In the last 15 years of my career; one repeated ‘help request’ that I have tried to process regularly is that of “How to write an SOP”. It is great, personally satisfying a feeling to have contributed my bit to the dreams of hundreds of brilliant, bright, career focused students. By writing this Blog- the intent is to reach out to more. This is all that I learnt about SOP writing while seeing the success / rejection of many a SOP at v good places of learning.
SOPs have recently become a very integral part of the process of validating the ‘career fitness’ of an applicant to many a place of learning.
Below is a cheat sheet for writing good SOPs for college admissions, interviews, job applications etc. I have talked about the best tips, dos and don’ts and also a few examples & formats of SOPs. I am sure these methods will come to your aid whenever you need them. The only caveat however- ‘you need to practice all of this’, funnel, filter & sharpen to become really good at writing SOPs.
What is a Statement of Purpose?
A statement of Purpose is exactly what it sounds like; you stating the purpose behind wanting to do something. It is no rocket science. Below are a few steps which, if followed systematically, can help you write a decent SOP:
1. Create an outline:
Have a skeleton SOP ready. This is a kind of a Rough Work. It should have the following information:
– Why are you applying to this particular course?
– How ‘Some of the stuff that you did in your growing up years’ gets connected to the course.
– Why have you chosen this institute?
– What are your career goals & future plans?
– What do you plan to do after completing the course?
– Have you studied any related subjects? How have they helped you?
Make sure these broad topics are divided into paragraphs with clear distinctions as to what you write under each sub-heading. This rough outline shall become your reference point / buffet for all your future SOPs. All you need to do is – change the institute name, make it more customized whenever you need to.
2. Killer 1st sentence :
Make sure the first sentence of your SOP is positively provocative & a really attention seeking one. It will decide whether your SOP is going to be read in an interested manner or just glanced through in a per-functionary manner.
An example of ‘How a start of an SOP could be’:-
“I seem to have been only a boy playing on the sea shore, and diverting myself, now and then in finding the smoothest pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
– Sir Isaac Newton
The same thoughts echo in my mind when I view my position in the field of Electrical Engineering. An unbounded, bottomless ocean of knowledge is how I see it.
Over the years, my interest in this field has changed from an initial curiosity to a definite passion. When I was introduced to logic gates in my high school, I used to wonder how they could be used to achieve complex design requirements. This led me to take Electronics and Communication Engineering as career choice for me in undergraduate study at Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh- one of the top engineering institutes of India.
Although all the courses were interesting and intellectually stimulating, VLSI Design and VHDL really sparked my interest, which increasingly became my area of focus. To explore it further.
Different institutes have different SOP formats but their basic requirements remain the same. So, you will have to keep restructuring your SOP accordingly. For eg: For one institute, you may need to address the question “Why have you chosen this institute?” first. But for some other, you may have to address “Why do you want to do a PhD?” first. Re-create your first sentence accordingly.
3. Research your own self:
It is very obvious that you need to know yourself very well because your SOP will be reflecting that. You will be judged on the basis of your coherence, your focus & thought clarity about your ‘purpose’. It is advisable that you prepare a list of all your achievements, small or big, before starting to create the outline of your SOP. You never know, which point comes in handy.
Have a story ready that illustrates your best professional qualities. Stories are powerful & are what people remember most. We might have grown into adults but when it comes to stories; trust me- we are still children. A v good SOP should be like a 60-second commercial more than anything else. Once you have finished writing your SOP; check if it sounds like one or not.
Provide proof that you aren’t simply shopping for a degree in that SOP. Demonstrate your passion for your work; as a theme that you allude to continually throughout the SOP.
I strongly recommend you to go through the blogpost ‘Notes you need to crack Every Interview’. You will find a lot of meaningful dope here; about this.
4. Brevity of thought :
Do not be circumlocutory in the SOP. Precise, succinct, to-the-point SOPs with brevity are more appreciated. Please understand that the people reading them are also reading 100+ other SOPs and are likely to get tired & bored. He does not need a 500 word SOP which is essentially just like any other document among the 100 others.
