Structure is Magic (A Guide to the Graduate SOP)

Structure is Magic Graduate SOP Guide by WriteIvy

Structure is magic.

It’s present in all of your favorite songs. It’s there, hidden, in all of your favorite movies. It’s the addictive thing that makes you binge watch Netflix shows for hours on end, and it’s the engine of virtually every novel that’s ever kept you up at night.

Ignore the structure of essays at your peril. To do so is as stupid as taking the GRE in the dark. Your goal is to conquer a somewhat vague and mysterious admissions committee, and structure is your secret weapon, the magical potion that will make them blink, smile a little, and then say: “Hey, I like this one.”

But structure (as a kind of magic) is not just a set of arbitrary rules that some stuffy, ancient Harvard professor declared and sent out across the land attached to carrier pigeons. Structure, in fact, isn’t a set of rules at all. If it were, we’d call it “rules” and not “structure.”

No, structure is patterns. In 5,000 years of recorded history, humans have done a great deal of writing. Lots of speeches, plays, essays, stories, songs, and fables. Most of them we have forgotten. Why? Because they sucked. They were boring as hell. They didn’t make people feel anything, and so they were left to rot on the wayside of history (just like the thousands of boring admissions essays submitted each year).

But some of them…oh, they were good. You’ve read many of them. Oedipus Rex. Journey to the West. Petrarch’s sonnets. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Star Wars. Beowulf. The Sword in the Stone. And one of my personal favorites: Pixar’s Coco.

The one common thing among these memorable acts of writing is that they consistently make people feel something. Curiously, everyone feels the same thing. We all feel anxious when Frodo wrestles with Gollum above the fiery pits of Mount Doom. We all feel powerfully overjoyed when Miguel finally meets his great grandfather.

When we look at all these successful, memorable pieces of writing, we find patterns in the beats of the narrative, subtle undercurrents that affect our subconscious and demand that we keep reading, watching, or listening. This is the thing that makes a story good, the thing that makes it timeless.

Structure, thus, isn’t an arbitrary set of rules, but the patterns we’ve found in the works that people found powerful. It’s the hidden subconscious language that affects human hearts in a universal way.

Likewise, in university admissions essays, structure is the magic that makes readers feel what we want them to feel: that they’ve found a gifted, charming person, someone like them, a little conflicted, potentially a friend, someone who, I don’t know, just fits in this university that I call home. A Frodo. A Miguel. A Luke Skywalker…someone that they just want to see win. A hero in whom they see themselves.

Structure is the difference between becoming a Jedi, and remaining a stubborn uneducated farm boy who spends his days shooting womp rats on Tatooine.

Structure is The Force.

This is how you use it.

The Graduate Statement of Purpose

Unlike undergraduate application essays which require a more whimsical storytelling voice, the graduate statement of purpose needs to be all business.

Think of this as a return-on-investment situation. Universities have tremendous resources of time and expertise. They want to choose the students who will give them the greatest return on these resources. They want safe bets. They want students guaranteed to succeed, students who will undoubtedly take these resources and turn them into glorious contributions to the lofty world of academia (thus furthering the university’s good name and helping their US News rankings).

Does that mean they want the students with the best grades? The best GMAT and GRE scores? Yes, but not exactly.

Sports gamblers know that the most gifted athletes don’t always win championships. Instead, the best teams do.

Graduate students work closely with their professors. It’s a small, tight-knit community. Yes, they only want brilliant people in that community. But they also only want people whom they know will play nice. Students who will make the community better. Students who are just awesome human beings. Not prickly blowhards seeking personal glory.

This is the great power of the SOP. This is where you show them that you’re a memorable human being, someone who will make his graduate department a better place to be. And a well-structured graduate statement of purpose is the absolute best way to do it.

The 4 Sections of a Memorable Graduate Statement of Purpose

  1. Introductory Frame Narrative
  2. Why This Program
  3. Why You’re Qualified
  4. Closing Frame Narrative

You may have heard of the “hero’s journey.” Popularized by Joseph Campbell in his seminal 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero’s journey is, according to Wikipedia:

…a broad category of tales and lore that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.

We can use the hero’s journey to understand what makes certain SOPs memorable in a timeless way. Screenwriters have used this template for decades, and you should recognize it as the outline of every single Pixar movie. In the basic version, a hero is living a normal life, until she encounters a conflict. This conflict launches her on a journey where she faces trials and failures. Then she meets a knowledgeable mentor who gives her advice. She takes that advice, goes off to fight and defeat a monster, then returns home a better person with some magical trophy or knowledge that makes the world better for everyone.

