or Personal Statement, or Motivation Letter, or Letter of Intent as it is also called by various universities).  

 

The end goal is – 

To secure admits to the study programs that you are applying to

The reason we mention the end goal right at the start is because it is very easy to lose focus on this end goal due to the noise around the entire concept of the Statement of Purpose. Remember, the end goal is not to merely end up writing what eventually will turn out to be (in most cases) a 2-page essay spanning 7-8 paragraphs. It is to use the essay to unlock for yourself, the doors to the classrooms of your dream universities. 

 

Since we are clear about what we are seeking to achieve through the SOP, put yourself in the shoes of the Admissions Committee of a university – For every study program for which around 100-120 seats on average are available, you receive a few thousand applications. And you have to sift through these applications to identify the best possible applicants to grant admits to for the respective study programs.  

 

Does this task seem tedious? Boring? Frustrating? Intimidating? How much time would you spend reading each and every SOP? How will you rate one SOP against the other SOPs? Is it realistically possible to read each and every line of each SOP seriously? 

 

By now, we are sure that you have figured out how challenging the task before the Admissions Committee is when it comes to judging Statements of Purpose.  

 

Now think from your own position – that of an applicant. How would you stand out from the competition?

The answer is simple – you need to achieve two things through the SOP that you submit: 

 

    • You need to grab the attention of the reader (Admissions Committee in our case) and make them want to read beyond the first few lines 
    • You need to make the job of evaluating your SOP as easy as possible  

 

The trick then, is to offer to the Admissions Committee, exactly what they might be looking for in the SOP, and not digress from the same. We’ll get to this bit in a while, but before that, there are a couple of important things to look at, namely how important the SOP is, and what common mistakes students make. 

 

How important is the SOP in deciding the fate of your application?

Now, the commonly accepted answer is –  

 

It is the most important document that can make or break your application.

And that’s true, which is why there’s also a huge hype around it. However, the latter bit is why it is important to put some things into perspective so that you have a realistic idea of the importance of the SOP.

   

For that, let’s understand how exactly the Admissions Committee actually decides on a particular application. 

 

After you (along with a pool of hundreds, if not thousands, of other applicants) submit your application, the first step that the Admissions Committee undertakes is elimination or filtration. The applications are filtered on pre-decided criteria for each program such as a minimum CGPA, test scores (GRE/GMAT/TOEFL/IELTS, etc.), and at times, industry experience.  

 

If your application makes it past this stage, ONLY THEN would the SOP (along with other documents such as LORs and Resume) come into play.  

 

What this should tell you is that the SOP is no magic wand, which, on its own, can get you into any university you choose to apply to. Here’s a confirmation of the same. How strong your academic and professional background is, is very critical to securing admits. In fact, some professors on the Admissions Committee will simply not give much importance to the SOP, as is the case with Prof. Ben Y. Zhao. That is, unless your SOP truly stands out.  

 

Now, if you can make your SOP stand out from the competition, THEN, it can suddenly become a very critical document, and in fact, can be the document that does earn you an admit. That is because, the SOP is one of the few spaces where you, the applicant, gets a free hand to tell the Admissions Committee about yourself. It helps the Admissions Committee know you beyond your resume – as a human.  

 

Thus, a well-framed SOP (along with LORs and Resume) can play a decisive role in your SELECTION for the programs that you are applying to (provided you make it past the elimination criteria for those programs). 

 

Common Mistakes to Avoid

We made the point on the importance of the SOP to stand out from the competition in the previous part. However, your SOP can also stand out for the wrong reasons. And that can kill your chances of securing admits. And therefore, it is not just important that your SOP stands out, it is also important that it stands out in the correct way.  

 

Once we know what to avoid in the SOP, it will become easy to figure out what to include in it. And that is why, we focus on this bit before we begin discussing ingredients of the SOP and the structure. 

Mistake #1: Getting too Personal

If you Google ‘SOP Samples’, you will find a large number of them starting with mentioning the candidate’s name, describing their childhood, family background, and so on. And that is something you should AVOID. 

