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How to write a winning SOP for university admission & study visa application

What is a Statement of Purpose (SOP)?

A Statement of Purpose (SOP), also known as a letter of intent, is written to the admission panel of the college of university where you are applying for admission. The similar type of SOP (also called as Cover Letter or Client Information) is submitted during visa application of few countries like Canada and Australia. The SOP talks about your background education, your career path, interests, professional contributions, goals and the driving force behind pursuing a particular program for which you are writing this SOP. This is usually submitted in the form of an essay; however, certain universities may also keep it question-based. It is the most integral part of your application that decides your admission in your preferred institution.

Why is the Statement of Purpose important?

The Statement of Purpose (SOP) is the decision maker of your application. It helps the admission committee assess your perception on life, your career goals, beliefs, your subject knowledge, and your vision. In short, a well drafted SOP paints your overall personality for the universities and visa office. It is an opportunity to pitch your purpose and reasons why they should choose you over other applicants. A good SOP works great for weak academic profiles where in you can compensate by highlighting your future goals and ambitions, and you may add other favorable factors like your language test scores, relevant work experience etc. An SOP also reflects how well you can express your thoughts using your writing skills.

What do foreign universities or colleges look for in an SOP?

While drafting your SOP, you need to keep in mind that the admission committee will be reviewing thousands of applications for the same course. Thus, not only your SOP needs to be crisp and precise, but it should also highlight the uniqueness in your profile. Here are a few things that the college review committee generally looks for in a student’s SOP:

  1. Your writing capability is reflected in your SOP. Your SOP should be free from grammatical errors. The language should be lucid enough for them to comprehend yet have a good vocabulary. Make sure not to use too many heavy words as sometimes too much rich vocabulary makes the sentence redundant and it fails to communicate the meaning.
  2. Highlight your unique side that makes you stand out from other applicants. The admission committee should be able to recognize you as an individual through your SOP. Your interests and goals will help them know you on a personal basis.
  3. With your talent, previous experiences and interest, how and what can you contribute to the department and college/university, as a whole? Think of it as a two-way process. If you receive an admit letter, your career will get a kick-start and through your efforts and participation, the department/college can receive benefits. You need to mention how you will be able to contribute to their community, be it through sports, community services, societies or clubs, and so on.
  4. Being familiar with the university facilities and curriculum will help you a great deal. You need to be aware of the student programs, faculty, internship opportunities, student facilities and societies, traditions etc. that sets the university apart from others. The admission committee should be convinced that you know about the department and college/university thoroughly and thus, you are applying in it and not applying randomly.
  5. Your motivation or inspiration to study a selected course should be clear, evident and justified. The admission committee does not approve of bragging sentences in the SOP. So, keep it original, real, and free from any overbearing or arrogant statements.

How to make your SOP stand out from the crowd?

There are obviously some basics about SOP writing, like it should be clear and concise; it should address all possible doubts that the decision maker may need an answer from you about you; it should have a word limit and certain format like introduction and conclusion etc.

It is important to always remember which course you are writing this SOP for. For example, if you are talking about studying Project Management, you must discuss all your encounters, experiences, and learning that you have about managing a project. Do not miss out on anything important and do not talk about the rest of the irrelevant things too much.

Specifically speaking, the SOP for an MBA application would be rather different from the SOP for a Masters course like an MS or an MSc. Similarly, the SOP for a Bachelors course would be widely different from any of the two.

How long should a statement of purpose be?

Statement of Purpose should be as long as 2 A4 pages, ideally wrapped in 800-1000 words. However, the length of this document may vary as per university-specific requirements. Some universities have a fixed length and pattern of SOPs required, which is fixed to 500 words only, even 200 words in some cases. Most of the universities accept generic length, which is 800-1000 words, which may go beyond 1000, but not exceed 1200 words, in some cases.

It is generally easy to write a story of your life explaining the importance of each incident in shaping or molding your character. However, when it comes to defining your SOP within the communicated word limit by some universities, the challenge is to portray your best within limited words. In such cases, it is better to mention the major achievements from every place you have been too such as school, college, office, etc and then prospectively talk about how the chosen course and university will be of help to you in your career.

What should be included in the Statement of Purpose?

