How to Dominate your SOP’s Why This Program Section

When it comes to the graduate statement of purpose, most applicants face a difficult problem: articulating why a particular university is the right place for them. Astonishingly, many students don’t attempt this at all. They just list their credentials, hope for the best, and cry into their boba when rejections pile up. Others copy-paste each school’s name into a generalized paragraph at the end – a classic “Kiss of Death.” Many others paraphrase brochure cliches from the department website, explaining what they “will learn.” All are a shame, because your SOP Why This Program section is, in my opinion, the single most important part of your application.

The SOP is the only way for grad schools to tell if you’ve got a good plan. If you know what you’re doing. If you have legitimate reasons for applying to their uber-competitive school, or if you’re just another desperate kid with a vague belief that a grad degree will make you employable, somehow. As I often say, this is why it’s called a statement of PURPOSE – it’s about your plans for the future.

Fortunately, writing a brilliant “Why This Program” section isn’t difficult. It just takes a little thought and reverse-engineering. Best of all, once you’ve done so, your entire plans for grad school will come into crystalline focus.

You’ll say: “Ah ha! This is the whole point! Everything makes sense now!”

“Why This Program?” Doesn’t Mean “What Will You Learn?”

Grad schools don’t care why you’re applying for a master’s or PhD in general.

Okay, that’s silly. They do want to know. You’ll explain that in your Introductory Frame Narrative. But in terms of the Why This Program section, they don’t care what you hope to learn in general. They don’t want to read a description of the skills that all students obtain in their program.

Instead, they care about why you’re applying to them specifically.

If you’re applying for an Ed.M. in Counseling Psychology at Columbia, why do you prefer them over the awesome programs at Penn and Northwestern? What’s different? What’s unique about Columbia? What makes them special?

(If you’re looking around nervously right now, thinking, “Uhhh…I don’t know…” then don’t worry. I got you, friend.)

The most common mistake students make here is to paraphrase generalized lingo from the website, describing what they “will learn” from the program. Here’s an example:

At Columbia Teacher’s College, I will obtain first-rate practitioner preparation in the context of first-rate scholarship. I will learn to apply these skills in clinical practice, administration, assessment, and research as well as to produce knowledge, to be a leader in policy development and implementation, and to work in independent practice.”

Believe me. They know you will learn these skills. That’s why they created the program in the first place, and why they wrote them so clearly on the website. This doesn’t tell them anything about YOU. Even worse, this statement doesn’t differentiate Columbia from any other school. You can gain those skills in EVERY school, so saying this just makes you sound like an automaton.

WARNING: If you’ve written “In this program, I will learn…” in your Why This Program section, there’s a strong chance you’re telling the school what they already know. This is a “Thank you Captain Obvious!” moment. Don’t do this.

It’s NOT about what the school offers you. It’s about what YOU bring to the table. Even in the Why This Program section, where you’re highlighting everything that’s unique about the school…it’s still about what you bring to the table.

So, how to effectively describe why they’re unique and special for you, while simultaneously emphasizing what you bring to the table?

Step 1: Figure Out Your Ultimate Career Goal

In other articles I’ve described the importance of including a “Sentence of Purpose” in your SOP. This is a kind of thesis statement that explains what you hope to achieve in the future. It should read something like this:

“This is why I apply to Gotham University today: to learn to disentangle data, construct valid inferences, and design clinical trials which apply statistical methods for improved cancer-screening tests and treatments.”

This statement indicates the shape of your hopeful career, which can take different forms.

If you’re the student above, you want to be a research biostatistician working on cancer screening. If you’re applying to a Master’s in Computational Science and Engineering, you may want to work as a Data Analyst at Accenture, or perhaps in smart manufacturing for Bose. If you’re applying for that Columbia Psychology program, you might want to work as a counselor for at-risk children in a rural hospital.

Whatever your own career goal is, take the time to define it.

DO THIS!

Visualize your dream career. Where is it? Which city? What’s the exact job title? What kind of company? Visit Indeed or ZipRecruiter and find listings for jobs you’d love to have. Find AT LEAST two companies you’d like to work for.

If you’re a clueless PhD applicant (yes, I know how many of you are out there), decide whether you want to work in industry or academia. Then, do exactly the same. Even if you want to be a professor, contemplate what your dream research looks like in the future. What kind of impact do you want to make? Articulate your professional dream. Don’t be realistic. This is about defining your ideal.

Step 2: Reverse Engineer the Skills You Need to Achieve Your Goal

Let’s say you want to get hired as a Software Engineer for a giant retail company like Amazon. Your dream job description on ZipRecruiter lists a few necessary skills:

  • Specialization in mobile positions: Kotlin, Swift, Javascript, React Native
  • Experience with modern unit testing frameworks (e.g., Mocha, Chai)
  • Experiences with building microservices
  • Well versed in both private and public cloud technologies

Fantastic! Now, you know exactly what you need to obtain from your graduate degree. These are the skills you need to master to be qualified for your dream job. You probably already have experience with a few, but know you’re lacking in others. That’s great. That means you have a VALID reason for applying to grad school – to fill those gaps!

Step 2 is all about filling gaps.

DO THIS!

List the skills you need to qualify for your dream job…but don’t yet possess.

