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Writing an awesome statement of purpose

Katie Schenk - May 12, 2017

Writing an awesome
statement of purpose

Your statement of purpose is critical because it’s the only aspect of your engineering application that provides the admissions team with an understanding of you as an individual. As you can imagine, engineering schools can’t admit all the talented students that apply; they’re looking for a mix of talent, the ability to exceed expectations, and a good fit in the university culture. Throughout this essay, you should demonstrate your ability to research.

In some cases, the admissions team (which varies from programme to programme), can make an instant judgment call on an application. But, there are always cases where the statement of purpose pushes an applicant into the yes pile. A sloppy statement of purpose, on the other hand, may end in a rejected application. So, even if the other submitted materials speak for themselves, you must put plenty of effort into writing an awesome statement of purpose.

What is a statement of purpose?

Even though a statement of purpose (SoP) essay is the only time you get to differentiate yourself, you don’t want to confuse it with a personal statement (PS).

Personal statement essays are more frequently requested by undergraduate programmes than grad schools; they focus on your personal experiences and serve to highlight your interests, show how you’ll fit into the school’s culture, and how active you’ll be in and outside of the classroom. As you’ve not had any practical experience and it’s unlikely that you’ve performed any practical research, personal statements can only be about yourself and your interests.

Grad-level engineering programmes request a statement of purpose essays which focus on your research interests. The inclusion of personal experiences should relate directly to research, engineering, and the way your brain manipulates information. You’re not taking yourself out completely, but demonstrating that you can interact with the school and department for mutual benefit.

What should you expect?

The admissions process varies between programmes. Most will provide a list of questions they hope to have answered. And, they’ll provide parameters such as word count and spacing instructions. It’s important that you ensure you meet the mechanical specifications in the editing of your work. But, focus on answering the questions first.

Questions, whether explicit or implied can be grouped into a few categories:

  • Why do you want to study? Questions in this group relate to your reasoning behind your choice of degree, department, university, country - and what attracts you to each aspect.
  • Do you have any experience in the field? Engineering masters programmes are less likely to look for work experience than some advanced degrees. But, if you have any related experience, you’ll need to demonstrate how it informs your choice of degree or adds to it. And, if you have a lot of practical experience under your belt, be sure to describe what you hope to gain from your studies.
  • What do you expect from the programme - and how will you contribute to the university? The answers to these questions should demonstrate that you’ve done your research. It’s not enough to say you look forward to broadening your horizons. You should note specific labs, professors, and research groups - and how you plan to use or interact with these resources. Skipping the details in this area can really detract from your application; it shows you’ve skipped the research stage of your SoP.
  • What are your post-graduation plans? This is really a way of asking whether the degree you wish to pursue is critical to your future and success. Try to respond with the industries, positions, or research you plan to pursue while demonstrating that your education is a key part of that plan.
  • Who are you? While you may see questions about your personal interests and characteristics, keep in mind that the admissions team whats to know how you’ll fit into their community. What skills will you bring? How active will you be in campus activities? And, again, it should show whether you’ve taken the time to research the engineering programme and the university at large.

What do admissions teams want to read?

Above all, you’ll need to answer all the questions asked in the brief. But, you don’t want to list the answer to each one and then push them into paragraphs. If the admissions team still has questions after reading your statement of purpose and reviewing the other aspects of your application, you probably won’t get a positive response.

You want to demonstrate passion for the field, the programme, and the university without gushing. So, feel free to make your accomplishments shine, but avoid boasting. It’s better to convey pride in your work rather than brag. And, nothing says that better than quantifiable successes. But, don’t stick only to facts and figures; indeed, much of that will be gleaned from your CV and transcripts.

When you can, use stories, themes, and metaphors to link the aspects of your essay and your application. For example, when discussing your work experience, don’t just talk about your responsibilities; rather describe your experience. How did it make you feel? What inspired you? What did your workspace feel like when you realised you needed to return to school to achieve your goals? Even if your undergrad or work experience was miserable, remain upbeat and never denigrate the organisations you have been affiliated with.

If you have a less-than-stellar undergraduate record, or there are other aspects where you feel you make be lacking, don’t avoid talking about this gaps. Admissions teams would rather know why you didn’t achieve top marks in core classes than be left wondering. Try to make it positive by showing how you persevered or what you learned from a negative experience.

When it comes to tone, try to achieve a balance between talking to a friend and writing to a head of state. Write as if you are speaking to someone you know, but avoid being too casual. If you’re having a difficult time getting this right, pretend you’re writing to the most senior person that you have a relationship with such as a dean of your undergraduate university.

Every department at every school in each university has its own review process. While they may place a different weight on the SoP, they all expect to see a polished, detail-oriented work. Every paragraph should relate to your experience, research, or the future the university can provide. So, make sure you illustrate the research you’ve done with regards to the programme and university.

A few DOs and DON’Ts

Don’t pretend this degree or line of work has always been your “purpose” in life. It may have been something you dreamed of from a young age, but it wasn’t always your purpose, and that’s what you need to stick to in this essay.

You do want to add specifics as much as you can, but you need to have your facts straight. If you speak about a professor, make sure he’s still at the university. If you speak about work in a field, make sure they’re included in the school’s recent research portfolio.

Try to avoid quotes from famous people. A quote from a professor in your department is, however, not a bad idea as long as you can demonstrate that it inspired you to pursue a field or further research in some way.

Don’t add humour for the sake of it. If you’re relating a comical experience that prompted you to pursue your field of study, feel free to make it a little funny. But, there’s no point in adding jokes… really.

Editing your statement of purpose

Your first draft is never your final draft. When editing, you’ll need to do several passes, and it may be easier to look for one or two errors at a time.

Look for ideas and or self-descriptions that you missed in the first edit. It’s now that friends and family may be of some use. They may be able to provide you with examples of how you approach work, times when you were inspired (or inspiring), and whether you’ve described yourself accurately or not.

On your second pass (or third… or fourteenth), take a look for common grammar mistakes. Look out for passive voice, comma and semicolon errors, contractions, spelling mistakes. Don’t rely on your word processing programme to point out mistakes (though a free resource, such a Grammarly will point out issues with passive voice as well as spelling.)

Also, make sure you write out the entire name the first time you use it. For example, statement of purpose rather than SoP or World Health Organisation instead of WHO. Check for varied sentence structures - starting too many sentences in a row with “I” will detract from your work. And, remember that simpler sentences that are clear and concise are better than long, unwieldy ones.

You really should write a unique statement of purpose for every you apply to, but if you copy and paste or do a search and replace for parts, always make sure that you’ve got the right information in every essay. And, don’t expect your proofreaders to pick up on that; they haven’t spent weeks researching the universities as you have.

When you’re secure with your statement of purpose, have someone else look at it. Indeed, you should ask a few people to look at it. Ask for grammar and sentence structure assistance - especially if you’re writing in a language that’s not your mother tongue. More importantly, turn to your undergraduate professors or engineering advisors on the job. They’ll be able to offer technical insight and may have insights to your work and approach that you may have missed.

After your final changes, wait a few days to do a final proofread where you check for grammar, omitted words, and double check that it all reads smoothly. Check the word count and formatting instructions before submitting; you really don’t want to put in all that work to be ruled out on a technicality.

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