How to Format a Statement of Purpose: Quick and Easy Guide

Your SOP for grad school is a work of art. Really, it is. You’ve spent weeks crafting this meticulous, beautiful, persuasive piece of personal literature. You know it’s going to boost your chances of admission. You’ve structured it elegantly (using the SOP Starter Kit for Master’s or PhDs), and you’ve edited it to perfection. Now, you’re ready to hit “submit,” except for this one last dagger of anxiety: crap…how to format a statement of purpose?!

It’s an important question!

Tiny details can completely derail your applications. If a school demands a single-spaced essay and you submit double-spaced…how does that make you look? Not “good,” I promise you that.

But worry not, gentle reader. Follow the universal standards below, and I promise you’ll submit an SOP that conforms 100% to your dream grad program’s expectations.

Table of Contents:

  1. Warning: Follow Your School’s Instructions
  2. Font and Font Size — Times New Roman 12pt
  3. Line Spacing — Single or Double
  4. Margins — 0.5” or 2.5cm
  5. Header Template
  6. Course Titles
  7. Citations — Never use them!
  8. Can I adjust font sizes/margins to fit a single page?
  9. What if I have a weird formatting issue?

Warning: Follow Your School’s Instructions

While the following guidelines are the closest we have to universal SOP format standards, lots of schools have their own quirky preferences. Before you hit “submit” for any school, you should double- and triple-check the essay prompt — they often tell you which font and line spacing they prefer.

For example, CUNY-Hunter requires applicants to submit their statement of purpose in Times New Roman or Arial font (though I always advise you to stick with Times New Roman):

CUNY Hunter SOP Guidelines

Also note that at many big public universities like UCLA, you might get mixed messages. The general “Graduate School” administrative office and your hopeful department often have different requirements. You must double-check both to see what they require.

For example, if you’re applying to the MPP program at UCLA’s Luskin School, you’ll find two different word limits!

UCLA MPP SOP Guidelines

Always triple-check each school’s requirements for how to format your statement of purpose!

If they don’t list any specific preferences, then you’re good to go. The standards below will keep you perfect, and you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Font and Font Size — Times New Roman, 12pt

Let’s make this easy: stick with Times New Roman in 12pt size.

There is no other option!

You can write your SOP in whatever font you like, but when you submit it, make sure it’s in Times New Roman 12pt. This is the universal standard in virtually every industry that processes lots of English text. It’s easy for everyone to read. Everyone expects it. And most importantly, it doesn’t call attention to your quirky personal tastes.

If all the best applicants submit their essays in TNR 12, and you use fancy-pants Chanticleer Roman, how does that make you look?

Like the only guy at the job interview who’s wearing a tuxedo and top hat.

Line Spacing — Single- or Double-Spaced (follow instructions!)

In general, both single- and double-spaced are fine. But be careful. As mentioned above, many schools have their own unique preferences indicated in the essay prompt.

For example, Stanford’s MS in Management Science and Engineering requires a single-spaced SOP:

Stanford SOP formatting rules

If your school doesn’t give you any such preference, then honestly, you’re fine with either kind of line spacing (as long as it fits the essay limit).

Margins — 1 inch or 2.5cm

Most applicants never think about the margins for their page layout. But occasionally, I see an applicant who, for some inexplicable reason, prefers a giant moat of white space all around their essay.

Don’t do that.

Keep your margins at 1” or 2.5cm all the way around. This is a universal standard, and it’ll keep your SOP looking nice and professional.

Header Template

If you want to make sure your SOP looks as sharp as possible, I suggest you copy the following format. It’s good luck. One of my students used it last year while earning 13 master’s admissions! (It’s also simple, elegant, and contains all the information grad programs might want.)

Rules:

  1. Right-aligned (CTRL + R)
  2. “Statement of Purpose” in BOLD on the top line
  3. University name
  4. Program name
  5. Your name
  6. Single-space all 4 lines (even if the rest of your essay is double-spaced)

Example:

Statement of Purpose
Gotham University
Master of Public Health
Bruce Wayne

Course Titles — Include Course Numbers and Italicize (if possible)

In their SOPs, many students describe grad classes they hope to take. Yet, many format the course titles in ways that are difficult to understand. For example, consider the following:

“I look forward to taking CS 4057 Business Process Analysis and Design and CS 4240 Compilers, Interpreters, and Program Analyzers.”

“I look forward to taking Business Process Analysis and Design and Compilers, Interpreters, and Program Analyzers.”

That last one is quite confusing, no? Your SOP reader may not be familiar with the exact course names, so give them a helping hand by making it as clear as possible.

If your application allows you to upload a PDF or DOC file, include the course number and italicize the title. It just makes it easier to read and understand.

But what if they require you to past your essay in a text box where the formatting gets wiped? That requires more careful writing. Including the course number will make it easy to understand:

“I especially look forward to two courses: CS4057 Business Process Analysis and Design, as well as CS4240 Compilers, Interpreters, and Program Analyzers.”

Citations — Never use them!

Too often, someone asks me whether they should use footnotes or endnotes in their SOP. Occasionally, they ask if it’s okay to add hyperlinks to a citation. My response is always the same:

No citations!

A statement of purpose is not a research paper. There’s nothing to cite. If you’re attempting to cite something outside your essay, it shows that you don’t understand the function and purpose of the SOP.

If you want to mention an article published by a certain professor, just summarize it in smartly edited language. For example:

“I look forward to working with Professor Bruce Wayne, whose recent publication on heterogeneous decision-making for aerial drones expressed questions similar to those I hope to approach in my capstone.”

Can I Adjust Font Sizes/Margins to Fit a Single Page?

Your application requires an essay of “no more than 1 page.” You’ve done everything possible to cut it that short, but still, it’s one line too long.

Should you decrease the font size to make it all fit? Should you reduce the margins to 0.5 inches?

No. Absolutely not.

When you employ a formatting gimmick like this, everyone notices. It’s awkward to read. Ultimately, all it does is call attention to the fact you chose to employ a gimmick instead of smartly editing your language.

Good writers don’t use formatting gimmicks. They edit their language with deadly precision. I promise you: we can always cut a few more words from an essay. Want to know how? Check out this article for my best tips: Word Cutting: 7 Editing Tricks for Your SOP Word Limit

What if I have weird questions about how to format my statement of purpose?

Don’t ask me!

Really, I mean that. There’s someone much better to ask: the program to which you’re applying. Call or email them to ask what type of formatting they prefer, and I promise, they’ll tell you directly. It only makes their job easier.

The last thing they want is to read SOPs in Chanticleer Roman size-10 font with 0.5-inch margins.

Summary of How to Format a Statement of Purpose

First, follow your school’s instructions. If you’re not certain what they prefer, email them. They’ll be happy to tell you.

But in general, use these guidelines:

  • Times New Roman, 12pt font
  • Single- or double-spaced are both okay
  • 1-inch or 2.5cm margins
  • Add a simple header to the upper right-hand corner
  • List course titles with their course numbers and italicize them if possible
  • Never use citations!
  • Never adjust font sizes or margins to fit a single page!

Follow these guidelines, and rest assured, every school will be happy to read your clean, professional statement of purpose.

Want someone to ensure you don’t make any mistakes? Just ask! I’m a wizard when it comes to word-cutting razor-sharp SOPs.

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