Writing Your Statement of Purpose

an hour

You’re reading an excerpt of Admitted by Soundarya Balasubramani. Written by an Ivy League graduate from India, this is the proven guide for students worldwide looking to pursue undergraduate or graduate study abroad in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. Purchase for instant access to the guide and other exclusive resources—including sample SOPs, sample resumes, scholarship lists, and a private community with other readers.

Peter Wason,* a renowned cognitive psychologist, conducted an experiment in the 1960s, now popularly known as the Wason Rule Discovery Test.

At the beginning of the experiment, the participants were told that the experimenter had a rule in mind which applied to number triplets (for example, the rule could be prime numbers, in which case an example triplet is 3-11-17, or 79-139-191). The experimenter gave the example 2-4-6 as a triplet that followed this rule. The participants then had to correctly guess what the rule was by proposing their own triplets and getting feedback on whether or not those followed the rule. There was no limit on the number of triplets the participants could propose to get feedback on.

Take a moment and think about what triplets you would have proposed if you were a participant.

4-6-8? 1-3-5? 50-100-200?

If you thought of any of the above triplets, then good news! They all follow the rule. Yes, all of them. Now, what could the rule be?

thinkPause for a moment and formulate a possible rule in your mind before looking at the answer below.

The rule that the experimenter had in mind was the following: any triplet with an ascending sequence. In the experiment,* “Six out of 29 subjects reached the correct conclusion without previous incorrect ones, 13 reached one incorrect conclusion, nine reached two or more incorrect conclusions, and one reached no conclusion. The results showed that those subjects, who reached two or more incorrect conclusions, were unable, or unwilling to test their hypotheses.” In a famous video simulating the experiment, you can see participants trying to continuously prove a hypothesis they had formed initially, even when the experimenter kept giving feedback that disproved it.*

danger If you had also proposed an incorrect hypothesis, there’s a good chance you might have been a victim of confirmation bias,* our tendency to strive to prove our hypotheses, instead of disproving them.

To test the hypothesis, I played this experiment with a few of my friends, and they all continued to prove their hypothesis even when I told them it was not right.

actionBefore reading any further, why don’t you test this with someone who is next to you right now? Seeing it in action will help you grasp this idea better.

Cognitive Biases and You

Confirmation bias is one of the cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases are unavoidable blind spots that lead you to quick, but faulty, decisions.

In the millions of years that our brain developed to become the powerful machine it is today, we fell prey to a lot of cognitive biases that helped us survive a particular period of time. The negativity bias, for example, helped our ancestors be vigilant to the dangers they faced during the hunter-gatherer era.* Although some of them are not needed anymore, they still persist and are hard to escape.

Wikipedia lists over 175 cognitive biases* that plague us, ranging from confirmation bias to lesser known ones such as hyperbolic discounting effect,* a tendency to have stronger preference for immediate payoffs over future payoffs.

While we can get better at noticing these biases as we experience them, there is no escape.

Not for us, you, or the admissions committee.

While going through hundreds of applications, it is highly likely for the committee to experience a few biases.*

One example is conservatism bias,* also known as belief revision bias. It states that when we are presented with new information on a topic we’re already familiar with, we tend to associate less weight to this new information compared to the original information. Generally, admissions committees tend to screen applicants first based on quantitative data such as CGPA and GRE scores. By the time the committee reaches the statement of purpose, their thinking is biased by the grades of the applicant.

However, biases are not always bad.

The same committee that suffers from conservatism bias, also suffers from salience bias,* a tendency to focus more on things that are emotionally striking. Or the bizarreness effect,* a tendency to remember bizarre events more than common occurrences. You could use that to your leverage and include an interesting and vivid story from your past that is sure to be remembered. Whether good or bad, we mention these so you understand that it is not a straightforward, objective process.

Understanding others’ cognitive biases is useful; however, it is critical to know that it’s not under your control.

What is under your control is writing a stellar essay that conveys your motivation to study abroad.

As mentioned in the prologue, you spend the greater part of your childhood swimming in a metaphorical river, constrained by the rules set in place by the government, society, and your parents. You get some breathing room to dabble in your interests when you enter college. Now, as you enter graduate school, you will have even more space to craft the path of your career and contribute to the broader community.

With more space, comes more uncertainties.

The committee needs to know that you have a focused purpose that will shield you through all the uncertainties. The statement of purpose is your chance to convey that purpose. It is a statement of your purpose.

