It’s almost the end of the application/admission cycle for the Fall intake. I had a great time advising and mentoring the young chaps and few mature folks (in their mid-30s) with their applications for foreign universities. When I look back, there was something common for almost all the applicants. They really struggled with what to write in a Statement of Purpose (SOP) or how to write an effective personal statement. Although I had earlier shared the tips for writing a winning SoP, most of the applicants seem to miss out on the key points on What do Admission Officers and Faculty Members Look For in Personal Statement (SOP).
The majority of applicants did the same mistake of including repetitive information in their personal essays. The trend was particularly common among the applicants for MS in Computer Science, MS Data Science/Analytics. They made the common mistake of making the SoP a technical portfolio and/or repeating their technical skills.
Those who are looking to apply for admissions in Fall 2021 (or later), please read this post on What do Admission Officers and Faculty Members Look For in Personal Statement (SOP) along with the tips and excerpts from admission officers and faculty members.
1. Your Writing Capability
The essay should be well organized and coherent. It should have a well-thought-out idea development and be properly paragraphed. You need to tell a story about your aspirations, your personality, achievements in the form of short paragraphs.
Your writing should be engaging and expressive. A big part of this depends on your personal style, but in general, you should use the active voice and vary your sentence structures.
2. What Makes You Stand Out (Your Uniqueness)?
Quite often, applicants end up writing essays that do not actually shed much light on themselves. An effective personal statement should allow the admission officers to visualize the applicant behind the numbers and to know exactly what type of person you are. Since the admission committee is unable to meet you in-person, the essay should make them feel that they have gotten to know the applicant on a personal level.
3. What Will You Bring to the Community?
Admissions officers want to know how you will contribute to the community. Universities are increasingly aware of the value of cultural diversity among students. As an international student, simply saying you coming from a different country or culture is not enough. How will you bring your culture to the community and share it with your peers and the University? This ties into what makes you unique.
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A good essay requires a good deal of introspection—to arrive at keen self-knowledge of what your strong points are and how to best portray them. Be specific about your cultural experiences and how you might share them with the campus and surrounding community.
4. Consistency with the Remaining Parts of the Application
The statement of purpose is a supporting document. Don’t rehash the rest of your application in your essay. For example, if you have already included your technical skills, multiple awards, and test scores, your essay should not be just a summary of those things.
Indian applicants struggle with this point to a great extent. The admission committee can already see your grades, test scores, work experience, technical skills and achievements from your transcripts, recommendation letters and CV.
CV is all about what are you or what have you done. The SOP is all about who you are – your personality, aspirations, vision, what you stand for, interests, and career goals – which can’t be found in the other components of your application kit.
Always remember that it will be reviewed as part of your overall application. More often than not, admission officers see essays that repeat information such as technical skills, job responsibilities, test scores or awards won.
The admissions officers will be able to see that information in the other parts of your application (application form, transcripts, CV, test reports, etc.). Instead, focus on events in your history where you can go more in-depth and write about not only the outcome but also the process.
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5. Familiarity with the University and/or Department
The admissions officers want to see that you have thoroughly researched the program and made an informed decision in your application. Show the demonstrated interest. Tell the admissions officers about particular professors within the program and why their work interests you. Tell them that you found the school a perfect fit after following the school on social media or after receiving feedback from their alumni or current students.
6. Conclude on a Powerful Note
Always end with a conclusion to summarize the main points of the essay and provide the reader with a strong vision of how you will use the knowledge and experience that you will gain during Master’s studies. What do you see yourself becoming? What impact do you hope to have?
Remember that this is not written in stone, and no one will revoke your degree if you change your mind or life takes you in a different direction. The admissions officers want to know that you have a broad understanding of where you want to go and what that will mean not only to yourself but to others.
