Writing a Statement of Purpose for Graduate Admission

1. Preface

Good wishes for everyone. This article is all about writing a good
Statement of Purpose or SOP. I am assuming that everyone who is
reading this article knows about an SOP and its importance. I tried to
summarize some key points on writing a good SOP and also some
difficulties that BUET students usually face. Some thoughts expressed
in here are solely mine. This article is an extended version of an
email that I posted on Oct 01, 2006 on the csebuet@yahoogroups mailing
2. SOP – What's it all about?

An SOP is a personal statement that says who you are, what are your
intents, and why do you like this career path (You are a dying fan of
research or your father wants you to be a doctor…kidding, don't do
this). At this time when you are thinking of writing an SOP, you
should be at the end of your undergrad. That means your cgpa hunt is
almost over. You will have to fight with whatever cgpa you have earned
so far. Also you might have already finished your GRE and other tests.
Hence you have nothing else to do with your scores. The only thing you
are left with is the SOP, the ultimate weapon to get a better
admission for your graduate study. You cannot control your LOR (Letter
of Recommendation) which also has a great impact on your admission
result taken by the university admission committee (I do not want to
mention the bad practice that we follow for LOR in BUET in this article).

Some people ask me questions like this, "My cgpa is 3.x, GRE score is
abc, my classmates with higher cgpa than mine are also applying for
this same university, should I go for it?" I usually do not say no to
this people unless they have a very low score compared to their high
cgpa holder friends. Why? Once I talked to my departmental chairperson
about the admission decision procedure for a little bit. She said when
they get a lot of good applications with similar good results (which
they always have); they pick up the successful ones who look
promising. Now you might ask me two questions, a) what band of cgpa
will I call similar results and b) how do I define who is promising?
For the first question, it has no definite quantitative answer. I
would say anything above 3.8 cgpa is similar. Likewise 3.6 to 3.8 may
be considered as in a similar band. Others may come up with different
ranges. In case of GRE, the same kind of ranging can be done. Now come
to the second question, who is the promising candidate and how do you
prove yourself as a promising candidate to the admission committee.
The answer is the SOP. When everyone looks the same in terms of
scores, your SOP gives you an edge. You better think of taking this
SOP writing job into a serious consideration right away.
3. What do I say in my SOP?

Now that you have understood the importance of the SOP, what should
you put in your SOP? This question needs a lot of brainstorm to come
up with a good answer. Different people will give you different ideas,
even though all will circle around some basic ideas – it's all about
you. An SOP is a bigger version of an Elevator Speech, I would say.
The admission committee reads hundreds of SOPs each year and they are
quite seasoned and bored with reading the same thing again and again.
You will have a vantage point only when you write an SOP that attracts
the attention of the professor who is bored and tired in late
afternoon thinking of going home. Do not write something mediocre by
doing some "chothabazi". Be genuine.

Here comes the big question, "How do I attract their attention showing
that I am good?" There is no direct answer unfortunately and there are
no specific rules for doing so. Looks like I do not have any direct
answer for anything today. But sometime life is like this. You will
have to come up with your own answers. Devise your own game plan.
Every SOP is unique in a sense that it tells about a unique person.
Find out what makes you unique or special compared to the others. Make
a list. Now again you ask me a question (I am never bored with
questions, ask me as much as you want), "I am the hall champion in
playing the Age of Empires, does that make me unique?" Umm… probably
not. You are applying for a graduate admission, keep that in mind.
Your research intent, capability, potential, past experience, projects
you have done that inspired you to come this far are some points that
you can focus on. Just do not say that you are good, passionate, and
hard working. Show them with examples that you are really the person
that you say. Show them that you are good. When every applicant has
good scores the admission committee uses all the scores just as a
baseline. But what they really look for is the potential. Scores give
the quantitative potential, but the qualitative potential is the key
to beat others when everyone is good.

So what do you say in your SOP – the potential that you have inside
you which makes you a perfect candidate for this admission. Just don't
say it, show it.
4. What research interest should I put in it?

