How do I write a Statement of Purpose for my grad school application?

by | Oct 30, 2020 | Uncategorized

It’s that time of the year again: grad school applications are soon due! You have dutifully selected a good set of schools, following the “reach/middle/safe” principle; you’ve secured writers for your letters of recommendation; you’ve filled out many forms; maybe you also have submitted GRE or TOEFL or IELTS scores—and now you look with dread at that pristinely empty text document on the screen in front of you, titled “Statement of Purpose”. The cursor goes blink, but your mind is blank.

To be honest: I don’t know for sure what that feels like. I have never applied for graduate school in the US. But I have served on graduate school admissions committees here; in fact, I have chaired them for many years. And in that position I have read hundreds upon hundreds of Statements of Purpose. I would like to think that I’ve pretty much seen it all. And with that knowledge, earned by experience if not by practice, I would like to share a few tips for those of you who are understandably unsure how to write this important document. As a warning: this is going to be tailored to applications to physics graduate school, since this is my background. I suspect that a fair amount of it translates to other fields; but considering the significantly different cultures in other disciplines (other sciences, or engineering, or the humanities, or the arts) I advise caution in following my suggestions in fields remote from their primary provenance.

So, without further ado, here’s a list of thoughts you might find helpful:

1. What is your purpose?

Why do you want to go to graduate school? What do you hope to achieve? What lights your fire? Brainstorm your motivation for this big step! This, of course, is important much beyond the immediate task of writing an SOP. It is therefore curious that quite a number of people seem to stumble into this without giving it some careful thought. Or at least one would think that, given how their SOPs are devoid of a clearly articulated purpose, save maybe for some clichés about how they’ve always liked physics. (There’s nothing wrong about going to physics graduate school because you love physics; but when you say so, be original. And check point 4 below.)

There are so many things that could drive you: a genuine desire to do real research, after having been fascinated by it during undergrad projects. A specific problem that’s been with you for a long time that you wish to have a go at. The desire to help people. A profound interest in physics education. The hope to break the glass ceiling of expectations you have been living under. Whatever it is—make sure you are clear about it yourself and then tell the committee about it! Having deeply reflected about your motivation and then speaking about it compellingly and with earnest conviction makes your SOP truly genuine.

2. What does the department look for?

To counterbalance the first point: remember that grad school is a two-way road. You want to get something out of it, but so does the department that accepts you. After all, they pay you! For what?

A mental exercise that is very useful when preparing an SOP—or, for that matter, any piece of writing in which you want to sway someone else—is to put yourself into their position. What are they looking for? What matters to them? What would they consider a red flag? What would strike them as a winning argument? Don’t do this superficially. Really try to flip your perspective. This should help you answer the question whether they care about your rad skills as a skateboarder (probably not), or about the many hours of chemistry tutoring you did in high school (probably yes).

To give you a couple of examples, here’s what in my experience a department cares about:

  • Will you pass the first 1-2 years of graduate courses? Because if you don’t, their significant investment into you (tuition and stipend for the first two years could sum up to $100k!) does not yield a return. This is the biggest reason why they care about your GPA, the courses you took, and whether you did well in grad courses you decided to take. This is also what tests like the physics GRE are good at predicting.
  • Do you realize how hard it is to push the boundary of knowledge? Real-world research is often the art of persevering in a tenacious fight against obdurate obstacles. There are many challenges, confusions, set-backs, and fresh starts. And this requires a lot of stamina, dedication, and frustration tolerance. Do you have that in you? The admissions committee will look for any indication that you’re ready for this. That’s why they are so very eager to see undergrad research beyond curated fail-safe lab courses. Research that could have gone wrong, or maybe even did. It doesn’t much matter whether the field was particularly closely related to what you may wish to pursue in grad school, as long as you saw the real thing you now are eagerly signing up for. [BTW, before this sounds too discouraging: when you finally make that scientific breakthrough, you will feel like the king of the world. The sense of profound accomplishment is incredible, but also hard earned. This correlation holds of course way beyond physics.]
  • Do you understand your responsibilities? Once you join a research group, your work will contribute to their scientific progress. They rely on you to make that experiment succeed, or get that calculation done. They need you to be a dedicated player in a team that strives for success, recognition, and future grant money. Do you understand that this will be part of your job? That grad school is not only a journey toward your own personal scientific growth, but also a commitment to pull your weight in a team that relies on you?

