Crafting an effective statement of purpose

Diya Binoy Joseph, PhD

Postdoctoral Researcher at UT Southwestern Medical Center

The statement of purpose is an important part of your application package. It is often a requirement for applications to PhD programs or internships. A well-crafted and targeted statement of purpose can really help your application stand out. For highly competitive programs with hundreds of similarly qualified applicants, the statement of purpose allows you to explain why you think you would be the best candidate.

Here, I’ve provided some tips that will aid you in crafting an effective statement of purpose.

Read the instructions: The first and most important step is to read any special instructions for the statement of purpose. Most applications will just ask you to upload a statement of purpose with no special instructions. However, some programs will provide specific instructions on what to address in the statement of purpose. Make sure to follow these instructions as failure to follow guidelines will negatively impact how your application is perceived.

Adhere to the formatting and length guidelines: This might seem obvious, but it is easy to miss formatting and length guidelines in the application instructions. Usually, the length will be specified by a word count (usually between 500-1000 words) or a page count (maximum of 2 pages). Other formatting guidelines may also be provided including font, font size, spacing and margin sizes. If no formatting guidelines are provided, aim for a length of two pages with a regular font like Arial or Times New Roman and a legible font size of 11 or 12 pt.

The first paragraph matters: Imagine someone on the selection committee sifting through hundreds of applications a day. To hold the committee member’s attention, it is important to have a clear and concise first paragraph. Make sure to briefly introduce yourself and your academic background in the first paragraph. Also, make sure you clearly state what you are applying for.

Body of the statement of purpose: The body of the statement of purpose can consist of 2-3 small paragraphs that summarize your current and past experiences. Make a bullet list of experiences (projects completed, internships, lab experience) and accolades (awards, grades, test scores) that you want to mention in your statement of purpose. Then convert this bullet list into coherent sentences emphasizing your suitability for the position in question. In the middle paragraphs, you are making a case for why you would be the ideal candidate for the place in a PhD program or a prestigious internship. Only include experiences and accolades relevant to the application. This means sticking to academic experiences unless an extra-curricular experience can be used to highlight a transferable skill that you gained. Use these paragraphs to explain what you hope to accomplish in the position you are applying to.

Customize the statement of purpose: This is an often overlooked aspect of crafting an effective statement of purpose. You might be planning on using the same statement of purpose for applying to several different institutions or internships. Instead of submitting the same unchanged statement of purpose, it is much more effective to customize the statement of purpose for each application. For example, you can mention the history of scientific discoveries at a particular institute and why this inspired you to study there. You can mention specific scientists you want to work with and why. For internships, you can restate the goals of the internship program and why you think this perfectly fits into your career plan.

Last paragraph: The concluding paragraph is your last chance to make an impression. You can summarize your experiences in broad terms and how, when combined, these make you the most suitable candidate for the position. Also, make a case for how the position you are applying to will help you get to the next stage of your career. Your long term career goals can be stated here, along with how this position will help you achieve these goals. Make sure to end the statement of purpose with a request that your application will be considered for the position in question.

Paragraph formatting and indentation: It is important to break up the text into paragraphs. This will help hold the reader’s attention better than a big block of text. Split the text into 4-5 paragraphs, 1 for the introduction, 2-3 for the body and 1 for the concluding paragraph. The paragraph structure should be carefully thought out. It should be apparent to the reader that you are addressing distinct topics in each paragraph. For presentation purposes, justify your paragraph formatting to distribute the text evenly between the margins.

Proofread twice, or thrice: I cannot emphasize enough the importance of proof reading for catching spelling or grammatical errors. Even a single mistake can seem jarring to someone evaluating your application. Do not rely on spell-check or word processing software to catch all errors. Instead, read each word and line carefully to catch any mistakes. It might also help if you print out a copy of the text and go over it with a pencil to highlight mistakes that you can then correct in the digital version.

Have someone else read it: After having worked on the statement of purpose for a while, you will reach a stage where you are thoroughly sick of it. This is the point at which a fresh set of eyes can help. Consider sending the statement of purpose to your academic mentor or a senior colleague who has applied to similar programs. Even a family member will be able to provide a fresh perspective on the flow of the text. Try to incorporate any helpful suggestions into your second draft.

Multiple statements of purpose: In all likelihood, you will be juggling multiple applications at the same time. For each application, make sure to create a new file for the statement of purpose and rename it to match the name of the program you are applying to (eg. SOP_Khorana Program.doc). This will help when making customized versions of the statement of purpose. It will also help you avoid embarrassing mistakes carried over from old drafts, like getting the name of the institute wrong. Do not rely on search and replace to change the institute name in a new version. Instead, proofread carefully.

I hope these tips will help you to craft an effective statement of purpose. Instead of dreading the statement of purpose, take advantage of the opportunity this document presents to make your application stand out. Here is an example of Diya’s sample for an SOP.

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