So, we have the following important elements:

  1. A hero
  2. A conflict (that begets a journey)
  3. A mentor
  4. A monster
  5. A magical gift that makes the world better

Now, let’s re-frame these elements for the graduate statement of purpose:

  • Hero: You
  • A conflict that begets a journey: The moment in time when you realized you NEEDED a graduate degree
  • A mentor: The graduate program
  • A monster: The obstacles preventing you from obtaining your future career and changing the world (think UN or Silicon Valley HR offices)
  • A magical gift that makes the world better: Your knowledge obtained from the university applied to your ultimate goal (e.g. cancer research, machine learning in the fashion retail industry, or microfinance for women in developing countries)

Now, let’s apply them to the structure above:

  1. Introductory Frame Narrative

HERO meets CONFLICT and REALIZES she needs to seek a MENTOR to achieve her GOAL

In this section of 1-2 paragraphs, you tell the quick story of how you came to be where you are right now, applying to a graduate program. You introduce some poignant moment of reflection in your life. This cannot be a paragraph of generalities about how you’ve always been interested in computer science or anthropology. Instead, it should tell of a specific time and place, and show you experiencing a troubling moment where you realize that you NEED a mentor to accomplish your goals. It probably shouldn’t be too dramatic, but it should contain all of the above elements, even if only briefly.

Example:

Among international students in the U.S., it is a common joke that “we can’t afford to be ill.” I learned this myself during freshman year, when a viral infection required an emergency room trip. It wasn’t a complicated procedure, and I was home in a matter of hours. In fact, the virus was much less harrowing than paying for my treatment, a torturous, year-long process of back-and-forth between the hospital which was never able to accept my insurance, a physician who demanded separate payment, and an aggressive debt collector who made veiled threats. The total amount was $1,012 dollars. I remember it clearly. I paid it in cash, bewildered and aggravated.

The real problem for international students is not whether we can afford healthcare, but whether we can efficiently utilize the American system. This is a genuine problem. Social demographics are changing worldwide. Immigrant communities don’t stop growing. Thus, this is not merely a personal affair, but also a risk issue which needs to be addressed by service providers and their international counterparts. That’s exactly why I seek to study at Columbia: I want to play a role in improving this system, both here in America, and in China, my home.

  1. Why This Program

HERO explains why this UNIQUE PROGRAM is the right MENTOR for her and her GOAL

This section of 1-2 paragraphs details how your chosen graduate PROGRAM will help you resolve the conflict from Section 1. It will list all of the wonderful details about the PROGRAM that make it unique and better for you than other PROGRAMS. These details will be specifically related to you obtaining your ultimate goal.

Please, please note that I’m capitalizing “program” and not writing “graduate school” in general. To convince your mentor to take you as an apprentice, you need to show them that you’re a worthy investment of their time. Do you think MIT will take a student who just needs a general education in computer science (one that they could get from any university, or even online for free)? Not a chance! They’re looking for a student who has studied every possible nuance of their unique Computation for Design and Optimization program. They want students who already know which classes they’ll take, which professors they’ll work with, and what topic they’ll pursue in their capstone project. These are the details which will convince the university that you’re going to be a 100% guaranteed success.

Example:

The Technology, Innovation, and Education program at Harvard seems tailor made for my goal: to create technology that makes education more effective, efficient and engaging. This is the future of global education, both for privileged urbanites, and those rural children close to my heart. I am excited by the prospect of coursework such as Transforming Education Through Emerging Technologies with professor Christopher Dede, for it shows how Harvard students fill the gaps between emerging technologies and humanist ideals. I’m particularly keen to explore the impact of social issues (especially gender) in curriculum design, because these issues are doubly raw in developing South America. The TIE internship program will also be important for me. As a Marketing major with sparse teaching experience (at least compared to Education undergraduates), working at the Boston Museum of Science or at Walden Media will give me a clearer understanding of how educational technologies work in real students’ hands.

  1. Why You’re Qualified

HERO explains why she’s QUALIFIED to receive MENTOR’S guidance

This section will take 1-2 paragraphs, or 3 if you’re a PhD applicant who needs to explain some previous research experience. Basically, you’re showing how you’ve prepared for this great challenge by working your butt off in undergrad, or in your career, earning excellent grades, professional honors, etc.

It’s a CV, of sorts. But don’t make the terrible mistake of listing every tiny detail. Save that for your actual CV. Trust me, they’ll find it. Instead, focus only on the most relevant highlights from your career thus far. Primarily discuss the obstacles you’ve conquered, those which prove you’re ready to succeed in this great new journey.

Also, stay relevant. If you’re applying to a program in Computer Science, don’t talk about your impressive honors in debate competition, or your track record fighting for the rights of Japanese carp. Instead, focus on your excellent CS-major GPA, the extra graduate-level data science courses you took, and your research experience studying initial vector generation in cryptography. And please refrain from explaining what “initial vector generation in cryptography” means. They’re computer science professors. They know. Don’t try to teach your teachers. Only show them that you’ve worked hard in the past, and that you’re ready to work even harder in the future.