Also, you need not display your expansive vocabulary or become a walking thesaurus. Simple & convincing words would get you through. You need to make them believe in your goal, not in your knowledge of English. Immaculate English is not what they are looking for at the moment.
Re read your SOP 3-4 times to check if anything could get said in a fewer number of words. Trust me- It will make a smarter impact.
5. Praise is suicidal:
Do not praise yourself like a blowhorn. Enumerate your achievements in a subtle way and mention the value addition that happened or the lesson you learned from that particular experience. No one cares if you ‘topped your class’ (though, ‘Topper’ is not even a word.) Be modest.
Also, DO NOT praise the institute or the course. They know where they stand and why anyone joins them. You need to give them something they are not expecting.
For eg : You can talk about how challenging it will be for you to be associated with them as you will be expected to deliver quality of work that is top notch & this would make you much more qualified & emotionally competent for future. You can also talk about, how it will help you fulfill a particular future goal.
6. For PhD applications:
If you are being asked to write about your area of interest also, please remember that generally after the initial year of study, the topic changes. So, instead of being extremely specific, be flexible & generic. For eg : You can say that Marketing, especially Services Marketing interests you a lot. Then you can talk about a few research topics you have in mind and conclude by saying that you are, however, open to exploring options. And that you would like to take the first year of your study to interact with professors and fellow students and try to understand the subject before taking the final decision.
Often, being too specific might out you from the process even if your research idea is very good if the panel feels that they do not have the required expertise. A friend of mine who is exceptionally brilliant in Social Media Research was rejected from a top institute because they said they do not have a professor for her kind of research. The above idea should keep you safe from that possibility. Unless specifically mentioned to prepare a detailed research topic, you can go for it conveniently.
Lastly – make sure your SOP is divided into paragraphs. Please spend some quality time on creating your SOP. Don’t just google “How to create an SOP” a week before submission and create something on the basis of the first five links that appear on the search results. An SOP written at the 11th hour will not have much scope for improvisation.
A reference SOP is written below to re confirm to you; all the points that I stated above:-
“What do you want to be when you grow up, son?” Everyone is asked this question when they are in their growing stage. I had one emphatic answer that was; “I want to be a heart doctor”. Growing up closely watching my father treat whole spectrum of cardiac diseases left a firm and lasting impression on my mind and I knew I was going to follow my father’s footsteps.
Having set a goal for myself I enrolled into one of the best medical schools of India. I enjoyed learning the fundamentals of the disease processes and applying them to patient care. The giant leap in my training process was the transition to UK. I had an opportunity to train in a state of the art health system that helped me lay a strong edifice to my career in internal medicine. Working with colleagues and patients who came from different ethnic backgrounds further enhanced my team-work skills.
My experiences in India and UK equipped me with the confidence and skills for the next stage of my career in USA with eyes set on the prize of training as cardiologist in the best training places in the world. One of my first encounters was with a patient admitted for fever and shortness of breath. With his background of IV drug use and presentation with fever it was rather easy to establish the diagnosis of endocarditis. A bigger challenge was to reform his addiction in view of imminent need for valve replacement. With my experience and communication skills I was quick to develop an excellent rapport of mutual trust with this patient. I consistently encouraged and motivated him. He underwent the surgery and did well. I felt proud of myself to see that he was clean even months after the discharge. I feel that to maintain my composure in complex situations like this gives me the ability to maintain my systematic and methodical thinking. I strongly believe that care of patient starts with medical therapy and it is complete with addressing psycho-social and personal issues.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my role as a trainee and a teacher, and feel that this is the best way to learn and disseminate good clinical practice. The many teaching awards and recognitions I received have been very encouraging. All this in combination with my research experience has motivated me to plan my career towards academics whereby I can continue to pursue my interest in research and teaching. With my goals well outlined and the commitment to my career I have shown over the years, I am prepared to move on towards the long cherished dream of specializing in cardiology and contribute to this ever advancing field for the betterment of patient care. For me the practice of medicine and cardiology is no longer just a career but a way of life.
An SOP is like a bridal make up. Do not try to overdo or under do it. Spend a lot of time & give your best & then ‘Hope for the Best’.
May the common sense be with you,