Before we move on to a few tips from Admissions Officers and Faculty Members, here is a video on What do Universities like Harvard & Stanford really look for in Personal Essays for MBA Applications:
SoP Tips & Insights from AdCom’s Point of View
See below what the faculty members and admission officers are saying – aggregated from different sources:
“The essay should indicate what you want to study and why. It is used to determine if the applicant’s interests have any relevance to what the department can offer if the applicant seems to have any true interest in the subject and the depth of the interest.
Bad statements convey the attitude of “graduate school is what comes after 16th grade”, or “I didn’t like physics so I decided to try something else”.
Good statements do not brag (tangible accomplishments should be documented as grades, awards, etc. in other parts of the application), but they do relate experience with desire, e.g. “liked theory courses, especially interested in graph theory, have experimented with traveling salesman algorithms.” The statement should have some indication of how graduate study fits into post-graduate plans (something more than “it would be good to have a graduate degree.”) Having said all that, I’ll go on to venture the opinion that the essay isn’t very important. Most statements are so very bland and careful that they are disregarded.” – Faculty Member, College of Computing, Georgia Tech
“I have been on the admissions committee at a large “top-ten” (in CS) university for 2 years. Our committee basically disregards the statement of purpose, so it doesn’t much matter what you write. Think of it as a writing sample (make sure your English is good — that will be noticed), and talk about what you like about CS, and why.
The only thing you don’t want to do is proclaim that all you’ve ever wanted to do is X when the dept. doesn’t have anyone doing research in X. X might be computer-human interaction, or databases, or performance analysis — all good areas of research, but not at all schools. So if you do have some clear ideas of what you want to do, make sure they coincide with the dept.’s strengths; this may mean modifying your statement for different applications.
I know that at some (mostly smaller) schools, the statement of purpose is used to help make application decisions. But we get so many applicants (600+) that undergraduate GPA and GRE scores (especially the generals) are used for the first pass over the application pool and recommendations after that. It is much more important to get good recommendations — especially if you can get a recommendation from someone well-known, whose will be familiar to people on the admissions committee — than to have the most interesting statement of purpose.” – Admission Officer of the Top 10 US University
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Review committees use your personal statement mainly to match you with an advisor. What you are doing is explaining how you might fit into an advisor’s projects. So, review committees generally want you to answer questions in the Personal Statement:
1) “What do you want to study, and why do you want to do it here?”
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 be a few sentences long, and it will form about a third of your Personal Statement.
2) Do you have pertinent experience?
Pull out your resume and describe–aloud–the projects that it hints at. You don’t need to talk about your hometown, and you don’t need to talk about the other disciplines you sampled and abandoned. You need to talk about the things you have done WHICH WILL HELP THEM TO MATCH YOU WITH AN ADVISOR.
3) What is your motivation for doing this?
Why on earth would you want to put yourself through the trouble of grad school? You need to answer this question. Committee members know that people who really want the degree are people who finish, and these are the folks that committees want to recruit.
Review committees need to see answers to these questions. It is your job to provide answers. Faculty Member, Georgia Tech, Dept. of Mechanical Engineering “The personal statement is your one chance to tell the admissions committee who you are and where you are going. When judging statements, we look for three things: preparation, fit with department and writing ability. With regard to preparation, tell us what you are looking for in graduate school, and how your prior experience fits in with your anticipated future. With regard to fit, express your current research interests (what led you to graduate school?).
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. Finally, the statement is our only indication of your writing and communication ability. Proofread your statement carefully! (I can’t emphasize this enough). Poor grammar, spelling, or other errors (such as referring to the wrong institution) can cause rejection since applications are so competitive. Another pitfall to avoid is the overly generic personal statement, e.g. “I am interested in all areas of computer science and I want to study at your department because of your excellent research reputation in computer science”.” Faculty Member, Georgia Tech
Really, it boils down to (1) have something to say, and (2) say it as briefly and clearly as possible. I’ve never seen anyone is admitted to CMU SCS because we thought that their SOP was cool. I have seen cases where a clumsy or error-filled SOP kills the application.
