Statement of Purpose

Types

Graduate Program: 
  • Introduces research interests, relevant educational and personal experiences, career objectives and other factors that will help the reviewing committee determine fit and suitability for the program

  • May need to address specific questions or an essay prompt

Fellowship:
  • Discusses overall project theme, major questions, current status, and what research or work will be completed over the course of the fellowship

  • May also request a Statement of Grant Purpose, which should provide more details about the grant timeline and proposed work; in this case, the Statement of Purpose (SOP) may tend to be more personal. 

Job:
  • Expands upon relevant details from resume/CV and directly addresses stated needs or concerns from the job description. 

  • Many job applications require a Cover Letter instead of a Statement of Purpose, which largely functions to introduce and direct a reader's eyes to particularly relevant parts of the CV or provide explanations or expansion upon points that cannot be addressed elsewhere. 

Major Sections

Introduction: 
  • Similar to a term paper, an SOP introduction should touch upon the major points that will be discussed later on as well as briefly mention some of the most compelling/interesting points. 

  • By briefly referencing these later points, the reader can easily remind themselves of some of the elements that stand out about that applicant if reviewing it later. It also lets the reader know what to anticipate in the rest of the SOP. 

Previous Work/Experiences:
  • Gives the reader insight into relevant research and/or work experience, which should help support a sense of suitability or fit.

  • Unless otherwise directed, this section should not read like a life history of how you came to be in this field/career, or how many honors or awards you've received (that is what the CV is for).

Research Interests:
  • Gives the reader an understanding of current or proposed future research goals.

  • This section can include pertinent research questions or approaches, if relevant.

  • Graduate program SOP: this section helps inform fit between an applicant and potential advisor or department

  • Fellowship SOP: this section helps a committee understand suitability between the grant's scope and the applicant's work

  • Job SOP: this section tells a school what areas of specialty the candidate can add to their department

Suitability:
  • Provides the argument for why the applicant is a strong fit for the program/fellowship/job and vice versa

  • Graduate program SOP: notes facilities, coursework, individuals, etc... that explain why the applicant is applying there and wants to attend that program.

  • Fellowship SOP: demonstrates understanding of the scope and purpose of the fellowship and that the proposed project is a good match and accomplishable within the fellowship's term.

  • Job SOP: explains relevant skillset, experience, and/or interests that match the needs and requirements of the job

Future Aspirations: 
  • This section explains how this program/fellowship/job fits into the applicant's future career aspirations or plans. 

  • This is where the applicant demonstrates their potential "Return On Investment" (ROI), especially for a program or fellowship (or a job like the JET Program).

  • ROI can help committees determine which applicants have the greatest chances of successfully completing the program/ fellowship/ job as well as will be a good example or ambassador for that school/ fellowship/ company in the future. It also helps convey a sense of confidence in the applicant.

Research Approach (if necessary):
  • This is especially relevant for lengthy fellowship applications, which may require a step-by-step description of chapter outlines or research approaches. 

  • The research approach section should discuss specific theoretical frameworks, approaches, or major texts that you are relying upon or building your research around and initial or expected conclusions.

  • This section resembles a paper or dissertation proposal, in that much of the structuring work has been already been thought out, and during the fellowship program is when you will fill in the missing information.

Conclusion:
  • As with the introduction, this is a good opportunity to briefly remark upon the most interesting/memorable/compelling parts to the application.

  • The conclusion should provide a satisfying end to the SOP that reinforces a sense that you are a compelling mixture of experience, capability, suitability, and ROI. 

Important Points

Tone:
  • Tone refers to the general sense that is conveyed through the writing.

  • A pleading argument ("just give me a chance and you won't regret it") does not inspire confidence; a sales pitch ("with me, you get not only experience but also expertise") can seem suspicious; a campaign promise approach ("I will get to the bottom of the issue and will solve this problem") can seem insincere or unrealistic.

