With my fourth article, I intend to help you perfect your admission package to a university for higher studies. This is a bit off-beat from my previous articles, which were intended to introduce various careers in science and research.
The advice and hacks presented here are not limited to just master’s programs in science at all! They are to help anyone write a better essay for their applications abroad.
Let’s first talk about why and when a good SoP matters.
An admission essay like a Statement of Purpose (SoP in short) is a document that represents you on paper. It is not about your grades, projects and awards, but your experiences during, though not limited to, the same. It is about honestly representing your strengths and how you acquired them. Although it does not ensure your admission into any programme, it is an important component of your application package.
In this article, I am going to talk about the steps to writing and perfecting your SoP, elements to include in your content, and the mistakes you should avoid like the plague.
How to Write a Statement of Purpose/Academic Essay
All good (and even great) Statements of Purpose are built through certain key steps, that slowly and steadily help you perfect your essay for your master’s programme. These are:
- Figuring out essay requirements and a tentative structure
- Building the content
- Validating the content by writing to faculty and students of the programme
Now, let’s look at them in detail.
Step 1: Figuring out the essay requirements and a tentative structure
The first, and by far the simplest, step is to look up the requirements of the institutes you are applying to. Some universities will ask you to write a single motivation essay, whereas others may ask for multiple essays describing your interests, motivation/purpose, research interests, or qualities such as resilience, perseverance and leadership skills.
Note down the questions featured on the application portal for the particular essay and the word limit for the same, before you start preparing a draft.
Generally, a 1000-1500 word limit is the best one to work with for your first draft. This should be enough for you to showcase who you are, in around 2-3 pages.
Recommended Read: TOEFL vs IELTS vs PTE: Which Language Test Should You Opt For?
Step 2: Build the content of your SoP/academic essay
Your SoP should have the following essential elements.
1. A unique introduction
It is important to present your story in a manner that seamlessly unfolds. Let the admissions committee know what you do- where you started this journey, why you chose a particular field/bachelor’s course and what you intend to follow it up with.
The introduction need not necessarily comprise of just the above, but it should be brief and describe interesting and essential components of your life and personality. It could address, for example, how your childhood impacted your professional choices in life and shaped your beliefs, if there was a particular life incident that changed you, or your struggles due to your background.
2. A narrative of your professional story
Show, do not tell. Instead of serving facts such as, “I am good at X” or “I am interested in Y”, talk about how you learnt something and what was the motivation behind it. Connect them to your next step — the programme you are applying to, your short term and long-term goals and how the programme and institute will help you get a step closer to them.
For example, “I pursued BTech biotechnology with the hope of learning process used to tinker with biology for human welfare. Using the theoretical knowledge from my courses in cell biology, I worked with Dr Mala at the institute for cellular and molecular biology in 2015 and gained hands-on experience in using Crispr-Cas system to modify yeast strains for efficient water treatment in plants. At the MPI-XY, I would like to study antibody production with Dr Tina, from the perspective of immune responses to water-borne pathogens found in partially untreated water.”
Well-researched lines about the courses, faculty, and ideas about projects you wish to pursue would exemplify your conviction and preparedness.
3. A sales pitch about you (through your experiences and successes)
Your CV will be enough for an admissions officer to know your achievements, so elaborating on them is useless. Instead, pick out specific work experiences that relate to your future goals, describe what your major contributions to and takeaways were from them – your skills and realizations.
A way to do that is to introspect with a calm and objective mind, figure out the most important experiences in your life, write down what you felt during them, and what you gained as an individual from them. How did these incidents add to your life? Why are they important? This is what sets you apart from the other candidates after all!
For instance, you may not have the best scores but have overcome adversity and are ambitious despite your shortcomings. Maybe you have taught yourself to play an instrument or are a marathon runner, representative of some very solid qualities – hard work, perseverance, grit, and independence. Perhaps you read a book that inspired you to do courses online, or, have been closely following the origin and evolution of a cultural activity in a different part of the world, and being selected would allow you to learn about it in a more formal setting!
4. Answers to the questions: Why should you be accepted into the programme? And, how is it a perfect fit?
How are you a good fit for this programme? Is there a way you can add to the programme’s community or the university’s status? Think about how you are going to give back to the world (the university, the society, and the community) from what you learn here.
How does the amalgamation of your current skills and personality, and your quest here on, enrich your life? They need to trust that you will be a good fit and are passionate about your work, so genuinely communicate what your expectations are from the place and the programme.
