Have you ever wondered why every graduate program, in every academic field, makes you write an application essay? Biology, Engineering, Medicine, Art – they all want to see how you write, even if you’ll NEVER write anything in your eventual career. Why? Because poor writing is a sign of poor thinking. It’s a litmus test. If you write poorly – if you make the same common SOP mistakes most applicants make – it makes it easier to reject you.
Listen, choosing a grad school cohort is hard. Hundreds of students have similar profiles, and admissions committees don’t have time to spend hours digging through sloppy essays to find a diamond in the rough. They only need one excuse to chuck your dreams into the wastebin.
Unfortunately, a HUGE percentage of applicants do the admissions committees’ jobs for them. They repeat the same mistakes, signaling to the reader that “I didn’t take this seriously!”
Luckily for you, the 6 most common SOP mistakes aren’t difficult to avoid. Let’s look at these taboos (that cause me consternation every day) and make sure your Dream School smiles and nods when they read your essay.
- Autobiography Essays
- Too Much “Story,” Not Enough “Thinking”
- Free Writing (No Structure)
- Not Tailoring Unique SOPs for Every School
- Sloppy Writing (that eats up your word count)
- Undeveloped Academic Goals
Common SOP Mistake #1: Autobiography Essays
It seems like every day I read a first draft, tear at my nonexistent hair, and scream at the heavens like Captain Ahab: “Arggg! Another autobiography essay!”
These SOPs are my arch nemeses.
The first paragraph always starts in childhood or undergrad. They describe how the author developed an interest in computers, or reading, or some other astoundingly general topic. They often say: “This is why I chose my major in ABC.”
In paragraph two, they describe undergrad classes. They list a few professors. They mention a few extracurricular activities like hackathons or internships where they “honed” their programming or “leadership” skills.
In paragraph three, we usually encounter a research project. And boy do we learn everything about this project. The author leaves no stone unturned. They tell us every menial detail. This project is always thematically related to their hopeful graduate degree, but the author never tell us how or why. They just give us the facts about what they did.
(Notice we’re over halfway through a story about the author’s education, but he still hasn’t mentioned the program to which he’s applying.)
Around paragraph four, we may learn about more research projects, or move into career experiences. Each one gets their own paragraph, a factual account. Still, however, the author never tells us why we should care.
Only now, at the very end, does our autobiographer tack on a short paragraph saying: “Now, at prestigious ABC University, I will benefit from world-famous resources and cutting-edge labs. I am fascinated by the work of Professor X and hope to study with him. Thank you for your consideration.” This paragraph is usually a waste of time, because the reader has already fallen asleep.
What makes these SOPs so bad?
They never convey any purpose! Remember, you’re writing a statement of PURPOSE. The point isn’t what you did in college. It’s what you WILL DO in grad school. It’s not a prose CV detailing the past. It’s a declaration of your plans for the FUTURE.
Writing these SOPs signals a few things:
- You haven’t really researched the school at all
- You don’t know to structure your writing properly
- You’re not thinking about the program’s goals for its students. You’re only thinking about yourself (and not very thoroughly).
- You don’t have any real goals. Your only goal is “to get into grad school.”
- You never took the time to look up successful SOPs or read the department’s recommendations.
How to avoid this common mistake?
Common SOP Mistake #2: Too Much “Story,” Not Enough Academic “Thinking”
Hooks. Anecdotes. “Frame narratives” as I refer to them. The idea of starting your essay with a story seems to give a lot of people histrionic fits.
“Get to the point!” the Internet experts admonish.
And you know what? I agree.
Though I’m a very public advocate for using timeless storytelling techniques in the structure of an SOP, I don’t at all advocate starting your essay with a 400-word tall tale that unveils the shimmering interior of your soul. We have to remember that your statement of purpose is a piece of formal, intellectual, professional writing. It’s point is NOT to make the reader understand who you are as a person. It’s point is to make them understand who you are AS A SCHOLAR.
It’s a big difference.
The introduction to your SOP must explain the 5 Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. This is the heart of storytelling technique. We need someone to see, to believe in. Someone who’s real. It’s memorable, and it shows the reader that you’re more than a bland list of GPAs, test scores, and research credentials. But whatever memorable details you include, they should be tied 100% directly to your intellectual goals for graduate school.
This doesn’t give you leeway to write a half page about how a data science internship changed your life. Instead, it should only be an entry point for you to begin discussing the things you want to learn in your graduate studies.
One of my all-time favorite PhD students started her SOP like this:
“When I ended my career with the California Ballet in 2016, I looked forward to an academic experience studying the metabolic and neurological systems which had silently governed my physical reality as a performer for so long.”
