The confusingly named “statement of purpose” (SOP) essay is a rite of passage for grad school admissions (undergrad admissions are totally different). The lofty title of this essay misleads many. I’ve helped hundreds and hundreds of people with these essays over the years (in fact, I have even written a book with many tips for graduate admissions essays– It’s coming later this year!). I know it can be bewildering to write about your “purpose,” but here are some tips to get you started:
Keep it simple. Don’t reinvent the wheel, or try to write poetry. The SOP is a brief synopsis of your purpose not in life, but in attending grad school. It’s a focused description of what your career or research project might entail. It’s not your biography or resume.
Focus. You usually only have about 500 words to work with, so make each one count. Don’t repeat information that’s readily available to the admissions committee on your resume or transcripts. Instead, try to make your SOP a pitch as to why you are the right candidate for the specific program and how your particular interests and research goals will synergize with the department.
Don’t apologize. Your SOP is not a confession. Way too many people see the SOP as a confessional booth. We’re not all Catholic, and if you only have 500 words, why waste 20% of them explaining why you got a C that one term when your grandmother had a kidney stone and your dog broke his leg? There is usually a supplemental essay in which you can explain unusual circumstances. Don’t
Do your homework. The admissions committee wants to see that you’re familiar with their faculty, unique aspects of the program, facilities, or the curriculum. They don’t want a copy-paste, generic essay.
Don’t talk “brands.” Harvard knows it’s Harvard and that it’s a good school. I see way too many first drafts of SOP’s that flatter the school or continually reference the brand name. Also, at the grad level, you are not applying to the school – you are applying to the department because the department operates more autonomously than undergrad admissions do.
Finally, remember that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Don’t obsess over the essay. Go through several rounds of revisions, and have another person look at it. But it is not the be-all and end-all of your career. If you were already perfect, you would not need to go to grad school. If the admissions committee rejects you solely on the basis of, say, a suboptimal word choice you notice a month after sending your materials in, do you really want to be part of that department? A good essay and good all-around application is far superior to a perfect essay and subpar application.
These five tips should help a lot, because they cover a wide variety of the mistakes I see. Of course, it’s often best to work with a pro for your essays. Unemployed Professors is happy to help!