How to write a successful SOP
Students who want to pursue higher studies abroad in the next academic session will soon be busy applying for colleges and universities of their choice to secure admission. A number of students who decide to study overseas approach me with requests to get their statements of purpose (SOPs) edited, to offer them tips on how to write a good SOP, and, sometimes, to ghostwrite their SOPs. I say ‘yes’ to the first two categories of requests but a firm ‘no’ to the third category as it is unethical to write an SOP for another person.
When such students approach me, even before looking at their SOPs or offering them any tips, I ask them a few questions such as: Why do you have to write an SOP? Why have you chosen a particular country? Why have you chosen a specific university? In which field do you want to specialise in? Why have you chosen it? When did you develop your interest in it? How passionate are you about the field you are going to specialise in? What is your career goal? After the informal interview, I tell the applicant to write in a coherent manner whatever they shared with me during the interview. I also tell them that their SOP should be between 500 and 700 words. The informal interview breaks the ice and prepares the applicant to write it well.
What is a statement of purpose? It is an application essay a student applying for a graduate programme at a foreign university is required to write in order to be admitted to the programme. This important document is also called ‘personal statement’ in the U.K. Though it is not common in most institutions of higher education in India to require students to submit an SOP, it may be required to attend a personal interview to secure admission.
Why do universities ask for an SOP? Applicants are required to prepare and submit it along with other forms while applying. It helps colleges and universities to test whether the applicants are really interested in the programme that they have applied for, whether they are capable of pursuing the programme and completing it successfully and whether they will be able to contribute significantly to the institute.
Just like a good job application letter helps candidates project themselves successfully in the job market, a good SOP helps applicants to highlight their strengths during admission. There are over a hundred different products in the market but consumers choose a particular product because they think it is better than others for various reasons. Similarly, a good SOP stands out and attracts the admissions committee which wades through hundreds of applications. The 8 Ps that make an SOP special are personal touch, purpose, passion, preparedness, potential, planning, plain English and positivity.
Personal touch is the quality of being personal. An SOP is rightly called a personal statement because it is a statement prepared by the applicants to give an indication to the admissions committee what type of a person they are and to express their suitability for a particular programme that they wish to apply. An SOP, being a personal account of the applicant’s academic performances and wishes, reveals the applicant’s attitude.
If the statement is ghostwritten by someone, the candidate’s personal touch may not be reflected in the application essay. This is why it is considered unethical on the part of the applicant to ask someone to prepare the document. The personal document can be given to someone for editing.
Purpose is the keyword in the statement of purpose. The applicants should state why they wish to specialise in a specific field, why they have chosen a particular university/college, what their career goal is and so on. The applicants should demonstrate their clarity of thought and clarity of expression in the personal statement.
Passion is an important characteristic of a great SOP. The applicants should show their aptitude for the academic programme they have chosen. Only those who have a passion for something can excel in it, and, therefore, it is important to express it in an interesting and convincing manner.
In the extract of an SOP below, an applicant explains how passionate he is about in the field he has chosen:
“Ever since I started watching Fast and Furious movie series, I developed an interest in automobiles. I decided to opt for the mechanical engineering branch even when I was a pre-university student. I developed my interest in automotive engineering after I joined the college in many different ways…”
Potential is one’s capacity to excel in something. The applicants should state clearly whether they have the potential to pursue the programme they have chosen, in a successful manner. The applicants should list some of their achievements that will make their SOP stand out. In the extract of an SOP below, an applicant highlights one of his achievements.
“During my third-year undergraduate programme, I was involved in a project “SAE BAJA 2015” organised by the Society of Automotive Engineers, India. This project involved a complete fabrication of an All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV). Our team cleared the virtual round by making innovative designs as per the rules framed by SAE. Then we started the fabrication process that is followed by many automobile manufacturers. It was a great experience for me as I was involved in the complete fabrication process. It enhanced my passion for manufacturing technology…”
Preparedness is the state of being ready to take off. It is not sufficient to have passion alone. Willingness to translate passion into action is important. Preparedness indicates how the applicants sustained their passion for the field they intend to specialise in. The applicants should demonstrate their preparedness for the academic programme by listing what they have done and how they have prepared.
Planning is the process of making plans for achieving something. The applicants should mention briefly why they have chosen a particular university. Recently, an applicant asked me whether she should mention in her SOP that she contacted a professor in the university she is planning to apply for admission and enquired about her field, research facilities and so on.
Yes, it is good to mention whether the applicant visited the website of the university and went through the profiles of the professors of a department to contact them and know more about the programme, research opportunities and so on.
Plain English is characterised by easy-to-understand language, clarity, brevity and avoidance of flowery words and phrases. The language should be simple, direct and free from clichés. Some applicants think they should use pompous words and phrases to show that their English is good. No. Use of flowery language in an SOP will have a negative rather than positive impact on those who go through it.
Positivity is the sign of showing hope and being optimistic. It is important to end an SOP with a positive note as in the example below:
“I feel that TU Dortmund’s Faculty of Mechanical Engineering with its rich blend of competent faculty, intense curriculum and the cherished history of success, would be an ideal place to shape my career.”
A great SOP speaks to the members of the admissions committee and makes them smile and say, “Here is the guy I am looking for.
The author is professor of English and head, higher education at KCG College of Technology, Chennai. Email: [email protected]