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(SOP: statement of purpose)

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Theme


Your SoP needs to have a strong theme which indicates the purpose of your application.

This may come across as you brainstorm your main points in the next step or you may already know what it is. The theme is the thread that holds your essay together to prevent it from being a list of your qualifications and achievements. Themes should be one sentence long and connect your field of research to a purpose, whether a personal interest or a contribution to society.

You will not put your theme into your statement in such simple terms, but it should always guide you as you write and structure your SOP. Keep this theme handy so you always remember it – write it out on a sticky note and put it on your computer!

Examples:

  • I want to create robotic technology to help people with physical disabilities move around more easily.
  • I want to research the languages and cultures of Native Americans to connect with my ancestors.
  • I want to help children tackle modern issues of gender and nontraditional families because of my background as a family counselor.
  • I want to research alternative sources of energy to stimulate job growth and industry in my country.
  • I want to research the relationship between women and food throughout history to demonstrate the means by which women are oppressed by men and inform modern feminist audiences. (See this sample Statement of Purpose from UC Berkeley with commentary.)

In all of these examples, you see the research goal (“create robotic technology”, “research language and culture of Native Americans”, “help children tackle modern issues of gender and nontraditional families”, “alternative sources of energy”) and the reason or purpose for engaging in that research. Beware of the purposeless Statement of Purpose (read more: http://chronicle.com/article/A-Purposeless-Statement-/46867/).

Main Points


First, the graduate program you are applying to usually has instructions about what they are looking for in your SOP or questions that they want you to answer. Use those instructions and questions to guide you in developing your main points.

In general, beyond the questions asked in the instructions and your theme, focus on your research past, present, and future. This is the most important point that you need to get a across.

The past:
Your academic background. What got you interested in the field of study? What in your background or academic history makes you the perfect person to research this topic?
The present:
Where you are now in your academic plan. What classes have you taken that prepare you for grad school? Which classes or mentors have influenced the path that you are on?
The future:
Where you will go from here with the opportunities graduate school provides. What will graduate school bring to you, and what will you bring to the school? (Graduate schools inspire and craft great scholars, but they also benefit from an engaged graduate student body.)

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Upload your list of main points and get feedback from an expert online. Include any specific instructions or questions for your SOP that are required by the school that you are applying for. It's a good idea to address any research groups, programs, or courses at your target school that would fit into your research paradigm.
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Example

Theme: I research renewable energy to save the planet and help generate jobs.

Use your connection to Deepwater Horizon mentioned below in your theme. What about “I research renewable energy to make sure nothing like Deepwater Horizon ever happens again.”?

Main points:

University of XYZ has internships with specific firms that I want to work for eventually.

When you write your statement, focus on what skills you have or intend to get that will get you these jobs or internships.
Professor Jones, who wrote the main paper I referenced in my senior thesis, works at University of XYZ.
I did my senior thesis on a new model for using hydroelectric power which has not been implemented widely.
This model is cleaner than most forms of energy used today and presents greater efficiency in the use of hydroelectric power than systems currently in place.
This type of model could be implemented in my hometown, which is still recovering from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.
THIS should be in your theme! This kind of personal connection will make your statement stand out.
I did fieldwork for my thesis that gave me insights into the workings of the models in place, and I want to learn more.
Did you work with any big names in the field who might be known to the department at XYZ?
I worked at Engineering Firm where I got to see how implementation really works.
Did you take time off from school to work there? Definitely mention this in your SOP.
I want to research the solution to the problems with this new model and write my Masters Thesis on it, building off of my senior thesis.

structure


At this point, you will construct an outline to organize all of your main points into a coherent message.

Your Statement of Purpose will usually be around 2 pages, which is 8-10 paragraphs for you to relate all of your main points. Think about each paragraph and what the main message is going to be and how that message relates to your theme.

Recall the instructions given by the institution that you are applying to. Keep these in mind as you fill out your outline, making sure to hit every point. You don’t have to answer the questions in the order they appeared in the application form. Be sure to say the most important things sooner than later.

As a general structure, you can follow the general guideline below. Organize your main idea points into each section, but feel free to move parts around so that it works for you. And always remember to answer every question asked in your application instructions!

I. Introduction
Paragraph 1:

Introduces you. Make sure you engage your audience, and especially consider a gripping first sentence that relates directly to the theme of your statement.

Paragraph 2:

A brief story or summary of a project relating your background to your research interests – consider the question “How did you come to be interested in this field?”

II. Research Interests
Paragraph 3:

“What research in the graduate level are you interested in?”




Paragraph 4:

“How will this research benefit the scholarly community or broader society?”

III. Academic Biography
Paragraph 5:

“What have you done that has prepared you to do this research project?”


Paragraph 6:

Elaborate on your qualifications with specific examples. If there are any holes or problems in your background, this is the time to explain them.

IV. Why this university?
Paragraph 7:

name specific research groups or professors whose work you are excited about and that relate to your stated goals.



Paragraph 8:

End your SOP by telling the university why you are perfect for them and why they are perfect for you.