 

For illustration purposes, we are including few such examples below: 

Example 1: For Masters in Business Analytics

My name is Rakesh Kumar, and I was born and brought up in the Mandvi town. Since my early years, I have been captivated by the world of data and numbers. I vividly recall being in Class 6 or 7, discovering my passion for Mathematics. It thrilled me to no end, as it granted me the freedom to delve into the realm of numbers and wear the hat of an analytical thinker, unraveling complex problems and deriving precise solutions. As I matured, the allure of data continued to beckon me, leading me to pursue Statistics as my major in my undergraduate studies. Within the realm of Statistics, I discovered the art of deciphering and evaluating information, drawing meaningful insights from the available data and statistical methods. This journey has fueled my desire to explore the potential of data-driven decision-making and has inspired me to contribute my skills in a practical setting.

Example 2: For Masters in Literature

From a tender age, I have harbored an enduring fascination with the realm of books. My mother introduced me to my very first board book when I was just 1.5 years old, igniting a passion within me that has never waned. I voraciously devoured one book after another, driven by an unquenchable thirst for reading. Initially, it was a source of pure enjoyment, but as I matured, I gradually grasped the true purpose of books: to enlighten our minds and nurture them with knowledge. Thus, commenced my quest to explore the depths of this enigmatic world. Although I completed my undergraduate studies in English Literature, my pursuit did not culminate there. It is my fervent desire to now embark on a Master’s program in Literature at your esteemed university.

Example 3: For Masters in Petroleum Engineering

Oil runs not only in the veins of my family but also through the annals of our history. During my childhood, my grandfather regaled me with a captivating tale about our ancestral connection to the oil industry. It all began with my great-grandfather, who was employed by Imperial Oil in the 1940s. Tasked with the exploration of untapped oil reservoirs, his team faced numerous disappointments as their drilling efforts yielded nothing but soil. Faced with dwindling hope and financial pressures, my great-grandfather contemplated seeking alternative employment. 

 

However, fate intervened when the team decided to venture nearly 100 km away from their previous drilling site—an area that remained unexplored and largely overlooked. My grandfather, then a teenager, accompanied his father on that fateful day, eager to learn and observe as the drill penetrated deeper into the earth. Anticipation hung thick in the air as they surpassed the usual depth at which oil was typically found. Suddenly, as if summoned by some mystical force, an eruption of black gold burst forth from the ground, drenching the derrick and crew in a torrential downpour. It was an awe-inspiring sight, akin to a bolt of lightning descending from the heavens. This serendipitous strike marked the beginning of an economic boom, propelling my family into the oil and petroleum industry, where we have remained ever since. The profound significance of that discovery continues to resonate, instilling a deep sense of connection and purpose within our family as we navigate the ever-evolving landscape of this vital sector.

Instead of us pointing out what the problem is with starting your SOP like this, we’d rather let MIT tell you. Read the following snippets: 

Remember, story-telling ≠ writing a story. The Statement of Purpose is NOT a STORY, even if you (must) weave connections between the different aspects of your academic and professional life and your future goals.

Mistake #2: Justifying what you did in the Past rather than what you want to do in future

Again, many applicants make the mistake of treating the SOP as a place to justify their choices in the past rather than their plans for the future. What then results is mostly a reiteration of their past experiences which are already going to be covered in your resume. If you want to know how universities treat such SOPs, read the underlined parts in the following snippet:

Source: What’s a Good Statement of Purpose (stanford.edu)

 

Remember, this is not supposed to mean that you should avoid talking about your past experiences – it’s just that you need to strike the right balance so that you do not just end up describing your academic and professional milestones, but convey how they have led you to a carefully thoughtful decision regarding your future career plans. By highlighting the relevance and impact of your past achievements on your future plans, you can effectively demonstrate your preparedness and suitability for the desired program. 

