Admissions Writing AdviceAdmissions, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2008

What Not to Write in Your SOP

It's always a daunting task: writing your statement of purpose. You sit down at the computer, staring at the blank screen, wondering what you can possibly say to make the admissions committee realize that they must choose YOU! Nervous and riddled with anxiety, you begin to type, focusing on what you know best: how you've always wanted to attend this school (because it's the very best) and how everyone tells you that you would be perfect there. You're off to a good start, right? Maybe not.

As an academic editor, I've seen hundreds of admissions essays but only a handful of unique approaches. When you're among a pool of applicants, you must do everything that you can to stand out from the crowd. Not creative, you say? Don't despair. By avoiding a few common pitfalls, you'll already be ahead of the pack. Many application essays suffer from the same common mistakes, but you can avoid them with these tips. Here are the top 4 statements to avoid in your SOP:

1. I've always wanted to be a ______.

The universal adage of "show, don't tell" most definitely applies here. Think back to when you first learned about your career of choice. What did the moment feel like? How did you know that this was something you wanted to pursue? Create a picture in the reader's mind to illustrate your enthusiasm for the profession, rather than just telling them that it's something you've always wanted. Why do you want to pursue this goal? If you can effectively articulate why this profession appeals to you, you'll come across as a serious candidate with a clear goal in mind.

2. I really wanted to go somewhere else, but for now I'm applying to your school.

You never want to seem desperate to be accepted, and you don't want to sound like this is your second choice (even if it is!). Maybe you had a change in career plans, but explain your current goals and emphasize your readiness to attend the program. Focus on your strengths and the positive attributes that you bring to academic settings in general. You might have future goals that are unrelated or that extend beyond this program, but the purpose of the essay is to explain why you would be an asset to this school in particular. You definitely don't want to sound like you're using the program as a stepping stone to get somewhere else.

3. Your school is the best in the world!

They already know that they're the best—that's why you're at their mercy, pleading for acceptance! Be more specific about why you have chosen this particular program. It's not enough to say that they have the best professors, coolest classes, etc. Is there one person whose work mirrors your own or who has inspired you? These types of details will make all the difference, because they show what motivates you to attend. A motivated student is more likely to work hard, because they have a passion for the subject. Not every school is right for every person. Focus on showing that you have made an informed choice about where you want to attend.

4. Look at my grades—how could you not accept me?

Your statement of purpose is only one part of your application, along with your transcript, resume, and, in some cases, references. The SOP should be personal. It gives you a chance to reveal the story behind the application, to discuss the moments in your life that led you to the present path. Don't waste time by reiterating details that can be found somewhere else in your application. Unless you're describing how you felt during a particular accomplishment (for example, when you won a prestigious award), leave it out. You don't need to include everything that you've done in the past few years. Make it relevant to what you're doing today and, more importantly, to what you hope to be doing in the future.

So now that you know what not to write, how do you decide what you should write? It's easier than it sounds. Start by making a list of your greatest achievements. How did each of these accomplishments make you feel? Think back to when you first began on this career path and describe your journey. List your best attributes, and remember times when you showcased these abilities. For instance, if you're very organized, describe a situation where being organized came in handy.

Don't tell too much or too little. They don't need to know your whole life story, but they do need to know what makes you the person you are today and how these qualities will help you to achieve success at their school. Keep the tone formal, but don't be afraid to put your own spin on things.

Remember that you're not alone. Use these tips as a guide to start your essay, but don't be afraid to make mistakes. Just concentrate on getting all of your thoughts down on paper--then the right editor can help you to make sense of these ideas and shape them into a winning SOP.

Even when you're given a specific question as a guideline for your essay, that doesn't mean that you can't be creative. When I applied to college, the admissions committee asked, "What is your biggest obstacle?" While I'm sure that many applicants chose traditional answers, perhaps describing financial and family challenges, I looked deeper and came up with an innovative response: myself. At the time, I realized that the biggest obstacle to my inner critic. With this creative response, I was not only accepted into my first-choice school but was also awarded a scholarship. By thinking outside of the box and following these simple tips, you can silence your own inner critic and achieve the same success!
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