Writing Style – The Do’s and the Don’t’s
To write a good academic essay, you would like to check the following boxes:
1. Make sure the overall content is unique.
Authenticity and originality are of utmost importance. There is only one of you in this world, your essay should, thus, be sincere and true to your personality.
2. Having an overall theme and a proper flow is essential for it to read well.
Make sure you string together your experiences in a manner that is not jittery. One thing should gradually lead onto the next and the end of your statement should not be abrupt.
3. Check for grammar, punctuation and spellings very thoroughly.
Tip: Reading aloud helps minimize punctuation errors. Additionally, pick an infamous Grammar-Nazi among your colleagues/friends and ask them to review your essay. They will surely spot many errors which you will miss.
4. Send it out for feedback to at least 3 people, but not direct competitors.
Send your draft to a friend with better vocabulary and communication skills, a referee, someone who got through the programme earlier, a writer/copy-editor who happens to be a friend and acquaintance. Then do not look at it for 2-3 days, so when you do, it is with a fresh mind and make corrections and relevant changes.
Every word in your SoP is expensive currency which should not be wasted. Make use of every word to convey what is relevant to the programme and important to you! Avoid these mistakes:
1. Do not start your essay with a famous quote.
This is a trend in schools in India, teachers award higher scores for relevant quotations in speeches. However, this is a basic no-no with formal academic statements. The admission committee wants to read your words, not someone else’s. Unless it is a personal experience worth sharing, or words of someone important in your field which adds evidence to a claim you wish to make, avoid quotations and excerpts. And if you do include them, cite them properly!
2. Plagiarism – Do not copy-paste a single sentence or image from anywhere.
If there are quotes or excerpts, claims and schematics taken from anywhere; proper references should be added at the end of the essay. Do not write – source: the internet (!!!).
3. Avoid clichés and stereotyping (the latter, very strictly).
There is nothing wrong in expressing a very strong sentiment relating to a person, incidence or aspect of society. But it should be put forth in a manner that logically explains your take on it. What is in the newspapers, experts on the admission committee already know about. So other than a one-two line motivation, limit it to your original thoughts on the matter, if any.
4. Making a pun is sometimes fine.
But make sure it is not dumb or offensive and can be clearly understood. If you have doubts about it, best leave it out. Seek the opinion of your proof-readers on it.
5. Stay clear of overconfident, self-congratulatory, snarky, and arrogant remarks.
Part of the purpose of your statement might be to sell yourself, but snobbishly boasting about any of your achievements is unacceptable.
6. Do not falsify information (intentionally/unintentionally).
Any mention of upcoming opportunities like a promotion or a future project in the works, should be with full disclosure and honesty, or best left out.
7. Avoid flowery language and be careful of any technical jargon.
A limited use of the thesaurus should ensure the former. Look up any new words to make sure you are implying what you intend to. During writing, as well as, proof-reading, it is important to make sure you use only words that are common knowledge. If you coined a term in your thesis project (like mutant names or protocols or techniques or stimuli etc.), do explain them briefly.
8. Make sure the essay is not verbose.
Ensure that the same thought isn’t being repeated at multiple points throughout the essay. Any line or paragraph that doesn’t add meaning to the overall story is best left out.
9. Do not let others affect your essay!
Looking up or asking for other people’s SoP before finishing up a generic draft of your own SoP is a waste of time. Do not compare. Look at Quora and books for more help as the last step between draft 2 and 3 (if the need be). But do not try to tailor your essay according to someone else’s.
10. Proof-read your essay before submission every time.
Make sure the correct institute, programme and faculty’s names are mentioned, and they are all error-free.
Step 3: Writing to faculty and students of the programme
Other than the effort you will put into your academic essays, it is a good idea to also write to the faculty and students of the university/programme to familiarize yourself with their expectations. It is suggested that one interview with faculty well ahead of the deadline to figure out possibilities.
If the faculty are not writing back, are vague in their reply, or reply stating unavailability for an interview, it is unlikely that they are interested in taking you. This should not be disheartening though, it’s supposed to help you bet-hedge and give more attention to other programmes and institutes of interest.
Often, faculty weigh in on who gets called for on-campus interviews and gets into the programme, so having even a single person on the committee who will vouch for you, is a blessing. If a Skype interview goes well with some faculty, do talk to their current students and get information about other aspects (not just academics) of life at the institute. Keep in touch with them, be courageous and seek counsel for your doubts. You could even ask for their feedback on your essays!
Writing an academic statement of purpose is not an art – it requires a commitment to the document, time and few hacks to get it right. In the present article, I have delineated some common hacks which would definitely help you polish your academic essay.
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