Mistake #3: Beating around the bush while talking about Future Plans

We now come to another mistake that a lot of students make. While writing about their plans after graduation, they tend to be very vague. Consider this example of a student applying for Integrated Product Design:

I aspire to be an innovative designer, dedicated to promoting equity and community engagement. Pursuing my studies at the University of PeXXXXXX presents an invaluable opportunity for me to evolve into a versatile problem solver capable of making a significant impact across various domains. The M:IPD program at PeXXXXXX, with its multidisciplinary approach and vibrant community, holds immense appeal to me.  What sets Penn apart is its ability to nurture individuals like me, who possess diverse interests and talents. From my passion for studying social policy to my proficiency in playing multiple musical instruments and excelling in elite fencing, I thrive in environments that not only embrace but amplify a wide range of pursuits. I am seeking a learning community that converges at the intersection of my multidisciplinary interests. Through the M:IPD program, I believe I can acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to become a more effective and versatile designer, capable of addressing complex challenges from various angles. I am excited by the prospect of immersing myself in Penn’s collaborative environment and leveraging the wealth of resources the university offers to shape my professional journey. PeXXXXXX represents a beacon of multidimensional learning and growth that resonates deeply with my ambitions. I am confident that by becoming a member of the PeXXXXXX community, I can continue to pursue my passion for innovation, equity, and community impact while embracing the limitless opportunities for personal and professional development that lie ahead. Together with the exceptional faculty, fellow students, and the rich academic and extracurricular offerings at PeXXXXXX, I am eager to embark on this transformative educational journey, where I can unleash my full potential as a designer committed to making a positive difference in the world.

There are multiple issues with the way the student has portrayed her career goals. Firstly, the lack of specifics of what she wants to do after graduation. Simply stating that she wants to be an innovative designer wanting to make a positive difference does not amount to anything – it doesn’t inform the reader about the kind of products she wants to work on designing, what would be the innovative approaches she wants to adopt, and what is the positive difference that the products that she designs could make. The other issue is, the description of her future plans is scattered across the paragraph and is interspersed with other details. Which, in itself, may not be a major problem, but it is a better practice to have a description of future plans in one consolidated paragraph prior to which you can talk about what led you to conclude that that is what you want to do in your career.

Mistake #4: Saying ‘I’m eligible’ to suggest ‘I’m suitable’

Oftentimes, you would see universities mentioning the eligibility criteria for different programs on their website. What we have seen students do is to think that if they meet those criteria, they deserve a seat for the program. Consider this example:

Having recently completed my studies at DEF College and possessing a lifelong commitment to the medical industry, I am enthusiastic about applying to the medical program at ABC University. My profound interest in patient care and medicine has been nurtured throughout my life, driving my passion for the healthcare field. Through active involvement in DEF College’s pre-med society and pursuing ongoing education in my chosen field, I am eager to enhance my skills and work towards my goal of becoming a pediatrician. Meeting all the program’s prerequisites, I have gained valuable experience through various internships, including placements at PQR Hospital and the MNO Clinic. Furthermore, I have dedicated my time to volunteer work with XYZ Community Pediatrics and Children’s Care, where I have begun to develop proficiencies in patient advocacy and effective communication.

Remember the elimination-selection bit that we covered earlier in this article? Being eligible for a program means your application will be considered, not ignored. That, however, does not necessarily mean you will be selected for the program that you are applying to. For ensuring your selection, you need to make a far stronger case for yourself.

Mistake #5: ‘Strong’ SOP = ‘Good’ Words

Next, we come to another common misconception that applicants have while they draft their SOP. The prevalent belief on most college campuses (often wrong advice passed down over the years through discussions in college canteens) is that the key to making an SOP ‘strong’ is to use overly complicated words and sentence structures. This could not be farther from reality. Yes, you might have memorized over 3500 words for your GRE or GMAT. But the SOP is NOT a place for you to flaunt your newly acquired vocabulary prowess. It is one thing to use apt terminology (you really cannot have substitutes for jargon such as K-Means clustering, Bode plot, Bernouli’s principle, etc.), but the use of unnecessarily highfalutin language could make your SOP seem repulsive to the reader.

