Statement of Purpose (SOP)

Statement of Purpose (SOP) – what is it?

It is important for every applicant to know what it takes to write an internationally well-accepted Statement of Purpose (SOP). This definition summarizes what an SOP is:

The Statement of Purpose is your statement or essay expressing your motivations, reasons and academic and professional qualifications to the admissions committee for applying to a particular higher education programme. (Keywords in bold)

The Statement of Purpose is also called the Academic Statement, Statement of Motivation, or Letter of Intent and sometimes programs ask for a Personal Statement, which can be different. Keep reading to see my sample SOP/Personal Statement that got me an interview at Cambridge University!

The SOP is one of the most important parts of your application. Why?

Imagine this situation: You are playing cricket for your state’s Ranji Trophy Team, and your goal is to get selected for the national team. Your team has reached the final, and there are selectors from the Indian national team watching. There are at least 21 others being watched. But to get selected, your performance must shine.

Similarly, YOU are your SOP. It is the same as your role as the athlete in the above example. It is your chance to show why you are worthy of being selected by the admissions committee. How are you different from the rest of the applicants? Most SOPs are the same – when I was 3 years old I touched the first computer, machine, chemical, etc., I did this in college, that project, so many internships, I worked on so many projects in my job(s), this university is the best and flattery. This is the case with most SOPs I come across.

Imagine admissions committee members reading hundreds of such SOPs. Were your thoughts along these lines? If yes, then these guidelines will most certainly be helpful to you. Even if your thoughts differed from the above, a read-through of the guidelines will be useful. I am sure you will leave with at least two noteworthy points.

The SOP is meant for you to talk about your recent academic and/or professional experiences that have led to your decision to choose that particular graduate program. You must emphasize the details of that program (do not copy and paste the same SOP in all your applications), and why you are a suitable candidate, to say the least. This is how you and your application will be judged.

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One-on-one session to improve your SOP

I have edited and written over a hundred statements over the past five years. My clients have received offers of admission from some of the best universities in the world across programs, from engineering to biology to fashion design. In this interactive one-on-one, 1-hour session, I will converge my experiences and knowledge from several sources and explain how you can improve your statement of purpose. Straightforward, concise and effective.

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Structure of A Strong Statement of Purpose

Before that, never forget these three points

Impeccable grammar

I agree that as international applicants, English is most often our second or third language. We tend to make grammatical and spelling errors, despite having it as the medium of instruction throughout school and college. However, you can take the help of tools and professionals such as me to improve your statement! Use Grammarly to improve all your writing, as it checks and suggests improvements to your words, sentences, tone, and of course, grammar!

A concise story

The SOP is meant to be YOUR story. It should be written in such a way that focuses on:
1) How are you and the program a good fit for each other?
2) What makes you a strong candidate?
3) How will the program help you achieve your career goals?

The readers should get a good sense of who you are and why you chose higher education. You must cover the strongest points of your previous academic and professional experiences and link them with the program. You should also describe how higher education will benefit you and contribute to your career goals.

Note: For research-oriented programs, especially PhD applications, your statement of purpose is more of a research interest statement than a story of your life. Talk about your ideas, even if they may not be likely to succeed, or may not be entirely realistic for the research topic. Discuss a couple of key questions that you would want to answer, with a logical path for focusing your research on those questions. Real-world questions, logic and clarity of thoughts are more important than your story.

Length and format

Needless to say, you must mention all the above within the WORD LIMIT. For example, if the word limit is 1000, you simply cannot have even 1001 words. Often, the application portal may not allow you to cross the limit. A good length I stick to unless specified is 800-1000 words. Use Calibri or Times New Roman, 11-12 size font with 1.15/1.5 spaced (unless mentioned otherwise).

Structure (an example of a captivating structure)

Your statement of purpose should clearly have several sections. It should include an introduction, a body that builds up your most relevant skills, strengths, achievements, and it should seamlessly lead to your decision to choose the program you are applying to, and a conclusion. However, a good SOP is also clever. This means that as you progress, your purpose for applying should not be lost at any point. A great SOP doesn’t have to use complex language, it can be very simple and straightforward. It should not be a detailed version of your resume.

