Do not use "boiler-plate" Statements of Purpose

By Rajkamal Rao 

Go back to Step 7: Finalize your application

1.  Do not use "boiler-plate" Statements of Purpose.  By this we mean don't copy and paste someone else's SOPs.  These are like computer viruses.  A bug in the original replicates itself through all copies.  Instead use content in Step 1: Prepare Better. Define Your Brand & Decide What You Want to build your SOP from scratch.

Remember that your Personal Statement is an important part of your application as well - and is different from the SOP.  The best definition of what colleges look for in an SOP comes from the University of Texas at Austin:

"The statement of purpose will provide an opportunity to explain any extenuating circumstances that you feel could add value to your application. You may also want to explain unique aspects of your academic background or valued experiences you may have had that relate to your academic discipline. The statement of purpose is not meant to be a listing of accomplishments in high school or a record of your participation in school-related activities. Rather, this is your opportunity to address the admissions committee directly and to let us know more about you as an individual, in a manner that your transcripts and other application information cannot convey."
Some of the best advice about SOPs and Personal Statements comes from the New York Times in a July 24, 2011 piece.  We reproduce important sections here:

"The statement of purpose is typically a two-page intellectual biography that might outline a potential path of research as well as underscore the applicant’s deep contemplation of the chosen field and appreciation for the arduous task that awaits in the next few years. The required writing sample has more of the feel of a term paper (it could well be a 20-page paper written for a college class)."

"Meanwhile, the personal statement should feel as comfortable as a thick blanket to those who recall their undergraduate applications."

“We are very interested in how students have grappled with challenges in their lives,” said Dorothy Hale, director of graduate studies for the department of English at Berkeley. “Obviously, graduate work is very independent. We want to know people can come up against obstacles and figure out solutions to them.” Dr. Hale said that a compelling personal story has in the past made up for a low G.R.E. score. “The thing to take away is, we do personalize it,” she said.

We have therefore constructed a simple framework to attack this most important part of a college application.  A good SOP has the following structure, 1,000 - 1,200 words long, each point below representing a paragraph:
  1. Something about you, a personal story about what drew you to your current field.  Suppose this is Electronics Engineering. Perhaps your father had a garage at home that got you interested in electronics.  This should be a pre-12th grade experience.  This should be paragraph 1.  Limit: 100 words.

  2. What really interests you?  What is your passion?  Preferably this should be a class of problems that you want to solve - nothing as generic as solving world hunger but nothing as specific as a particular problem at a particular client.  Something in between.  If you are an applied physicist interested in the dynamics of fluids, you could say you want to apply the principles of fluids engineering to develop solutions for a class of aerodynamics problems in moving objects that encounter drag - cars, boats, planes, etc. This should be paragraph 2.  Limit: 250 words.

  3. What is the current state in this field?  Which companies or organizations (such as IEEE, ASME) are doing outstanding work that inspires you?  Why?  Look for information about the departments you’re interested in at your target institution, including professors and their research.  Are there academics whose research interests parallel yours?  Check the specific program; it is recommended that you name a professor or professors with whom you might want to train under.  This is where you need to convince the faculty of your target school that you understand the scope of research in their discipline, and are engaged with those research themes.  This should be paragraph 3.  Limit: 250 words.

  4. The next three paragraphs are about why you are particularly qualified to dream this big.  Give the reader what your accomplishments were in college (academics); practical work outside a pure class setting (project) and outside college (internship) - all should point to what you learned here and how this prepares you for doing what you want to do.  These paragraphs should not be long recitations of your resume but highlights which can help the reader connect the dots to paragraph 2.   They should also highlight your other skills - Communication, Teamwork, Planning and Organization - and how these have helped make you who you are.  These should be paragraphs 4, 5 & 6.  Limit: 300 words.

  5. Closing arguments - ask for admission assuring the committee that you will do well and end.  Paragraph 7.  Limit: 100 words.
While our recipe above works well for most students, you could also review the guidelines of what an SOP should contain from Cornell University.

Checking your SOP before submission

1.  Did you hit most of the points in the MIT SOP guideline checklist?
2.  For another view, did you consider these pointers from UC Berkeley
3.  Did you check the NSF guideline checklist from UC Santa Barbara?
4.  Did you get your SOP reviewed by someone whose English is excellent but is also neutral in criticism of your work?

Undergrads only

For undergrads, the closest thing to an SOP is the college essay.  The best essays are those that bring out who you are and tie your interests, profile, and talents together - and somehow relate them to the vision and mission of the school.  Here are three excellent real-world essays published in the NY Times written by 12th graders, one of them from China.  Notice the high quality of expression and excellent English.  Note also that these children have been accepted into some of the country's best colleges including Cornell and New York University.

Lacy Crawford, author of a new book, "Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy", writes in an essay in the Wall Street Journal on Aug 24, 2013 the following:

"In my years handling applications to elite schools, from Harvard to Haverford, Davidson to Dickinson and everything in between, I was often surprised by where students did gain acceptance. But in every case, it was a student who wrote a fabulously independent essay. Not necessarily hyper-sophisticated. But true.

My students always asked me, What should I write about?

I'd answer: You are a student of the world. What is it that moves you? What incites you, enrages you? A first-person pronoun is a mighty tool. Use it.  I have had successful students write about the virtues of napping (Middlebury), failing a course (Harvard), and having to shoot a farm dog because it couldn't work stock (Princeton)."

Here are additional great tips about how to write an SAT essay.  While details are specific to the SAT exam, there are excellent pointers that you could apply to write your college essay as well. Here are additional thought ideas that four undergraduate students used to get into top colleges for the Fall 2014 season.  Note that the SAT essay is optional starting the 2016 season but these tips are valuable when writing essays in general.

One last point.  The essay is considered so vital that one elite college, Bard College of New York, is willing to try something new in the admissions process.  According to the NY Times, it is offering students a chance to write four 2,500 word essays on extremely complex subjects instead of looking at your SAT scores.  The option is an attempt to return the application process to its fundamental goal: rewarding the best candidates, rather than just those who are best able to market themselves to admissions committees.

Once you write a few drafts - essays or SOPs, we have stressed on our website that you need to have your work reviewed by someone whose English is excellent but is also neutral in criticism of your work. Ms. Crawford makes this very point in her five tips to write a college essay:  "Find someone who did not raise you from infancy to proofread your essay." 

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