Craft A Compelling Statement Of Purpose

You spend the greater part of your childhood swimming in a metaphorical river, constrained by the rules set in place by the government, society, and your parents. You get some breathing room to dabble in your interests when you enter college. Now, as you’re hoping to enter graduate school, you will have even more space to craft the path of your career and contribute to the broader community.

With more space, comes more uncertainties.

The committee needs to know that you have a focused purpose that will shield you through all the uncertainties. The statement of purpose is your chance to convey that purpose. It is a statement of your purpose.

This is what Ross Gortner, Associate Director of Engineering Management at Dartmouth College, shares about what he’s looking for in an SOP:

“In the statement of purpose, I’m looking for the answers to two basic questions: who is this person and what is their story. The essay should talk about where you want to go from where you are presently and how this particular program will act as a bridge for you.

Another important factor that I look at is whether you talk specifically about the university’s capabilities and whether you have done your research to understand why you are applying to this program. I expect an applicant to provide a customized essay over a generalized one for the universities they apply to.

I first scan through the SOPs and check if most of the aspects are covered, and then spend more time on the selected ones. I read through all of them but would give more importance to the ones that are concisely written after distilling one’s thoughts. Overall, I want to perceive how interested the student is in this program.” 

In general, there is a lot of content on the web around this topic. Some ask you to include interesting anecdotes while others suggest using this space to offer explanations on another part of your application (such as a low CGPA). We distilled all the information out there to present the five questions we feel you definitely need to answer in this essay. To make it more actionable, we have given examples from well-written essays at the end of each question. 

 

Let’s begin!

Why this major and university?

Answering this question takes a non-trivial amount of effort. 

Here are two things to avoid while answering this question: First, don’t assume it is obvious to the admissions committee that you are pursuing a graduate degree in computer science because your undergraduate degree was in computer science. Second, don’t search for the most recently published paper on the department’s website and include that as the reason you wish to pick the university.

Making the above errors indicate that you are lethargic and put little thought into this. 

“You should not try to answer this question alone. You should start off by collecting research guides (or brochures or summaries) from the different departments where you will apply. You’ll look through these things and you’ll find summaries of ongoing research in the different areas that [that school] offers. You’ll find a few projects (and possible faculty advisors) that interest you, and you will ask yourself this question: “If I worked in this [area], and if I worked on chunks of these projects, what would I try to do on my own?”   The answer to this question should form about a third of your Personal Statement.” 

– Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology[14]

The admissions committee generally uses the statement of purpose for a few reasons:

  • To weed out anomalies, such as students who claim they’re pursuing graduate studies because their parents asked them to or students who have extremely poor writing skills (which we’ll talk about soon)
  • To gauge the interest of the applicant and
  • To potentially match the student with a faculty from the department. 

While it’s understandable if you don’t end up pursuing exactly what you stated in your essay, there needs to be a strong correlation or reason for you to have digressed. For those reasons, it is highly recommended that you do your due diligence in understanding the boundaries of what research is possible, what interests you, and what you have experience with from your undergraduate degree before answering this question (or choosing the major and university). 

“[paraphrased] Throughout my undergraduate studies, I’ve been fascinated by solving problems that are an amalgamation of business and engineering principles. I’ve focused my coursework on two key pillars of the program – operations research and information systems. Within operations research, I have a strong foundation in probability and statistics, optimization and stochastic modelling. I’ve not only performed well in all classes, but also applied the concepts learned in real world situations. For example, I led a small team of two students to determine the outcomes of possible breast cancer screening policies (e.g. annual, biannual, every three-year mammography). We built a decision tree (with 3 health states and 3 different screening policies over a 10-year period). Based on analysis of the tree, the optimal screening policy was determined. […] My undergraduate education and abundant internship experiences have shown me I have the strong quantitative and qualitative skills necessary to thrive in all the core courses and electives in the IEOR department and the business school at Columbia. I believe these factors would enable me to excel in Columbia’s Management Science and Engineering (MS&E) program.”

– Graduate Student at Columbia University

What do you want to spend the two (or five) years on?

Graduate school is not easy, to put it mildly. You are putting yourself through financial debt, cultural transformation, gruelling hours of schoolwork, and possibly developing an imposter syndrome[15]. All in the hopes of getting a job that will pay off for all your hard work. 

Note that this question is extremely important if you’re applying for a doctorate degree, which stretches on for five years or more. Nevertheless, even for a master’s degree, you need to have an idea of the research that you want to pursue.

“It is best for both the department and the student if there is some match between the student’s interests and the department’s research projects. It is a good idea to do some research on each graduate school’s research projects and tailor your personal statement accordingly. Statements that praise our department on its excellence in a topic where no current research is going on raise a red flag to the committee and these applicants are generally rejected.” 

– Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology[14]

This ties into what we mentioned for the previous question. Unless they see a fit between your interests and what they can offer, they would not be motivated to pick you. This question is also a place for you to go back and write down all the questions that have grabbed your attention while you were running a model simulation during your internships or sitting through a powerful presentation at a conference. 

Elucidate how you plan on getting these questions answered during your graduate school either by working under a professor’s wing or by leveraging the industry partnership program at the university (or both). 

