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Making Your Statement of Purpose Stand Out


Whereas a good college entrance essay is typically filled with personal stories and lessons gleaned from your high school years, the statement of purpose lends itself to a heavier academic focus for those applying to advanced programs for master's and doctoral degrees, faculty positions and research posts. A standard, feel-good essay about your life's greatest challenges won't do here. To make your statement of purpose stand out, it needs to be rife with interesting research, admirable extracurricular activities and volunteerism, and compelling reasons why you (like everyone else) would be good at teaching.

Taking entrance essays to a new level

The statement of purpose may sound intimidating to some, but it shouldn't be. If you've come this far that you're ready to apply to advanced education programs, you've undoubtedly earned your keep to get here. The trick is to transform all the work you've done and reasons why you want to pursue this path further into an engaging, yet succinct, essay that leaves an admissions committee member saying, "This person will be a real asset to our department!"

Writing a great statement of purpose (SOP) is quite similar to selling yourself to an employer in a terrific cover letter that will accompany your resume (which, often times, you'll submit with your SOP, too). You already know your skills and assets that make you sellable; the key is to find out what the university you're applying to is interested in buying.

This is where a little research can come in handy. Chances are you may already know some about the courses, disciplines or research the university you're applying to is conducting, or you may even know someone on staff or already enrolled in the program. Whatever your sources, do your research and find out what kinds of projects you might be able to work on, or what new or unique talents you can bring to the department if accepted. This could mean reading up online or in journals on the college's recent research, talking to professors or students you may know about what's going on there, scheduling a meeting with the dean of the department or a professor you idolize (you'd be surprised how willing they are to meet with potential students if you are gracious and admiring when asking), or even chatting with the department secretary by phone for a few minutes some quiet afternoon. Think of it like answering a job ad in the Sunday paper – you're feeling out your sources for the qualifications this college needs in a candidate, and once you find them, you can talk up your skills in an impressive SOP that's sure to get you noticed.

Let the selling begin

Selling yourself to a university is all in the phrasing. Once you've researched their needs, you begin by looking over your body of research, schooling, outside activities, and future aspirations and match them up to what they need. And while some of this may require a fair amount of straight-out telling in your writing (i.e., listing your dissertation(s), studies involved in, publications you've written, labs you've worked with and other special projects), there is still room for some brief background history (such as being born in China or growing up from a line of five engineers) or personal stories that can help you emotionally connect with the reader.

For instance, among the text-heavy description of the research you've worked on for the last three years, a nice, humanizing touch might be to add something like:

In late May of this year, the three-year study I had at first grudgingly joined came to a close. My emotions were mixed, as I had come to truly enjoy and look forward to my work in the lab, while at the same time I had been waiting for the day we would examine our results and hope for the outcome we'd hypothesized. When that day came, I couldn't have been happier to realize that my repetitive and, at times, isolating work on the project had in some way helped to further the field of research into Alzheimer's disease and put us that much closer to a cure.

Just as with any essay, this method of showing the reader an experience you have had throughout your work goes a tremendous way in helping them relate to you. With just three to five sentences of honest emotion about your experiences, the reader gets so much more than from only a monotonous list of your projects and qualifications.

Everyone wants to teach

Just as in Hollywood, where every actor wants to direct, in academia, it seems every scholar wants to teach. While it's only natural that the professional student should eventually want to become a teacher, suffice it to say that the reason "because I want to help people" has been used a bazillion times before.

Therefore, finding some more compelling, unique reasons to bring education to the masses is in order. Perhaps you feel the world's love of biochemistry is dually lacking and you could change that with your hands-on, science-is-fun approach. Or maybe you had a particularly life-altering professor that you now aspire to imitate for a new generation of students – then tell the university why and how you would do so in your SOP. Whatever the reason you wish to teach, be genuine but steer clear of answers that are too general or overused.

When I grow up…

And finally, don't forget to dream big when detailing your future aspirations in your SOP. Perhaps your goal is to be a professor, or maybe you'd just like to conduct advanced research in highway engineering projects for the rest of your days, but don't be afraid to think outside the box to the research that hasn't even been touched on yet. Perhaps you'd like to be the first to pioneer research on freeways controlled completely by computer – then don't be afraid to say so. Maybe you dream of one day heading the department you're now applying to – then tell them that (in a subtle but admirable way, not "I'll have your job one day, buddy!").

Whatever your field, letting a university know that you'd be a positive addition to their department while still stroking the school's collective ego in a respectful (not kiss-up) way, is key in making your statement of purpose stand out from the rest. Let your achievements and work speak for themselves, but be sure to match them up with exactly what the school is looking for and can't do without, and in no time you'll be sitting pretty in a research lab.

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