  • A more compelling tone is one that demonstrates awareness of the field in question and a sense of capability for the project at hand. The applicant should convey a feeling of self-sufficiency and the ability to carry out the challenges inherent to what they are proposing to do. 

Flow:
  • There should be a natural flow to the SOP that either transitions between or intertwines the above-listed sections.

  • It may be easiest to start with writing out the above-listed sections, directly answering any provided prompts or questions, and referring to the below-listed checklists in order to build the content. The polish, flow, and order can be edited later.

Comprehension:
  • There is a natural desire to sound well-educated or aware of field-specific jargon. However, unnecessarily complicated words or phrasing can instead come across as arrogant or ridiculous, especially if used incorrectly.

  • Jargon can be off-putting to anyone unfamiliar with the exact details or area of your research or project. This is especially the case when applying for non-area specific fellowships or if your application is being reviewed by someone with no insight to your specialty.

  • Write your statement with enough clarity and directness that someone from a wholly unrelated background can at least understand your main project topic and what makes it compelling. Use jargon only when no other term will suffice or when you are positive that this is the most appropriate phrasing for your field. Even then, emphasize comprehensibility over pomposity. 

Accuracy:
  • When applying for multiple programs/ fellowships/ jobs, it's important to note the specific elements each one requests in their SOP prompt. Some may have particular page or word limits; some may have exact questions they want answered; some may have a precise layout they want followed.

  • While particular sections can be duplicated for all or most applications, it's a good idea to keep the exact wording of their prompt in front of you as you craft each unique SOP. 

  • If listing exact names and titles while creating a series of SOPs, doublecheck that you have updated these for each new SOP. While you should ideally be able to express what you want to say in any SOP you write, prioritize answering their prompts or questions.

  • Check for grammar and spelling errors prior to submitting by reading it aloud. It may also be helpful to print out your SOP and use a ruler to force your eyes to read line-by-line to carefully check for potential syntax issues.

Pertinence:
  • Your SOP should be compelling, in that what you propose to do after being accepted addresses a particular need or interest.

  • Your described research or project should provide enough detail to spark someone's interest without being too intricate or losing your sense of flow. 

  • Especially in a lengthier SOP, you want to demonstrate a sense of mastery or at least deep awareness over your most essential research materials.

  • Your proposed project, experience or application should be a suitable match for the program/ fellowship/ or job that you are pursuing. It is worth taking some time to consider the ways in which you are an appropriate fit for this opportunity and make sure your SOP properly conveys your suitability.

Checklists

Graduate Program SOP:
  • In my first paragraph, the reader is able to find:

    • The school, department, and program to which I am applying​

    • A brief summary of my research interests and reasoning for pursuing this degree

    • A brief reference to my future job aspirations 

    • Something memorable about my background, skillset, or experiences​

      • This can serve as the "hook" many writing guides suggest incorporating into your introduction. It identifies something unique about you and can serve as a memory trigger if the reader reviews it later. ​

      • One possible approach is to take something you feel is a weakness and turn it into a strength (for example: time away from academia, an unusual job experience, an unrelated major, a failure you overcame) or something you think is especially pertinent and helpful to your application (a language program, a particular accolade or publication, a notable experience).

  • In the rest of my statement of purpose, I demonstrate:

    • Relevant educational and/or career experiences that have contributed to or led me to apply

    • Specific skills or experience that lend support to the underlying argument that I am capable of carrying out my goals and a good fit for the program

    • An understanding of how this program fits into my future educational and/or career aspirations

    • A detailed explanation for why I am applying to this program, what resources I want to make use of, who I want to work with, and why

    • The major gist of my research interests and what makes them compelling

    • A particular research question or topic that frames my research interests as well as how and why I want to pursue them

    • The ability to explain my background and research interests in an intelligent and comprehensive way that is understandable to those both in and out of my field

    • Current aptitude and future potential as a scholar and professional in this field

  • The reader will view me as:

    • Comfortable and confident in my current and future abilities​

    • Up-to-date and aware of current trends and research in my field of study

    • Aware of my current strengths and the skill or knowledge gaps I need to work on 

