Writing a killer Statement of Purpose

By Ivan Rosa de Siqueira: Learn more about this important component of grad school applications and how you can write an effective SOP!

Sunset over Lovett Hall

Most graduate programs at Rice (and in the United States broadly) will require applicants to submit a Statement of Purpose (SOP) as part of the application process. In my opinion, the main objective of the admissions committee when asking for the SOP is very clear: to get to know you better and understand your motivations to go to graduate school. Even though the SOP is only one of the many components of the application package – which will typically include other important documents such as CV, transcripts, recommendation letters, etc. – the SOP will probably be your only opportunity of talking (writing, actually) about yourself with your own words. CV and transcripts are documents that are somewhat official and bring a list of achievements and accomplishments throughout your career; recommendation letters are written by others and bring an outer perspective of yourself as a potential graduate-level researcher. Conversely, the SOP should provide the committee with information that cannot be explicitly found elsewhere; information that only you can express accurately. That being said, the SOP is a central component of any application process to graduate school.

There are many different ways of constructing a good SOP; the first step, however, should always be the same: double-check the instructions provided by the program and what points should be addressed in your essay. For instance, the following text was adapted from Rice’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.[1]

A statement of purpose should address the following questions: Why do you want to obtain a degree in Chemical Engineering? Why are you interested in Rice and in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Rice? What relevant experiences do you have in research, academics, and/or prior jobs? Why do you believe you will be successful in either a thesis or non-thesis degree graduate program? What would you like to do after completing your degree, and what are your long-term career goals?

Overall, the SOP should bring an overview of your academic and professional trajectories, focusing on: (1) why you are interested in that graduate program, (2) what are your academic, professional, and research/extracurricular experiences, (3) how these experiences make you an ideal candidate for that program, and (4) what are your plans after completing your degree. These are the general guidelines followed by most graduate programs (in STEM, at least). Before start the actual writing, I believe you should invest some time in making a detailed timeline of your academic/professional life thus far. Make sure you highlight the main points that marked your path since the beginning of your education. My understanding is that this requires a lot of reflection and self-knowledge; however, I can assure this exercise will be very useful to help you track events chronologically throughout your text.

I now draft the structure of what I consider a good SOP. This is very general; make sure you adapt the actual content to your reality and incorporate some other stylistic changes.

  • Starting an SOP can be very challenging. A reasonable strategy consists of delivering a general “welcome card”, trying to touch upon some of the points highlighted in the program instructions and/or providing the committee with any particular piece of information that distinguishes you from others. Introduce yourself, explain why you want to go to graduate school in that field, why you want to join that program, and what you want to do after graduation (and why a graduate degree from that program is important to achieve your goals). Be brief here; you have the whole SOP to detail and expand on these introductory comments. This initial part should be one paragraph;
  • Then, describe your academic path starting from when you think you had the first trigger to do research and go to graduate school. You can explore experiences in high school (scientific fairs, internships, academic competitions, etc.), college and/or Master’s (research experiences, publications, talks and presentations in conferences, TA positions, etc.), and prior jobs (internships, consultancies, services, etc.). The chief point here is the following: do not limit yourself to a simple list of facts, otherwise your SOP will essentially become an extended version of your CV. You do not want that. Instead, show what you learned and how you improved with these experiences. Provide examples of how you can work independently, collaborate with others, think critically, communicate your results, etc. – these are fundamental skills in graduate school. Make sure you can align these points with the specifics of the program you are applying to. You obviously want to show a solid background in your field; but, more importantly, you want to demonstrate that you have the necessary skillset and mindset to thrive in graduate school with the support of faculty and resources that program offers. This usually becomes two paragraphs;
  • Start being more specific about the research lines the program offers. Show evidence that you did your homework and studied the program in depth. Describe your interest in two to three faculty members and their labs; show you understand their research and recent works; show motivation to work in their groups; based on your previous experiences, explain what you will add (skills, ideas, etc.) to their current research. In summary, answer the question: What do you bring to the table? And, just to complement, if you contacted faculty before submitting your application,[2] make sure you mention that in your SOP because that professor might not be on the committee that year. This is one paragraph;
  • To conclude, work on a short paragraph that summarizes your story and reiterates that going to graduate school and joining that program are key steps in your life plans and research career goals.

Continuing, be truthful and original, and always avoid clichés. Describe your skills and abilities in detail, and make sure you provide the committee with examples of past research works that support your claims with concrete evidence. More importantly, show how much the program will benefit from having you as a student. Never try to fit your story into a “dream candidate” profile; this profile does not exist and attempts to do this will be easily identified by the committee. Do not hide adversities you have eventually gone through (both personal and academic); instead, describe these problems and explain how you overcame them, what you learned from them, and how they contributed to who you are today. Resilience when dealing with problems, motivation to overcome challenges, and learning from mistakes will be essential in graduate school. Make sure the committee knows you know that.

Writing an SOP is extremely time-consuming. I recommend you start working on yours as soon as you have decided what programs you will be applying to. You will likely need to write many, many versions of your SOP until they converge to a final, satisfactory result. Length and formatting can change depending on program requirements. In general, I recommend 2 pages with editing that will ease the reading (e.g. Arial or Calibri, font 12, spacing 1.5-2, standard paragraphs and margins, etc.). Some programs might be a bit more demanding and determine a maximum number of words (e.g. 500 or 1000). Expressing ideas clearly and concisely is key in graduate school; use the SOP to demonstrate you master this skill. In contrast to other languages such as Brazilian Portuguese (I am Brazilian), English allows for a very direct and effective writing communication. Go straight to the points you want to highlight and do not waste space (sometimes precious) with sentences that do not add relevant information about yourself as a future graduate student. The committee will have hundreds of SOP to go through; do not make yours boring.

The committee will know if you are an international student, and the committee members will not expect to read an essay written by Shakespeare. Be careful with your writing and avoid naive mistakes, but do not spend too much energy trying to improve your vocabulary beyond what you are comfortable working with. Avoid too many adjectives and adverbs; use short, direct sentences in an active voice. If possible, you might want to ask some friends to review your SOP. However, be careful. First, make sure your reviewers are aware of the SOP overall goal in the application process and are sufficiently proficient in written English; second, do not ask many people for feedback because it might become unfeasible to incorporate so many different suggestions in a single text. Finally, keep in mind that you know your story better than anyone else and that the SOP should bring your own perspective about yourself.

[1] Notice that this department offers two different graduate programs: a PhD program (which requires a thesis) and Professional Master’s program (which does not require a thesis). Both require an SOP as part of the application process.

[2] Contacting faculty members (potential research advisors) in advance is another important step of the application process. Review the post here for some tips.

Acknowledgements: I am very thankful to the comments and suggestions by Igor Cunha (Queen’s University), Raíssa Dantas (University of Illinois Chicago), and Natasha Heinz (Kent State University) – all members of the Brazilian Student Association (BRASA).


About the author:  Ivan Rosa de Siqueira is originally from Rio de Janeiro, but spent most of his adult life in Brasília. He received his BS and MS degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Brasília and PUC-Rio, respectively. Since 2017, Ivan has been a PhD student in the CHBE Department under Dr. Matteo Pasquali. Learn more.