Writing Statements of Purpose for Awards and Grad School

This month, I will outline what goes into writing a very important but somewhat unfamiliar genre for most writers: the statement of purpose (SOP). I hope this is helpful both to readers who want to apply for something themselves and to teachers of students who will be applying. Some relevant program applications are coming up soon, most requiring an SOP:


What Is a Statement of Purpose?

In applications for both awards and graduate school, the SOP is often the one place where you can frame yourself as unique and worthy of the award or admission. Often, the rest of the application is a series of lists: dates you earned your degrees, publications and presentations you’ve done, people who can vouch for you. But in the SOP, you have the space to tell your own story and show the readers who you are as a person and how receiving the award or joining the program will benefit both you and other people.

The SOP is a difficult genre to write for several reasons. One is the high stakes it holds: admission to a prestigious graduate program or granting of an esteemed award. Another is its relative obscurity. Unlike journal articles or blog posts, there are few examples available publicly for us to study. Swales and Feak also point out that the SOP as a genre varies widely from program to program, with different requirements between MA and PhD statements and even across departments in the same field. In addition, SOP writers must tread a narrow path between playing up their qualifications and not sounding overly boastful. Nevertheless, with practice and feedback, you, too, can write a high quality SOP.

Key Features of SOPs

While SOPs vary depending on purpose, most follow a basic pattern. Swales and Feak (citing Bekins et al., 2004) identify those moves as the following:

  • Hook: a brief anecdote that makes the statement compelling for readers. The hook should be personal (something you have actually experienced), but also connected to the program or award. Keep the hook short; a few sentences are enough to give your readers a clear sense of who you are.
  • Program: an explanation of why you want to attend (or apply for) the program or award. This part should show that you know what the program or award is about, but should not spend too much time telling the reviewers things they already know about their program. Note that in graduate school SOPs, this section might come after the self-promotion stage instead of early on.
  • Background: an overview of your qualifications for the program or award. Highlight what you have done in your life and career (your education and your professional experience) that makes you a good candidate for this program or award. Don’t be shy, but don’t over-hype your qualifications, either. If this part is difficult, focus on stating facts about what you have done.
  • Self-Promotion: a statement of a few achievements that make you better qualified than most applicants. Keep this part as closely tied to the program as you can—if you are applying to a graduate program in teaching, describe a few accomplishments related to instructional practices or materials development, for example. If you are applying for an award that has a specific focus, describe in detail what you have done that fits within that focus.
  • Projection: a reflection of your future goals and how the program or award will help you reach those. This part is especially important for graduate school applications, but does also apply to awards. Show the selection committee that studying in their program or receiving their award will add to your future plans and that you will make productive use of what you receive from the program.

Tips for Writing SOPs

  • Write a separate SOP for each award or program. You can reuse some text from one to another, but it’s important to tailor what you write specifically to show that you really do know what that particular program is.
  • Keep focused on what makes you right for the program. You do not need to flatter the readers by telling them how wonderful their program is; instead, be clear about how you can gain from specific aspects of it.
  • Stay within the word count. Even if you have more to say, going beyond the word count shows you are not willing to follow directions and may reflect badly on your qualifications for the award or program.
  • Don’t direct readers to your CV or application. Even if this means repeating information, assume that the readers have not seen the other document(s) yet. Some reviewers start with the SOP and only look at the CV if they see value in the SOP.
  • Get feedback from several different readers. If you know someone who has served on a review committee for a similar program, definitely ask them.
  • Proofread carefully before submitting. Make sure you write the program or award name accurately and that you have removed any irrelevant names from repurposed text. This is a document where you definitely do not want unintended typos, either.

What additional advice do you have for writers of SOPs? If you’ve been on a review committee, what makes the best SOPs stand out? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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3 Responses to
Writing Statements of Purpose for Awards and Grad School

  1. Wélica says:

    Great tips. This is definitely helpful!

  2. Cristin Boyd says:

    Great advice Betsy!! I agree with all points made. Always remember your audience and their reality… reading 5…50…500 SOPs!!

    • Betsy Gilliland says:

      Mahalo, Cristin! Yes, that’s something I didn’t mention–for every application you submit, the reviewers have to read dozens if not hundreds of applications. This is another reason for staying within the word limit in particular, as well as making your application focused and tailored to the specific program.

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