The following structure has been compiled from different sources. These include Donald Asher’s ‘Graduate Admissions Essays’, Jordan Dotson’s website (writeivy.com) and several leading universities, such as the University of California, Berkley and Cornell University provide on their websites.

For alternative structures which can be equally engaging to the reader, feel free to get in touch with me.

Part 1: Introduction (1 concise paragraph)

Introduce yourself, your interests and your motivations. Your main motivation could be the theme of your entire SOP, and hence, dictate the narrative you would like to focus on. A challenge, real-world issue, or a personal experience could be the opening of your narrative. Be specific, and add an anchoring sentence about why that particular program.

The introduction should be short and to the point. Do not use valuable space writing an autobiography reminiscing childhood details.

Part 2: Previous training and experience (1 paragraph)

Summarize the most important undergraduate and previous graduate or career experiences. These is important to demonstrate that you are a strong candidate, and are prepared for graduate study.

You must certainly discuss the research you conducted and why you worked on that project. Always indicate the name(s) of supervisor(s)/advisor(s), the title or overarching goal of your relevant work (as a problem statement), what your main contributions and responsibilities were, and the outcome. Include some level of technicality, but don’t fill this portion with technical jargon.

The best is to write in the style of your discipline, as professors often read these statements. Write about what you gained. Avoid abstract skills such as teamwork or project management, for the most part, unless relevant to your field; include impactful skills, such as conducting research, technical analyses in a certain domain, troubleshooting, etc. Always back it up with an example and talk about results!

You can also talk about a certain research paper or thesis project, especially how it prepared you better for graduate study. Include specific skills that you gained, and why you took up that work.

Include professional experience (may include internships if you are still early in your career). Discuss your responsibilities in an area similar to what you wish to study in graduate school. Again, be specific, avoid jargon and abstract skills.

Part 3: Current work and career goals (1-2 paragraphs)

Tell the reader about what your current role is: whether in a company or non-profit, your team, responsibilities, and what you learned. You can also indicate here how this helped your motivation or focus to study further.

A very important part of your SOP is your career goals. You can write it before discussing your academic interests and then weave those in. Talk about short and long-term goals, and how graduate study will help you achieve those.

Again, ensure that you are not rambling, and are writing from the perspective of demonstrating your fit for the program. Your previous experiences should tell the reader that you are a suitable, and a strong candidate for their program.

Part 4: Academic and/or research interests (1 paragraph)

The previous sections should convince the faculty that you understand the scope of the field enough, and are skilled enough to do well in graduate school. Here you can indicate what you would like to study and specialize in. Include enough detail to convince the reader that you know what to expect from the program.

In terms of research interests, you could pose a couple of questions, define a problem, or indicate a theme that you would like to focus on. Also, discuss certain ideas or findings from contemporary research. Your thoughts must be clear, logical, and should help the reader understand your perceptions of the issue. Do elaborate and avoid using jargon!

You can also introduce this in the beginning, as a part of your motivation.

Part 5: Demonstrate your interest and depth of research about the school and program (1-2 paragraphs)

Study the programs and departments you’re interested in, including professors and their research. You must convince the reader that you have done your research about the program, and are not simply recycling the same statement of purpose in all your applications. Scan through courses, research groups, academic or industrial associations, special features of the program, faculty, resources, locational advantages, etc. Talk about overlaps in your interests and ongoing work, particularly professors and research groups whose work fits your goals. You may be required to name professors you want to work with.

Getting in touch with current students or alumni to discuss more about the program may prove very beneficial. You may attend webinars, information sessions or even refer to these on youtube specific to the program for more information. If the program/department or research group of your interest has a weekly/monthly newsletter, I would suggest subscribing to that for updates and specific information for this section of the SOP.

Part 6: Conclusion (1 paragraph)

End your statement of purpose in a positive manner, indicating your excitement and readiness for the challenges ahead of you.

Essential tips

What the admissions committee will read between the lines: self-motivation, personality, competence, and potential as a graduate student.

