Writing a Statement of Purpose? 10 Steps That Can Help You Through The Process
Updated: Feb 16
If you are applying to Graduate School, you will probably be asked to write a Statement of Purpose (SoP). However, when preparing my Ph.D. application, I realized that I had no idea how to do it. My friends also struggled with theirs and that made me think: Are we prepared to do this? Probably not. Since the SoP is possibly the only way that the selection committee has to get to know you, who you are, what are your goals and your passions, this is something that you must sort out. You need to answer the most important question in their heads: why should they choose you?
1. Try to start early. If not, don’t panic.
Everyone will tell you to start early, and I agree. However, I also understand that you probably are an undergrad juggling with your time during your last academic year or somebody more experienced finishing up an MS or a job. In that case you’ll have tons of responsibilities and are probably suffering to make up enough time to work on your application as much as you want to. If this is the case, DON’T PANIC, pause, sit down wherever you feel comfortable and start by writing down preliminary answers to some why’s, what’s and how’s:
WHY do you want to attend Grad School/this program/university/advisor?
WHAT brought you to this decision?
WHAT have you done that you feel proud about (that has built you as a person)?
HOW do you expect Grad School to help you?
HOW will you contribute to the field you’re applying to?
Open a Word document or grab a piece of paper and WRITE. Don’t try to make it come out as a structured paragraph, there is a reason why it is called “brainstorming”.
Now, the answers to these questions may seem personal. Even though your SoP is an academic document and should be presented and treated as that, it is also “who you are” in a piece of paper. There are plenty of templates or examples of other people’s SoPs in the web. It is tempting to just skip the process and try to fit your case in one of those. However, the selection committee will choose you from what you say here. Read all these examples, ask friends that are already in Grad School to show you their SoPs and get ideas! But keep it authentic and honest.
2. Double-check what is expected from you
Before building a structured statement, double-check if the program/university to which you are applying has specific guidelines for the structure or content of your SoP. Here you’ll find the structure I used and that I’ve seen a lot of people use, but your case may require something different. You don’t want to be disqualified of the admission process because of not fulfilling a requirement. Some graduate schools may have a required length for the SoP, others may want you to address punctual themes, just be sure!
3. What and how
Now, a good idea is to convert these thoughts into an outline of what do you want to say. The following sections describe a structure that has helped me a lot before.
4. Start with a killer first paragraph
You want to hook them from the beginning! They must remember you even after going through several other applications.
Just because of the high amount of work that selection committees go through during application season, it’s highly unlikely that they will remember your application solely because of your good grades or extracurricular activities. Those are great, and you should have them. However, chances are that all other applicants will have them too. The SoP is your chance to be remembered and the highway to get there is a killer first paragraph.
What could you say that will make them remember you after scanning hundreds of applications? The possibilities are endless, but I recommend it to be short (probably 3-4 sentences) and clear. A hook that will make them want to read more. Some people go with a memory, others with a fact or a statement, I have even seen some that look like the beginning of a mystery story. Find something amazingly catchy, but don’t forget that it needs to connect with the rest of the statement.
5. Your journey as a story
Be sure to include the most relevant experiences, you don’t want to make it too long that can become boring to read.
Continue with 2-3 paragraphs about your background. How did you get to where you are now? What experience do you have in the field? What cool and impressive things have you done to support it? Build up your story in a simple way:
Don’t say everything: That will turn into a list of facts rather than a story and they can refer to your CV for that purpose. Maybe choose relevant research opportunities, outreach activities, volunteering, classes that had an impact on you, mentoring or tutoring. What things have made you who you are right now?
Not just tell them, show them: It’s different to say “I’m a leader” than to say “I guided and led my classmates into developing this project..”.
Speaking up is not always easy: Saying what we have done or why we are impressive is tough and can easily be misunderstood as pointless bragging. Don’t overdo it but remember that you are great, and you just want them to know why.
6. Transition: You have hooked them!
You have told them who you are, now tell them why it should be you.
They already know you and what you’ve done. Now you can write about what you want to do in your Graduate program. What interests you? What type of research do you want to do? Do you have a connection to this school? Maybe collaborations with current researchers there?
Also, why should they choose you among so many people? Why are you the person they are looking for? What can you offer to them?
Don’t forget to build it up as a transition or include a short paragraph that serves that purpose. Just take the reader with you as smoothly as possible.
7. WHY, WHY, WHY
They will ask you this every time, better to have it from the top of your head.
This may sound repetitive but don’t forget to include it: Why did you choose this specific university? Why did you choose to go to grad school?
They are essential questions to have in mind that will probably be asked to you frequently in future steps of the application process. I know it sounds like a super easy answer, but it may be hard to put down in words. Obviously, you have it in you (if you didn’t you wouldn’t be applying nor reading this article).
8. Last paragraph is as important as the first!
You have said it. That’s that. Close in a clear but determined way. This paragraph is the conclusion to that picture they’ve been building in their heads about you. Don’t forget to be respectful and thankful for the opportunity.
9. Re-read, ask-to self and to others!
Now that you’re done with this draft ask yourself: Will I choose me? Will I remember me?
If not, just go back and rethink it. It is essential that you’re comfortable with the final product.
Read it out loud! Do you sound as you wanted to?
Remember, a structured piece needs organized paragraphs. That means that your ideas should be exposed and connected as clear as possible. A technique that has helped me achieve this is thinking of a “mini” outline for each paragraph. Something like:
A first sentence that states what you want this paragraph to transmit.
2-3 supporting or explanatory sentences
A closing sentence concluding the idea or connecting it with the next paragraph.
10. Don’t rush to it.
Sleep on it, give it some time, read again. Look for someone with experience on this topic to give you some feedback. Just keep in mind to maintain your own personal stamp on it. Also, consider going to a writing center that could help you assess how your English is doing in the SoP. Especially if it is not your main language. Ask them to help you check the flow of your text as well as to see if you have clear sentences. Also, it always helps to revise some grammar and vocabulary.
Do what works best for you! Go with what you think will be best. Keep it organized and clear. Good luck!
More about the author
Juliana has BS degree in Biology and Microbiology and a Masters in Biological Sciences Uniandes. She also just started her PhD in Plant Pathology @cornelluniversity with a research focus on small non-coding RNAs that could regulate interactions between plant pathogenic bacteria and their host, mostly potatoes. Juliana's ultimate goal is to become a professor and run her own lab. She has been very active in communicating science and currently she is a tutor for the English Language Support Office at Cornell where she helps other international graduate students and postdocs with their academic writing such as research articles, cover letters, personal statements, and fellowships, among others. Juliana's hobbies are playing with her cats, enjoy her time with her husband and hang out with the Colombian community. Read more about her in our last feature!
This article was written by Juliana González Tobón in collaboration
with Women In Ag Science.
You can read the Spanish version here.