Common Mistakes ESL Students Make When Writing an SOP

Writing a graduate admissions essay in English can be a frustrating and difficult task for many whose first language is not English.

The Statement of Purpose is one of the most important documents for applying to graduate school. But writing a successful SOP can especially challenging for ESL students, since many are unfamiliar with the style and conventions of English essay writing. Many ESL applicants not only have limited English skills but also experience difficulties in structuring and organizing contents when writing a SOP.

In this article, we will show you some common mistakes ESL students should avoid. We will also provide you some examples and present some better ways to write an SOP.

Weak Introduction—excessive or irrelevant biographical information

First impressions are the most important. Since your school’s admissions committee might be reviewing hundreds and thousands of application documents, getting their attention at the beginning of your Statement of Purpose will make them more interested in reading through the entire essay and understanding more about you. Therefore, you need to start out with a compelling introduction.

A lot of ESL students confuse the SOP for an “autobiography.” But the SOP should not be written as a narrative essay that lists all of your experiences chronologically without considering whether they are relevant or not. Instead, SOP should be structured like a “persuasive essay” that convinces the admissions committee to accept you into their program.

Start your SOP with a simple and straightforward statement about who you are and what your intention is. A lot of ESL students tend to start their SOP by talking about family background or a meaningful childhood experience. Although recounting these kinds of inspiration can be a powerful statement about who you are, readers might lose their patience if it does not lead to specific reasons for of why you are applying this graduate program.

Therefore, instead of writing long and irrelevant stories that might weaken the focus of your SOP, start your SOP with a brief opening statement of one or two sentences about your passion AND your intention for applying to this program. The introduction should explain to admissions committees the reasons that they should take your application seriously. In addition, the first couple of paragraphs should include impactful and powerful lines that summarize your foundational academic experiences, and it should do this using concrete details.


  • Weak introduction—author includes irrelevant background information and vague statements about goals.

Notice how many words this writer uses to discuss their history. They also discuss information that does not seem relevant to graduate study.

I have always been interested in other cultures. East Africa is the birthplace of our species and contains a lot of fascinating people and artifacts. Other regions also offer a lot opportunities for cultural study, especially India and China. However, I have always been interested in Africa. According to Professor E.M. White of Columbia University, some of the first human languages and rituals came out of the African continent. I am therefore applying to New York University’s graduate program in East African studies to study this important area of the world.

  • Stronger Introduction—author connects personal background with concrete academic goals.

Here the writer identifies their area of study in the first sentence or two and then quickly moves on to state how this background relates to their intended graduate program. They also summarize their short- and long-term research goals, which gives the admissions committees a good idea of what this student will do once enrolled at their school.

East Africa is not only the birthplace of our species, but it is also the original home of our culture and language. I am fascinated the study of African culture due to the insights it can offer to many other areas of anthropological study. I am therefore applying to New York University’s graduate program in East African studies to further my knowledge of East Africa and to conduct research to give the anthropological community insights into this important area of the world. My further goal is to obtain a PhD and to eventually teach anthropological techniques to other researchers.

Confusing or Unclear Structure—ideas and experience are not connected

A lot of ESL students have difficulty knowing how to structure their essay so their ideas flow in a clear and logical order. Your past experiences, abilities, motivations for applying the school, and your goals in the future should be strongly connected with one another and be woven together throughout your SOP to make a holistic argument about how you will fit into this program. In addition, you should use appropriate transition phrases when connecting each paragraph.

For example, instead of simply listing your academic and professional background or community service experiences (without telling why exactly these experiences are important and how they have motivated you to pursue a higher education), you should elaborate on these experiences in each section while making sure they are written in a logical—and chronological—order. In most cases, you will also be submitting a CV (Curriculum Vitae) along with the SOP. Therefore, the content of your SOP should not simply repeat that of your CV—your SOP is not just a longer version of your CV.

Do not simply list information about the institutions you have attended and relevant skills and duties you have performed one-by-one in your SOP. Instead, discuss how each academic experience (including major courses and professors) impacted your education and goals. Keep in mind that the main focus of the SOP is to clearly demonstrate your future ambitions and goals.

Be specific about what you have learned and completed through your prior experiences and how exactly you have used your abilities to solve specific problems. Also, explain why these experiences have led you to believe higher education is necessary at this time and what skills you will gain through this program.

When connecting your prior experiences to your motivation of application, instead of just saying “I chose this program because I love this field,” explain clearly why you love this field and what made you decide that you want to work in this field in the future.