We will be honest: we don’t know. We approached Ross Gortner, Associate Director of Engineering Management, at Dartmouth College.* This is what he had to say:

In the statement of purpose, I’m looking for the answers to two basic questions: who is this person and what is their story. The essay should talk about where you want to go from where you are presently and how this particular program will act as a bridge for you.

Another important factor that I look at is whether you talk specifically about the university’s capabilities and whether you have done your research to understand why you are applying to this program. I expect an applicant to provide a customized essay over a generalized one for the universities they apply to.

I first scan through the SOPs and check if most of the aspects are covered, and then spend more time on the selected ones. I read through all of them, but would give more importance to the ones that are concisely written after distilling one’s thoughts. Overall, I want to perceive how interested the student is in this program.

In general, there is a lot of content on the web around this topic.* Some ask you to include interesting anecdotes, while others suggest using this space to offer explanations on another part of your application (such as a low CGPA). We distilled all the information out there to present the five questions we feel you definitely need to answer in this essay. To make it more actionable, we have given examples from well-written essays at the end of each question.

Before we jump into all that good stuff, here’s a mantra to keep telling yourself as you write this essay: the statement of purpose is a place to talk about topics that are not evident from other parts of the application.

Why This Major and University?

Answering this question takes a non-trivial amount of effort.

danger Here are two things to avoid while answering this question: First, don’t assume it is obvious to the admissions committee that you are pursuing a graduate degree in computer science because your undergraduate degree was in computer science. Second, don’t search for the most recently published paper on the department’s website and include that as the reason you wish to pick the university.

Making the above errors indicate that you are lethargic and put little thought into this.

You should not try to answer this question alone. You should start off by collecting research guides (or brochures or summaries) from the different departments where you will apply. You’ll look through these things and you’ll find summaries of ongoing research in the different areas that [that school] offers. You’ll find a few projects (and possible faculty advisors) that interest you, and you will ask yourself this question: ‘If I worked in this [area], and if I worked on chunks of these projects, what would I try to do on my own?’ The answer to this question should form about a third of your Personal Statement.Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology*

The admissions committee generally uses the statement of purpose for a few reasons:

  • to weed out anomalies, such as students who claim they’re pursuing graduate studies because their parents asked them to or students who have extremely poor writing skills (which we’ll talk about soon)

  • to gauge the interest of the applicant and

  • to potentially match the student with a faculty from the department.

While it’s understandable if you don’t end up pursuing exactly what you stated in your essay, there needs to be a strong correlation or reason for you to have digressed. For those reasons, it is highly recommended that you do your due diligence in understanding the boundaries of what research is possible, what interests you, and what you have experience with from your undergraduate degree before answering this question (or choosing the major and university).

Throughout my undergraduate studies, I’ve been fascinated by solving problems that are an amalgamation of business and engineering principles. I’ve focused my coursework on two key pillars of the program—operations research and information systems. Within operations research, I have a strong foundation in probability and statistics, optimization and stochastic modelling. I’ve not only performed well in all classes, but also applied the concepts learned in real world situations. For example, I led a small team of two students to determine the outcomes of possible breast cancer screening policies (e.g., annual, biannual, every three-year mammography). We built a decision tree (with 3 health states and 3 different screening policies over a ten-year period). Based on analysis of the tree, the optimal screening policy was determined. […] My undergraduate education and abundant internship experiences have shown me I have the strong quantitative and qualitative skills necessary to thrive in all the core courses and electives in the IEOR department and the business school at Columbia. I believe these factors would enable me to excel in Columbia’s Management Science and Engineering (MS&E) program.

—Graduate Student at Columbia University

What Do You Want to Spend the Two (or Five) Years On?

Graduate school is not easy, to put it mildly. You are putting yourself through financial debt, cultural transformation, grueling hours of schoolwork, and possibly developing imposter syndrome.* All in the hopes of getting a job that will pay off for all your hard work.

thinkWhat is it that motivates you to go through this?

What questions are you trying to answer?

What ideas have constantly knocked on your mind imploring you to explore further?

Note that this question is extremely important if you’re applying for a doctorate degree, which stretches on for five years or more. Nevertheless, even for a master’s degree, you need to have an idea of the research that you want to pursue.

