Tips for writing a Statement of Purpose (SOP)

If you are applying for further studies in universities, you will most probably be required to write up a “Statement of Purpose” (SOP).

Some people find writing a SOP a pain. I found it very interesting because it helped me think through my plans and refine it as I wrote the SOP. It helped me think through what I liked to do and what I did not. It helped me build a working plan (note: working plans are subject to change but good enough to bet your resources for the moment) for action. It also felt good to communicate my aspirations to somebody. So, my first suggestion is that start developing an SOP by thinking in the right spirit.

The best SOPs are those that are honest and sincere, and reflect quite a lot of prior soul searching, exploration, research etc by the writer so as to get to a decent “working plan” headed in the right direction.

SOPs are documents where you have to state what course of action you wish to pursue and why you wish to pursue that certain course of action. While there is no particular formula to writing SOPs and I do not like formulaic SOPs, typically, the story line goes as follows:

  • Here is my plan for the distant future (for example, be an industrial researcher and inventor who develops healthcare products) — perhaps why you are passionate about that particular future.
  • Here is what I have done so far to prepare for that distant future (for example, an undergraduate education in engineering and biomedicine, and internships with health care companies, and clinical immersion at hospitals, etc etc)
  • Here is what I need to do in the near future (probably, attend a study program or seek a certain qualification) so as to be ready or be propelled towards my longer term goals (for ex: a PhD program in biomedical engineering)
  • The study program in XYZ college in PQR city is my best bet towards those goals and fits perfectly in my working plan for my career.

Clearly, writing this storyline is easiest and most credible when:

  • It is true and honest
  • you have done all the soul searching for it
  • you have done your research on the program and institution you wish to join

Some dos and donts:

  • Use simple, short sentences and simple language. (The SOP is not meant to test your vocabulary or your command of english literature or your knowledge of quotations) Avoid flowery language.
  • Make sure the SOP reflects your true level of maturity. (Do not ask somebody else/ senior/relative to write it for you. It will invariably not reflect your maturity levels and is clearly a dishonest beginning to a career. ¬†By the way, it is easy to spot SOPs that have been written by somebody else —- one can make out from the quality of writing, the maturity of thoughts etc)
  • It is okay if you do not have all the answers or your plans are unclear. Build a working plan to the best of your abilities. It is also okay if you are going to use the opportunity of the program to explore options and finalise your plans.
  • Do not use templates. Customise each SOP using the research you have done on the program and institution. Everybody including the institutions like to see themselves as special and having been specially chosen by the candidate. If sufficient research was done in choosing the right program and institution, then it can help your SOP convey your specific reasons for preferring the given program and institution without making artificial and superficial statements.
  • Provide a copy of your SOP to your referees. If they get a chance they may be able to back up some aspects of the SOP and thus strengthen your case.

 

Does poor academic performance in school/college matter to my prospects?

The answer is yes and no. Let me explain.

If you performed poorly in school/college, it could send the following messages:

  • The person may not be hard working — perhaps a little casual
  • The person is not interested in the subject matter
  • The person lacks maturity and is irresponsible
  • The subject of study is not the person’s strength and the person does not understand the subject matter
  • The person does not think it is important to excel in school performance metrics
  • Or there was some event that distracted the person from focusing on studies

All of the above assumptions can hurt your prospects. So in that sense, poor academic performance can hurt your prospects — often short term prospects.

But that said, poor academic performance is not a good indicator of future prospects in a long enough time frame and clearly is unimportant. I often note with interest that many people who were considered poor students in school/ college go on to achieve excellence in a field of their interest and leave classmates who are academic stars far behind in life. For example, a young man may achieve excellence in sports and national honours despite doing poorly in academics at school as a child while his classmate who used to top class exams could be doing a boring job with limited growth prospects. For example, some of the weak students at school who were forced to chose arts for 11th and 12th instead of science may become excellent lawyers, judges, artists, writers etc while the science topper may be in a low profile job (albeit intellectually stimulating job) with limited opportunities to excel and shine. So over a long enough period of time, your school and college performance hardly matters if you do not allow them to matter.

So, if you have done poorly in academics at school or college, do not loose heart. You can do very well in life provided:

  • You find your passion in life and put all your¬†energies into it
  • Identify your strengths and learn to leverage it
  • Make wise choices and do not follow the crowd (especially not the so called academic toppers)
  • Pursue excellence in whatever you are doing

You can remind yourself of the many people who have excelled despite poor academic performance — for ex, Albert Einstein, Sachin Tendulkar and many others.