Need more confirmation? See what UMass-Amherst has to say (among other things) about what not to do in the SOP:

Things to Consider while Drafting your SOP

From our experience, we can confirm that there’s a very simple formula to ace the SOP. All you need to do is to ensure that you answer 5 questions through the SOP. And they are as follows:

 

          i)    How did you develop your interest in the field in which you plan to major in?
          ii)   What have you done so far to explore your interest in the field?
         iii)   What are your future plans in the field of your interest?
         iv)   How will the program that you are applying to help you in materializing the plans for the future?
         v)    Why are you a good fit for the university?

Yes, there will be some universities who will ask for some additional content within the SOP, such as an explanation for any gaps or extenuating circumstances in your studies or professional career, or a Plan B for your career goals provided Plan A doesn’t work. But those are a tiny minority of universities, and they will still ask the basic four questions that we have previously mentioned. For such universities, you need to customize your SOP a bit before you submit.

 

 

The key question still remains – How do you Structure the SOP?

Unlike what a lot of people will tell you, there is no fixed answer to that question. At least at Collegepond, we strive to guide every applicant to have a unique SOP structure, so that it remains reasonably distinguishable from most others.

 

However, there are some ground rules for doing this, and to explain them, we revisit the five fundamental questions that we mentioned above:

 

 

   i)  How did you develop your interest in the field in             which you plan to major in?

 

 

 

   ii)  What have you done so far to explore

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You can answer these two questions through a combination of:

    • Recent industry trends/developments that have caught your attention

 

    • Personal anecdotes/experiences where you have witnessed the application of something relevant to your field of interest

 

    • Relevant industry experiences (full-time work experience and/or internships)

 

    • Relevant college projects/Hands-on co-curricular engagements you were a part of

 

    • Relevant coursework (both, as part of your regular

 

Collectively, you would end up spending 4-6 paragraphs on the above.

The reason we have clubbed these two questions together is because they are quite inter-dependent. For example, you might have some interesting on-the-job experiences to share from your workplace that influenced your interests, or you may have decided to take up a certain project based on a certain industry event that you came across. Essentially, what you write as a response to these two questions needs to have a certain level of connection.

 

 

    iii)  What are your future plans  in the field of your interest?

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This question is ideally answered in a short paragraph of around 80-120 words covering the following points:

    • How did what you mentioned as a response to questions (i) and (ii) lead you to arrive at a decision regarding your future plans?

 

    • Short-term Goals (Goals immediately after completing the program that you are applying for). You could either talk about pursuing further studies/research in the field, or securing employment in the field of your interest.

 

    • Long-term Goal (What you see yourself doing 10-15 years after completing your study program). This could include talking about moving further up the corporate ladder, or having a relevant business venture, or continuing in the area of research and academia.

It is important that we dwell on this part a little more, because the career goals are what your entire SOP needs to revolve around. It is important that the career goals you mention are reasonably ambitious (reasonably being the key word here). Too often, students tend to talk about overtly grand plans amounting to ‘changing the world’. A career goal description that talks about having a worldwide impact right after graduation is simply unrealistic. 

 

Another issue that students make is writing vague statements such as ‘After graduation, I want to work in an ABC role in leading multinational companies such as XYZ and PQR.’ This approach has two issues – one, it is way too simplistic, and suggests a lack of seriousness or effort in conveying your future plans to the Admissions Committee. The other, more problematic interpretation would be, that you do not have enough clarity on your future plans, which is why you are taking an easy way out of answering this. Remember, you will have universities which may simply not ask for a SOP, but ask you to describe your career goals (say as part of a set of questions) in around 150 words. Think of what sort of a negative impression you would create if you responded to this in a single line.

 

   iv)  How will the program that you are applying to help you in materializing the plans for the future?