Boom! Immediately, we’re interested – a professional ballerina is about to start talking about neuroscience.
Another super-successful student started like this:
“During my 2019 internship at JL Design Partners, an architecture firm in Sacramento, I was tasked with developing an Augmented Reality (AR) application for visualizing building designs.”
Bingo. Right away, we know we’re about to read deep thoughts about designing skyscrapers in virtual reality.
In both SOPs, the author spent the whole introduction describing how they’ve struggled with very big academic questions and experiences.
“How do critical or sensitive periods of neuroendocrine development contribute to long-term functioning in animals and humans at the behavioral and cellular levels?” the first student asked.
“If Brain-Computer Interfaces most improve cognitive processing and decision-making abilities, what would be the best approach to combining AR and BCI?” wondered the second.
As you craft your own introduction, don’t tell a long drawn-out story. But do include enough real-life detail so that, when you start discussing your questions and goals, we know there’s a living, breathing person doing the thinking.
How to avoid this common mistake?
Make sure to include the 5 Ws – Who, What, When, Where, and Why – but limit your introduction to 20-25% of the total word count. Of that portion, spend AT LEAST half talking explicitly about the things you want to learn in grad school. Your story is amazing, but it’s only the springboard that allows us to learn what’s really going on in that brilliant mind of yours.
Common SOP Mistake #3: Free Writing (No Structure)
Outlining essays is a pain in the butt, isn’t it? Believe me, I know. It’s WAY easier to just sit down and start pouring out our thoughts. In the end, they’ll make sense, right? We can always edit later, right?
There’s this awful thing that happens in the brain of every writer: the more they read what they’ve written, the more they cherish it. The more it seems “correct” to them. This makes sense, because these thoughts are all coming from our own heads. We know this stuff already. Unfortunately, the reader doesn’t have this luxury, and when they encounter a free-written essay, it’s extremely difficult for them to follow and understand.
In the famous Graduate School Application Kisses of Death article, the authors quoted multiple admissions coordinators who cited “lack of structure” as a reason for automatic rejection.
“Overall structure is also important because a statement of purpose is a chance to demonstrate strong writing skills, a crucial characteristic of successful graduate students. One respondent succinctly stated that a KOD exists in applications that ‘lack structure. People who want to get their doctorate should already know how to write.’”
Free writing, simply put, is bad writing. (And yes, autobiography essays are a form of free writing.)
Is it possible to free write a well-structured SOP? Well, if you’re a professional who’s edited hundreds of SOPs, yeah, you could probably wing it. But if you’ve never written an SOP before…it’s not the best idea. Heck, I’ve edited thousands of them and I’d still use an outline myself.
How to avoid this common mistake?
There’s no shortage of SOP templates for you to follow. Personally, I think my SOP Starter Kit is the most effective. Graduate Admissions Essays by Donald Asher is also a valuable resource. A lot of universities even provide their own templates. Northeastern does so here. UC-Berkeley gives their take here. (The turbo-attentive among you might notice that both give the exact same advice I’m giving you here.)
Common SOP Mistake #4: Not Tailoring Unique SOPs for Every School (No “Why This Program” section)
I can’t figure out the psychological reasons why this mistake persists. So many students shotgun-spray generalized essays to every school, and I can’t understand why. It almost always means rejection, as the famous article tells us:
“It’s a kiss of death when I read a personal essay that describes an applicant’s life-long goal of serving humankind and has a paragraph tacked on to the end that “personalizes” the essay for the particular school to which it was sent.”
“Another participant noted that students must ‘do homework on each program. Statements from applicants that state the program is just perfect for them, without evidence they know much about the program other than its specialty name’ are KODs.”
Make no mistake! If you do not write a thorough “Why This Program” section in your SOP, you will almost certainly be rejected.
If you don’t know the foci of the programs to which you’re applying, if you don’t know who the professors are nor what kind of classes they teach, how can you possibly believe this school will help you achieve your goals?
You can’t. If you don’t understand the program to which you’re applying, it means you haven’t really thought through your goals. It means your only real goal is to get into any grad school that will take you. It means you’re waiting for some beneficent professor to tell you what to do, while other, more compelling applicants are proactively formulating plans to change the world.
How to avoid this common mistake?
Spend at least 30 minutes researching each school. Maybe an hour. Craft a “study plan” for each one. Which classes will you take? Which professors will you work with? Which concentrations will you choose? Can you do a thesis or capstone? If so, what topic will you explore?
