How to Write a Compelling Statement of Purpose (SOP) for Graduate School

What’s a Statement of Purpose

A statement of Purpose or simply SOP refers to an essay in the form of an application submitted to a university or institution of higher learning, detailing vital details germane to the applicant and his or her suitability for the program. Most universities, if not all, require applicants to write a SOP to the admission committee detailing their suitability for the program. Given how difficult it is to secure a doctoral place in the best universities in the world, it is imperative to know how to write a SOP.

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What’s a Graduate School Statement of Purpose?

A doctoral SOP describes an applicant’s interests, goals, educational and professional background, achievements, personality, and reasons for choosing the specific program and educational institution. From the SOP, the relevant institution will understand the reasons behind joining the university and thus determine whether it is well placed to help you achieve your goals,

An important point to note is that while there is a general standard for writing Graduate school Statements of Purpose, different universities may require different details or formats. It is therefore vital that before writing one you visit the university’s admission requirements page and see what their specifications are.

If you’re applying the general format, we’ve prepared a step by step guide that will help you.

If you changed career path and don’t know how to write a SOP for graduate school in your new career, we’ve a handy guide.

Why is a Statement of Purpose Important?

  • First, a Statement of Purpose is an integral part of applying for a doctoral slot
  • A SOP is arguably one of the most important determinant of getting placement in a doctoral program
  • A SOP helps to convince the admission panel that you’re fit for a slot
  • It introduces you to the educational institution and selection committee so that you’re no longer a stranger
  • It is a chance to brag about academic and professional experience while using them to show why further education may be good for you
  • It’s a chance to show off one’s writing/communication skills
  • It’s an opportunity to secure an interview with the chosen university

Format of a Graduate School Statement of Purpose

A general doctoral SOP answers the following five steps in the order provided:

  • Explain who you are as a person and as a student
  • Explain your interest in the field of study/program
  • Explain what you’ve done so far in this particular field
  • Explain why you want to study more in this field
  • Explain why you want to study in the particular university/program

How to Organize your SOP

If properly structured, a statement of purpose allows the admission committee to trace your development as a person and as a student. To effectively organize your SOP, assume the role of a story teller and detail how you have grown as a researcher and as a student, making sure that the details are sequential and easy to follow. Given that the word count is limited to just around 600 words for most universities, it is important that you observe brevity.

Six to eight paragraphs are typically enough with each paragraph containing about 100 words.

1st paragraph-Open your first paragraph with a “hook” that makes your interest and passion in the field of study clear.

2nd paragraph-This is ideally a transitional paragraph that connects your passion in the field to your background. Explain what most interests you about the field of study, the reasons for interest in the topic and when you started exhibiting it.

3rd paragraph-This is the place where you describe your academic background. Mention classes you’ve attended and professors you’ve worked with, all the while describing how they impacted you.

4th paragraph-Extrapolate the extracurricular activities you’ve participated in. Don’t forget to show how they link with your research interest.

5th paragraph-Describe your educational and professional accomplishments while mentioning publications and other accolades that you’ve received. Mention your thesis, research articles etc and other recent activities related to your area of interest.

6th paragraph-Explain the problem/area that you’ve identified. This is a very important part of your PhD Statement of Purpose and it should be written clearly and elaborately. Link this to your future academic and professional goals.

7th paragraph-Justify your choice of the program and university. Explain how you fit into the institution by elucidating shared values and philosophy. It may also help to mention some professors and how you intend to benefit from working with them. Don’t forget to include what you bring to the program.

8th paragraph-Provide a brief conclusion by reiterating the purpose for applying to the specific program.

Language and Style of a SOP

A doctoral SOP is not a research paper and the style therefore ought not to be strictly academic. However, it doesn’t have to be informal. Remember you’re addressing an admission committee made up of professors and you don’t want to come across as a joker. It’s recommendable that you use formal language. Ensure that your writing is free of grammatical and typological errors. When drafting the statement of purpose, adhere to the following standards:

  • Use language appropriate to your level. If you’re applying for a PhD program, use ‘PhD level’ academic language.
  • Use personal tone to help establish rapport with the reviewer. Remember you’re addressing human beings and they’ll need to feel you.
  • Use first person point of view, the Statement of purpose is a personal story after all.
  • Write sequentially starting from the latest activities and achievements to the oldest.
  • Provide details and make them specific. Where you can, mention events, people, and so on by name.
  • Proofread your Statement of Purpose and make it as impeccable as possible.

Tips for Writing a Compelling SOP

By dint of being the highest level of study, Statements of Purpose for PhD attract more stringent scrutiny than their undergraduate and graduate SOP counterparts. In additional to being written in impeccable, high level English, they must also be of the highest quality. Below we’ve summarized eight tips that you need to consider to make your doctoral SOP stand out.

Customize your SOP

Customize your SOP to your favored program and school. Most applicants find writing SOPs a time consuming, daunting process in which success is not guaranteed. They therefore end up forwarding one generic SOP to all schools and programs, a mistake that significantly reduces their chances of landing their doctoral slot.

Ideally, your SOP should be customized to fit the specific project, school and program you’re applying to. After reading your SOP, the admission committee should be convinced that in an ocean of other schools and programs, theirs is the most fitting for you.

Explain your Qualifications

Show that you are qualified for the PhD program by describing your past experience right from undergraduate and graduate career. Brag about the project you undertook and research you conducted at all levels. Let the admission committee know about your scholarly activities and research projects.

If you’ve professional and volunteer experience that aligns with the PhD program or school’s mission, talk about it. If the educational institution requires proficiency in certain languages, or any other skills, make sure to mention them.

Underscore your Research Interest

Some applicants make the cardinal mistake of not stating or understating their research interests while factually, it is the one area where they should dwell more. To accentuate your research interests, set the topic by defining the problem that you want to address in your PhD.

You may also pose the question that you want to address or indicate the theme you’d like to explore further. Underscore the inspiration for the research topic and emphasize how your work will contribute to present and future scholarship.

Explain why the Program/School is a Good Match

Having established your research interest, it’s now a chance to show the admission committee that you belong to the school. To establish a sense of belonging, mention some of the faculty members or professors by name. Explain how their work aligns with your research interests and why you would like to work under them.

Research about the university and highlight important attributes such as the course work and how it is delivered and how this appeals to you. You may also mention about your prospective future colleagues and how you’ll enrich each other’s research work. To emphasize, avoid being general when writing this section. Always remember the first tip: CUSTOMIZE.


With just two pages, you cannot say everything so make every word count. Cut off personal stories or useless details such as explaining that you’re passionate about your subject.

Seek a Second Opinion

Having written your PhD statement of purpose, ask a more experienced friend or professor in your field to review it for you. If they have experience in admission processes the better.

Edit and Review your SOP

Don’t present a SOP with typing and grammatical errors. Read it several times and make sure that it is impeccable.

What not to do when Writing a SOP

For your SOP to be convincing and memorable, avoid the following common mistakes:

  • Don’t regurgitate your Academic CV. A SOP is not an elaboration of a CV
  • Don’t fail to use a hook statement. Make your CV memorable
  • Don’t make your SOP generic/ Tailor it.
  • Don’t fail to explain your fitness for the program and university
  • Explain the value you bring
  • Explain your values relating to inclusivity and collaboration

Samples of Statements of Purpose for Graduate and Undergraduate level


PhD Statements of Purpose