How to Write a Graduate School Statement of Purpose (SOP)

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Piyush
Piyush Kohli
Study Abroad Expert
Updated on Jul 1, 2022 15:57 IST

Every graduate school’s statement of purpose must include two things:

  • Your purposefor applying to graduate school
  • Your preparationfor attending graduate school

In these essays, you are not just telling the story of a single incident, rather, you are crafting a narrative that covers years of experience in your field. It is the story of why you want to do this work and why you can do this work.

Step One: Coming up with Content

First, you will want to decide what should be included in your graduate school statement of purpose. Brainstorm with the following questions, we have sorted them into three broad categories.

  1. Your Motivation

    1. Goals: What motivates you to pursue your degree? What do you plan to specialize in within your course of study? If you are pursuing a research degree, how would you summarize your research interest as a question, problem statement, or theme? What are your goals immediately after graduation? Five years after graduation? Twenty years after graduation?
    2. Catalyst: Which particular experiences sparked your interest in pursuing this field of study? Focus on your life in college and after graduation, and think about academic, work and personal experiences that helped you realize this is what you wanted to do.
  1. Your Preparation

  • Academic: What are the academic steps you have taken that have prepared you to pursue this course of study? Think about high-level coursework, projects, research, conferences, academic mentorships and publications.
  • Work: What are the professional steps you have taken to improve your knowledge in this field? Think about jobs, professional mentorships and development.
  • Independent Learning: What other efforts have you undertaken to grow your knowledge in this field? If you have been following the current research relating to your interests, think about the developments and publications that excite you.
  1. How graduate school will help

Why is this degree the logical next step in your intellectual and professional journey? What will you be able to achieve with this degree that would not be possible otherwise?

Look at your answers to all of these questions, and then begin writing a sentence or two that summarizes the most important factors. This is your statement of purpose - a thesis for your essay as a whole. Let it guide you as you craft your story.

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Step Two: Structuring your Story

How long should a graduate school’s statement of purpose be? That depends. Some programs will give specific prompts and lengths, while others will not. You should try to tell your story in one or two succinct pages, as most essays will have a limit of 500-1000 words, and you would want your statement to be able to adapt as per the requirements of multiple schools.

In general, word limit for graduate school statements of purpose are not strict. The important thing is to layout your goals and experience in a clear and comprehensible way. Here is a simple structure to guide you.

  • Introduction: The introduction must succinctly state your purpose. If it is a research/academic degree (like a PhD in physics), it will need to cover the specific subfield and what you hope to accomplish within it. However, if it is a professional degree (like an MBA), it needs to cover career goals that can only be achieved with the help of a particular degree.
    • 'By investigating X and Y, I hope to provide new insight into the question of Z.'
    • 'By A and B, I hope to start a company that will C.'
    • A student pursuing an MBA in order to start a company focusing on curing a particular disease might summarize how being diagnosed with that disease changed his/her life.
    • A student pursuing a particular subfield of chemistry might describe a specific project that led him/her to fall in love with that subfield.

For example:

    • If you like, you can start your introduction with an experience that sparked your interest in this field of study— one of the catalysts from your brainstorming session. For example:
    • Note: If you include a catalyst, it should only take up a few sentences. It is crucial to move quickly to your overall thesis by the end of that first paragraph.
  • Section One: Relevant Experience: This section, which should take up the bulk of your essay, is where you can prove that you have done the work needed to gain skills that are necessary for a successful graduate school career. It will definitely require multiple paragraphs. You can include:
    • Relevant work experience
    • Relevant academic experience
    • Relevant independent learning or personal experience
    • Note: Any method of ordering the experience is okay, as long as it is clear for the reader and flows logically from one experience to the next. It is always going to be different based on what you have done.
  • Section Two: Why This School: This is where you can discuss any relevant school-specific resources, and make a strong case for why joining this department at this university is the next best step for you, and a great choice for school!
    • Research applicants will often know exactly which professors they need to work with and might have already connected with them.
    • Professional applicants might refer to specific programs or networking opportunities, or explain how the typical career path of graduates from this program is the path that they want to follow. 
    • Note: You do not have to separate your ‘Why This School’ section from your ‘Relevant Experience’ section. Some applicants might benefit from combining them, mentioning relevant experiences next to school-specific opportunities. (Just be aware that this will take a bit more effort if you are customizing your essay for different schools.)
  • Conclusion:
    • This is where you can summarize why you are qualified for admission to this program, and how it will support your goals, that is why is this program the logical next step?

Step Three: Make it Perfect

Once you have a draft of your essay, it is time to revise! Leave yourself plenty of time. For a piece of writing this important, you should expect to go through at least three drafts: one to get the basics down, second to clear up any issues with structure and content, and the third to polish your writing on the sentence level.

When you are at the stage of polishing your statement, prioritize straightforward, error-free and professional writing. There is no need to be poetic in a graduate school statement of purpose — the objective is to communicate your purpose and preparation as clearly as possible.

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About the Author

Brad is a Co-founder and the CEO of Prompt – the #1 provider of admissions essay feedback in the world. Prompt's 150+ writing coaches provide instructional, actionable feedback to help students improve their essays' content, structure, clarity, and grammar. He has advised hundreds of students who gained acceptance at highly-selective universities, and his team works with over 5,000 students per year on admissions essays. Brad is a former McKinsey Consultant and holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Management Science from MIT.

About the Author
Piyush Kohli
Study Abroad Expert

With a plethora of knowledge of the education domain, Piyush Kohli has been involved with study abroad for over 5 years and counting. He comes with prior experience on the complexities of the study abroad applicatio... Read Full Bio

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