Sep 29, 2022

How to Format a Statement of Purpose for Grad School (SOP)

Wordvice KH

When it comes to applying to graduate school, there are many things students must prepare, including a graduate school recommendation letter and graduate school CV.

However, the most important element in your graduate school admissions package is the Statement of Purpose, also known at many universities as the “personal statement.”

In this article, you will learn why the Statement of Purpose is so important for graduate school admissions, how the Statement of Purpose format differs from college application essay formats, and how to format a successful Statement of Purpose for graduate school–with examples!

Table of Contents

  • What is a Statement of Purpose?
  • How to Format a Statement of Purpose
  • Statement of Purpose Format and Structure
  • Statement of Purpose Sample Examples

What is a Statement of Purpose?

In graduate school applications, a statement of purpose (SOP) (or personal statement) is the one part of the application that allows applicants to construct a narrative of their choosing that includes all relevant parts of their academic and personal histories. This includes academic and professional interests and accomplishments, personality, values, and worldview, as well as how both the student and graduate program can add value to each other. 

Difference between the Statement of Purpose and college admissions essays

At the graduate school level, students often have years of research and academic experience. In the case of MBA programs, applicants also often have years of work experience they can include in their essays. 

This makes graduate school admission essays or personal statements distinct from undergraduate application essays. Graduate school applicants have a significant amount of material and context with which to differentiate themselves and stand apart from other applicants. The scope (how much is covered) and depth (how detailed the experiences are) are both much more complex for a Statement of Purpose.

Do I need to write a Statement of Purpose for college?

The graduate Statement of Purpose allows applicants to summarize non-quantifiable qualities for consideration by an admissions committee. This may include an applicant’s personal or professional strengths, as well as goals or passion for certain subjects. 

The graduate school application process is often competitive. In addition to being academically qualified, students must demonstrate a commitment to the program. Remember, one concern graduate programs have is that students will drop out and not continue to pay tuition.

Effect of Covid-19 on the Statement of Purpose

COVID-19 has reduced the feasibility of standardized testing, and there are increased concerns by wider society over the equitable nature of standardized testing in general. 

For example, NYU Stern School of Business on June 15th became the fourth top-25 business school to announce that its full-time MBA program would not consider the GMAT or GRE any longer

Further, Michael Hunt, director of the University of Maryland McNair Scholars Program has gone on record stating that 

“[My] goal is to “remove barriers and not maintain obstacles under the guise of academic freedom or other university policies. I pray that one day, we will not need committees or a pandemic to determine if something is equitable.”

This leaves the Statement of Purpose, academic background, resume/CV, and letters of recommendation as the primary determinants of graduate admission.

How long should a Statement of Purpose be?

Generally, a Statement of Purpose should be between 500 and 1,000 words long and should not exceed a single page. But this can depend on the school or program to which you are applying, as well as on the extent of your academic experience.

Graduate Statement Of Purpose Format Guidelines

We have already covered how to write a Statement of Purpose for grad school (with examples).

Read over these resources and watch our Wordvice Webinar Series for how to write a winning Statement of Purpose:

General Statement of Purpose Formatting Rules

Unlike a college admissions essay, a grad school Statement of Purpose is generally not uploaded in a text box or input field in some platforms, as the Common Application essay is.

Applying to graduate school means applying directly to the graduate program and its parent department. Graduate programs are separate entities within their universities. Applying to the College of Arts & Sciences is different than applying to a university’s College of Engineering. 

As a result, most graduate school applications are simply uploaded directly to the program. So, you will likely be uploading a Word .doc or Adobe .pdf file.

Microsoft Word (.DOC) format

Typical file types for a Statement of Purpose are .doc or .docx. There is a downside to Word files being editable, and there are sometimes conflicts among the different Word versions (2010 vs 2016. vs Office365). One benefit of Word files is that anyone can view them.

PDF format

If maintaining the visual aspects of your essay is important, this is a safe choice. PDFs prevent formatting issues that might arise with older versions of Word documents.

To make the statement easier to read, applicants should follow the following rules:

  • Use 1-inch margins. Microsoft Word uses this setting by default.
  • Use a traditional Serif font. These types of fonts include Times New Roman, Courier, and Garamond and are the “classy” fonts you typically see. They add professionalism to your essay. Avoid minimalist sans Serif fonts.
  • Use a standard 12-font size. 
  • Use 1.5- or double-spacing. Readability is very important for your Statement of Purpose. Double spaces are not an issue as the essay should already fit on 1 page.
  • Add a Header with your First Name, Last Name, university, and other required information.
  • Clearly separate your paragraphs. By default, just press ‘ENTER’ twice.

