The SOP, an essay of specified length which brings out your academic and professional background and achievements, is a uniquely important document. It is a crucial element of your application for MS/PhD programs in American universities.
The SOP, and other application documents such as your application form, standardized test scores, transcripts and recommendation letters, provide essential inputs that admissions committees use to assess your suitability as a candidate for a particular program. Each document has a fairly definite role in the committee’s final decision.. Application forms, test scores and transcripts are standard documents. But the SOP and the recommendation letters have a great influence on the admission decision.
The recommendation letter, which will be discussed in a later post, carries weight because it is ideally written by someone who knows the field and also knows you. The SOP, however, is an essay written by you. As such, it bears the stamp of your personality and writing skills. As the name indicates, the Statement of Purpose discusses what you intend to do in your professional life, but it does not end there. Your SOP should be a highly analytical document which clearly demonstrates your need for higher education and, equally important, why the particular university is an appropriate choice to meet your needs. This requires that you have a clear vision of:
- your career goals
- how you have taken the first steps towards achieving them in your education so far and
- what other concrete steps you propose to take in your MS/PhD program – these might be in the form of advanced or new courses, or research in specific topics of your interest
Throughout the essay you will have to keep in focus both your learning goals and how higher education will help you to achieve them.
This requirement for clarity about goals means that you should have a clear focus in your SOP. Thus, you can elaborate on your interests in specific areas such as Operating Systems, Embedded Systems and Thermodynamics. However, the focus can be also be on broad fields such as Mechanical Engineering, or Electrical Engineering. Your undergraduate studies should enable you to intelligently discuss the importance of a few sub-areas in the subject of your choice, and illustrate the scope for higher level work in them.
A well written SOP conveys at once to the reader your intellectual caliber, your commitment to the subject and your awareness of the current state in your field. It fills the gaps in the information provided by the standardized documents mentioned above. It also conveys things about you which no standardized document can convey adequately: among other things, your depth of knowledge, your love for the subject and your ability to communicate his knowledge clearly.
Any good university has to make a final selection of students from the pool of candidates who meet their basic criteria regarding academic background, GRE score and previous research experience. The SOP brings out the qualitative aspects of the work a student has done and his or her personal traits. And here is where the great importance of the SOP lies: a good SOP makes the difference between otherwise equally well qualified candidates. It effectively brings out your understanding of the field, your preparation for higher studies and research in that field and your achievements in that field. If your aim is getting into a good university, it is well-worth spending time on preparing an SOP that is excellent. It could make the difference between a reject and that coveted admission.