If you’re applying for a master’s and want a job afterward, just follow the steps I’ve described above and pilfer the job requirements on ZipRecruiter.

If you’re applying for a thesis-based or lab-rotation master’s and want to apply to PhDs afterward, figure out the lab skills you need to acquire. Also, get as specific as possible about the topics you want to research. You don’t need to be as thorough as a PhD, but you need a strong direction. This exercise will help.

If you’re still a clueless PhD applicant (Hi! Welcome!), you need a different strategy. You’ve already named your dream research topics. Now, figure out which skills and perspectives will be most helpful in exploring these questions. Econometrics? Computational frameworks for multiverse analysis? Psychoanalysis in literary criticism? What’s your approach going to be? Figure out the angles that seem the most intellectually compelling to you. Ideally, you’d know this already, but many don’t I’ve learned. (Or, at least they haven’t put it into words.)

Step 3:  Explain How Your Target University Will Give You Those Skills

Classes. Professors with strange expertise. Capstone projects. Wildly unique labs. Co-op programs. Corporate sponsorships. Concentrations. Specialization tracks.

As you browse your target schools’ websites, you’ll find they work pretty hard to “sell” you on how great they are. Take a look at Harvard’s Engineering school below:

Harvard Engineering Website Screencap

Faculty & Research. Industry Partners & Recruiters. Employment & Jobs. Perhaps more than anything else, the “News & Events” section is FULL of articles about the awesome things their professors and students are doing.

Each of these items represents a gift to you. It’s a resource you can use.

You’ve already visualized your career goal.

You’ve already visualized the skills you need to obtain to reach your goal.

Now, it’s time to visualize how you’re going to obtain those skills at Harvard (or, you know, where-the-heck-ever.)

DO THIS!

For every skill or niche expertise you listed in Step 2, find a way to obtain it at your target school.

Do they have an entire class dedicated to the Mocha testing framework? Will they place you in a semester-long co-op as a school counselor in rural Montana? Do they have a professor whose research into sugar’s effects on memory circuits dovetails with your interest in high-fructose corn syrup?

Yes?

Awesome. Now, you have specific reasons for “Why This Program.”

If you’re a PhD applicant, this will revolve entirely around finding suitable professors. You know this already. (At least, you SHOULD know this.)

If you’re a master’s applicant, it’ll be a combination of everything above. Internships. Labs. Whatever resources they have to fill the gaps in your expertise…those are your reasons “why.” You’re not just highlighting awesome things about the school – you’re explaining, specifically, how you’re going to fill your own gaps.

STEP 4: Don’t Forget to Answer the Question “Why?”

Again, as you write your Why This Program section, don’t just “list” everything that looks cool. Instead, tell them why it’s so important for you.

This is a bad-to-average sentence:

“At Gotham University, the Modern Unit Testing Frameworks course will give me a solid foundation in both Mocha and Chai.”

(Cough, cough. Thanks for reading the course descriptions, Captain Obvious.)

This is a much better sentence:

“At Gotham University, the Modern Unit Testing Frameworks course will give me a solid foundation in both Mocha and Chai, skills necessary for a software engineer who hopes to work in on-demand cloud computing platforms like Azure or AWS.”

By connecting the skill to your ultimate goal, you show the school that you really understand how to make full use of their resources. You’re showing what you bring to the table, and suddenly, you’ve become their dream student. You know what you need to achieve your goal. You know they provide resources to learn it. And now, you’re giving them confidence that you’re going to be a grand success.

Here’s another bad sentence:

“I am interested in working with Professor Charles Xavier because his research in Mutant Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aligns with my own.”

Better:

“I am interested in working with Professor Charles Xavier because his current research in Mutant Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aligns with my goals in Clinical Telepathy.”

Awesome example:

“I am interested in working with Professor Charles Xavier because his current research in Mutant Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aligns with my goals in Clinical Telepathy. Specifically, in his recent study of high-functioning autism occurrence in telepaths, he employed the novel Grey Jumpstart technique which I believe will be integral in my own research on Psionic Shields.”

Writing your Why This Program section will take some finesse, but whatever you highlight about the school, make sure it shows clearly how it fills some gap in your current expertise, and how it will springboard you toward the career of your dreams.

Conclusion

When evaluating applicants, grad programs look for the students who will make the best use of their resources. If you’re Stanford, you don’t want the bummy Oliver Twist-looking kids who show up with their hands out, mumbling: “Give me knowledge, please sir.”

They want the fierce, smiling students who say: “I’m going to take THESE exact classes, and work in THIS exact lab, and conduct research with THIS professor, and then immediately apply for THIS kind of job working on THIS kind of project in THESE kinds of companies, and THAT is why I need YOU, Stanford. Because I can’t achieve my dreams without YOU.”

To become this student, to dominate your Why This Program section:

  1. Visualize your dream career
  2. Reverse engineer the skills you’ll need to be qualified
  3. Find specific ways to obtain those skills in your target school
  4. And then say explicitly that gaining these skills, at this school, will be necessary for you to achieve your goals.

It’s easier than it looks. Just take 30 minutes to think through these steps, and I promise your SOP will be infinitely better for it.

Want help streamlining the “Why This Program” section in your SOP, I’m here for you!

How will you explain to your dream school why they’re so perfect and special for you?

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