It is best for both the department and the student if there is some match between the student’s interests and the department’s research projects. It is a good idea to do some research on each graduate school’s research projects and tailor your personal statement accordingly. Statements that praise our department on its excellence in a topic where no current research is going on raise a red flag to the committee, and these applicants are generally rejected.Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology

This ties into what we mentioned for the previous question. Unless they see a fit between your interests and what they can offer, they would not be motivated to pick you. This question is also a place for you to go back and write down all the questions that have grabbed your attention while you were running a model simulation during your internships or sitting through a powerful presentation at a conference.

Elucidate how you plan on getting these questions answered during your graduate school, either by working under a professor’s wing or by leveraging the industry partnership program at the university (or both).

One of these days, while I was trying to implement a self organizing map, I wondered if a hardware implementation of the neuron exists. Isn’t the massively parallel architecture of the brain the reason behind its ability to process petabytes of data daily and swiftly? Google eventually gave me something: a silicon brain project, a chip that mimics the neuron; but I didn’t get as many search hits as I would’ve really liked. […] The brain’s processing needs to be simulated using a new architecture that is vastly parallel like the neural mesh of the brain itself. Has it already been simulated like this? I need more knowledge on the subject to answer such questions. This thought is only related to a subset of the vast subject that is artificial Intelligence. There is so much still to do in artificial intelligence that Russell and Norvig, in their book Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, state that “several full-time Einsteins” can work on it! I want to be part of the academic community diving into artificial intelligence.

—Doctorate Student in Computational Neuroscience

This stellar essay, along with many more, can be found in the Resources drive.

Do You Have the Required Experience?

The nail in the coffin for the two questions above is your response to this one. Expressing your interest in a topic that is being worked on by the university would bear no fruit if you don’t have some relevant experience already in the said topic. A best-selling author does not start out asking publishing houses to look at her manuscript without spending years conducting painful research and writing relentlessly.

You need to show tangible work you did, along with the results.

We have admitted some students because of projects they talk about in the SOP, but we want to see results (publications, etc.) and what the faculty letter-writers have to say about it. The SOP itself is not driving this evaluation, but may help to put what you have done into context for us. The SOP is your chance to tell us what you want to do (at this point) and why, and to put all the other information in the application into some sort of contextual or narrative framework that helps us make sense of what you have been doing.Professor Emeritus, CMU

We understand that not everything you have worked on in the past might be relevant to your future, at least not directly. That’s completely fine, as you can see from my own story. The admissions committee understands that students like to explore their interests and dabble during their undergraduate degree to find their passion(s), so to speak. While they’re OK with a student not having multiple relevant experiences, they do want to see someone who has taken things to the finish line before.

thinkHave you published a paper?

Did your team get to the final stage of a hackathon, maybe even win it?

Were you the founder of an organization or community that created an impact?

All of these carry an enormous weight, because it shows them that you have what it takes to finish what you start.

The Discrete Mathematics course during my sophomore year introduced me to predicate Calculus and prepared me for a research internship in Logic at the [university] under [professor]. Under his tutelage, I developed an automated problem solver for the famous Einstein puzzle, which involved translating user input to meaningful predicates and extensively used resolution principles to arrive at the solution for the puzzle. Drawing inspiration from my experience at [university], I took to developing an automated Boggle solver back at college. I drew on the ideas I picked up in my algorithm course to use a greedy approach involving recursion and backtracking to find words in sequences of adjacent letters in a grid. […] During my final year, the elective course on Data Mining drew me to explore Recommender Systems. In my final year thesis, my work involved enhancing the traditional memory-based filtering technique by effectively using singular ratings to improve the accuracy of existing recommender systems. The proposal was prototyped using Python and received an award of S grade, the highest one allotted.

—Graduate Student at Stanford University

Why Did You Do the Things You Did?

This is a crucial question to answer, because this is not answered anywhere else in your application. While your grades and scores talk solely about outcomes, this question gives you an opportunity to justify them. This question can be used to explain anomalies in your application (such as a very low CGPA or test score) and/or walk them through your thought process during the moments you took an important decision in your career, such as choosing to work on a niche topic under a professor.

Understanding the reasons that led to something, accepting it gracefully and striving hard to get better, are all the signs of maturity, and top programs hunt for mature people. For something as basic as failing an exam, a mature person will always realize where (s)he is at fault. More than the ‘situation’ itself, the admissions committee is interested in the experience of it, how you overcame it and what you learned from the entire experience.Overseas Education Specialist at MINDLER*

If something changed the course of your career path, or you faced a hardship that influenced your future goals, this is the place to address that. Sai and I changed our course of careers after undergraduation. We studied core engineering (mechanical and chemical respectively) but then switched to a degree in engineering management which led to a career in product management. We understand the difficulty in writing a cogent essay, hoping the admissions committee will see where you’re coming from without having met you.