Looks like I am dealing with a lot of questions today. No problem.
This one is easy – select something that has some implementation or
effective output. More precisely, a research field that can earn some
revenue (in monetary sense) in the real world. Why do you even care
about whether your research topic will earn money? Because the people
or organizations who are funding the professors want money. Except
some organizations like NSF (National Science Foundation) who give
money for advancement of science, everyone is giving this fund so that
they can get some output from it in return that will boost their
future market. Intel wants more power efficient chip design
methodology. You show interest in power-aware chip design; you have a
higher chance of getting an admission as most of the chip industries
are focusing on power issues nowadays. Maybe you have noticed that
Intel is not increasing its microprocessor clock frequency further
anymore. They are trying to make it more power efficient. Anyway,
that's a different topic which is not the focus of this article.

So the baseline is, stay away from theoretical computer science
topics. Some of you may have interests in theory, but you should be
careful that not too many people do research in theory as funding is
low in those areas. Low funding means lower admission chance.
5. I had something else in my undergrad thesis!!

This is a common problem for most BUET undergrad students. Due to the
lack of research opportunities, most of us end up doing something that
we do not like. Most frustrating part is that we end up doing our
thesis in theory. So when you are writing your SOP, you are confused
because you like Computer Architecture but your undergrad thesis is on
Graph Theory. Moreover, showing intent in theory may lower your chance
of getting the admission. What will you do? My suggestions!! It does
not matter if you have your undergrad thesis on something else. The
admission committee knows how much research an undergrad can do. They
do not expect too much from you. Even though you have done something
on a different topic, state your intent clearly. But focus on your
passion that you want a research career, you have some research
background. Your undergrad thesis might help in this case to prove
that you are worthy of doing research.

What if you have an MS from BUET? Then you should have a legitimate
reason to switch from your MS thesis subject to the new topic that you
are going state in your SOP. This is a bad idea I would say, cause
coming up with this legitimate reason is not so easy. If you don't
want to switch, then that's good. But as I said before, sticking with
theoretical research may lower your chance of getting admission.
6. Do research on research

You read right, you will have to do research on research. Selecting
which university to apply is a big dilemma for a student. One of the
key factors that should be considered is what research opportunities
are currently going on in that university. Go to their research web
pages. Browse thoroughly. Then go to the faculty web pages. Find out
what they are doing NOW. Professors generally have interests in
multiple related fields. But at some point of time they work on some
specific topics. Figure that out. Show your interest in your SOP on
that topic. Most probably they have fund on those fields. Sometime
looking at research projects' web pages help a lot to get some idea
about ongoing research fields.
7. Tailor it accordingly

May be you are not applying to only one university. Do you write only
one SOP for all of them? Maybe not. Because different universities
will have research strengths in different fields. You might want to
modify your research interests a little bit so that it fits that
particular university. As I said in my email, you will have to sell
yourself. Give them whatever they want. You do not have to modify the
entire SOP, just the place where you show your intent. In this case
essentially you are writing only one SOP for all of them but just
modifying a little bit to fit a certain university.
8. Consistency in interest

Be consistent when you state your research intent. Do not show
interest in too many diverse fields. For example, showing interest in
both Distributed Systems and VLSI is not a good idea. Maybe Wireless
Sensor Networks and Distributed Systems sound a lot more consistent.
Do not use some fancy words to sound yourself as if you know
everything. Be reasonable.

Ask your friends and seniors to know which fields are currently most
active. Remember – Information is the key. You can be miles ahead of
others if you know more. If you can say something on these recent
areas, it will give you a better position to impress the admission
committee. For instance, wireless sensor networks, power-aware chip
design are some of the most active research fields nowadays. Others
can name more.

