What They Don’t Tell You About the Statement of Purpose
The university application, be it for a graduate or undergraduate programme, often relies heavily on numbers. And numbers, such as low GPA or language test scores and unsavoury grades on an A Levels certificate, can be a misleading representative of a student's potential. Letters of recommendations, too, are another person's evaluation of our potential.
The SOP alone allows us the freedom to communicate, in our own voice and style, our triumphs and limitations, our ambitions. Here we can add nuance and colour to our otherwise mechanical application and explain who we are beyond the numbers.
It is also among the only parts of the application that we can continue to revise, unlike those godforsaken numbers. And so, while it is normal to feel the stirrings of an existential crisis by the prospect of recreating oneself on a blank page, it has helped me, in the past, to remember that no one is better placed to speak about me than, well, me.
Tutorials on writing SOPs will suggest outlining the points we must address in the statement — our skills and qualifications, our motivations for applying to a specific programme, who we are outside of studies and how that complements our eligibility for a program.
The SOP, by the way, is a conversation with the admissions committee. In the same way that I wouldn't regale someone with a list of my qualifications in a conversation, here, it can help to avoid repetitive sentences along the lines of "I have done [this or that]" or "I am capable of [doing this or that]".
Among the most fruitful communications with professors or academic directors I've witnessed or experienced are the ones in which we chatted about what the program offers, what about it excites either of us, the surrounding context of the field, its location, its people. That exchange of ideas, of the potential you bring to the table and the potential you hope to gain, translated onto a page is the SOP.
Furthermore, nothing parallels the power of editing. While the outline can offer the building blocks of the personal statement, the text itself becomes much more powerful if we first write a longer draft, pouring onto the page all that we want to convey to the committee.
After that, it's a matter of shaving away the weaker sentences and the unwitting repetitions. It is here that returning to the draft with a fresh mind, and the suggestions of other beta readers (friends, colleagues, teachers, family) prove most valuable.
Three years after finishing grad school, I often look back on the essays I wrote and wonder how I ever gained admission. But as an academic director explained to me afterwards, it was the fact that my research interests aligned with their specific offerings that proved to be the deciding factor in my application.
I've also come to realise that this sense of alienation that I feel from a draft written years earlier might also be a sign of growth, proof that something in me changed since attending the program and all the experience it brought me.
I hope it brings the same and more for you.