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I'm about to write a statement of purpose for graduate admission and my advisor passed along to me the following pieces of advice to keep in mind while writing (based on his style and experience in admission commitees).

I completely agree with every point he has made. However, I'd like to have further insight and suggestions and yet another reality check on the soundness of these pieces of advice.

Advice from my advisor:

  • Don't try to sell me my own research area by explaining to me how fascinating it is. Do show your interest by showcasing your previous experience working on (or studying) related topics (not necessarily very closely related).

  • Don't tell me how amazing, prestigious, perfect my institution or research group is. I know more than you do about that. Also, chances are that you are applying to a lot of schools and don't have inflexible interests yet, which is fine. Just tell me that you may be willing to work with a certain research group that seems more or less in line with your previous experience or future directions.

  • Don't tell me a cute story about how you fell in love with my field when you were a kid (or high school senior or college freshmen). I just don't care. I want to hire a soon-to-be professional to join my research group, not a little boy with a cute story. I only need to know factual information that show your commitment to the field (for example, courses/conferences attended, projects undertaken).

  • Ban ill-crafted, pseudo-literary, flowery, cheesy narrations. Just write facts. Straightforwardly. Succintly. Accurately. I'll draw conclusions for myself.

  • Ban any buzzwords, meaningless adjectives and adverbs. If they don't add concrete information, but are there just an ill-advised attempt to impress, cut them!

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    I wished every applicant read this list and stuck to it... – Wolfgang Bangerth Jan 14 '18 at 22:43
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    Sounds a bit cute, and cheesy. No, seriously, it sounds so negative and depressing.... – aparente001 Jan 15 '18 at 5:43
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    I would add some advices regarding the presentation. Spell-check, Be consistent in your formatting, Make the structure is easy to follow, and, as Nicole suggests, try to be future-oriented. – Clément Jan 17 '18 at 19:43
  • academia.stackexchange.com/questions/102169/… – user86300 Jan 22 '18 at 10:35
16

All good advice. In addition, may I suggest that a statement of purpose should answer the question, what will you do if they admit you? It should be future-oriented. What are your goals and what are your plans for getting there?

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+50

My research adviser and my academic graduate adviser at my undergrad aerospace engineering department provided similar advice as your professor when I applied to grad schools. They dread reading the same "I fell in love with airplanes as a child" opener. Their advice prompted me to write a formulaic but clear statement of purpose that I think served as a breath of fresh air for one my successful "dream program" applications.

My SOP was 1.5 justified (do this no matter what you write) pages with clearly labeled sections:

  1. Motivation/background, 1/4 page, 1 paragraph: How a boring internship encouraged me to pursue graduate studies if I wanted a challenging career. This is where you could insert a thesis statement or an actual statement of purpose.
  2. Relevant experience, 3/4 page, 4 paragraphs: lab experience, publications, etc. This is where you show off that you are a professional student as your prof explained.
  3. Career goals, 1/4 page, 1 paragraph: what do you want to do after school? How will a grad degree help? This is where you can weave in Nicole Hamilton's suggestion of your short- and long-term plans.
  4. Institution selection, 1/4 page, 1 paragraph: Why are you applying to this department? Why are you applying to this school?
  5. Funding, 1/4 page, 1 paragraph: How will you would pay for grad school if you don't get a paid RA position? (TA, private tutoring, external fellowships, etc.).

You may have more or less information for each section, but I would recommend this structured and straightforward style. I think anything more than 2 pages is overkill though (except for NSF).

In summary, make reading your SOP as easy and least-cringe-y as possible.

6

I'm a current graduate school applicant. I included a short story in my statement of purpose to give a few details of my background and ultimately show how I overcame barriers to be a successful first-generation college student, like receiving a full-ride scholarship based on my status.

To modify point 3, telling a small story about a relevant part of your background to highlight some characteristic of your personality, like dedication, can boost your application. This can include describing overcoming hardships as a first-generation student or a foreigner. Plus, it will add some "personality" or "insight" to your application that can't really be described anywhere else.

2

Reasons this is generally sound advice (and what's missing)

Professors must read many statements of purpose, so following this advice will make it easy for them to get the info they are trying to find. Honestly, the stories about when a student fell in love with a topic aren't helpful in determining if they will be a productive scholar (and get really boring after reading 20 variations on the same theme). Sticking to the facts will help the reader get the information they need quickly and prevent your letter from being tossed aside.

