Table of Contents
- Start With a Story
- The #1 Most Common Mistake
- Where Does This Problem Come From?
- What’s The Solution?
- Sample Statement of Purpose Intro Paragraphs
Getting started is always the hardest part, isn’t it? You know how important first impressions are. You want your statement of purpose intro to start off with a bang — to be memorable. But you also don’t want to sound goofy, childish, or unprofessional. (Believe me, if there’s any surefire way to lower your grad school admission chances, it’s starting your essay with childish clichés or a silly quotation.)
Curiously, however, the most common mistake I see in the first paragraphs of grad SOPs isn’t silly, vapid writing. It’s not a gimmicky “hook” nor a poorly written “autobiography.” In fact, the #1 most common mistake is focusing too hard on something that all grad students are supposed to do…solving problems.
Don’t understand? Sound paradoxical?
No worries! Let’s unpack this quirky, common problem to ensure you don’t make the same mistake when writing your own statement of purpose intro.
Disclaimer: Start With a Story!
First things first: the most basic mistake applicants make when starting their SOPs is to begin without any semblance of a story.
These conventional essays have no “narrative frame.” In fact, they’re not essays as much as extended, verbose CVs. They start with a broad statement of objectives, or a chronological list of academic achievements, and thus, from the first words, they’re as boring as dirt.
But you already know to avoid this problem, don’t you?
Our free SOP Starter Kits (for Master’s and PhD applicants) teach you that the best SOPs all start with a story. Below, we’ll examine some of these essays that earned admission to 5+ or even 10+ PhD and Master’s programs at Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Columbia, and more.
For these uber-successful applicants, the stories are amazing. They’re brilliant, sharp, and from the very first words, make the reader realize they’ve encountered a one-of-a-kind intellect — a future professor in the making.
Other students, however, don’t sound quite the same. As they recount epic tales of undergrad projects…they sound like mush-mouthed freshmen, vaping furiously as they type.
Both kinds of students follow our template:
- They start with a “catalyst moment” — a story about the period of time when you discovered your grad school goals;
- They segue into intellectual questions — the problems you hope to learn to solve;
- Then, they end with a strong “Sentence of Purpose.”
But why do some of these stories sound brilliant where others fall flat? The issue is fairly simple: efficiency.
The #1 Most Common Mistake
Great writers are efficient. They don’t need 1,500 words to state their academic purpose. Nor do they need half a page to tell their introductory story.
This story — your “catalyst moment” — explains how you grew inspired to pursue a graduate degree. My favorite SOP ever (which earned admission to 7 of the top-12 Mech Engineering PhDs) accomplished this with only 2 sentences:
While working as lead engineer of the AGV team at Katara, a vertical farming start-up, I developed three versions of an environmental sensing AGV for scale. Amongst the fragrant Canadian blueberry plants, I experienced many facets of novel robotic design, and discovered a passion for research development.
In only 2 sentences and 47 words, she gave us the “4 Ws” that constitute a story:
- Who? A lead engineer
- What? Developed an AGV; experienced novel robot design; discovered a passion for research
- When? While working at…
- Where? Katara, a farming start-up in Canada
(If you’re wondering about the 5th W — Why? — that’s your Sentence of Purpose. We’ll see it in the samples below.)
Now, compare that A+ example to the following (fictional) statement of purpose intro, which is based on the average SOP draft I see:
While working as a software engineer at WriteIvy, I was presented with an assignment to lead a team of six in developing a feature for the company’s online essay-editing platform. This new feature would allow clients to view all of their college application essays with various sorting and filtering capabilities — by total word count, topical similarity, or due date — and thus empower them to approach their workloads in a maximally strategic manner. Our goal for this project would need to make use of multiple services within WriteIvy and would require collaboration across various teams in the IT and Client Services departments.
However, when I began whiteboarding the design, I encountered a substantial obstacle: one of the APIs we were employing did not have the capability to pull data from client profiles until the data was confirmed and finalized. As clients often begin their writing projects before universities have finalized deadlines and essay prompts, this was impossible. Yet, compelled to deliver the feature on schedule and under budget, I sought unconventional solutions with the client onboarding framework that could feasibly function with our APIs.
What’s the problem here?
For one thing, this “catalyst moment” is too long. In giving us her 4 Ws, the applicant has produced 2 paragraphs, 6 sentences, and 183 words…and the intro isn’t even done yet! If you only have 2 pages for your entire SOP, well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you shouldn’t waste half of that space on your introduction.
Perhaps even worse, this long, meandering intro — while it certainly does tell a story — doesn’t really tell us what the student wants to study in grad school. In the A+ example above, the theme was clear: this student wants to research novel robotic design. But in this C-grade example, what does the applicant want to study?