This section should constitute about 30% of the total word count in your SOP. It’s the longest and most important section. If anything in your SOP shows that you’re going to be a successful grad student, this section is it. Take it seriously!
Common SOP Mistake #5: Sloppy Writing (that eats up your word count)
This may be surprising, but bad writing has very little to do with grammar. You can use Grammarly all day long and still churn out crappy sentences that are long, vague, and hard to understand. In fact, academia is famous for this!
Reading wordy prose is like lugging a heavy suitcase through the airport. It’s awkward, tiring, you get lost and turned around, and more than anything it makes you just want to stop and rest.
Reading crisp prose, however, is like standing on a conveyor belt sidewalk. Without any effort, you zip through the terminal and arrive happily at your departure gate.
Bad writing in SOPs most often appears as excessive use of 1) passive voice, 2) relative clauses, 3) “to be” verbs, and 4) words you simply don’t need. These faux pas are bad in any kind of writing, but they’re even worse in SOPs. Why?
Because they eat up your word count.
Typically when I see an SOP full of passive voice and excessive grammatical alchemy, I can cut the word total by 20-30% without removing any real information. 20-30%! That’s 1-2 whole paragraphs!
Let me give you an example.
My interest in molecular biology and regenerative medicine arose while listening to a lecture about somatic cell reprogramming in my master’s program at the University of Alaska. This field was limited in Alaska, however, with no potential to experience how to translate research into clinical practice, so I applied for a Fulbright Research Award and joined Prof. James Howlett’s research group at the University of Toronto. (66 words)
Sounds fine, doesn’t it? It’s certainly grammatically correct and informative. But let’s see what happens when we sharpen things up.
My interest in molecular biology and regenerative medicine arose while listening to a lecture about during an M.S. course in somatic cell reprogramming in my master’s program at the University of Alaska. This field was limited in Alaska, however Yet, with no potential to experience how few opportunities to translate research into clinical practice, so I applied for a Fulbright Research Award and joined Prof. James Howlett’s research group at the University of Toronto. (48 words)
Boom. Just like that, we cut 27% of the words, and 18 from our total word count. Repeat that for every sentence in your SOP, and all of a sudden you have room for an entirely new paragraph in your “Why This Program” section.
How to avoid this common mistake?
Get rid of Grammarly and switch to the Hemingway App. It won’t tell you exactly how to fix tedious writing, but it certainly will tell you when your sentences are “very hard to read.” Then, focus on deleting to-be verbs. This is how you get rid of passive voice, and the act is mentally transformative. Once you do it, you’ll start seeing a dozen other ways to tighten your sentences and cut out unnecessary words.
Common SOP Mistake #6: Undeveloped Academic Goals
In the “Why This Program” section, many students are fond of explaining what the coursework will teach them:
“The course work will help me broaden my understanding of reinforcement learning.”
“In Dr. Wolverine’s research group, I can learn more about wound repair, the stem cell niche, and simultaneously gain a holistic view of skin biology.”
These sentences always make me want to say: “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”
The university already knows what you’re going to learn. It’s their course. They teach it. They created it. They wrote the syllabi. When you state what you’re going to learn in the curriculum (what every student will learn), you sound as if you’re just copy-pasting sentences from the department website.
How to avoid this common mistake?
Adcoms aren’t interested in what the school can do for you. They’re interested in hearing what you bring to the school. How are you going to take this education and achieve something special with it?
In your opening paragraphs and “Why This Program” section, be sure to emphasize what you want to accomplish AFTER you graduate. That’s why you’re going to grad school, right? Because you want to achieve something greater in the future? Because there are problems you want to work on, and maybe solve?
Every course you mention, every professor, they should all reflect this ultimate goal. If Dr. Wolverine’s research group is going to give you expertise in wound repair…well, so what? What are you doing to do with that?
If Dream University will give you machine-learning tools to develop investment strategies, so what? Maybe you want to use these tools to address environmental issues through impact investing in an asset management career. THAT is what matters.
It’s not what the school will give you. It’s what you’ll give the world after you earn this education.
Autobiography essays. Long, meandering stories. Lack of structure. Not tailoring your SOP for each school. Sloppy writing. And not fully expressing what you intend to achieve with your graduate education. These are the most common SOP mistakes, and they can all be kisses of death.
Fixing these problems can be a huge pain, but avoiding them before you start is easy. Do this, and you’ll drastically increase your chances of admission, I promise.
Perhaps I should take my own advice, because this is the longest article I’ve ever written. But if this is what it takes to fight the scourge of autobiography essays, it’s a battle I’ll keep on fighting.
Fight on, friend.