There are several elements that are vital for your Statement of Purpose. These include:

  • Personal background
  • Financial background
  • Academic details
  • Professional experience (full/part time, voluntary)
  • Immediate and long-term goals
  • Reasons why you wish to study at this particular institution
  • Reasons of being interested in the chosen field
  • About extra-curricular activities
  • Published works, if any
  • Papers submitted, if any
  • Interests, hobbies.

Important points that needs to be considered to make your SOP effective:

  • Stick to basic information and overview. Don’t write complete family history.
  • Avoid sensitive financial details. If you are applying for educational loan or scholarship, a separate document will be required for the same.
  • You may talk about minute professional details.
  • Do not exceed the given word limit.
  • Be crisp; do not flatter in your language.
  • Avoid too many technical terms.
  • Do not lie in your Statement of Purpose, dishonesty may lead to rejection.
  • Avoid using creative fonts or colored papers.
  • Don’t write that the institution was not your first choice.
  • Beware with humor, it can backfire!

Detailed Strategies to write a powerful and convincing SOP:

Whether applying for undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate programs, the strategy of writing a powerful statement of purpose would be to sound focused throughout. Starting from your academic and professional background to your career aspirations, you need to carefully connect all the dots between reaching your goals through your choice of school and course.

The essay should always go in a flow covering your past experience, present involvements, and future plans. An important point to remember while writing your SOP would be to divide it into paragraphs that cover all the pointers. Here is a look at how you may write the SOP presenting your profile strongly:

1st Paragraph: Introduction

This paragraph is often confused with self-introduction. It should not introduce you but should discuss what you are about to discuss in your SOP. There are multiple approaches you may adopt to go about this paragraph:

Discuss your long-term goal and connect it with your idea of pursuing the course you are applying to. Present your understanding of the chosen field and write how you want to contribute to that field. Explain your background in 2-3 lines and connect it with your future goals. Write about an anecdote that helped you realize your professional interest in the chosen field.

Students often make the mistake of introducing themselves or their childhood in the first paragraph. In some cases, students tend to forget about the purpose behind writing an SOP. Watch out for the inadvertent, common mistakes and avoid these in your SOP at your best.

2nd and 3rd Paragraphs: Academic Background and Professional Experience

In these paragraphs, you may write what you have done so far, what you are currently pursuing, your academic strengths and projects, industrial exposure you have attained, etc. If you have any professional experience, it should be discussed in these paragraphs. This helps in establishing your career progression.

4th Paragraph: Why This Course?

In this paragraph, you should discuss why you want to join a course and what modules would you tap during this course. It should also cover the skills you would acquire in this duration along with the exposure that would help in developing the skills desired to realize your goals.

5th Paragraph: Career Goals

This is the most important paragraph, where you should discuss your short and long-term goals. Your immediate goal would be where you would want to work right after completing this course. You should be able to name some companies within India along with the designation you see yourself working at. This should explain the kind of job profile you would be working on.

Then comes your long-term goal, wherein you should mention where you see yourself from 10-15 years down the line. This may include your desire of working at the CEO/CFO/CTO level or maybe establish a start-up of your own. It may also include your dream of expanding your existing family business overseas. You may also be interested in further studies like a PhD which can be included here.

6th Paragraph: Why This University?

This is a specific paragraph wherein you can convince a university as in how they are suitable for your profile and you are an ideal candidate for their university. You should discuss the course curriculum, research work, faculty names, as well as the university-specific activities that would help you in enhancing your profile, and you may also mention what activities you can do in the university and how interested are you to take part in extra-curricular and co-curricular activities during your course of study.

7th Paragraph: Why This Country? (only in SOP of visa application)

The visa officer will be particularly interested in knowing what compels you to choose their country for pursuing your higher studies. They expect you to have clarity on what you may expect from their country, what you like about it, and how this exposure is going to help you in your career. The officer would also look for likelihood of you leaving their country after the permitted period of stay and your return to your home country.

Last Paragraph: Closing conclusion

In this paragraph, you should conclude your desire and readiness towards joining the chosen course. Since this is the closing paragraph, you should sound focused and prepared for all the challenges that come your way while pursuing this course. It should also show that you have the will power in you to succeed; and with the help of the chosen course and university, you are ought to make a difference in your career and life.

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