The ONE Thing You Should Do Right Now to Improve Your Grad School SOP

Every year, I coach hopeful graduate students through more than 1,000 drafts (yes, literally) of their application SOPs. As you can imagine, it’s daunting work, but also highly rewarding. One of the most fascinating aspects of my job is how these avalanches of SOPs give me insight into the thought processes of grad applicants in virtually every academic field. Not surprisingly, there are lots of patterns.

Engineers all tend to think alike, and also tend to write maniacal run-on sentences. Biostatisticians usually have similar motivations (they want to help cure cancer), but rarely know how to express this in a nuanced way. While it’s fun noticing the cliches that pop up constantly among different kinds of students, it’s absolutely mindboggling to me that the vast majority of applicants in every single academic field all exhibit the exact same problem when they send me their first drafts:

They don’t know what they want to study.

Okay, I know you’re shaking your head. You don’t have this problem, right? You know exactly what you want to study. You’re applying to Computer Science programs and want to study Artificial Intelligence. You’re applying to MPH programs because you want to study income-based health disparities. You’re applying to Molecular Biology programs because you want to study novel drug treatments. These are all perfectly clear goals, right?

No, my friend. They’re not clear at all.

In fact, these overly general goals are so bland and boring that stating them in your Statement of Purpose will almost certainly have a negative effect on your applications.

If you’re aiming for top-flight programs, you have to go much deeper. You have to convince grad admissions committees that you’re more focused, more insightful, and better prepared than all the other applicants.

How do you do that?

Well, put on your helicopter beanie, friend. We’re going to narrow your niche.

Categories Aren’t Goals

If there’s one thing I can never seem to say enough, it’s this: you’re writing a statement of PURPOSE. Applicants don’t think enough about what that word “purpose” means. It’s not about everything you’ve done in the past. It’s about the future. It’s about your intentions. The dictionary tell us this, after all:

purpose

noun

– an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal.

– determination; resoluteness.

verb

– to set as an aim, intention, or goal for oneself.

– to intend; design.

When writing your SOP, every word should revolve around what you plan to accomplish in graduate school. But if your “purpose” is vague and muddy, it won’t make you a great candidate for admission.

Worst of all, if your stated “purpose” is little more than an echo of the name of your academic field, you’ll probably get flat-out rejected.

You say you want to acquire expertise in Computer Science? Well, if you’re applying to Georgia Tech’s “Online Master of Science in Computer Science” program…that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If you didn’t want to learn more about Computer Science, you wouldn’t be applying, would you?

I’d estimate that at least 8 out of 10 applicants make this mistake. They only make a vague declaration of what they want to study in grad school. Usually, this means they don’t really want to study as much as they want to get a good job afterward. In other cases, it means they know what they want to study…in their own heads…but can’t seem to translate this clearly in the SOP.

Imagine a very patient biology professor conducting a Zoom interview with a potential student.

“What do you want to study?” he says.

“Epigenetics.”

“Okay…what about epigenetics?”

“Uhh…what do you mean?”

“Epigenetics is a massive field! Do you want to research transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in mammals? Environmental epigenetics in human twins? Genomic architecture? The pathology of diabetic wound healing? What is it that you really want to do here?

If 80+% of applicants are making this mistake, it makes sense that top programs have admissions rates around 10-15%, doesn’t it? The successful students, the ones who get admitted, are doing something very different than everyone else.

Specificity is King

The best Applied Biostatistics applicants aren’t stating purposes like this in their applications:

“I want to contribute to the greater good, solving a broad spectrum of problems related to human health and biology by applying innovative statistical and computational methods and by doing groundbreaking research.”

Is this sentence false? No, not at all. It’s just meaningless. What does is tell us about the applicant? If she’s applying to an MS in Applied Biostats, does it tell us anything that we don’t already know?

Not at all. It’s general. It’s vague. It’s obvious. It lacks any and all specificity. It in no way differentiates the applicant from every other applicant. Compare it to this goal:

“My career goal is to apply data analysis and modeling to the field of spinal health, hopefully in orthopedic hospitals. Thus, at ABC University, I hope to participate in research on prevention of long-term occupational health issues in the ABC Medical Center. I’d particularly like to study pathologies in low-income urban communities, such as my home.”

What do we know about this student?

EVERYTHING.

This applicant has taken the time to figure out exactly what she wants to do in the next few years. She has incredibly explicit goals. The admissions committee doesn’t have to scratch their heads wondering if she’s a good “fit.” They know immediately.

This is how you differentiate yourself from other applicants. It’s not enough to simply want “more specific knowledge” in your academic field. You have to tell them exactly what you want to learn. You have to define your niche.

Do This

If you’re feeling uncertain about your own academic goals, use this exercise to make sure that you’re being as specific as possible.

  1. State your academic field.
  2. Choose two subfields within that field that seem interesting.
  3. Choose two subfields within those subfields that seem fun.
  4. For each subfield, think of 1 application or currently trending problem that seems very cool to you. If you’re having trouble, type the subfields into Google Scholar and see what researchers are currently working on.
  5. Of these 4 applications or problems, which 2 would you most love to work on in graduate school?
  6. Of these 4 applications or problems, which 2 would you most love to work on in your professional career?

Example

State your academic field.

Computer Science

 

Choose two subfields within that field that seem interesting.

Artificial Intelligence and Computer Vision

 

Choose two subfields within those subfields that seem fun.

AI: Natural Language Processing and Speech Processing

Computer Vision: Object Recognition, Image Restoration

 

For each subfield, think of 1 application or currently trending problem that seems very cool to you. If you’re having trouble, type the subfields into Google Scholar and see what researchers are currently working on.

NLP: Optical character recognition

Speech Processing: Emotion recognition using neural networks

Object Recognition: 3D photo-realistic simulators for robots

Image restoration: Visual perception for underwater robots!

 

Of these 4 applications or problems, which 2 would you most love to work on in graduate school?

3D photo-realistic simulators for robots or visual perception for underwater robots

 

Of these 4 applications or problems, which 2 would you most love to work on in your professional career?

The same!

Okay, now what do you want to study?

“I’m really interested in 3D photo-realistic simulators and visual perception for underwater robots, but I’d also be excited to research optical character recognition or speech processing. This is why I’m so excited about studying at ABC University, where Dr. Stark is doing fascinating things using RCNN in the two-stage detection method for deep sea glide robots, and where Dr. Banner recently demystified bilingual OCR systems for English and Ladakhi script using a new approach of segmentation and splitting the characters.”

Doesn’t that sound like a focused student to you?

Where to state this?

If you’ve read Structure is Magic, you know that you should do two things:

1) State your “academic goal” at the end of your Section 1 Frame Narrative.

2) In Section 2, Why This Program, give specific details about your classroom or research goals, and how they’re uniquely relevant to this school.

Once you’ve narrowed down your academic goal using the exercise above, contemplate how to include it in either of those two spots.

Trust me. Narrowing down your academic goal will give you a huge boost over your competition. This is what the very best students do. In one or two brief (and incredibly clear) sentences, they tell grad departments exactly what they want to accomplish. And the admissions committees love them for it.

Give it a try. You won’t regret it.

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