    • Someone they are interested in working with who will not be too demanding of their time or attention

    • A strong fit for the program's overall focus as well as a good match for future advisors

    • Someone who has the potential to not only finish the program but also contribute to the field later on

Fellowship SOP:
  • In my first paragraph, the reader is able to find:

    • The fellowship to which I am applying

    • A very basic explanation of or introduction to my project or research

    • Why my project is important, interesting, unique, and will be a vital contribution to my field

    • How this fellowship fits into the larger picture of my academic or career goals

  • In the rest of my statement of purpose, I demonstrate:

    • Adequate training or familiarity with the subject matter to carry out my project

    • The ability to discuss my project that sounds knowledgeable but still comprehensible to those outside my field

    • A natural fit between the project and the stated goals/purpose of the fellowship

    • Interesting research questions that I plan to pursue or am pursuing

    • A well-framed arc of what will be accomplished between the start and end of the fellowship

    • An understanding of how this project will advance my own research after the fellowship’s end

    • Clear need for not only the fellowship but also any proposed travels or trips to universities, libraries, archives, etc…

    • A sense of competency and drive to carry out the proposed project; being a “sure thing”

    • An awareness of potential limitations or stumbling blocks with my project; this is an informed proposal

    •  Return on investment - the results of my project will continue to bear fruit for years to come and will lead to related future projects or an increased interest in the field

    • Evidence of how my research fits into the general scope and trends of my field of study while also being fresh, original, and important

  • The reader will view me as:

    • Confident and focused but not arrogant or condescending

    • A peer or potential peer who has a good grasp on what needs to be done in order to carry out my project

    • Aware of the current state of my field and how my project fits into it

    • Rational in understanding what can and cannot be done within the scope of the fellowship

    • Possessing the skills and experience that make my proposed project seem feasible

    • Interested in my proposed project and thereby likely to follow through on the plan

Job SOP:
  • In my first paragraph, the reader is able to find:

    • The position I am applying for​

    • A brief summary of my skills and reasons for applying

    • Something memorable or unique about my skills, abilities, character, or background that emphasizes my suitability

    • A succinct answer to the question "why do I want this job" or "why this job and not a different one"

  • In the rest of my statement of purpose, I demonstrate:

    • A combination of professionalism and personableness​

    • An awareness of what the job duties will be and how my experience, skills, and personal character traits are perfectly suited to it

    • A sense that I want this job and that I want to live in this environment 

    • Sufficient experience that will lead me to excel in this job

    • An open mind to adapting and adjusting to the particular needs of the job

    • Creative concepts for how to see myself fitting into this job and addressing needs or concerns that are not listed in the job description

    • A sense that I want to be in this job for at least the contract term and potentially longer (depending upon availability and job type)

  • The reader will view me as:

    • Someone with good skills and the potential to grow and excel in this job​

    • Having a personality and character traits that will allow me to adapt to and succeed in my new work environment

    • Someone who is self-motivated and who can also collaborate and work well with others

    • Someone who is capable of creative problem-solving and can combine a mixture of classic and new approaches to the workplace

    • Someone who will can work under current conditions instead of or before attempting to change the work setting

    • Aware of the challenges and advantages this work opportunity and environment offer

Final Tips

Things to Avoid:
  • Life history or full story of how you came to be in this field (unless specifically requested)

  • Dedication to telling your experience in a linear narrative, especially if it delays the main point you should be saying

  • Details that detract from the overall flow or that come across as bragging

  • An overwhelming focus on the past without much consideration for the future

  • Clichés and somewhat story-like expressions ("for as long as I can remember"; "studying this has always been my passion"; "ever since I was a child," "it has always been my dream"). Not only do these detract from the immediacy and directness of your statement, other SOPs will be riddled with these sorts of expressions. Avoiding them can help you stand out. 