  • The above is one way of structuring your statement of purpose. Always refer to the university’s guidelines and/or prompts before preparing the SOP for that program.
  • Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in an active, not a passive voice.
  • Demonstrate your strengths by example. Such as, do not just say that you’re a persistent person, show it.
  • Minimize the use of abbreviations, initialisms and word contractions. Write I am instead of I’m, I have instead of I’ve, did not instead of didn’t and so on.
  • State important events that affected your grades, such as financial distress, illness, or excessive work, if relevant. Write it affirmatively, showing your perseverance despite obstacles. You can explain any information that may raise questions, such as low scores, a gap year/semester, etc.
  • Read this list of DO NOTS – as these points will significantly lower the quality when you write a statement of purpose.

Additional Tips

  • Link your paragraphs with continuity and focus. If possible, tie everything together with the help of an overarching theme.
  • Unless the specific program says otherwise, be concise; an ideal essay should say everything it needs to with brevity. Use approximately 800 to 1000 well-selected words. This is better than more words with less clarity and poor organization.
  • You should ALWAYS write a different SOP for each application. The SOP should match what the specific program and university offer. Certain portions such as the introduction, your work and achievements, etc. can remain more or less unchanged. However, portions that deal with the particular program have to be different.
  • I strongly recommend a couple of sentences about how you can contribute to the program/university which may not strictly be academic. This could be as a teaching or research assistant, participating in annual conferences, volunteering with student organizations, and competitions, or simply giving back as an alumnus.
  • You may mention certain extra-curricular activities IF RELEVANT: sports achievements, volunteering during college, involvement with student chapters, involvement with college festivals, etc. This would show time management and indirectly displays certain social skills that you might have. However, do not use too much space (about 2-3 sentences wherever applicable).

Editing your Statement of Purpose

Once you have prepared your first draft (hurrah!), you should get your SOP checked by friends, family and colleagues. You may understand the content very clearly, but what about others? Receiving honest feedback from others will certainly improve it. Also, use advanced tools such as Grammarly to your advantage.

However, people are subjective, and each person will provide their own opinions, which can be overwhelming. You could also take help from an expert such as me and get your SOP edited so that it adds value to your application, and matches the program’s requirements. My experience allows me to judge the content of your statement to maximize the impact!

Please contact me for any assistance.

**Disclaimer: There are many factors that are considered when providing admission to graduate school applicants. These guidelines do not guarantee the receipt of an admission by the program, department or university. Please consult the program, department or university for any questions before submitting your application.**

Sample SOP

Note: The following statement of purpose sample is meant to be an example for your reference. This is certainly not the only way or the best way to draft your statement. The measures of a statement’s quality vary by program and by the applicant’s life. Please avoid copying portions of this example, or any other samples that you may come across. The best statements are always original and reflect the applicant’s thoughtfulness.

“What do you think about a tropical canopy project?” asked Dr [name], my current supervisor, after a casual chat about her career in early 2019. I had only sparingly heard of research in the canopy and knew nothing about the vast treasures that lay hidden in tropical forest canopies.

I shrugged and said blankly, “I… I don’t know anything about canopies.”

Perplexed, she immediately handed me two books – ‘Life in the Treetops’ and ‘It’s a Jungle Up There’ by Dr Margaret Lowman.

“Read these, and then we shall talk”, were her exact words. I gladly took the books and started reading the same evening. Awed by the books and the life of Dr Margaret ‘CanopyMeg’ Lowman, I couldn’t believe my unfamiliarity with canopy research, despite my interest in tropical forests and biodiversity since childhood. Stories of Dr Lowman’s life, as well as Dr [name]’s experiences, paved the path for a deep-seated inquisitiveness for tropical forest canopies. Nearly a year after the chat mentioned above with Dr [name], my interest has crystallised into a determination to pursue a PhD in canopy ecology.