Additional Statement of Purpose Format Tips

How To Format a Statement Of PurposeWhat to Avoid When Formatting a Statement Of Purpose
Take time to look up the graduate program’s guidelines for the Statement of Purpose. Rewrite each Statement of Purpose for each program.Do NOT write and submit ONE version of your Statement of Purpose for all programs.
Check grammar and spelling carefully using a mentor or essay editing service.Do NOT use an online grammar checker only or word processor grammar check.
Watch the word count! Double-check each school’s requirements, but the average word count ranges from roughly 500 to 1000 words. (Article: How to Shorten an Essay)Do NOT write a wall of text or novel. You are NOT supposed to write an autobiography cataloging everything in your life.
Keep your tone professional but conversational (that means no contractions, slang terms, or other colloquialisms). Additionally, keep the tone professional but conversational.Do NOT use hashtags, emojis, memes, or other informal language.

Statement of Purpose Format and Structure Outline

One of the most important characteristics of a strong Statement of Purpose is its structure. Layout the information in such a way that the reader can easily understand it. Well-organized statements keep readers interested.

In general, a Statement of Purpose should follow the format of an academic essay:

Introduction – State your goals and introduce yourself

The first section of the application should clearly and concisely explain what the student hopes to achieve by completing the program. For a history student, the goal may be to earn a PhD that allows them to take a historian position at a major non-profit institution or museum upon graduation. For a chemistry student, the goal may be to move into a postdoctoral research position at a major university with the hope of becoming a professor later. 

Or perhaps an applicant has goals of going into the private sector. Regardless of the field of study, your professional experience, academic history, prior internships or jobs, and goals should be introduced here.

Tips for writing the Introduction for the Statement of Purpose

  • Grab attention. Your introduction is the first impression you make on your reader.
  • Write a compelling first sentence. Consider using an anecdote, quotation, or gripping personal story.
  • Preview. The second half of your introduction should briefly preview the other sections of your Statement of Purpose. 

Main Body – Academic and career history

In the first part of the body, you must support the idea of you being a qualified candidate with details about your academic and career history as well as examples of projects, accomplishments, and learning experiences.

Start with a brief history of your undergraduate experience and academic results. Then, move on to extracurricular, professional, and career experiences and achievements. As a graduate studies applicant, professional and career experiences will naturally be more diverse and therefore help you stand out. 

You should of course emphasize your academic experience and grades. Mention how you took advantage of your university’s resources and if you developed any special relationships with professors–that is especially what PhD advisors are looking for!

In the second part of the body, support your assertions with examples.

Tips for writing about academic and career history and goals

  • Interest in the program. Why are you interested in this particular graduate program?
  • Academic goals. As a graduate student, you are entering into a research environment. What tangible research goals do you hope to achieve?
  • Career and professional goals. What are your post-graduate plans? Specify if you have academic or private industry goals. 
  • Strengths and weaknesses. Give context to why and how you developed your strengths and weaknesses. Demonstrate self-awareness as to how your behaviors and personality affect others–collaboration and equity are huge concerns!
  • Provide context, not a CV. Fit your achievements and experiences into your compelling narrative, not as standalone. 
  • Give examples. Extend your personal narrative with compelling examples. The more specific you are, the more convincing your narrative becomes. If you are applying to a program in statistics, write about your poker games with your grandpa and the moment you learned the power of weighted expected value.

Main Body – Why you are a fit for the program?

Students’ goals and interests must align with the mission and values of a college or university when being considered for admissions. A common tactic is to highlight a few professors in the department, which demonstrates that the applicant has done the research, whereas other students discuss the accomplishments of prominent alumni they admire. 

Students can use this space to create an impressive application by creatively demonstrating their knowledge of the school and department while matching it with their goals. 

Tips for writing about fit with the program

  • Align with the program. Use the university’s program description as a guide on how to align your Statement of Purpose with the graduate degree program. Refer to your experience in the context of the program.
  • Community and culture. Nowadays, universities seek students who can be representatives of and contributors to their community. How does your history and goals fit into that program’s city, university, and culture?
  • Your benefit to the program. You are not giving just your money and time to the graduate program; the admission committee wants to know what benefits you seek to get out of it. This is where you can reference specific departments and professors in the program and any academic contributions of theirs you are familiar with.

Conclusion – Summary

The conclusion must accomplish two goals: package everything together and leave the reader interested in knowing more. If you can accomplish the second part, you will likely get a passing grade on your Statement of Purpose.

Reflect on what attending the program would mean to you, both professionally and personally, as you give one final thought or insight. Write about both the impact you hope to have on the world and the impact attending the program would have on yourself. 

Tips for writing the Statement of Purpose conclusion

  • Keep it succinct. This section will usually contain no new information, so don’t repeat any information. 
  • (Re)State your value. You are your own best marketer here. Display confidence not just in your abilities but in your decision to apply and stick with your decision. You also bring a unique profile of academic, career, and personal experiences and goals. You may not gain admission, but make sure it’s because you’re not the right fit, NOT because your value was understated or misunderstood.

Statement of Purpose Format: Structure and Summary

statement of purpose infographic

Be sure to check our article on how to write a Statement of Purpose for grad school.

We also have recommendation letter templates and dozens of other useful resources to help you prepare your admissions essays. 

If you need editing or proofreading, you can start by checking out our professional admissions editing services, SOP editing services, and college and graduate essay editing services.

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