The best way to do that is to be honest in addressing your transformation.

Growing up, I was very close to my grandfather. When I was about 12 years old, he suffered a brain hemorrhage, resulting in retrograde amnesia. He couldn’t remember his family members or his own name, but could perfectly identify mistakes in Ragas when my mother sang, as he had been an Indian classical musician for many years. I wanted to find out how this was possible. This was the first time I started reading about the human brain. And, from this stemmed my passion for neurobiology… After graduating as valedictorian in both my high school and pre-university, I wanted to study life sciences. Being in India, where there is little interplay between life science and technology in undergraduate science courses, I felt that the best way to experience the synergy would be to study Biotechnology Engineering. I enrolled at the Department of Biotechnology at [university], which is one of the leading Biotechnology departments in India.

—Doctorate Student in Biochemistry

What Will Your Future Contribution to Society Be?

We know you have grand dreams you wish to realize one day. Show the committee that studying at their institution is the right means to achieve them. This goes back to the point of having questions that you want answered through your graduate school experience. If you’re hoping to become a biomedical engineer who wants to help paraplegics walk again, you need to find out the questions that your graduate school experience can answer for you: Can we use technique A to improve somatosensory reflexes by x%? What are the main causes of symptom B? What research has been conducted thus far at the university on topic C? Once you lay out your thoughts on the topic, don’t be shy in speaking in detail about your goals.

Each of us wants to leave this world better than we entered it. Why am I writing this book?

To bridge the gap between those who seek out quality education and those who can offer it.

To democratize valuable information so everyone who needs it has access to it.

To level the playing field irrespective of someone’s economic background.

So, as you describe your future goal(s), go into specifics on why and how you wish to achieve them.

In five years, I will launch India’s first virtual reality restaurant. In a food-obsessed country like India, this unique eatery, via an application, will bring the menu alive by projecting a virtual 3-D representation of food choices and present customers with the look and texture of the food item before they place the order. There would also be a projection of a mini chef who prepares the dish on the table in front of clients, waiting to be served. My vision is to channelize the profits from my restaurant into finding an effective solution to India’s food wastage problem. […] India wastes 40% of the food it produces and yet, 135 million people go hungry every day. I encountered this disturbing statistic when I volunteered as a Community Representative for The Roti Bank Foundation of India, a non-profit that collects perfectly edible surplus food from houses and distributes it to the needy. By designing the distribution process around a temperature controlled casserole which gave community residents the flexibility to drop off their rotis on the way to school/work, I collect and supply 240 rotis and feed 150 people every day.

—Aniruddh Menon, Graduate Student at Dartmouth College

danger Aniruddh was meticulous in adding a footer in his essay explaining what a roti meant. If you plan on including terms that are colloquial or regional which an international audience might be unfamiliar with, please add a footer or provide some context inline.

Finally, Be Yourself

This is a lot harder to explain than any of the previous questions.

Identifying a disingenuous essay is like seeing through clear water.

Don’t forget that those who read your essay have years of experience reading thousands of such documents. They know when they’re listening to a student talk about a topic they have little knowledge on. They know if you’re faking an illness to justify a bad outcome. We cannot stress the importance of sincerity while writing this essay.

Graduate school is a dream come true for thousands of students every year; but truly reaping the reward from the experience won’t happen if you begin the journey with an inaccurate portrayal of yourself.

thinkThis is also a chance to think about how you can channel your quirks and personality through paper. If you were to read out the essay to someone in a conversation, how would you word it?

To finish this off and give an example, below is an excerpt from the final passage in one of the sample SOPs.

There is only so much one can include in a statement of purpose. I hope you will take the chance of knowing me in person by accepting me to the institute. I want to be part of the Artificial Intelligence dream of developing intelligence as humans exhibit it. I am committed to contributing to the global committee to the best of my ability. I am working at a consulting firm at the moment. The work is good, yes, but it isn’t anywhere near challenging or thrilling as the smallest new piece of information that I come across on Artificial Intelligence. It’s only a nudge I’m looking for to get me started. Please grant it to me.

