How NOT to write your SOP

It is around this time of year that I get questions about what we look for in Personal Statements or Statements of Purpose (SOP). I’m going to quickly summarize and tell you that we simply want to hear a genuine reflection of what has lead you to graduate school. This should be your personal story, and it should not be a piece of creative writing. I’ve posted about this before with comments from our Admissions Committee members about what they look for. Recently, however, a friend sent me this new post from the Chronicle of Higher Education. I wanted to supplement this essay and add my personal comments. So, take a look at the post then read my comments below.

I agree with the overall sentiment of this post: don’t feel like you or your passion for science needs to be profound. We all care about science, but we are also all scientists; this means that we want to know the facts and details of your path that truly impacted you. Give us the data, not a flowery discourse that may not actually reflect who you are or your sentiments.

As mentioned at the end of the Chronicle post, an overzealous SOP will not stand in the way of your being accepted. This is true. There are a variety of documents that help us understand your scientific background and skills: your resume, your transcripts, and most importantly, letters of recommendation that tell us how you work in a lab setting. These things tell us almost everything we want to know about your credentials and for the most part, you’ve either got the experience and skill we are looking for or you need a little more time to prepare. The SOP is really there just for you to place all of these credentials in context. A terrific SOP will likely not replace missing credentials and a less-than-impressive SOP will not prevent us from wanting to meet a candidate who otherwise sounds well-prepared. In fact, the SOP only makes a strong impact on an admission decision if it helps us frame your credentials in more personal, genuine context. You can read more about when a SOP makes an impact here.

As I said, I agree with the Chronicle post overall. However, there is one thing I do want to disagree with. In contrast to implications in the article, I strongly feel that your SOP should NOT simply be an essay version of your resume that only lists your activities and experiences. Instead, as mentioned above, I want you to put this all in context: tell me how your experiences led you to interest in graduate school. Why did you get involved in particular opportunities? How did each research experience impact you and lead to the next one? What caused you to ultimately consider graduate school? You chose to participate in every activity listed on your resume… Tell me why! I want to know your story, not just your activities. Just make sure this is real, not contrived or an attempt to be overly profound, and you’ll be in great shape!

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