What’s the Difference Between the SOP and Personal Statement?

In the 2021 admissions cycle, one of my rockstar students, Lee, was a quantum integration engineer from East Asia. For a STEM researcher and non-native English speaker, Lee was a marvelous writer. His SOP was profound. Yet, when it came time to handle his other essays, Lee asked (and answered) two questions that clarified something for me in a powerful way: “What is the difference between the SOP and Personal Statement? And how does this relate to the CV?”

Of course, Lee had already read Structure is Magic. So, he understood the SOP beautifully. I sent him Diversity Statements 101, and he began to understand what schools look for in these “personal essays.”

Soon, we had a discussion about how these essays are not “info dumps,” but “arguments.” They shouldn’t be stuffed full of details about your past. I told Lee that this is probably the most common mistake my students make: jamming too much info in the SOP due to anxiety. They worry the reader won’t fully understand their background.

All of that detail goes in the CV, I told him, where the reader can find it if necessary. “Curriculum vitae” means “summary of career.” But the essays are an argument for why your career matters. You’re not repeating information. You’re explaining why you matter.

Then, Lee said: “Okay, let me get this straight…” and he proceeded to write something so profound, he actually taught me something.

SOP versus PS versus CV

In Lee’s own words:

The SOP – “What I can do and be for your school, and why you should believe my words.”

The Personal Essay – “What kind of person I am and what would make me an attractive member of your community.”

The Resume/CV – “All the technical and pedantic supplementary aspects of my career (‘if you are interested’).”

The relationship between these three parts of your application is important. It gives universities a complete picture of who you’ve been in the past (academically and personally), and explains who you’re likely to be in the future as part of their intellectual community.

Previously, I’ve pointed out that the PS (or Diversity Statement) is about the past, while the SOP is about the future:

Difference Between the SOP and Personal Statement

Both of those essays, however, seek to convince the reader that you’ll be a certain kind of student in the future: one who’s whip-smart, with clear research or professional goals, and with whom everyone will be happy to work. Unfortunately, VERY FEW schools actually make this clear in their essay prompts. Few take the time to explain what they want to see.

However, a few schools do explain this relationship, and reading their prompts can be extremely helpful.

The Statement of Purpose

Carnegie Mellon’s Master of Human-Computer Interaction program offers the following SOP prompt:

Prepare a concise one or two-page essay that includes at least the following items:

  • Your objective in pursuing a Master of Human-Computer Interaction degree, including your career goals, and your reasons for choosing to apply to Carnegie Mellon.
  • Your background in Human-Computer Interaction or other fields relevant

Notice how the prompt asks for, in order:

  1. Your objective (“Sentence of Purpose”)
  2. Why you’re applying to CMU (Why This Program)
  3. Your relevant background (Why I’m Qualified)

Does that structure look familiar? If you’ve read my essay guides, it should!

Here’s another great prompt from Cornell’s PhD program in Civil and Environmental Engineering:

Please use the Academic Statement of Purpose to describe (within 1000 words) the substantive research questions you are interested in pursuing during your graduate studies, and explain how our program would help you achieve your intellectual goals. Additionally, detail your academic background, intellectual interests, and any training or research experience you have received that you believe has prepared you for our program. Within your statement, please also identify specific faculty members whose research interests align with your own interests.

Again! The prompt tells us exactly what to write:

  1. Your substantive research questions (Sentence of Purpose)
  2. How our program will help you achieve your goals (Why This Program)
  3. Your academic background (Why I’m Qualified)

Lastly, check out this incredibly pithy and wonderful prompt from the Quantitative Finance program at ETH Zurich. In European style, it’s written like a letter, but still tells us so much:

Please upload a Letter of Motivation. Content like a job application letter: ie why you want to do this master (interests, career path), why you qualify for it (strengths), maximum 2 pages.

What are your goals and why us?

Why do you qualify?

It can’t get any simpler than that.

Notice that none of these schools ask for a detailed history of your academic and work experience. They want to know about your future and why you’re choosing them. As Lee said, they want to know: what you can do and be for their school, and why they should believe you.

The Personal Essays

Personal Statement. Personal History. Personal Contributions. Diversity Statement. They all want to know the same thing:

“What kind of person I am and what would make me an attractive member of your community.”

These prompts are usually far more useful than SOP prompts. The schools take the time to explain what they want to see. As I explain in my guide to Personal Essays, you could choose to write about your cultural background or obstacles you’ve overcome. You could write about how your research will help a specific population of people. Whatever you write, it should be personal, and it should help the reader understand who you will be in the future.

Most importantly, however, the  Personal Essays should NOT just describe historical facts from your life, and it should not repeat anything from the SOP.

NYU’s Master’s in Data Science program makes this very clear:

The Personal History Statement is optional and gives information on your background. The purpose of this essay is to get to know you as an individual and as a potential graduate student, and to understand how your background will add to the diversity of our school. Please describe how your personal background has motivated you to pursue a graduate degree. You may discuss educational, familial, cultural, socioeconomic, or personal experiences or challenges; gender identity; community services, outreach services, first-generation college status or other matters relevant to your decision to pursue graduate education. Please note that the Personal History Statement is not meant to be a general autobiography. The statement is optional and should not exceed two double-spaced pages. It should not duplicate the Statement of Academic Purpose.

Just as with the SOP, the Personal History is NOT a general autobiography. It’s an argument for who you will be in the future, not a list of historical facts.

The SOP says: “This is the kind of scholar I will be.”

The PS says: “This is the kind of human I will be.”

The Resume and CV

Most grad schools ask you to submit a resume or CV as part of your application. Very few (if any?) explain its purpose. So, let’s make this simple:

The CV is reference material.

It’s your personal encyclopedia. It’s your Wikipedia page.

This is where you DO get to stuff in all of that info you’re desperate for the admissions committee to see. All of your research projects. All of your relevant community service. All of your programming and spoken languages. As long as it’s relevant, it belongs here.

As Lee pointed out, the resume/CV includes all the technical and pedantic supplementary aspects of your career…if they’re interested.

This background detail – all of those research experiences you want to stuff in – are NOT hugely important. This is only context for the argument you make in your SOP. Most important is that you make this document easy to scan and read.

Think about how you use Wikipedia.

When you’ve read an interesting article about the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and want to learn more about his academic background, do you read every single word of this Wikipedia page? Or do you click the “Education” link and skip all the rest?

That’s exactly how admissions readers use your CV or resume. They scan the highlights. They reference any extra detail they may want to know. But if you try to stuff all that info in your essays first…trust me, they won’t even make it to your CV. They’ll just say, “Ugh, this student can’t write,” and move to the next essay on the pile.

Slavoj Zizek

Conclusion

What’s the difference between the SOP and Personal Statement? What’s the function of the CV? We can’t say it any clearer than Lee did:

  • The SOP: What I can do and be for your school, and why you should believe my words.
  • The Personal Essay: What kind of person I am and what would make me an attractive member of your community.
  • The Resume/CV: All the technical and pedantic supplementary aspects of my career (“if you are interested”).

The first two paint a picture of the future, using HIGHLIGHTS from your past as evidence. The latter is a repository of ALL the relevant facts.

Stuff the essays full of background info at your peril. As NYU told us, essays aren’t autobiographies. If you want to be competitive, you’ll structure your essays in an intelligent way. You’ll use this guide for master’s applicants, or this one for PhDs. You’ll craft an argument. And you’ll stand out.

Still don’t understand the difference between the SOP and Personal Statement? Worried yours overlap? I can help!

How are you going to make your essays unique, intelligent, and profound?

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