Assemble Your Application

Statement of Purpose

Talk about your relevant experience. Whether you are applying to a PhD or an MS program, the admissions committee will make its decision based primarily on your previous relevant experience.  Thus, in your Statement of Purpose (SOP) be sure to describe your relevant background. 

For example, you might select a small number (1-3) of projects that you’re particularly proud of, and discuss them in your Statement of Purpose (SOP), being sure to convey to the committee what was your role in the project.  Describe what specific work  you did in the project, what insights you had, what systems you built or what experiments you ran, and what was the outcome.  If the project resulted in a publication, a significant award, or any other measurable outcome, be sure to mention that too.

In addition to given an in-depth description of a small number of projects, some applicants will briefly mention a larger number of projects that they had worked on, to show breadth of experience.  The more relevant this experience is to your planned program of study, the better.  For example, if you’ve done extensive volunteer work for endangered species, but are applying to a PhD program to do research in electrical  engineering, it’s probably worth briefly mentioning your volunteering work if it’s a huge part of who you are, but realistically your volunteering work will not be what gets you into the PhD program.  So, make sure most of your SOP is about your relevant background.

Talking about your personal life story vs. your professional background.  It’s useful to tell the applications committee a little about yourself and let the committee get to know you.  For example, if you’ve been interested in a relevant academic topic since you were 5, or if you were inspired to enter this field because of a particular family member or mentor, it seems worthwhile to briefly--in 2-3 sentences--mention this in your Statement of Purpose. If you are committed to a career plan that involves your proposed program of study (for example, if your goal is to become a professor working on a particular topic), that seems worth briefly mentioning too.

However, it’s probably not a good idea to spend most of your Statement of Purpose talking about your personal life story.  Most of your SOP should contain factual statement pertaining to your previous, relevant experience.  Thus a long drawn-out story about your childhood is not helpful.  Unsubstantiated claims about how enthusiastic you are about the topic, about your commitment to work really hard if you are admitted, about your life philosophy, are also only mildly helpful, and should be kept very brief. 

As one rough rule of thumb, some sorts of statements are just too easy to make and can be made by almost anyone, thus making them relatively worthless.  For example:

“I’ve always had a passion for study in this subject.  Thus, working as a graduate student in your university, I plan to work extremely hard.  My passion for success will also fuel me to do good research with your faculty.  I am also committed to collaborations, and hope to work closely with other students in your graduate program on joint projects, and promote inter-disciplinary work.”

The problem with the statement above is that pretty much anyone can insert this into their Statement of Purpose.  Thus, to an admissions committee, there’s no way to verify the veracity of these statements.  In contrast, factual statements are more helpful to the committee:

“Upon joining Prof. Wong’s research group, I was assigned the role of writing software to speed up our database processing algorithm.  After discussions with Prof. Wong, we selected the Cheap Splays  algorithm, and I devised a distributed implementation of it, resulting in a 20x speedup of the overall system.  I subsequently wrote a paper (as first author) on these results, which has been accepted for publication at the Conference for Algorithmic Speedups.”

A real description of your work on a significant research project should be longer than this example.  But the notable aspect of this second  example has a lot more factual statements, and can be written only by someone who actually has significant research experience.

A very small number of students do have highly unusual or moving life stories--for example, involving significant bravery in a war zone, overcoming crippling poverty or discrimination to go to school, or winning international acclaim through competing at the very highest levels in athletic or other competitions.  If this applies to you, by all means talk at length about it in your application, as this will likely impress the committee.  This will apply to only a minuscule fraction of applicants however (i.e., it probably won’t apply to you).  In that case, your personal life story is less likely to be interesting to the committee.  It’s fine to briefly talk about your personal background/goals/motivations, but realistically, most of the statement should be dedicated to a more factual description of your relevant experience.

Why is it good for the university.  If you work in sales, one “rule” of selling is that you should focus on letting the other party know why it’s good for them to buy, and not on why it’d be great for you if they buy. 

Some students use  a lot of space in the SOP to talk about why it’d be great for them (the student) to be admitted to the university.  But during the admissions stage, this isn’t what the university cares about---they probably already know it’d be great for you to be admitted, and that your getting a degree from them will really help your career aspirations (as well as that of pretty much every other applicant).  Instead, what the admissions committee cares more about is why it’s great for the university to have you.  So, focus on giving evidence, through presenting facts about your previous experience, on why you’ll do well in their graduate program.

Mentioning possible advisors.  If you are applying to a PhD program, it is probably a good idea to mention several professors you’re interested in working with.  Don’t list just one professor though, in case that one professor isn’t taking on students or is already “oversubscribed” with students wanting to work with them; this could cause your application to be rejected on the grounds of the committee worrying that your preferred advisor might not be available.  Most students will instead mention several professors that they are interested in working with.

When listing specific professors, make sure you list professors in the department that you’re actually applying to.  Surprisingly often, students will apply to a certain department, but talk about wanting to work with professors that aren’t actually members of that department.  (If someone has a “Courtesy” or “Consulting” appointment in a department, that means they have a looser affiliation with that department than the regular faculty, and thus it’s less clear that this is the right department for you to be applying to if that’s who you want to work with.)  Saying that you want to be advised by professors that aren’t actually in the department you’re applying to will likely hurt your application.  If really you want to work with someone in a different department, the admissions committee may think that you really should be applying to that different department instead.

If there’s a particular research area you want to pursue, you should mention this in your SOP too, since this information will be helpful to the committee.  However, you’ll be joining a PhD program to work with the faculty there, so be careful about naming an overly narrow topic.  If your interests seem too narrow, or if you have an overly specific research agenda that you want to pursue, the admissions committee may worry that you might be unable to find an advisor to work with you.  Most students therefore talk about general research areas (which several faculty are working in) that they want to pursue. 

If you are applying to an MS program, depending on how much MS students i that program do research or interact closely with specific professors, it may be less important to mention specific professors.  However, mentioning a few professors whose work you’re inspired by (thus explaining your desire to attend that program) also seems unlikely to hurt.

A common way of writing the SOP is to first write a “generic” SOP that is identical for every school that you apply to, and then to customize the last 1-2 paragraphs for each school to describe any particular professors at that school which you’re interested in working with.  The reviewers will recognize this “generic SOP + 1-2 customized paragraphs” format, but this is a widely accepted format and isn’t a problem. 

SOP length.  A typical SOP might be around 1-2 pages long.  About 1.5 pages is a good length.  PhD admissions committee members typically have a lot of applications to read, and thus a very long SOP is unlikely to be carefully read.

If you have a homepage that gives a good overview of your professional background, feel free also to include a link from your SOP.  If you have published research papers, there’ll usually be a specific place in the application for you to clearly list this; alternatively, your resume (if the university allows you to submit one) is another good place to list your publication.  In case the application doesn’t give you these other places to list your publications, the end of your SOP might also be a good place to list your publications; otherwise, there’s probably no need to list them here.

You might be surprised to hear that many SOPs are not carefully read before either an accept or reject decision is made.   Students tend to spend a lot of time on the SOP, because it’s one aspect of your application that you have complete control over.  Given this, you might as well put in the effort to write the best possible SOP.  In case the admissions committee isn’t able to get a good sense of your relevant background from your letters of recommendation and resume/publications list, they’ll refer to your SOP to get this overview, and your SOP will be your best opportunity to present an overall picture of your relevant background.

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