How to write a Statement of Purpose (SOP)?

With academic internships  on Internshala (likes of CERN, JNCASR, EPFL etc.) ruling the roost, we have been inundated with requests for tips on how to write an impressive Statement of Purpose (SOP). The kind which grabs selection committee’s attention and forces them to accept you in one go. We present, a been there and done that, expert telling you the finer nuances of how to write an effective SOP.

About the author: – Nirmal Jayaram graduated from IIT Madras in 2006 post which he did his M.S & Ph.D from Stanford University. Whether Nirmal is synonymous with the term Academic Brilliance or coined it; I am not sure. Sample this – he graduated with a CGPA of 9.54 from IIT Madras (last 4 sem GPA being 10/10), he had calls from all 6 IIMs and attended interviews of only 2 and converted both including IIM Ahmedabad. But of course he did not join it. He had admits with full scholarships from Stanford, MIT, Berkley, Cornell, UTA, & Purdue. Rumors has it that MIT admission committee stalked him for weeks to swing his decision in their favor and sulked for months when he went to Stanford instead. With these credentials, if I were you I would pay VERY close attention to what he has to say on SOP writing. Happy reading…

1. Understand what a statement of purpose means: You’ve probably been in situations where you have to choose one among several exciting alternatives. Recruiters face the same scenario while dealing with several good resumes intended at the same job opening. The statement of purpose gives you an opportunity to connect all your application materials together and express to the recruiter why you fit the role the best. To understand what goes into a good statement of purpose, you need to put yourselves in the recruiter’s shoes, and try to get a feel for the two burning questions a recruiter has:

  1. Why are you interested in the opening? Sometimes the answer to this might be obvious. You current area of study/ work could well be closely related to the job opening, but it still can’t hurt to clearly enunciate your interest in this area of work and how that helps you move further in your intended career path. Naturally this is much more important when the job opening is in an area unrelated to your current area of work, although you might believe that the new area is really your calling. The end goal is that the recruiter needs to believe that you are very serious about this opening and you would give it your all once you actually get the job. More on this later.
  2. What do you bring to the table? So, you have shown the recruiter that no one could be any more serious about the opening than you are. You’ve won half the battle, but you still need to prove that you are not all bluster and you are capable of performing the work at a very high level. Your resume does this for you partly, but the statement of purpose gives you an opportunity to highlight some of your major achievements and skill sets that are closely related to the job of interest.

2. Tell a story, your story! Let’s talk about structuring your statement of purpose for a bit. Your statement of purpose needs to tell your story in such a way that the recruiter clearly understands your background, your capabilities and your suitableness for the job. There are many ways to structure a statement of purpose, and this would be one:

  • Who are you and what do you do currently? Start out with your current education background and what got you there. Maybe you were inspired by pure science as a kid and ended up as a physicist. Maybe you were excited by the world of algorithms in high school that inspired you to pursue the field of computer science. Or maybe you even wanted to build the next Eiffel tower and decided to become a Civil Engineer!
  • What are your current academic credentials? Dedicate some part of your statement of purpose to explain your academic achievements and credentials in your current education program. If you did great in your college entrance exam or in your college exams, state it here and explain how this reflects your dedication to your current field and the hard work you are ready to put in. If you won scholarships through, for example, the National Talent Search Examination, make sure the recruiter knows that.
  • What is your current state of knowledge? Most disciplines are very broad and diverse, and it is imperative that you explain your specialization in more detail. Discuss your coursework and explain why you chose to specialize in the area that you did. Suppose that the job opening requires an intern that pursues research in the analyses of large data sets. You could be a mathematician and might have pursued a diverse set of courses, but you need to explain why the field of data mining excites you the most. You need to specifically identify your data mining-related coursework that clearly illustrates that you have the theoretical background to succeed at this new job.
  • Discuss your past projects: This is particularly critical for research based jobs that require that you be creative, comfortable working in open-ended problems, good at communicating orally and in written, and will not get easily frustrated by occasional difficulties in furthering the project due to research complexities. Some jobs also require that you be capable of working without much guidance or work as part of a large team. The most obvious way to communicate that you possess the above-mentioned skills is to provide a brief description of all your past projects and the skill sets you demonstrated along the way. Any journal or conference papers that you published as part of your projects will go a long way in helping you get a research-oriented job!
  • Discuss your non-technical skills: A lot of successful people are technically sound but also charismatic and possess excellent interpersonal skills. These are almost essential qualities in modern work places and activities that you’ve been part of where you have demonstrated these skills should help you big. Such activities include playing a leadership role in a department or college level association, being part of NSS, or maybe even running your own small startup!
  • Identify yourself with the company/ university: It is of utmost importance that your statement of purpose does not look generic, rather seems well crafted to the specific job opening. It would be wise to discuss briefly about your interest in the specific workplace and not just the nature of work, and in particular detail the attempts you’ve made to learn more about the workplace.

3. Ensure that the statement of purpose is written in a professional manner: A poorly worded statement of purpose with spelling or grammatical errors is a big turn off that would certainly hurt your cause. Request help from friends and colleagues regarding possible wording changes that would make the essay look more professional. Avoid terminology and wording that aren’t obvious to the reader, and remember that different countries may use different terminologies to refer to the same word. Keeping these sensitivities in mind will help.

4. Be brief: Recruiters do not have the time or energy to read through a rambling 4 page essay. The statement of purpose shouldn’t exceed a couple of pages and should be to the point. We are not trying to author the next Lord of the Rings here!

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