State your purpose clearly

Present the real You

When applying to universities abroad, a well-written Statement of Purpose adds value to your academic record and entrance exam scores. Vatsala Vedantam explains what should go into a good SOP

The time has come around for post-graduate studies in foreign universities.

 If your choice is an American university and you have completed the pre-requisite examinations like GRE, GMAT and TOEFL, you must now identify the universities/departments that offer the maximum choice in the subjects of your choice. It is a lengthy procedure added to a lot of hard work.

 It is not merely identifying the college and its programmes. You must get all the information possible about both so that your application has credibility. It also tells the admission authorities of those institutions that you have chosen this college and this subject of study after much deliberation, and not because your best friend went there.


The late Fr Nelapathy, former principal of St Joseph’s College, wisely advised his students not to be obsessed with Ivy League colleges like Yale or Harvard, but to choose a smaller university where there was room for greater interaction and rapport between teachers and students. A university, for example, where a fresh graduate would not be overwhelmed. Fortunately, the choice of study is so wide and welcoming in the US that every student will find a place where she can shine. 

So, don’t go by names alone. Find out whether you will fit in there. Far better to be a gem in a small college, rather than be a misfit in a pompous one. If your application gives a true picture of your strengths and weaknesses, I am sure you will eventually land in the right place.
 Most US universities go by certain measures in their selection processes. Your GRE or GMAT scores are just one part of these benchmarks. Letters of recommendation from your undergraduate teachers is the second part. Academic excellence in high school and college come next. 

But, they are not everything. Your BA/BSc or MA/MSc marks alone may not reflect your true abilities. You may have been a mere bookworm and good at memorising classroom lectures and notes. That is why the admission committees in most American universities examine your “outside the classroom” interests. Did you have any extra curricular achievements? Were you involved in social activities? Were you creative and did you join hobby clubs in college? Did you excel in writing, dramatics, public speaking, or sports? Did you display leadership qualities during your undergraduate days?

All this and more will be reflected in that most important part of your application — the statement of purpose. If you are applying for graduate studies (MS) or a PhD programme in an American university, please remember that the essay you write will tell everything about you to those who are examining your application. It will even tell them whether it is your own effort or written by someone else. Talking to a cross section of admission officers in different universities convinced me that a great college looks for that extra something in a student which only her personal essay will reveal. It will also reveal her strengths, her weaknesses, her personality. 

An essay which starts with “Most Respected Sir,” and ends with “Yours obediently” will find its way to the trash bin. Indian culture may demand humility. But, there is no need for undue modesty about your achievements. Be proud of your assets. Don’t underplay them. And, be positive in your writing.

The admission officer in a medical school once told me that she could sense who would make a good doctor or nurse merely by the personal statement. Similarly, another professor recently said “If a student speaks only of her weaknesses, she has given me ten good reasons why her application should be rejected.” So, talk of your strengths in a positive way. Show that you have studied the university’s goals and aspirations which match yours. Also show that you have taken the trouble to find out about the faculty, their qualifications and academic requirements. Let your statement display real purpose as to why you chose THAT particular college, and THAT particular course of study.  Let it also tell the admission officers that you have taken pains to find out what kind of teaching and research is carried on there. Who are the faculty members? What are their qualifications? Has their work inspired you? 

If you have bothered to go through the web sites of colleges, departments and faculty members, your essay will show that the curriculum and research programmes conducted there has interested you. Your essay is the only personal index to who you are, what you are looking for and where you come from. It should be frank, open and honest. It should be a spontaneous expression of all your dreams, efforts and goals. If it is well written and carefully proof read, you will certainly impress the persons reading it. On the other hand, a carelessly worded letter that is vague and irrelevant will show you as person who  does not care, who has no definite goals and lacks direction. 

As the admission officer of Stanford University put it: “We don’t finally judge a student by his academic record alone. Nor by his recommendations. Nor by his entrance test scores. We look for that special quality that sets him/her apart from others. And, when we find it, we instinctively know that this is the kind of student we want. Let me add, our instinct has not let us down so far!”

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