We have admitted some students because of projects you 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.
Unfortunately, the SOP can’t be used as reliable evidence that you write well in English since so many students get someone else to write it or edit it for them. But if the SOP is filled with errors of grammar or usage or spelling, that’s pretty strong evidence of language difficulty or sloppiness. In any case, clarity matters and verbal/graphical fireworks do not.
For heaven’s sake, don’t send us anything like the sample in Aaron Fillbrewth’s answer. For graduate CS admission, we’re not going to be impressed with your ability to create a document with decorated margins. This isn’t high school or a summer class on how to format wedding invitations with MS Word. I probably wouldn’t throw away an application just because the SOP has tossed a salad in the margins, but I would want to. – Professor Emeritus, Carnegie Mellon University
- Demonstrate motivation in-between the lines.
- Emphasize everything from a positive perspective
- Recommended writing structure:
- This is where you tell them what you want to study. For example, M.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering with an emphasis in dynamics and controls.
- Summarize what you did as an undergraduate
- Important class or classes you took which stimulated your desire for graduate study; specific project or class?
- The research you might have done. Indicate with whom, the title of the project and what your responsibilities were. Write technically; it’s professors, not secretaries, reading this.
- Work experience, especially if you had any kind of responsibility for testing, designing, or researching a product or apparatus.
- Indicate what you want to study in graduate school in greater detail. This is a greater elaboration of your opening paragraph.
- Indicate area of interest, then state questions you might have which are associated; i.e. what you might be interested in studying. You should have an area selected before you write the statement.
- If you can, contact the department for information and find out what the professors are doing for research. Are there people whose interests match yours? If so, indicate this as it shows a sign that the student has done his or her homework and is highly motivated. (Be sincere, however. Don’t make-up something bogus just to impress people.)
– Admission Officer, UC Berkeley
A successful statement will…
- Has great opening lines or paragraphs
- Conveys at least a glimpse of the applicant’s personality
- Substantiates specific academic preparation and knowledge of the subject matter
- Demonstrates an understanding of the challenges as well as the rewards of a chosen career
- Gives a sense of maturity, compassion, stamina, teamwork skills, leadership potential, and general likability, usually without addressing these issues directly (tells a story rather than gives a list)
- Says what you really mean by describing an event or emotions and thoughts in detail
- Gives specifics, with DETAILS. It’s far better to give your essay a complete description of one incident than to cram it full of activities and accomplishments without any hint of what they meant to you, your motivations for doing them, what you learned, or emotions evoked.
- Shows how you will use the graduate education in your planned career and establishes that you understand your place in the “big picture”
- Demonstrate that you’ve read the catalog carefully, researched the program, and have considered your reasons for applying to the particular school.
- Direct your focus at that specific program; refer to faculty with whom you have been in contact.
- Get the name of the program you are applying to into the statement. Know the exact name.
- All the best essays will be both honest and direct.
- Don’t attempt to guess at what you think people want to hear.
- Sincerity and truthfulness should be clearly evident.
- You must demonstrate to the committee how your goals coincide with what the program has to offer as well as how you will fit in and how your qualifications will benefit the program.
- The applicant should not use the same essay for each program. A generic personal statement is easy to detect.
- To distinguish your essay, add something unique to it without throwing in irrelevant information that will annoy your readers. One of the best ways to do this is to discuss, briefly, an idea in your field that turns you on intellectually. It’s an effective essay-opener, and it lets you write about something besides yourself for a bit. There are other benefits as well. The ideas you choose to talk about, and your comments on it, often tell an admissions committee more about you than your own self-descriptions can.
- Finally, don’t just reuse the same statement of purpose for each school you apply to. You can recycle the same information, but make sure you tweak it for every school. Your statement will sound stale and the admissions committee will notice if you don’t do this.
– Faculty Member & Admission Officer, California State University