3. Focus on your growth as a young scientist

An SOP is different from a college application essay. Many applicants feel tempted to write about transformative experiences in their childhood, events that got them on the trajectory on which they are now. This is indeed a great opening for an SOP, but that’s it: an opening. It should quickly lead to what the committee really wants to hear: how have you grown academically, what research experience and skills have you gained, what compels you to apply to grad school (and why this grad school).

Of course, you don’t just want to rattle off your projects and skills. Good writing creates context. And a good school cares about you as a person, not just as a replaceable “science worker”. But don’t forget that you apply for a slot in a competitive program in a highly technical discipline. Focus on what matters for that. For instance, you can write about how you go about solving problems. Or how you deal with road-blocks and struggles (because overcoming roadblocks and struggles is going to be a big part of your grad student life). How your academic record has prepared you for what you want to do (but don’t just reiterate your grades—the committee has them anyways). If you have a talent for teaching and explaining things, you can point that out, too. They might need you as a TA in a semester when your advisor is short in funding, and you will at some point have to give talks and write papers.

4. Avoid boilerplate

One of the really important things you want to achieve in your SOP is to become a memorable applicant, and not just another number in an Excel sheet, sorted—god forbid!—by GPA. Someone who a committee member might bring up in a discussion when there are still slots to fill (and there always are) after all the “obvious” cases have been admitted, and there are dozens upon dozens of candidates who look virtually indistinguishable by the numbers. If at that moment a committee member recalls you and starts talking about you, then you have almost won. Why? Because among dozens of candidates, everyone of whom could in principle be admitted, you often end up admitting those who for whatever reason you are talking about. So to be memorable is very important. (Of course, you don’t want to be memorable for a particularly poor SOP either. In this case, bad press isn’t better than no press at all.)

If that is your goal, then one of the best ways to shoot yourself in the foot is to write boilerplate verbiage. You are not going to stand out by recycling the bromides of the olden days, by dutifully checking off all the stereotypes of the passionate budding scientist who is enthralled by physics. I cannot count the number of times I have read the phrase “Since early childhood I have been fascinated by the unfathomable beauty of nature.” Now, it might be totally true that this describes you very well. But you have to find a way to say it that is not a platitude.

Some people seem to believe the solution to this problem is to make copious use of a thesaurus (“unfathomable!”). Don’t be tempted to do that. A thesaurus is great if you want to find the one word that fits best in a given context, and there are often much better words than the ones that first spring to mind. But it should not be used to bloat your writing into an orgy of pretentious swank. That’s not you. That’s not authentic. And nobody likes reading it.

5. Show, don’t tell

You want to come across as smart, diligent, creative, motivated—all the good stuff. At the same time, most people have a natural aversion to heaping praise upon themselves. When we coach students how to prepare a strong application for grad school (or a job in industry), we tell them that they need to overcome that natural (and quite likable) hesitance to brag. But it seems we don’t quite tell them how to actually do this gracefully, and so a surprisingly large number of students seem to come away with the idea that they simply need to conquer their embarrassment and pin all these praising words onto themselves. Awkwardness ensues instantly.

But how does one talk praisingly about oneself? It’s not that hard, actually, and the trick is: show, don’t tell. Rather than calling yourself “clever”, give an example where your cleverness clearly showed; for instance that episode when you solved a problem that your team was flummoxed by and you figured it out. Instead of calling yourself “hard-working”, talk about that episode where you collected that crucial bit of data at 2am on that week-long trip to the synchrotron. And instead of calling yourself “motivated” and “dedicated”, describe how you discussed your REU options and additional course offerings with your academic advisor, in order to be best prepared for graduate school. True, doing it this way isn’t quite as concise as using peppy words. But it says a lot more about you, is much more convincing, and much less awkward.

There is still a place for those coveted praise-words, but it is not in your SOP. It is in the letters of recommendation you have asked your mentors and advisors to write about you. If they have accepted to support your application, then almost surely they want to write a strong letter, and since they don’t want to write a lot (and the committee doesn’t want to read a lot…), succinct words of praise flow naturally and are entirely unobjectionable.