Database structure and design? Tech-project management? Corporate communication strategy?
This is the most common problem I see in the statement of purpose intro: instead of getting to the point and capturing our attention, applicants turn the intro into a long problem-solving exercise that bores the reader with minutia.
Trust me: it’s never a good idea to bore your reader with minutia. They only have about 5 minutes to decide whether they like you or not. They’re skimming essays left and right. Your job isn’t to explain every detail of a project you worked on.
Your job is to intrigue the reader…and thus, compel them to stop skimming.
Where Does This Problem Come From?
This might be my fault.
In the SOP Starter Kits, I advise you to start your SOP by declaring the intellectual problems you hope to study in graduate school. These might be something like:
- Gamified EdTech design for neurodivergent K-12 students;
- The mysteries of how protein mutations influence drug resistance;
- The relative lack of scholarly work on Chinese-Jewish literature.
More importantly, I urge you to tell the story of how you encountered and struggled with these problems. The danger, however, is in how some students interpret these issues of “encountering” and “struggling.”
In the A+ SOP above, our applicant told her story in two sentences. Then, she proceeded to say the following:
Today, as a hopeful PhD student, I am excited to expand this work in robotics for industrial applications by improving autonomous arm manipulation and interaction. I am interested in exploring how to combine physical sensors with visual feedback for state estimation and inference for manipulation, and how to take inspiration from humans to explore non-conventional means of managing internal arm impedance.
Thus, she’s quickly and successfully stated the problems she hopes to solve…in the future! She discovered these comprehensive issues while working at a robotics start-up for 3 years, and really, that’s all we need to know.
She gave us her 4 Ws: who she is, what she was doing, when and where she was doing it. Those tiny details constitute a story, and that story makes her human, real, and memorable. Then, when she reveals the comprehensive issues she wants to explore in the future, we pay attention.
Our C-grade applicant above, however, took so long (and so many words) to tell her story that we can’t help losing interest. She’s not intriguing anymore. Somewhere in the second paragraph, we begin to wonder:
Why am I reading this cockamamie story about a very simple problem that ten billion programmers deal with every day? I get it. You were a software engineer at WriteIvy and you faced problems. Every engineer faces problems. That’s literally your job. What’s the point?
Yeah, What’s The Point?
When writing long descriptions of some past project, many students attempt to weave the logic around until they can eventually say: “This is the problem I will learn to solve at Stanford! If you accept me, you can teach me how to solve this problem, and then I will get a great new job!”
But, this is somewhat illogical.
Are you saying…you never solved that menial problem at work? Hmmm. Okay, so you’re not actually a problem-solver, are you? Did you get fired?
More importantly, you don’t need a graduate degree to learn how to solve one kind of small, menial problem. You need that degree because you already solve menial problems, but now want to solve BIGGER ONES…much like our A+ student above.
After all, she didn’t write two paragraphs explaining how she struggled with a robot arm that wouldn’t work. She focused on the big issues: autonomous arm manipulation in general needs research before companies can truly capitalize.
You should focus on the big issues too.
What’s The Solution?
Good, efficient writing.
In our online course, the Master’s SOP Formula, as well as this post on the WriteIvy subreddit, I advise you to limit your statement of purpose intro to about 25% of your essay’s total word count…or less. For our A+ student above, her entire introduction section constituted exactly 14.5% of her SOP. Our fictional C-grade applicant was on pace for 30+% (or even 60% if she faced a 500-word limit).
That’s bad writing.
It’s long. It’s wordy. It’s bogged down in meaningless detail. And, ultimately, it disrepects your reader’s time.
How can our C-grade applicant jump to an A+? By ignoring all the minutia of her story, summarizing its themes instead, and all the while making sure to include the 4 Ws:
As a software engineer at WriteIvy — a startup that produces web-based writing tools for academics — I lead development teams that solve a range of problems: from finetuning UI design to wrangling with legacy APIs that often refuse to work together. My work over three years has been deeply rewarding, and it instilled a great curiosity toward the cognitive processes that underpin how knowledge workers (even those with limited technical literacy) engage new digital solutions.
Much better! Doesn’t that sound like an interesting applicant to you? It sounds to me like someone who’ll do exceedingly well in an HCI program. In only two sentences, she’s revealed unique, meaningful experience, and clearly signaled the problems she’ll study in grad school: the cognitive processes of knowledge workers as they engage new digital solutions.
Do all SOPs need to start with a 2-sentence story?
No, not at all. Some, as you’ll see below, take a little more time. But even in these longer examples, they never devolve into problem-solving stories.
Problem-solving stories are boring. They make you seem like a navel-gazer who thinks only about what you’ve done in the past, and not about what you’ll contribute in the future.
Keep your eyes on the future.