“One of these days, while I was trying to implement a self organizing map, I wondered if a hardware implementation of the neuron exists. Isn’t the massively parallel architecture of the brain the reason behind its ability to process petabytes of data daily and swiftly? Google eventually gave me something: a silicon brain project, a chip that mimics the neuron; but I didn’t get as many search hits as I would’ve really liked. […] The brain’s processing needs to be simulated using a new architecture that is vastly parallel like the neural mesh of the brain itself. Has it already been simulated like this? I need more knowledge on the subject to answer such questions. This thought is only related to a subset of the vast subject that is Artificial Intelligence. There is so much still to do in Artificial Intelligence that Russell and Norvig in their book “Artificial Intelligence: A modern approach” state that “several full-time Einsteins” can work on it! I want to be part of the academic community diving into Artificial Intelligence.” 

– Doctorate Student in Computational Neuroscience

Do you have the required experience?

The nail in the coffin for the two questions above is your response to this one. Expressing your interest in a topic that is being worked on by the university would bear no fruit if you don’t have some relevant experience already in the said topic. A best-selling author does not start out asking publishing houses to look at her manuscript without spending years conducting painful research and writing relentlessly. 

You need to show tangible work you did, along with the results.  

“We have admitted some students because of projects they talk about in the SOP, but we want to see results (publications, etc.) and what the faculty letter-writers have to say about it. The SOP itself is not driving this evaluation but may help to put what you have done into context for us. The SOP is your chance to tell us what you want to do (at this point) and why, and to put all the other information in the application into some sort of contextual or narrative framework that helps us make sense of what you have been doing.” 

– Professor Emeritus, CMU[13]

We understand that not everything you have worked on in the past might be relevant to your future; at least not directly. That’s completely fine, as you can see from my own story. The admissions committee understands that students like to explore their interests and dabble during their undergraduate degree to find their passion(s), so to speak. While they’re okay with a student not having multiple relevant experiences, they do want to see someone who has taken things to the finish line before. 

Have you published a paper? 

Did your team get to the final stage of a hackathon, maybe even win it? 

Were you the founder of an organization or community that created an impact? 

All of these carry enormous weight because it shows them that you have what it takes to finish what you start.

“The Discrete Mathematics course during my sophomore year introduced me to predicate Calculus and prepared me for a research internship in Logic at the [university] under [professor]. Under his tutelage, I developed an automated problem solver for the famous Einstein puzzle, which involved translating user input to meaningful predicates and extensively used resolution principles to arrive at the solution for the puzzle. Drawing inspiration from my experience at [university], I took to developing an automated Boggle solver back at college. I drew on the ideas I picked up in my algorithm course to use a greedy approach involving recursion and backtracking to find words in sequences of adjacent letters in a grid. […] During my final year, the elective course on Data Mining drew me to explore Recommender Systems. In my final year thesis, my work involved enhancing the traditional memory-based filtering technique by effectively using singular ratings to improve the accuracy of existing recommender systems. The proposal was prototyped using Python and received an award of S grade, the highest one allotted.”

– Graduate Student at Stanford University

Why did you do the things you did?

This is a crucial question to answer, because this is not answered anywhere else in your application. While your grades and scores talk solely about outcomes, this question gives you an opportunity to justify them. This question can be used to explain anomalies in your application (such as a very low CGPA or test score) and/or walk them through your thought process during the moments you took an important decision in your career, such as choosing to work on a niche topic under a professor.

“Understanding the reasons that led to something, accepting it gracefully and striving hard to get better, are all the signs of maturity, and top programs hunt for mature people. For something as basic as failing an exam, a mature person will always realize where (s)he is at fault. More than the ‘situation’ itself, the admissions committee is interested in the experience of it, how you overcame it and what you learnt from the entire experience.” 

– Overseas Education Specialist at MINDLER[16]

If something changed the course of your career path or you faced a hardship that influenced your future goals, this is the place to address that. Sai and I changed our course of careers after undergraduation. We studied core engineering (mechanical and chemical respectively) but then switched to a degree in engineering management which led to a career in product management. We understand the difficulty in writing a cogent essay, hoping the admissions committee will see where you’re coming from without having met you. 

The best way to do that is to be honest in addressing your transformation.

“Growing up, I was very close to my grandfather. When I was about 12 years old, he suffered a brain hemorrhage resulting in retrograde amnesia. He couldn’t remember his family members or his own name, but could perfectly identify mistakes in Ragas when my mother sang, as he had been an Indian classical musician for many years. I wanted to find out how this was possible. This was the first time I started reading about the human brain. And, from this stemmed my passion for neurobiology. […] After graduating as valedictorian in both my high school and pre-university, I wanted to study life sciences. Being in India, where there is little interplay between life science and technology in undergraduate science courses, I felt that the best way to experience the synergy would be to study Biotechnology Engineering. I enrolled at the Department of Biotechnology at [university], which is one of the leading Biotechnology departments in India.”

– Doctorate Student in Biochemistry

What will your future contribution to society be?