—Doctorate Student in Computational Neuroscience

Principles of Writing

We talked a lot about the questions you need to answer, but just as important is how you answer them. As you write your essay now, keep the following two writing principles in mind.

Show, Don’t Tell

There is a famous quote attributed to one of the greatest writers of fiction short stories, Anton Chekhov.**

Don’t tell me that the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on the broken glass.

We want you to read that quote once again. It has a powerful meaning.

Too often, students clutter their essays with bombastic adjectives: hardworking, disciplined, driven, passionate, empathetic. Rather than telling them that you are a hard worker, show them that you are a hard worker by talking about how you used to spend every weekend volunteering at the local food shelter.

Clarity of Thought

A core tenet of writing is clarity of thought.

I’m always excited by the rare applicant who clearly has thought through a research area, and has some ideas and real thoughts about problems he/she wants to tackle. It’s fine if the ideas are not likely to succeed, or if the thoughts are not realistic for current research. What matters is that the student showed their logical reasoning skills, and their passion for research at the same time.Professor, University of Chicago*

William Zinsser, a renowned non-fiction writer and one of my inspirations, has said that writing is thinking on paper with clarity.*

As long as you can think clearly, you should be able to write clearly.

This ability to think with clarity is more rare than you would imagine, and requires a good amount of introspection. Before you begin writing, remember to first think through your ideas clearly. Take walks. Outline key points. Only when the ideas are clear should you transfer them onto paper.

Writing Suggestions for Your Statement of Purpose

While those two core principles are most important, here are a few more suggestions:

  • Use a formal and conversational tone. Convey enthusiasm and interest without coming across as sarcastic. Jokes can easily be misunderstood.

  • Stick to the specified word limit. If no limit is mentioned, write 750 to 1000 words in a 12 point font with a 1–2 single space between the lines.

  • Avoid using acronyms which will be unfamiliar outside your home country. It’s also wise to avoid non standard punctuation or formatting, such as heavy use of italics, quotations, em dashes (—), or semicolons (;).

  • Simplicity is underrated. Although you might have stuffed your brain with words learned for your GRE exam, the essay is not a playfield to use all of them. Keep things simple.

  • Brevity is better than verbosity. The busy professors and administrators who read your essay will appreciate clear and concise sentences.

dangerFinally, at all cost, avoid typos and ungrammatical sentences. Before submitting your essay, be sure you’ve done this basic level of editing. This is a great place to take advantage of the many software applications that can do this for you.*

Hopefully, that has given you enough ammunition to begin writing. Although we showed you excerpts from essays in this chapter, we suggest you write your first draft without looking at more examples. Your first draft must be impulsive; let your subconscious mind take over and blurt out all the thoughts you have on paper so your mind is set free.

Daniel Kahneman,* a renowned psychologist and economist, proposed in his bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, that we all have two modes of thinking: System 1 and System 2.* System 1 is the more impulsive, automatic, and involuntary part of your mind. It is what helps you jump off a curb when you see a speeding car or locate the source of a sudden noise. On the other hand, System 2 is the more deliberate, slow, and voluntary part of your mind. You were able to write your final thesis and solve complex algebra thanks to System 2. It requires you to devote your attention and think deeply about a topic.

Each system has strengths and weaknesses. We recommend writing your first draft using your System 1, and conducting subsequent edits with System 2.

Glad you asked! We recommend doing the following:

  • First, review it yourself by going through some good samples.

  • Second, get it reviewed by alumni in your field of interest.

  • Finally, get it reviewed by alumni and friends who aren’t necessarily in your field but have great command over the written word.

Review It Yourself

Writing a stellar essay requires reading dozens of stellar essays. You can start with the Resources folder, where we’ve added a few samples. Beyond that, there are many publicly posted samples out there that will stimulate your thinking.*

actionWhen you find a sample that catches your attention, open it in a document format, where you can begin adding highlights and comments. In fact, we would even recommend printing out these essays and doing it the old-fashioned way, using a highlighter. Write down the parts you liked about the essay, and why you think you liked them. Was it the choice of words? Was it the depth that the candidate went into while describing a concept? Was it an interesting life experience? Write it down and go back to your essay to find ways to incorporate the same.

Review by Alumni in Field

This refers to your seniors and mentors who are currently in or were in the position you aspire to reach, working in your domain of interest.

danger Before you send out the emails to them, spend some time wording it carefully. The people you reach out to are probably in graduate school themselves, working 60 hours a week. And yours would also not be the only email request they receive.