Example:

Of course, the program will be a great challenge, but I feel my professional and academic backgrounds have prepared me to face it head on. Majoring in mathematics at New York University gave me a solid foundation in computer science, from simple sums to complex algorithms, such as Bayesian Optimization and Dijkstra’s Algorithm. I gained a thorough understanding of how mathematical reasoning provides insights through modeling, and how to program machines that process large quantities of real-time data. Moreover, I was honored to deepen these interests last summer while interning with Dr. Minjun Kim in the Big Data Research Program at Seoul Institute of Technology. In this program, I focused primarily on large-scale dataset processing and extraction, and the experience was both fascinating and rewarding. Swimmingly, I was in my element when tweaking algorithms to optimize data processing, because for the first time, the pure math that I’d studied as an undergraduate became applicable. At the same time, as I considered the relevance of these concepts to the surgical processes of medical cosmetology, I became certain of my desire and readiness to expand my education into more varied areas of computer science.

  1. Closing Frame Narrative

Firm declaration that MENTOR’S guidance + HERO’s hard work will allow HERO to conquer MONSTERS and give their MAGICAL GIFT to the world

In this section, you’ll briefly (BRIEFLY!) return to the frame narrative from Section 1. One sentence, that’s all. Then you’ll affirm that if they offer you admission, you’re going to work hard to make them proud, so that you can then move on to face real monsters, conquer your career, and in the end, make the world just a tiny bit better.

Example:

International education is booming in China. It is said that more than twenty international school brands are looking to establish campuses in China by 2020. I look forward to making a difference in this significant period of China’s education history, by pursuing my own education at JHU, and thus furthering my commitment to the students who have given my life its greatest purpose.

Some Considerations

If you need to write a long graduate statement of purpose, say 750-1,000 words, then Section 1 usually takes 2 paragraphs, and section 3 usually takes 2-3.

Shorter SOPs should only be 4-5 paragraphs total.

Don’t treat the 4 sections as independent blocks. They’re living, breathing episodes in the story of your journey. They need to flow naturally. If your draft doesn’t feel right, find someone who’s an experienced writer to give you advice on how to improve your inter-paragraph transitions.

Do NOT ask for advice from students within your own field (unless they’ve had extensive success in journalism, fiction, or creative nonfiction). I see this all the time, and the advice is usually terrible. I don’t care if someone was admitted to Harvard. It doesn’t mean they know anything about writing, and especially not about writing YOUR unique story. 99.9% of the time, the advice they give only validates their own past decisions and n=1 experience. After all, fantastic students can earn admission despite average essays. That doesn’t mean you should copy them. You’re a different person, with a different journey, and you should seek every possible advantage you can get.

When writing Section 2 (“Why This Program”) include as much detail as possible, as long as it’s relevant to your journey. Show them you’ve done your research.

When writing Section 3 (“Why You’re Qualified”), however, avoid too much nitpicky detail. Focus on the broad strokes of your career. I see this most often with STEM students. They want to prove themselves, somehow, by defining and categorizing every coding project they’ve ever done. This only makes you seem desperate and naïve, and makes your SOP difficult-to-read for admissions committee members who aren’t rocket surgeons. Be confident. Tell them what you’ve done that makes you great, and leave the detail for your CV, interviews, and most importantly, recommendation letters. (This is kind of like in Game of Thrones when George R.R. Martin writes 3-page descriptions of the bread bowls, sauces, and lamb shanks tabled at a feast. We get it, George. They ate a feast. We don’t need another description of a savory lamprey pie. Yeesh.)

Don’t tell the university what they’re going to teach you. This is one of the most consistent mistakes I see in bad SOPs, sentences like this: In the Data Science and Systems course, I will gain an understanding of data management fundamentals as well as the latest technologies and techniques for the collection, storage, and analysis of information. Yes, of course you will gain this understanding, Captain Obvious. It’s the point of the course! You’ve literally just copied and pasted the course description from the website. Don’t tell them what they already know. Don’t tell them the general value of their courses. Instead, say WHY this course is interesting to you. For example: I’m fascinated by the intensity of the Data Science and Systems course, which seems far more in-depth than the graduate coursework I took as a college senior, and which is especially relevant to my career goal in sports analytics.

Conclusion

  1. Introductory Frame Narrative
  2. Why This Program
  3. Why You’re Qualified
  4. Closing Frame Narrative

This 4-part structure has served dozens upon dozens of my students extremely well. They’ve earned admission to graduate programs in the best universities in America. The devil is in the details, of course. You’ll have to revise multiple drafts. You’ll have to make sure that you’re telling your one-of-a-kind story in a readable, authentic way. But if you take this magical structure and work hard with it, I promise you’ll give yourself the best possible chance of convincing your mentor to take you on. Then, when you earn that glittering email that starts out “Congratulations, hero…” please let me know about your success. I love a good story about a young hero who goes out and conquers the world.

Update Nov. 3, 2022: Want an even more complete, A-to-Z blueprint that shows you EXACTLY how, where, and what to write in your SOP for master’s programs? Check out The Master’s SOP Formula! In this 6-module online course, I digitally hold your hand as you write an essay that makes grad schools think you’re the perfect student they’ve been looking for. The Structure is Magic template above is awesome. Go try that first. Then, if you’re still having trouble, this course will make your applications easier and clearer than you ever thought possible. Click here to learn more.

The Master's SOP Formula Graduate Statement of Purpose Online Course

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