How to Write an SOP

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD

January 5, 2022

Writing SOP requires both scientific and artistic components. Your statement must be calculated and methodical but the whole document should be artistically crafted to be reflect your character and even your personality.

The Science of an SOP

There’s a general formula for writing an SOP. First, state your purpose! What are your career goals? Where do you see yourself working in ten years? What do you wish to accomplish? Be as specific as possible. You may add a sentence that then transitions to your experiences, the steps you have already taken to achieve your career goals.

Your experiences will form the core of your statement. Ideally, you’d touch on several key types: academic, hands-on exposure to the work you hope to do (paid or volunteer), theoretical or applied research, and service experience with a focus on how you have made a positive impact on a community. Ideally, you should have an example for each, one that focuses on your unique role and your special contribution in that role. Try to cover the territory thoroughly but remember it’s better to talk about things you are passionate about than to talk about things that look good on paper. Similarly, not all of your experiences have to align perfectly with your program. Variety helps show that you are a well-rounded person and reveals the values you hold dear that will translate into being successful in grad school and in your career.

Conclusions are always challenging. Rather than relying on a mundane summary, conclude by talking about what you hope to get out of grad school that will facilitate the rest of your career. This may seem a little bit obvious in some cases (you need a medical degree to become a doctor and a PhD to become a professor!), but it still needs to be said in a way that makes the reader understand the importance of this program and resultant degree to pursuing your purpose in life and how your experiences have naturally led to this next step.

The Art of an SOP

The common theme that draws all the elements above together is YOU! Your SOP is an expression of YOUR purpose, YOUR experiences, and YOUR pathway to realizing YOUR career goal. There is an art to showing who YOU are through the examples you use.

One way to do this is by setting the scene when describing a particularly important experience: start with a story. Show them a memory of a time that sparked your desire to pursue your purpose or an event that shaped your purpose; you want to be able to articulate your purpose in the context of a story. Clever right? (One caveat – some programs don’t want you to be “clever”; my experience working with PhD applicants is that these programs often want you to stick with a direct description of your purpose instead of a story. Maybe save the story for the interview you land!)

A kind of storytelling is useful when talking about your experiences. A common issue admissions personnel have with SOPs is that applicants repeat their experiences as they would in a resume – since they have your resume, this is redundant and a waste of their time. Instead, pull out particular moments from your experiences and use those moments to show what you learned, how you grew, and how that further shaped your desire to pursue your purpose.

While applicants can lose themselves in showing who they are and create a long narrative about a person instead of the purpose that drives that person, we can help you fine tune your SOP and ensure that in telling your story, you don’t lose track of articulating your purpose.

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