This post was originally published by Kayo Yin at Towards Data Science
Yes, I am well aware of a student’s superhuman productivity in producing pages of an essay they left to do last-minute. But trust me, I strongly encourage you to start thinking about your SoP well before your application deadlines.
Here is what my timeline looked like:
Start September — I googled “how to write statement of purpose” and created my SoP.docx file
Start October — I had my first draft ready to ask others to proofread
Start November — I revised my first draft to ask others to proofread a second time
End November — I had a “general” SoP ready, which I still had to “fine-tune” for each program I was considering
December-January — For each program, I finalized each SoP before submitting my application
February 3 — I received my first response: accepted to my dream program!
For me, it took 3 months of planning and writing my SoP. Some might need more time or less. My point is, it’s not an essay that can or should be rushed, it’s good to give yourself time to think about what you want to say, get feedback from others, and re-write it several times.
If you feel lost on how to get started, my advice is to create that document anyways and jot down any ideas you have, even the silly ones. From there, you’ll be able to start stringing these ideas into a flow of text, or come up with new ideas when you didn’t expect it.
Unlike the personal statement for my undergraduate application, most graduate schools do not give clear prompts or questions you need to answer. A common mistake is thinking the graduate SoP is like a “personal statement with more experience”.
A Personal Statement is personal, you should write who you are.
A Statement of Purpose, on the other hand, should center around what you plan to achieve.
In general, the important questions you should answer in your SoP are:
- What are your interests, motivations, and goals? What sparked them?
- What relevant experience do you have? What have you learned that makes you well-prepared for graduate studies?
- How does this graduate program help achieve your goals? What do you plan to do at this program?
Keep in mind that the reviewer is essentially looking for potential as a successful graduate student in your essay, so your main goal is to convince you are skilled and motivated to undertake your graduate studies.
You want your SoP to be pleasant for your reviewer to read. It’s important that your ideas are structured and flows nicely, so that the reviewer doesn’t need to guess what you’re trying to convey or jump between ideas.
Here is how I structured my essay:
- Grab the reader’s attention before stating my general goal
- Describe my previous experiences towards this goal
- State what I’ve learned and qualities that make me successful
- Re-state goal, but with more detail
- Explain what I still need to learn and how the program will help me grow
- End on an enthusiastic, positive tone 🙂
Yours might not look like mine, but the general takeaway is to have a clear message/purpose for each paragraph/section.
A good rule of thumb is to keep your essay under 2 pages long. Though you might have lots to say, it’s important to be selective of details you want to include, since reviewers probably have hundreds of essays to get to.
What worked for me was to write everything I wanted at first, and from there reformulate wordy phrases and omitting unnecessary detail. Make sure that everything you say is a crucial detail for why you are the ideal graduate candidate.
Also, ask yourself “what message do I want to convey with this?” for each sentence. Don’t just describe what you did in your project, make sure to state what you learned, what this proves about you:
In my first programming project, I lead a team of 8 to build a LSTM neural network in C++ for music composition. I had no machine learning experience at the start of the project, and in 4 months, I assimilated the technical skills and machine learning notions needed to build and train the neural network. I also learned to design a machine learning project, from data retrieval and embedding to user interface for the model demo, and distribute these tasks within a team efficiently.
The ideal essay captures the reader’s attention right from the start and guides them through your ideas until the end. Don’t go for a generic introduction and be creative!
Instead of starting your essay with “My goal is to study Artificial Intelligence and develop technologies that help people” — which really won’t make your intro memorable or captivating — think of an anecdote, a reference, or even a joke that helps you ease into your main message.
Here’s how I started mine before moving on to explain my research goals:
When my mother first started using a smartphone, she only used it to call. She wouldn’t use other functionalities, such as looking up directions, until I taught her to orally ask the virtual assistant what she needs. This lead me to believe Natural Language Processing will bridge the gap between humans and modern technology.
Admissions are looking for evidence you are the best fit for their program. Anyone can say “I am very determined, hardworking and also I’m a very quick learner” but it won’t make you stand out.
A stronger message is to cite an example, in work or class or outside, that illustrates the quality you claim to have. For example, here’s what I said instead of “I am very determined, hardworking”:
With minimal experience in AI, I secured my NLP internship after attending 4 networking events, distributing 50 resumes and having 10 interviews.
Unlike undergraduate studies, graduate admissions are looking for students who will work closely with them in the program’s study area. You are their potential research assistants, teaching assistants, PhD students…
You need to show you know what kind of work they’re doing and you have the specific skills that fit into their area of expertise. Don’t hesitate to use technical terms when describing your experience!
After becoming familiar with language modeling and self-attention, I built on recent research where I used cloze translation to synthesize question answering data. I also learned to code BiDAF and BERT models in PyTorch and perform cloud computing.
Also, it’s good to stalk some faculty and activities of your program, and show it’s not just any program, but this specific program you desire. You can cite papers you found interesting or courses you’d like to take:
I am particularly determined to join the [university NLP lab] and research NLP for social good under the guidance of [really cool Prof #1], multilingual language analysis tools and reading comprehension with [really cool Prof #2]. I also want to incorporate [really cool Prof #3]’s work in [really cool paper] to my research on unsupervised question answering for adversarial training of robust unsupervised QA systems.
I usually kept the same first 1.5 pages for all my applications and catered the last 0.5 page to each specific program.
An important step of SoP writing for me was getting feedback from different people, and reworking my essay over and over again.
Examples of people you can ask to read over your essay are:
- Your academic advisors/counseling team: they are usually the most experienced in proofreading SoPs and giving writing tips
- Your letter of recommendation writers: they probably have the expertise in the relevant area of study to fully understand your essay, and they might have experience reviewing SoPs for admissions too. My CS prof even corrected me on a technical detail I included!
- Your friends: either they’ve written SoPs before, or they’re in the same boat as you and can share personal tips
- Your family: my dad was probably the least helpful proofreader, he literally sent me back “I am convinced with no further comment.” on my first draft that has almost nothing in common with my final draft. They’ll still be happy to read your essay and give you encouragement!
I spent most of my time editing every detail of my essay until I had nothing else to change. Also, my first draft looks nothing like my final draft. This is why I highly encourage to start working on your SoP soon, to leave time for others to read it and give you multiple feedback 🙂
The SoP may seem daunting at first, and it did take lots of work, but I still had lots of fun writing mine! It was a great exercise to formulate my specific interests, structure my experiences, and extract lessons I learned from them.
It also forced me to reflect precisely on my motivations and even helped me understand what I was really looking for in my graduate studies. There were even programs I was preparing to apply, where I even obtained recommendation letters for, but while writing my SoP I realized it wasn’t what I wanted, and I ended up discarding my application.
This post was originally published by Kayo Yin at Towards Data Science