Remember: the reader doesn’t care about the menial problems you’ve solved in the past. They only care about the BIG problems you’ll solve in the future…and how you came to be interested in these problems.
Beautiful Statement of Purpose Intro Samples
As you read below, note the 3-part structure of each introduction:
- Catalyst Moment
- Intellectual Questions/Problems
- Sentence of Purpose
Also, note how none of these stories try to show off or brag. They don’t say “Look at me! I’m smart! I found a problem once…and solved it!” Instead, they show curiosity and heart regarding the big issues they hope to explore in the future.
Mechanical Engineering — MS/PhD (157 words)
While working as lead engineer of the AGV team at Katara, a vertical farming start-up, I developed three versions of an environmental sensing AGV for scale. Amongst the fragrant Canadian blueberry plants, I experienced many facets of novel robotic design, and discovered a passion for research development. Today, as a hopeful PhD student, I am excited to expand this work in robotics for industrial applications by improving autonomous arm manipulation and interaction. I am interested in exploring how to combine physical sensors with visual feedback for state estimation and inference for manipulation, and how to take inspiration from humans to explore non-conventional means of managing internal arm impedance. My long-term goal is to utilize robotics to automate more complex tasks in manufacturing, thereby making environmentally friendly technology more financially viable and prevalent in industry. The ME PhD program at Gotham is the ideal environment for me to combine theoretical concepts and hands-on application to achieve this goal.
Public Health (Gender/Sexuality) — PhD (229 words)
The headlines kept me awake late into a weekday night: six Asian women shot dead in Georgia, targeted for being “sexual temptations.” Amid my grief was a streak of bewilderment: how did anyone develop such a view of Asian women? I knew the stereotype had arisen from centuries of exotification and exploitation by the West. But this was in stark contrast to my lived experience and that of many young diasporic Asians, raised in immigrant families with little discussion and sometimes outright discouragement of sexuality.
If two prominent academic concepts are to be believed – the immigrant paradox in public health, and the model minority theory in sociology – then one may conclude that Asian Americans are healthier and less prone to risky behavior than typical Americans. Perhaps as a result, Asian Americans are frequently erased in health research, even that which purports to present racial disparities in a particular health area. However, these simplifications have led to neglect of the very real challenges that Asian Americans, particularly women, face in the United States. I hope to challenge these generalizations and study how young second-generation Asian American women navigate sexual health and safety in intimate relationships, given the conflicting messages they may receive from the different cultures with which they grew up. How do these Asian women grapple with being simultaneously hypersexualized and desexualized, and what vulnerabilities does that contradiction generate?
Electrical Engineering — MS (179 words)
As an intern at Wayne Semiconductor Corp., I helped optimize operational expenditures, saving over $200 thousand annually toward production of polycrystalline silicon for solar applications. During that time, I witnessed massive improvements to polysilicon production processes, and expected similar improvements for the Silicon Photovoltaic (PV) cells produced from this polysilicon. But, these improvements have not yet been realized. Raised in the scorching climate of Nigeria, and having seen electricity as a luxury, I am all too aware of the need to understand how we can more efficiently harness solar energy. Consequently, I have become passionate about the manufacturing processes for these more sustainable and widely available forms of energy. Today, my ultimate purpose is to significantly improve solar cells’ low efficiency by studying multi-junction PV cells, as this method overcomes some of the drawbacks of the single junction cell by absorbing different wavelengths of sunlight. By pursuing further studies in the area of semiconductors and its application in the solar industry, I will be able to assist in paving the way for proper harnessing and accessibility of solar energy.
Conclusion on the Statement of Purpose Intro
Really, first impressions are everything. They determine whether your admissions reader skims this essay you’ve spent weeks writing, or pauses for a moment, says “Hmmm…this is good,” and really pays attention.
To achieve this, your statement of purpose intro must start with a story. But it can’t be a long, boring story of how you encountered some trivial problem in the past. It needs to quickly explain who you are, and why you’re now pursuing BIGGER problems.
Big problems, friend. Think big.
How did you grow obsessed with these problems?
Tell us that story in just a few sentences. Be efficient. Include the 4 Ws: who, what, when, and where. This way, you’ll captivate your reader. Then, they’ll quickly understand that they’re reading the work of a truly sharp student, someone from whom they want to read more, and someone worthy of admission to the university they call home.
Want to follow the exact same writing strategy these A+ students used in their SOPs?
TRY OUT THE MASTER’S SOP FORMULA ONLINE COURSE
A complete A-Z blueprint for writing brilliant statements of purpose that fill you with confidence, flood your inbox with admission offers, and launch your career as a high-achieving graduate student. As one alumnus said: “It was so detailed with all the supporting material it felt like I was working with a real coach!” Learn more here.