One sign of an essay with a strong structure is the presence of clear and ordered transitions and topic sentences. The first sentence of each paragraph should tell the reader what will follow, and this content should also be ordered clearly and logically.

Here are examples of paragraph transitions in a well-structured essay (key phrases underlined):

  • This transition tells the reader that details of the background of the author will follow:

My fascination with East Africa and our cultural and anthropological origins began when I was in middle school…

  • Time and sequence transitions help the reader understand the order of information:

During this time, I also assisted graduate researchers in archaeological digs and…

  •  Referring to the courses, experiences, or professors in transitions strengthens your organization:

Through these courses, I not only gained theoretical knowledge related to anthropological research, but I also acquired the field skills needed to effectively carry out excavations of sites…

  • This paragraph will likely show additional information that is important but not necessarily related to that discussed earlier.

On top of my anthropological study in the classroom, I also joined a student archaeological group…

  • How can you tell that this is from the final paragraph of the SOP? The beginning of the sentence sets up a summary of achievements and skills, while the end of the sentence clearly states the fact of this writer’s fitness for the program:

Considering my extensive experience in anthropology, my work alongside researchers in the field, and my science-related and leadership extracurricular activities, I believe I am an ideal candidate for this prestigious program.

Generic “Form Essay”—SOP is not targeted to the school or program

Don’t let a generic SOP lead admissions committees to think you are a generic candidate.

All too often, ESL students will use a basic template when writing their SOP. Whether they created the template themselves or downloaded one from the internet, when students apply to more than one school, they often simply copy the majority of the text from the template and then change specific details, such as the name of the school or program.

We suggest you to customize your SOP when applying to different schools instead of just copying it. If you copy-and-paste a template, you risk seeming generic and too similar to those of other applicants who have used similar templates. In addition, your SOP might be too general and fail to include some crucial information about certain programs. Each school has different characteristics, and their values, vision, history, culture, strengths, and other elements they look for in a graduate student will vary greatly, too.

Therefore, if you apply to multiple schools, do some research about the different qualities of these schools and customize your SOP based on this information. You need to tailor your essay, show the admissions committee that you fully understand their programs, and persuade them that you will fit well into the program. Therefore, merely changing the names of program will be not sufficient.

In addition, the last part of SOP usually includes the reasons why the applicant chose this school/program. In many cases, ESL students will compliment the school without telling how they can be a good fit for the program. These kinds of sentences are too general and fail to convey reason why admissions committees should admit you: “XXX University is one of the Top Universities in the U.S. and is well known for the reputation of its Business School,” or “I would like to join your program because XXX University has renowned alumni, excellent students, experienced faculty members, and many research resources and facilities.”

Instead, shape up generic sentences with concrete details and more colorful terms and explain what this specific school and program has to offer:


  • Boring and generic:

When I was younger, I was very interested mathematics. Therefore, I studied hard and spent a lot of time on problems and got excellent grades in my undergraduate math classes.

  • Interesting and specific:

My interest in Computer Science began after taking a course at Atlanta Community College. The excellent facilities, courses, and faculty there (especially Professor Hastings) instilled in me an instant love for the fundamentals of this discipline.

  • Boring and generic:

I look forward to studying in your program and learning from top researchers at your school.

  • Interesting and specific:

I look forward to bringing my extensive experience in Communications to the Media Relations Program at Yale University and working alongside one of the best research teams in the United States.

Failure to Proofread and Revise—essay contains grammar and style errors and is missing crucial information

Although a freshly-drafted SOP may look perfect to the person writing it, getting an extra pair of eyes to proofread and assess your work is always a good idea. A lot of ESL students leave out important information that might help to connect experiences and strengthen their SOP or leave in unnatural English expressions and phrasing. Awkward phrases and terms not only make a candidate look unprofessional–they also might lead admissions committees to doubt their English ability. You cannot impressively present your excellent experiences and enthusiasm for the program if there are grammar and vocabulary errors in your SOP.

Therefore, we highly suggest that ESL students receive expert proofreading from professionally qualified editors before submitting their application documents. Wordvice’s Premium Admissions Editing Service is designed specifically for college and university application essays. Our admissions experts not only edit for grammar, spelling, mechanics, and natural flow of communication, but also provide substantive comments about organization, content, transitions, and other language issues. See our Admissions Services page for information on a full range of admissions editing services.

Wordvice’s Premium Admissions Editing Service provides substantive comments about content, organization, and style.

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