Incidentally, pro tip: even if your letter writers want to write endorsingly, that doesn’t mean they have all the information to do it well. They write a lot of letters, and they have a lot of students. And their brains are often more foggy than you would believe. (Trust me, I know. I’m the aging owner of one of those brains.) For that reason, I ask the students I promised a letter to provide me with a “brag sheet” that lists the items they are most proud of and wish me to brag about. With some context, so that I can write more knowledgeably about it. If you’re comfortable with this, offer your letter writers such a document.

6. Check out their webpage

A strong SOP should be tailored to the place you apply to. Have a section towards the end in which you explain how you see yourself fitting into their program. Are you eager to pursue condensed matter physics and are impressed by the local “Center for the Technology of Very Small Things” they have built over the years? Tell them! (Professors are vain and like to be flattered. But know the line between sweet-talk and ingratiation!) Are there professors in biophysics whose work you have used during one of your undergraduate projects? Tell them! Has your advisor pointed you to a group at their place that does amazing work and you’d like to become a part of that? Tell them! When you were selecting the schools you ultimately decided to apply to, browsing their webpage and making sure that the research topics and scientific opportunities available at that place align with your own personal interest was surely a big part of the “research” you did on them. Now you have the chance to tell them that, yes, their program excites you. Here’s the reason why, among all the many grad schools in the country, you’ve picked theirs to apply to.

Documenting that you have checked out the place you are applying to, are familiar with their strength and ambitions, know who does what, and where you’d fit in, is a great way to also show that you care about them. That you take their graduate program seriously. You have done your homework. This almost always gives you a leg up. But you should be careful about two things: first, webpages are often woefully outdated not quite up to date, and that famous professor you say you would totally love to work with might long be an emeritus (or, ahem, worse). And second, you are at the very beginning of your career as a scientist and physicist. You ain’t seen nothing yet! At your stage of career you haven’t (yet) earned the right to be opinionated about what fields of physics are worthy of pursuit.  Don’t be that person who is hell-bent on a career in, say, galactic astrophysics, after having done a 6-week summer REU project on galactic astrophysics. It is almost always wise to be flexible. (Unless you are really really sure you know what you want to do.)

Tailoring your SOP like this might take time. And you unfortunately might not have all that time, depending on how many applications you plan to send out. If so, then restrict this extra work to those places you are most eager to get in.

7. Be concise

After all these recommendations, all these many things you can or should or might want to write about, here comes the hardest part: do it concisely (albeit not tersely). Faculty on admissions committees have to read dozens, sometimes hundreds of SOPs, and if any one of them drones on for just a tad too long, they lose interest in the writing—and maybe in you.

It is admittedly really hard to talk about all of the stuff you need to cover in something like 2 pages. But hey, that’s yet another skill you need to ultimately learn: how to write succinctly. (Tip: don’t duplicate anything the committee already has in some other form, such as CV and grades, unless you expressly want to emphasize something very important.) If your writing shows that you have some talent in communicating, the committee will be rather pleased. This is a student who might actually produce a respectable first draft of a paper! Hence, your efforts to polish your SOP are not wasted.

You can easily check the length of your SOP; but whether it’s actually good often requires a second pair of eyes. Give it to somebody else for honest criticism. Ideally someone who knows how these documents are read, like your research advisor. Your friends might offer you help, and they might have great ideas and opinions to boot; but they are likely just as hazy about what really constitutes a good document as you are. Get help from people who know because they have been in the business for a while.

OK, that’s enough for now. Lots of advice! I probably forgot some things, or been unclear about others. Some of this might strike you as opinionated, and some of it almost surely is. So take it with a grain of salt. I will most likely update this document at some point—based also on feedback you are welcome to leave in the comments.

This is supposed to be a helpful list of thoughts that make you understand how the people on the other end of the process tend to read your application. But people vary in their tastes, departments have different priorities, and conventions for how to write documents such as an SOP evolve over time. Feel free to flout every single one of my recommendations, provided you have a well thought-out reason for doing so!

Good luck!

Markus Deserno is a professor in the Department of Physics at Carnegie Mellon University. His field of study is theoretical and computational biophysics, with a focus on lipid membranes.

1 Comment

  1. Salama

    Quite insightful.
    Thank you Markus.