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You need to answer this in a paragraph that we call the ‘University-Specific Paragraph’. The following is what you may typically include in this paragraph:

    • Courses that you are interested in studying at the university
  •  
    • Research work/Projects you wish to be involved in
  •  
    • Faculty whose work you are fascinated by and from whom you would want to be tutored
  •  
    • Student organizations which you would want to associate with
  •  
    • Events that you hope to attend at the University
  •  
    • Any unique features of the program (such as ability to take up  cross-departmental coursework/ compulsory Co-op project, etc.)

 

Typically, you may write around 150 – 200 words on this part.

    v)   Why are you a good fit for the university?

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This is the concluding part of the SOP, where you talk about why the Admissions Committee should offer a decision in favour of your application. You can include aspects such as:

    • Proven track-record

 

    • Determination to excel at the study program

 

    • The desire to make a positive impact with the knowledge you gain at the university

 

Here’s an easy way to verify our formula – most Universities that require you to submit an SOP will provide a prompt for what they expect within the SOP. And, if you check those prompts, you will find that nearly all of them would have asked you to answer these five questions only (of course, different universities would have worded the same five questions differently).

 

To make it easy for you, we have included some snippets of Guidelines for writing SOP from some top universities below:

Now there are two things to bear in mind. Firstly, while we say that the SOP needs to answer the above five questions, it is still an essay. Which means, you need to ensure that each paragraph logically and naturally flows on to the next paragraph. And secondly, you do not have to answer the above questions in the same sequence as mentioned.

So now we finally revisit the question:

How should I structure my SOP?

How you structure your SOP will depend on your individual case, but ideally, you would want to highlight the most significant and the most relevant parts of your profile first. If we still have to present a Statement of Purpose format, it would be as follows:

Introduction

    • Start with a catchy hook (catchy ≠ flashy or desperately attention-grabbing)
    • Explain what got you interested in the field – this could be a unique anecdote or episode in your personal or professional life, or awareness of latest events/developments/innovations/trends in the field

Main Body

             

               Here, you could include details pertaining to the following:

  • Academic course-work undertaken so far
  • Projects completed/ongoing
  • Industry Visits
  • Internships and Professional Experience
  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Career goals
  • Why you wish to apply for the program at the University

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You would want to ensure that you mention any unique achievements/recognition earned while describing these aspects. As far as possible, make sure to also quantify your achievements.

Conclusion

 

    • Sign off with a short-paragraph highlighting what makes you a suitable candidate for the program.

 

After having gained a broad overview of the various ingredients of the SOP and SOP format, the one question on your mind must be about the length of the SOP. We cover the same below –

How long should the SOP be?

Typically, the SOP could be anywhere between 1000-1300 words long or two pages. Most SOPs are around the 1100–1200-word mark. However, some universities may allow you to write a longer SOP, while some universities require you to write SOPs with a limitation on the number of words, characters, or pages.

 

At Collegepond, we have helped students draft SOPs ranging from 300 words to 2200+ words depending on the universities and programs that they were applying to. Most students will require their SOP to be tweaked to varying lengths to suit the requirements of different universities.

 

Steps to SOP Drafting: The Collegepond Approach

With a stellar track-record for helping students get into their dream universities over the years, we, at Collegepond can, in all modesty, claim to have found the perfect formula to craft convincing SOPs.

And here’s the trick that we follow – we DO NOT write the SOPs.

Instead, what we do is work collaboratively with students to draft them.

Here’s how our process works:

Step 1: Profile Evaluation

At Collegepond, we do not treat the SOP as a content writing exercise. We go much beyond it – and our SOP Counsellors (not writers, mind you) will first assess your profile to see whether it is reasonably strong enough to make a compelling case for your candidature to the program that you are applying to.

 

In case we identify any gaps in your profile, we recommend you to take appropriate measures so that your candidature as a whole becomes more appealing for the program. Of course, it goes without saying that the more time you have on your hands, the more comfortably you are placed to implement the measures that we would suggest. Which is why, we always recommend students to begin their SOP drafting process early (at least 3-4 months before the target deadlines).

