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the statement of purpose

I believe there is no recipe to write a good statement of purpose. However, what I can share are abstract things that worked for me, and potentially work for others. So here are 4 factors I think are important to build a strong statement of purpose:

  1. Writing well, early
  2. Writing from scratch
  3. Writing about research
  4. Get feedback

1. Writing well, early

This is obvious. But, make sure your idea of “well” is generally perceived the same. Some things to keep in mind: avoid passive voice, unnecessary adverbs, and flowery language. There are many resources on writing well (in general) – most of which apply to a statement of purpose too. Here are a few of my favorites:

While high-quality writing across the board can take years to master, you can sometimes optimize for it locally. Spending enough time baking your SoP helps improve its clarity and preciseness. => A confident application. Typical application deadlines are around mid-December. I started writing in August (T-5 months). Now, this is unusually early for some, but being early means reducing stress & receiving more feedback (more on this later).

2. Writing from scratch

One of the key things that helped me write my SoP was actually writing it from scratch. One advantage of doing that is that your SoP, albeit technical, will sound personal. I composed my writing into 2 phases: Concretize & Connect

  1. Phase 1: Concretize

    1. Make a prioritized list of research projects P
      1. Priority should consider relevance to the topics you want to pursue.
      2. Priority should consider recency. No one cares about interests from back in the day.
    2. Pick top n projects from P; n <= 4
    3. For each project:
      1. Dump an active voice recital of your experience: This should include (1) problem and motivation, (2) approach, (3) experiments that failed OR succeeded, (4) results and achievements. Again, I found it useful to write this as if I was reciting/sharing my experience to a technical expert.
      2. Read and ensure YOUR contribution is clear. Showing that you more than just implemented someone else’s ideas can be important.
      3. Finally, refine.
  2. Phase 2: Connect

    Draw your work into a narrative that connects these projects. The narrative should convey research vision and ability – What plans do you have for your future? What are some questions that motivate you to get up and do research? Why are they important? Here, it is important to stay disciplined and not stray from the “purpose”. More about how I did this in the next section.

3. Writing about research

Keep your writing tight and about things that explain research abilities. One can do this by writing solely about past research projects. But, it can get challenging to restrict yourself when you find your SoP is bland. Here, you will most likely look for extraneous factors to connect the dots. 🚨🚨 This is where you make or break your SoP 🚨🚨 .

Looking too hard for your “purpose” will naturally end up with stories from when you were a tadpole or flowery sentences straying from research. I overcame this by writing solely about research, but with different abstractions:

  1. Low Level: When I talked about experiences, I dove into technical details, methods, achievements, and more.
  2. High Level: Everywhere else, I wrote about research vision, research style, overarching questions, etc.

I believe this created a more readable and interesting statement for the reader to follow.

4. Get feedback

A critical part of writing is rewriting better, for which feedback is essential. Once I had a draft SoP, I got feedback from multiple sources. Disclaimer: You will hear contradictory arguments (just like paper reviews :P) that will only increase uncertainty in this process. I hence prioritized feedback that would make or break my SoP:

  1. Your Feedback: This was by far the best feedback. Just revisiting a piece of writing after a while (1/2 weeks) gives you a lot of perspective. Listen to yourself and make the edits.

  2. Mentors’ Feedback (a.k.a Letter Writers): These are the people who know your research the best (after you). Their advice on what to focus on/ignore is especially useful.

  3. Feedback from PhD Students: These are the been-there-done-that folks. While their feedback is helpful, they might have very strong opinions on writing style. This is where you can filter advice more and try to understand if the narrative has been conveyed.

  4. + Other: Recently universities themselves have started to provide feedback via Application Support Programs. Here are all the support programs from 2021-22. These should mostly be available for upcoming cycles as well.

Thats it!! These 4 guiding principles should alteast get you started. I hope I’ve shared some new perspectives to systematically work on your SoP – bringing some calm to the storm. Good luck with your applications. 🤞