Example

  1. Introduction
    • I want to apply for the Masters program in Engineering.
    • I want to take the courses that University of XYZ offers in renewable energy.
      Save the course specifics for later and focus most on their concentration in this particular field.
    • My senior thesis is related to these courses.
    • I was inspired by my family living on the Gulf Coast where life revolved around the oil wells. That all changed when Deepwater Horizon happened and devastated communities and businesses in my home.
      This sounds like the theme of your paper! Make sure to highlight this throughout because it makes your story stand out.
  2. Research Interests
    • New model for using hydroelectric power explored in my senior thesis.
    • No one has implemented this model yet because of one particular implementation problem that I detail in my thesis.
    • Now that I know the ins and outs of the problem, I want to find the solution that will allow this model to be implemented widely.
  3. Academic Biography
    • I took Independent Study with Professor Smith at the University of ABC which led to the start of my thesis.
      Suggest putting this earlier, possibly at the introduction to your senior thesis in 2a above! Dropping Professor Smith’s name early will stand out.
    • I completed my thesis by doing fieldwork at a number of hydroelectric dams.
    • After undergrad, I worked for 2 years at Engineering Firm but decided that this career path wasn’t for me.
      Rephrase this in terms of how you benefitted from your time away from school or how it inspired you to go back. Did you learn about how projects are implemented? Was there a particular problem that caught your interest?
  4. Why this university?
    • University of XYZ has a two-course sequence in renewable energy specifically, something that not many other universities offer.
    • Internships offered by XYZ in the field of your choice. They have many connections to the renewable energy field so I want to get a foot in the door.
    • Professor Jones at XYZ wrote the seminal paper that I used in my Senior Thesis.
      Mention this earlier, when you discuss your senior thesis – then here, mention her again and say that you would like to work on a project that she is doing.

Finish


The final step is writing the “meat” of your essay. Take each part of your outline (the skeleton) and fill in the steps. Always as you write, remember the theme of your essay.

Each paragraph should have an opening and a concluding sentence. One sentence in each paragraph should be the key point, with the other sentences supporting it.

Make sure each sentence clearly contributes something to the point!

Writing tips:

I. Do not state the obvious.
For example, the admissions committee knows that you are applying for the program or else they would not be reading your application. That space could instead be used for something more engaging.

II. Show, don’t tell.
Do not tell the committee how committed or enthusiastic you are; rather, show it with descriptions of your interests and accomplishments in the area. Use positive language and active voice. Tell stories (briefly), but make them relevant and fit into your theme.

III. Use correct grammar and spelling.
If you are not confident, get a friend or submit your work here for an academic editor to look over your document. An errant apostrophe or typo will look bad for your application, but are easy things to fix.

IV. Do not use cliches or aphorisms
If you find yourself tempted to do so, try to think of another way to phrase what you are writing.

V. Connect the paragraphs with logical segues from topic to topic.
Do not jump around – make sure the paragraphs connect.

VI. Tailor your SOP to be unique to every University you apply to.
In the sections below, we will give you some tips on how to do so. In writing about research projects that you have contributed to, give a short description of the project and focus on your contributions to the project and what you have learned through participating in it.

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Send your SoP for an expert to review. Our experts in academic writing will give you feedback on your writing and the flow of your essay.
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Questions? Email us at: ink@cs.stanford.edu
Ink is a research project at Stanford University. We have interviewed the experts who perform work on the platform and guarantee their proficiency. These experts are in no way affiliated with Stanford nor can they provide insider information about admissions to any university.

Read about the Stanford HCI guarantee.

Example

Sample introductory paragraph from a student:

I am honored to apply for the Masters program in Engineering at the University of XYZ. I am interested in renewable energy sources and have done my senior honors thesis on the topic. XYZ’s program in Engineering offers the courses and internships that are the right fit for me because my family was deeply affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which ruined their restaurant’s business. This tragedy inspired me to want to find new energy sources that are not so perilous to obtain and which will benefit the community and workers who create them.

Sample feedback from a writing expert on oDesk:

Great idea for opening your statement! I suggest moving the sentences around and putting your personal story first to ‘hook’ your reader immediately and make your statement stand out.
Try this:

I am honored to apply for the Masters program in Engineering at the University of XYZ. (Obvious – remove entirely.) In 2010, my world was changed forever by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. My family depended on the seafood from the Gulf to run their restaurant, and with the supply cut off, they were forced to close their business. This tragedy inspired me to find new energy sources that are not so perilous to obtain and which will benefit the community and workers who create them. I am interested in renewable energy sources and have done My senior honors thesis investigated [some details about your thesis], and the experience researching in the field led me to XYZ’s graduate studies program. on the topic. XYZ’s program in Engineering offers The courses and internships offered by XYZ will give me the skills needed to make my thesis research into a [give a specific outcome, e.g. possible thesis project or creation] that will contribute to the field of renewable energy. that are the right fit for me because my family was deeply affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which ruined their restaurant’s business. This tragedy inspired me to want to find new energy sources that are not so perilous to obtain and which will benefit the community and workers who create them. (moved)