We know you have grand dreams you wish to realize one day. Show the committee that studying at their institution is the right means to achieve them. This goes back to the point of having questions that you want answered through your graduate school experience. If you’re hoping to become a biomedical engineer who wants to help paraplegics walk again, you need to find out the questions that your graduate school experience can answer for you: can we use technique A to improve somatosensory reflexes by x%? What are the main causes of symptom B? What research has been conducted thus far at the university on topic C? Once you lay out your thoughts on the topic, don’t be shy in speaking in detail about your goals. 

Each of us wants to leave this world better than we entered it. Why am I writing this book? 

To bridge the gap between those who seek out quality education and those who can offer it. 

To democratize valuable information so everyone who needs it has access to it. 

To level the playing field irrespective of someone’s economic background. 

So, as you describe your future goal(s), go into specifics on why and how you wish to achieve them. 

“[paraphrased] In five years, I will launch India’s first virtual reality restaurant. In a food obsessed country like India, this unique eatery, via an application, will bring the menu alive by projecting a virtual 3-D representation of food choices and present customers with the look and texture of the food item before they place the order. There would also be a projection of a mini chef who prepares the dish on the table in front of clients, waiting to be served. My vision is to channelize the profits from my restaurant into finding an effective solution to India’s food wastage problem. […] India wastes 40% of the food it produces and yet, 135 million people go hungry every day. I encountered this disturbing statistic when I volunteered as a Community Representative for The Roti Bank Foundation of India, a non-profit that collects perfectly edible surplus food from houses and distributes it to the needy. By designing the distribution process around a temperature controlled casserole which gave community residents the flexibility to drop off their rotis on the way to school/work, I collect and supply 240 rotis and feed 150 people every day.”  

Aniruddh Menon, Graduate Student at Dartmouth College

Aniruddh was meticulous in adding a footer in his essay explaining what a roti meant. If you plan on including terms that are colloquial or regional which an international audience might be unfamiliar with, please add a footer or provide some context inline. 

Finally, be yourself

This is a lot harder to explain than any of the previous questions. 

Identifying a disingenuous essay is like seeing through clear water. 

Don’t forget that those who read your essay have years of experience reading thousands of such documents. They know when they’re listening to a student talk about a topic they have little knowledge on. They know if you’re faking an illness to justify a bad outcome. We cannot stress the importance of sincerity while writing this essay. 

Graduate school is a dream come true for thousands of students every year; but truly reaping the reward from the experience won’t happen if you begin the journey with an inaccurate portrayal of yourself. 

This is also a chance to think about how you can channel your quirks and personality through paper. If you were to read out the essay to someone in a conversation, how would you word it? 

To finish this off and give an example, below is an example from the final passage in Ankur’s essay. 

“There is only so much one can include in a statement of purpose. I hope you will take the chance of knowing me in person by accepting me to the institute. I want to be part of the Artificial Intelligence dream of developing intelligence as humans exhibit it. I am committed to contributing to the global committee to the best of my ability. I am working at a consulting firm at the moment. The work is good, yes, but it isn’t anywhere near challenging or thrilling as the smallest new piece of information that I come across on Artificial Intelligence. It’s only a nudge I’m looking for to get me started. Please grant it to me.”

Doctorate Student in Computational Neuroscience

Take a walk

As a final piece of advice, take a walk. 

Alone, and without your phone. 

It can be around a basketball court or in that garden next to your university’s main office. Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science and the author of many best sellers, says in a famous talk,

“The way to find your passion is to be so good at something that the people around you can’t ignore it.” 

And the way to be so good at something is through unadulterated practice and deep work, an ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. That cannot be attained by sitting in a noisy cafeteria surrounded by people and distractions. 

So take a walk, every day if possible, for thirty minutes to an hour and observe your thoughts without judging them. You will be surprised at the kind of insights you generate about yourself and your environment. It is no surprise that the best ideas come to you when you least expect them. 

Graham Wallas, a social psychologist and co-founder of the London School of Economics, broke down the creative process into four steps in his 1926 book The Art of Thought. The four steps are: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification

Most people tend to overlook stage two in this process, where they are supposed to incubate themselves somewhere far away from a problem so they can generate novel thoughts and be more efficient while they return to solve it. Your brain likes it when you let it wander on its own after putting in cognitive effort in the preparation stage. So take a walk alone with your thoughts, and you just might figure out the opening sentence of your essay.

Conclusion

I performed the painful task of re-reading the different versions of my statement of purpose I had written more than five years ago. In one sense, it acted as a time-travel lens to magnify the level of specificity (or lack of thereof) I possessed when I was applying for my graduate program. My essay was all over the place. 

It began with a childhood memory of how I was inspired to pursue science. The body of it battled between an overview of my research and the organizations I managed. The ending was lackluster with a generic mention of a professor’s name and a recent paper of his from the university I was applying to. I ended up not following many of the qualities that make a great essay; many of which I’m asking you to follow now. 

If I was reading my essay right now, and had to decide to select or reject 2017-me solely based on the essay, I would probably reject me.

That is why I want you to learn from my mistakes. I want to shine a light on the many invaluable lessons that someone can learn in hindsight, and hope you imbibe some of them right now.

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