My academic and professional background prior to 2019 has contributed significantly to my competence for doctoral study. In 2015, with a strong motivation to build a career in ecological conservation, I joined the master’s program at the SEAS, University of Michigan. One of the most influential of my graduate school experiences was an internship in Madagascar, for which I won the competitive Marshall Weinberg Internship Award. I assisted Dr Vanessa Winchester with planning and implementing an unprecedented multifaceted forest restoration project in Berenty Reserve. My responsibilities included site preparation, supervising plantings, site surveying and mapping, seedling growth data collection, creating and managing databases. Dr Winchester and I are analysing three years of data and writing a manuscript describing the pilot project. We aim to publish by mid-2020.

Through the master’s course, the internship, research at the Global Change Ecology Lab and The Nature Conservancy, I learnt the essential elements of scientific examination, from applying for funds, forming testable hypotheses, writing proposals, to selecting methods for collecting, analysing data, and producing high-quality deliverables. I developed a proficiency in field sampling, including plant identification, vegetation survey protocols, and analysis using R, ArcGIS, ENVI, ERDAS IMAGINE, and HemiView.

During my master’s course, I understood the importance of outreach and communicating science to the scientific community and a much wider audience. The course of action of my liking was photo-blogging and photojournalism. The internship in Madagascar was the perfect opportunity; I took thousands of photos and wrote a series of articles on the restoration project and its implications. Soon after, I started a website and posted articles and photos for nearly two years. However, the expenses to keep the website running proved to be beyond my abilities. Nonetheless, I continue to take photos and maintain a personal archive.

In March 2018, I joined ATREE and accepted an offer to formally practice and engage with outreach to early-career practitioners in ecology by organising training programmes. My responsibilities also involve teaching introductory GIS and Remote Sensing, and field methods for vegetation surveys and forest ecology.  

Within a year of joining ATREE, I immersed myself in learning more about global research on tropical canopy science; however, the lack of research in India was blatant. Apart from Dr [name]’s work in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was little research on canopy science and ecology in India. On learning of the exceptional potential of tropical forest canopies to answer larger questions pertinent to climate change, biodiversity, forest degradation, ecological processes, etc., I was very keen to dedicate my future endeavours to tropical canopy science.

Three months after Dr [name] asked me what I thought of a tropical canopy project, I answered, “Yes!” I have since applied for a few grants ranging from £6,000 to nearly £400,000; I am extremely determined to fill the void of canopy research in India and contribute to global knowledge in the field.  

My decision to pursue doctoral study at the Department of Plant Sciences is ideal to fulfil my research and career goals. Concisely put, for doctoral study, I intend to link multi-scalar microclimatic changes in tropical forest canopies from human degradation, and communities of beetles and vascular epiphytes, as well as impacts on insect herbivory. I hope to guide conservation interventions through my findings and contribute to global knowledge and understudied hypotheses of ecological processes and environmental change in forests. The details of my proposed research plan for doctoral study are congruent with the emerging field of conservation physiology, and I believe that implementing and initiating such research in the context of India has tremendous scope. The work would link primarily principles of biology, ecology, GIS, remote sensing, and conservation. I believe that sustaining research in these converging areas through doctoral study at the University of Cambridge would be the best course for long-term, systematic study to examine and provide solutions to human degradation of tropical forests globally.

I am most interested in working with Prof. [name]. His expertise in studying responses of forests to environmental change, species distribution modelling and the implementation of advanced remote sensing are highly relevant to the concepts and methods of my proposed doctoral research. His response to my research proposal has been positive, and I have incorporated his suggested inputs.

I believe that my strong academic background, quantitative and qualitative research skills, and determination to explore the unknowns of tropical forest canopies make me a strong candidate for doctoral study at the Department of Plant Sciences. The exceptional faculty, student community, resources, the assemblage of research and associations with reputed institutions make it the most attractive venue for me to pursue doctoral study and succeed in my career. Through my work, I shall contribute to the department’s community and body of work in terms of conceptual diversity and regional diversity by adding India to the list of regions for research.

In my career, I shall commit to positively impacting landscapes and the lives of numerous people. My long-term goal is to sustain tropical and canopy research in India by establishing permanent research sites comparable to those in Latin America, Southeast Asia, Australia and China. I intend to engage with outreach throughout my career to advance my learning by establishing educational programmes to conserve and restore a range of terrestrial ecosystems.


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