Additionally, (depending on the specific field) scientific writing tends to be focused on communicating clearly and precisely; good scientific writing leaves out unhelpful digressions and imprecise terms. Following the OP's advisor's advice will tend to make a statement of purpose look more like good scientific writing.

What's missing

I agree with the advice that it is unhelpful to tell a potential advisor that their research group is prestigious/perfect. However, as the first point of advice implies, it is critical to communicate your "fit" with the work being done there. Potential advisors want to know whether you understand what you would be getting into, and that the work is a good fit for your interests and skills.

This could mean that you have already worked on related projects, but not necessarily. For instance, I once read a statement of purpose (and accompanying letters of recommendation) that emphasized that the student was not afraid of teaching herself new skills and learning new topics without hands-on guidance. This sort of independence is critical in my area of work (which is interdisciplinary and requires understanding work coming out of multiple fields).

If your key strengths would make you a good fit for the type of science being done in that group, you must emphasize this.

Ultimately, as others have pointed out, professors are interested in hiring potential junior colleagues who will be productive. It is OK to deviate from the specific points in the OP's advisor's advice, so long as you (clearly and succinctly) speak to this main point.

1

I see your advisor's point of view, and it is safe to say that he is right. However, there are exaggerations which might lead to a nonsensical cover letter. The tone in these advices seem a bit disrespectful to candidates as well.

If you stick to this advice 100% this is what you should write,

To Whom It May Concern,
I am writing this letter to declare my interest in the open position a the research team ABC. I have studied on this topic for two years, and I have four publications. I am willing to work with people from different cultures and countries. This research area also fits my future plans. I have attended courses X, Y and Z, and passed them all with good grades.

Set aside this information can be obtained by only looking at your CV, the cover letter does not reveal any personal information.

Unfortunately, by giving an advice of not using ill-crafted, pseudo-literary, flowery, cheesy words, ironically, he himself uses some buzzwords, meaningless adjectives and adverbs that we hear in Hollywood movies, said by the "tough" commander or detective.

The research team that you are applying to is looking for a human being to work with. And chances are, they want to have a wild guess what kind of person you are, before moving onto the second stage.

Explaining why you want to work in that research direction, and how is it going to contribute to the literature is not advertising and "selling" a research area. It is you telling the committee why they should think that you are more ambitious than the other candidates.

Also, people usually want to explain why they are applying to a certain position. This is not a cute story. This is called motivation. By same reasoning, we might also drop the cute 5-year-old-boy stories from scientific papers, and get straight to the business.

Therefore, I would not 100% stick to these advices, and also not ignore them:

  • Your background and ambitions are definitely needed in a cover letter.
  • Stating your aims and goals during your employment is very important. More important is to convince the committee that you can achieve a satisfactory amount of them.
  • Why do you want to work in that particular research group? Why is that research area important for you?
  • Consistent formatting is important in terms of readability.
  • Remember to explain that you can fulfill all the requirements in the job advertisement. Preferably in a FAQ fashion, first, requirement, than your qualification for that requirement.

Remember, cover letter is the first step that a committee gets to know you, and it should be treated that way. If you cut out all personal details, then better is not sending the letter at all. Just a CV would be sufficient.

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    -1 for the initial criticism. Banning flowery language does not mean banning evidence. – JeffE Jan 19 '18 at 12:54
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    The criticism ia not about banning the flowery language, but the tone of the advice. "Do not use flowery language" is different than "I do not want a 5-year-old whiney promary school baby boy who uses cheesy, unnecessary, flowery narrations." This is just a research team, not the marine. – padawan Jan 19 '18 at 13:43
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    -1 for the given reductio-ad-absurdum example not understanding the core question. The reduced example is an inquiry to a faculty member, not a statement of purpose for a graduate school application. Different documents, different contexts, different expectations (and the faculty inquiry letter should be very short and direct). – Michael Ekstrand Jan 20 '18 at 17:00
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    Nothing you have written "proves your point". Your characterization of what OP should write "If you stick to this advice 100%" completely mischaracterizes the advice. The advice is not itself a statement of purpose, and therefore does not need to have—and arguably should not have—the same tone as a statement of purpose. – JeffE Jan 20 '18 at 21:27
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    I think I made it not very clear that my main objection is about the tone, and exaggerated expressions. I do agree that one should not include how they "fell in love" with some topic, but the motivation behind studying the topic is needed in a statement of purpose. – padawan Jan 20 '18 at 23:42

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