9. No paper? You have job experience??

I have a friend who works in one of the telecommunication companies in
Dhaka. He is trying hard to get an admission in North America. But
sometimes he gets frustrated as he does not have any research
experience or any paper published. Is that a big issue if you don't
have any paper? I would say no. If you ask the senior students who are
already doing their MS/PhD, you will find most of them had no paper
published at the time of their admission. As I said before, the
admission committee does not ask for too much from an undergrad in
terms of previous research activity. You should not forget one thing
that you have something else that can be a lot more beneficial - job
experience. If you show your research interest that relates to
telecommunication, it can be a great plus point. Similarly those who
are working in the software industry back in Dhaka can also focus on
that. Whatever you have, show it. Sell yourself.
10. Now that you are ready …

Ok, enough of these vague ideas that I threw over you so far. Let's
discuss about something concrete. Now that you have decided what are
your interests and all that, how do you start writing your SOP?
Following are some key points to consider. This list is not
necessarily complete but can be helpful.

* a) Take preparation early. It takes time to write a good SOP. At
least a month or may be more. Make a list of what points you are going
to discuss in it. Find out what are your strengths.
* b) Layout a structure. Decide how many paragraphs you will have,
what will be the contents of each paragraph. A basic layout of
paragraphs can be like this –
1. Para I – Introduction. State your intent in short. Do you
want to have an MS or PhD? What research fields do you like to work
on? This intro should be a summary of the remaining paragraphs.
2. Para II - Your educational background. Things you have
done that inspired you to take a research oriented career path.
3. Para III - Your research interest and reasons behind
selecting that field. This interest can be based on your academic or
job experience. Make the relation clear. This paragraph can be
decomposed into two paragraphs.\
4. Para IV – Reasons behind choosing that particular
university. Research activities in that university those attracted
your attention.
5. Para V – End paragraph focusing on your passion, goal,
intent, reasons behind being a perfect candidate for this admission
and a nice finish.

This layout is just an example from the top of my head. You
might come up with something more appropriate.

* c) Make the introduction attractive so that the reader thinks it
is going to be a good one. Attract his attention. State your intent
* d) Do not write a lengthy SOP. The reader does not have too much
time to spend on one. Be concise. The optimal size of an SOP should be
within two pages.
* e) Do not start with your childhood fascination with computer,
the day your father bought you a computer and you fell in love with
it. Don't be funny.
* f) Be coherent in each paragraph. Keep the transition from one
sentence to another smooth. The flow of the writing is too much
important. Keep the flow smooth when you start a new paragraph. There
should be a connection between two consecutive paragraphs so that the
reader does not feel lost.
* g) Never use any kind of negative tone, use active voice.
* h) In one of the paragraphs, state the reason behind choosing
that particular university that made you interested about that university.
* i) Five to six paragraph should be sufficient.
* j) Use standard font and font size. Do not use any kind of fancy
font. Be professional.
* k) Focus on teamwork. People in here want a person to be team
* l) State the reason behind choosing a certain research area.
* m) Leave a sense of completion when you finish. Do not just cut
off at some point. The reader should feel that you have said
everything and nothing else is left.
* n) You can collect some sample SOPs from others to get an idea
on how to write a good one. But never ever copy. Be genuine, be yourself.
* o) After writing a draft copy, print it and proofread. Correct
the errors and again print and proofread, three times at least. The
reader will reject you as soon as he finds that you do not know the
basic rules of grammar. These people read hundreds of technical
reports. They do not like grammatical mistakes at all. You mush have
0% tolerance for grammatical mistakes.
* p) Get corrections from at least two people. One who knows
English grammar better and one who knows how to write a good SOP. Do
not rely on your own instinct. Opinion from a different person's
perspective always helps.
* q) Do not use tough words, like GRE words. It might be tempting
to use those words as you might have just completed your GRE. But
avoid this. Do not put too much "shahitto" in your writing. Use simple
words and simple sentences. Do not use long complex sentences.
* r) You can also get some help online. There are tons of websites
that can help you to write a better SOP.
* s) Do not procrastinate. Start writing today. Again I am telling
you, it takes time. Edit, proofread, print, rewrite again and again
until you are happy. Don't be happy too early. Criticize yourself. You
are not competing with only other BUET people; hundreds of students
from other countries are also competing at the same time.

11. Finally…

Yes, finally I am done. But there is a big journey ahead of you. Be
confident. Be positive. Wish you a big a success.

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