  • Not adapting your SOP to each program, fellowship, or job. Each should show you've done some research about the scope, facilities, objective, and special characteristics of that opportunity as well as how you see yourself fitting into that space. 

  • Passive voice and grandiose language. These can come across as pompous or irritating. 

  • Taking your time to build up to the main points or answering specific prompts or questions. Do not make readers search for what they want to see.

Things to Emphasize:
  • Specificity in number of years in a particular industry or job (i.e., don't ask them to do the math from your CV/resumé)

  • Exact qualifications, degrees, certificates or training that support your suitability for the opportunity. That said, focus on the main ones - don't just repeat your CV. These can also be summarized instead of listed by name (for example, "4 teaching accolades," "3 research fellowships," "7 journal publications," etc...), but you should only use them as evidence of your success in the field and not as bragging.  

  • How you see yourself as contributing to the goals, objective, or overall community of the opportunity you're applying to. Given what you know of the opportunity, what experience or personal traits can you introduce to demonstrate your value and potential

  • The suitability between what the opportunity offers and what you personally need. It is unlikely you would be accepted to a program, fellowship, or job if there was any question that you would not take it, so it is worth emphasizing how the opportunity is personally beneficial to your life, studies, or career.

  • Why you want this particular opportunity or why you are pursuing this field 

What to Do When You're Stuck:
  • Shift paragraphs around or reorder sentences to see if the flow works better; try flipping your narrative to see if you get more immediate punch from a different order

  • Write out the major things you want the reader to come away knowing about you and then find a way to restate or integrate them

  • Review the prompt to make sure you're answering the questions or if you're overlooking/misunderstanding something

  • Brainstorm what you would want to see if you were someone reviewing applications for acceptance; what qualifications, experience, interests, or tone would you want to see that would make you want to read this again?

  • Make sure you keep your past experience restricted to only those areas that support your overall narrative of current suitability and future potential. Make sure the past, present, and future you are all represented in the statement. 

  • Read through other people's Statements of Purpose, including for unrelated fields of study or job opportunities. By getting outside of your field, you can better evaluate what makes for successful/unsuccessful phrasing and how to make an SOP universally accessible. Don't restrict yourself to "good" SOPs, as you can learn a lot from terrible ones too. Also, a successful application does not necessary mean that the SOP was particularly strong. Develop your own instinct for what makes for an interesting or compelling SOP. 

Things to Keep in Mind:
  • Do not compare yourself with others who have also applied for the same opportunity. There are a lot of factors that you do not know of that could have led to their being successful or unsuccessful: a reviewer could have been particularly interested or not interested in their topic, their letters of reference could have been particularly good or mediocre, there may have been extra or fewer openings when they applied, they may be working in an over- or undersaturated field, or a reviewer could have just read an especially good or bad application that influenced their read on the next one. These points all apply to you and your application as well. 

  • Reviewers are going through applications at a relatively quick pace. Especially at the early stages of reading applications, they are not interested in your ability to craft a good SOP as much as they are wanting to see if you meet basic requirements. As such, your first hurdle isn't getting accepted, it's getting your application put into the "read again" pile. Craft your SOP appropriately and be sure to clearly address prompts or questions as well as necessary qualifications. Write out a checklist of major points you'd be looking for if you were a reviewer and then review your application to see where you provide those. 

  • People tend to remember the first and last things they read, so make sure your introduction and conclusion briefly reference interesting or necessary experience or qualifications that both make you memorable and will put you in the "read again" pile. Give reviewers a good feeling and a sense of confidence at the end. 

Disclaimer: Advice and suggestions are based upon personal experience as a student, applicant, and administrator. Listed content may not be fully comprehensive or applicable to all situations or circumstances. All content is original, but it is not necessarily unique and may bear similarities with others' suggestions. Content will also grow and adapt as I gain more experience.

Anyone making use of the resources and suggestions listed here are encouraged to seek out additional recommendations to build their own personalized approaches to navigating the often intimidating world of academia.

©2019 by Abigail I. MacBain