How To Write a Winning Personal Statement or SOP

By Rajkamal Rao  

Image Courtesy: Microsoft Office ClipArt

If you're a student about to embark on writing your first college essay, personal statement, or Statement of Purpose (SOP), this image probably describes you well.

For international students, especially, this feeling is for a good reason.  Students from India, China and other parts of Asia are rarely asked to write creative essays through their high school and early college years.  Engineering students are at a special disadvantage here.  Semester exams never test creative writing and reports written at the end of projects, internships or for conferences are far too technical.

The SOP is the most important subjective element of a student's application package.  It brings together the entire student into a single 2-page essay into a human story.  The SOP is NOT a resume but a good SOP includes highlights of your abilities.

We like to define the SOP as the essay version of a Google roadmap.  Describe who you are today (origin), describe where you want to go and why (destination), and articulate how you want to get there (the route map).

Writing an SOP is not easy

As a professional writer and essay reviewer, and international op-ed columnist based in the United States for the Hindu group of publications (including as a weekly columnist for the "World View" column for the group's MBA student publication (BusinessLine on Campus), I always take my essays seriously.  Every column I write is edited by a team of professional sub-editors.  To date, more than 285 columns of mine have been published.

Over the years, my columns are published largely as originally written, with minor edits to style or format.  But on three occasions in the last 12 months, I have had to completely re-write my column because it did not meet editorial muster for one or more of eight elements of my submission.  As described by the English Department at Brown University, an Ivy League school, these are Idea, Motive, Structure, Evidence, Explanation, Coherence, Implication, and Presence.

In my experience as a reviewer of student essays, I find several patterns.  Most students overestimate their ability to write and are unwilling to accept genuine criticism of their writing.  International students, in particular, consider the SOP as a necessary evil to complete the application and are willing to use boilerplate SOPs written by someone else.  Indeed, cloud versions of SOPs for every branch of study are already available - all you have to do is modify the statement just a bit for your use.  International students would also much rather engage in peer reviews of their essays which are free, although the peer has no professional writing experience.

Lacy Crawford, author of the book, "Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy", said it best in an essay in the Wall Street Journal on Aug 24, 2013:   "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."

She also adds,  "Find someone who did not raise you from infancy to proofread your essay."

Breaking Down a World-Class SOP

To help students, we have constructed a simple framework to attack this most important part of a college application.  This framework focuses on the international student applying to graduate schools but a U.S. high school student applying to college can easily adapt the framework to excellent use.

A good SOP has the following structure, 1,000 - 1,200 words long, each point below representing a paragraph:

Paragraph 1.  Write something about you, a personal story about what drew you to your current field.  If you're an electronics engineer, perhaps your father had a garage at home that got you interested in electronics.  Make it personal.  This should be a pre-12th grade experience.  Limit: 100 words.

Paragraph 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 enterprise.  It should be something in between and be bite-size.  If you are an applied physicist interested in the dynamics of fluids, you could say you want to develop solutions for a class of aerodynamics problems in moving objects that encounter drag - cars, boats, planes, etc.  Limit: 250 words.

Paragraph 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 under whom you might want to train.  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.  Limit: 250 words.

Paragraph 4:  This is 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 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.  You could break this all into multiple subparagraphs.  Limit: 300 words.

Closing arguments - ask for admission assuring the committee that you will do well, contribute to the student body and learn from it.  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.

A Note About Rao Advisors Premium Services
Our promise is to empower you with high-quality, ethical and free advice via this website.  But parents and students often ask us if they can engage with us for individual counseling sessions.  We offer world-class SOP and essay reviewing services for a reasonable fee, starting at $79/hour.

Individual counseling is part of the Premium Offering of Rao Advisors.  Please contact us for more information.

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