So, take the time to do the first few reviews yourself (or with the help of a close friend) before reaching out. In your email, the following topics should be conveyed clearly: interest in studying abroad, relevant past experiences, and the request. Below is a sample template:

Hi Neel,

How are you? I’m sure you must be drowning in classes and assignments. What is something you learned recently? I would love to know. I recently came across your article on the day in the life of a graduate student, and devoured it! You probably know, but I’m applying for a Master’s in Electrical Engineering myself now and couldn’t have read it at a better time.

I knew I wanted to study abroad within the first ten days of my summer internship at University of Waterloo, Canada. The stereotypes that I un-learned and people I met will always have a lasting impact on me. But choosing the universities to apply to and nailing down my specialization took more time than I thought. I’m sure you must have gone through something similar.

I spent a week writing the first draft of my SOP; writing for 30 minutes every day. I also spent the next two weeks editing it by reading through some amazing samples online. However, to truly make it insightful and strong, I need help from seniors like you that I look up to, who also specialize in a similar field.

I know you’re busy, and really want to respect that. Let me know if any of the following options work for you:

  1. Sending me your SOP so I can use that as a guide

  2. Sharing some important guidelines in writing one

  3. (Most preferable!) Reviewing mine and adding your comments as feedback. If I’m being overly ambitious, it could even be all three :)

Best regards,

Siya

As you reach out to people, it is important that you keep track of your emails. If someone does not respond back in ten days, it is absolutely OK to send them a gentle reminder.

A lack of response doesn’t always mean a lack of interest.

Sometimes, people are just busy.

Finally, when you share your essay with them, please do it via Google Docs or a similar collaborative tool, so they can easily add comments to it. Reduce friction from their end as much as you can.

Review by Good Writers

You can follow a similar process as before here, except the kind of input you receive from a good writer would be different from the kind of input you receive from a subject-matter expert. You need an essay that conveys your purpose and portrays your written skill. When you reach out, mention that you specifically want them to critique the diction of your essay.

danger Finally, don’t reach out to everyone you know at once. Assess the quality of feedback the other person can provide first. Are they an amazing writer with limited time? If yes, you should probably reach out only after you’ve reached version six or seven of your draft. You want incremental input to improve, not a storm of input at once. And even after you receive all their input, assess if it makes sense before incorporating it.

A lot of students want to know when an SOP can be called complete. We know you won’t like this answer, but the truth is: it will never be complete. However, the best practice is to get it reviewed by three to four people and review it yourself half a dozen times. Keep it ready at least a week or two before your deadline. In the final week, simply revisit it every few days and make minor corrections.

We can’t help you in deciding when you know it is complete, but we can tell that you will reach a stage where you wouldn’t want to read a word of it anymore.

This is a great question. A great SOP is not just written well; it is also presented well. Similar to the tips that we had mentioned for editing a resume, we have a few tips for your essay as well.

  • Use a clear, readable font such as Times New Roman or Helvetica.

  • Stick to a font size of 12 with a 1.5 line spacing and a margin size of 1 inch on all four sides.

  • Do not try to make it look eye-catching by adding colors or your picture. They care much more about the content than the visuals.

  • Upload it as a PDF file so the formatting is maintained.

  • Indent the first line of each paragraph by half an inch and justify your text.

Take a Walk

As a final piece of advice, take a walk.

Alone, and without your phone.

It can be around a basketball court or in that garden next to your university’s main office. Cal Newport,* an associate professor of computer science and the author of many bestsellers, says in a famous talk,*

The way to find your passion is to be so good at something that the people around you can’t ignore it.

And the way to be so good at something is through unadulterated practice and deep work, an ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. That cannot be attained by sitting in a noisy cafeteria surrounded by people and distractions.

A quiet walk 🡪 clarity of thought 🡪 a great essay

So take a walk, every day if possible, for thirty minutes to an hour and observe your thoughts without judging them. You will be surprised at the kind of insights you generate about yourself and your environment. It is no surprise that the best ideas come to you when you least expect them.*

Graham Wallas,* a social psychologist and co-founder of the London School of Economics, broke down the creative process into four steps in his 1926 book The Art of Thought. The four steps are: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.

Most people tend to overlook stage two in this process, where they are supposed to incubate themselves somewhere far away from a problem, so they can generate novel thoughts and be more efficient while they return to solve it. Your brain likes it when you let it wander on its own after putting in cognitive effort in the preparation stage.