Step 2: Content Gathering

First, the student fills out a well-structured questionnaire. The questionnaire is so designed that it covers everything that 98% of the universities would ask students to write in their Statements of Purpose. At this stage, the student is provided access to resources that will guide him/her on how to respond to each question in the questionnaire, which includes Do’s and Don’ts as well as the best practices.

 

Once the student provides the responses, we analyse them and get students to plug any gaps or correct any mistakes. Thus, we ensure that we have the correct raw ingredients in place to begin drafting the SOP.

Step 3: SOP Ideation

At this stage, we brainstorm with the student the appropriate structure of the SOP depending on the individual student’s academic and professional background, experiences, interests, and aspirations. This structure will be unique to each student, and no two students will have a similarly structured draft.

Step 4: SOP Finalization

This is an iterative process where we work with students to identify and correct some minute-level issues in terms of content. At this stage, the draft will also be run through a Quality Check process, where a fresh pair of eyes will give the draft a read to assess if it has the desired impact on the reader. Once the reviewer is satisfied with the draft, the SOP Draft is marked as final.

Step 5: SOP Customization

Remember, we had earlier said that different universities may have different requirements when it comes to what they expect in the SOP. Also, some universities may ask various questions where the SOP content will need to be modified to create appropriate answers to the questions.

 

At Collegepond, we maintain a database of such program-wise essay requirements that different universities have. The database is regularly updated, so that you can have a one-page view of the essay requirements for all the university programs that you are applying to.

 

During the customization stage, you will receive further guidance on how to customize the content you have in your SOP in order to suit the requirements for each program.

 

 

There are two advantages to the Collegepond approach:

    • Because the initial responses come from the student, and also because the student is considerably involved in framing the draft, the content in the SOP will retain the student’s original writing style, thus making it stand out.
    • Because of their involvement in the SOP Drafting process, students learn the art of aptly portraying the suitability of their candidature. This skill has been proven to benefit them even while pursuing their intended study programs and applying for jobs abroad.

 

If you are someone who has decided to explore options for studying abroad, we would love to welcome you for a consultation with us. Not only do we have a demonstrated expertise in helping students get into their dream universities through our structured counselling process, you also stand to derive a wide range of benefits through your association with us. Please leave your details below and we will contact you shortly:

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FAQs

Different applicants may need different amounts of time to create the SOP. However, on average, we advise applicants to give the SOP around 2 weeks to evolve into the correct shape and size.

The Resume just contains information of your past academic and professional activities and achievements, mostly in a bullet-point format. The SOP, however, is a forward-looking document written in the form of an essay which not only talks about your career goals after completion of the program that you are applying for, but also how the program that you are applying for would help you move closer to the realization of your goals.

In fact, there would be a problem if there was no overlap of content at all across the three documents. Because, at the end of the day, all the three describe your own journey – in varying formats and through different points of view. Say, you wish to describe a relevant project in your SOP, you will obviously include it in your Resume as well, and you might have a recommender who would corroborate the fact that you worked on the project. But the project remains the same – the work that you did, the results you obtained, the challenges you faced and overcame, the tools and techniques you used – these do not change from one document to the other for the same project, right? Therefore, do not worry if there are things in common across your SOP, LOR, and Resume. There should be at least such a few aspects of your profile that find a reflection in all the three documents.

The strength of your academic and professional history, and your Statement of Purpose, are two different (although the former has a bearing on the latter) facets of your application that will impact the fate of your application differently. How strong your past background is, will determine your eligibility for different universities. Through the SOP, you can only expect to maximize your chances of securing admits for those programs and universities which your candidature is deemed eligible for. As such, we would advise you to focus on framing a logically sound SOP rather than making an arbitrary effort to make it seem ‘strong’.

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Address: Office No. 204, 2nd Floor, ML Spaces, Dashrathlal Joshi Rd. Opp. Old Jain Mandir, Vile Parle West, Mumbai – 400056.

 

Email: info@collegepond.com

 

Call Us:  022-46003655

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