So take a walk alone with your thoughts, and you just might figure out the opening sentence of your essay.

storyI performed the painful task of re-reading the different versions of my statement of purpose I had written more than three years ago. In one sense, it acted as a time-travel lens to magnify the level of specificity (or lack thereof) I possessed when I was applying for my graduate program. My essay was all over the place.

It began with a childhood memory of how I was inspired to pursue science. The body of it battled between an overview of my research and the organizations I managed. The ending was lackluster with a generic mention of a professor’s name and a recent paper of his from the university I was applying to. I ended up not following many of the qualities that make a great essay, many of which I’m asking you to follow now.

If I was reading my essay right now, and had to decide to select or reject 2017-me solely based on the essay, I would probably reject me.

That is why I want you to learn from my mistakes. I want to shine a light on the many invaluable lessons that someone can learn in hindsight, and hope you imbibe some of them right now.

Student Testimonials

I found myself trying to write an essay amidst the stress of senior year coursework, thesis work, and placements. A friend of mine suggested I obtain a free profile review by a consultancy. I was a top student in my class and proactive when it came to extracurriculars. So when I saw that the consultancy recommended universities that were all tier 3, I was shocked. I decided to take things into my own hands and began drafting my SOP.

I wrote the first draft without giving it too much thought. Then, I looked for SOP questionnaires online that provided guidance on questions to answer. Once it got to a good stage, I began removing unnecessary information, followed by getting feedback from my alumni and mentors. Finally, I began fine-tuning it to adhere to the word limit set by each university. I went through the editing process separately for each university.

—Nivedhithaa Santhakumar, Purdue University

Around mid-October, I created a rough mind map, trying to answer some basic questions around my academic interests and long-term goals. I thought hard about how I can contribute to a university’s research work and what I can take away from it. In hindsight, these were the main segments of my essay, but the journey wasn’t smooth. As soon as I began writing, I experienced the dreaded writer’s block. However, soon after, I wrote 2,500 words in one sitting and ended up with a rather verbose essay.

In the end, what helped was putting myself in the shoes of the admissions committee and imagining having to read a hundred essays a day. That made me talk about only the most pertinent ideas and be parsimonious with the whitespace. Of course, this was followed by iterative alumni reviews that helped fine-tune the sentences and improve the presentation of the content. In short, be original, and come up with a way to stand out from the crowd.

—Vishnu Chandrasekhar, Carnegie Mellon University

Final Thoughts on Writing Your SOP

Humans will always be riddled with cognitive biases. Rather than trying to escape them, think about how you can use the knowledge to your advantage. The statement of purpose is one part of your application, not all of it. Don’t overstate its importance. The person reading it wants you to show them how you plan on utilizing the time spent at their university as a bridge to go from where you are now, to where you want to be.

As you begin to think about writing the essay, first take a step back and try to answer a few questions: Why are you choosing this university and major? How do you want to spend your time at graduate school? What is your long-term goal? Do you have the experience needed to provide value in return? Can you think and write clearly? These questions should be used as guiding principles, and ideally, your essay should answer all of them.

Getting your SOP reviewed is very critical, but don’t begin sending emails to dozens of seniors without wording it carefully first. Be very selective in the people you choose, and try to reduce the friction from their end as much as possible by sending it in a collaborative document where they can add comments, and send helpful reminders if they don’t respond after a week. The people you reach out to have been in your shoes already, so they understand the need.

You will never be sure that you have reached the end of your review process. So either stop editing it a week before the application deadline, or set a threshold of six to seven reviews before declaring it done. Finally, take a walk alone to indulge in your thoughts. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the things you begin to notice.

A Little Reflection on Statements of Purpose

thinkWhen you went through some of the cognitive biases, did you notice any that you fell prey to recently?

What do you want the person reading your statement of purpose to walk away thinking?

If you were the senior being approached by five students, how would you want them to email you?

What interesting thoughts did you have after taking a few walks?

Getting Your Letters of Recommendation27 minutes

When we think of our professors, we generally picture them inside a classroom with a clicker (or a piece of chalk) in hand, delineating a topic with ferocity.

Our mind falls prey to a few heuristics when it comes to decision-making, one of which is called the representative-ness heuristic.* It was discovered by two behavioral economists and Nobel laureates, Daniel Kahneman,* who we referenced in an earlier chapter, and Amor Tversky,* in the early 1970s.

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