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I have written my Statement of Purpose (SOP) for the graduate programs that were Ph.D. or M.Sc.+Ph.D. (the American doctoral programs), but I am also applying for some only M.Sc. programs. They often require a shorter SOP, and even if they don't explicitly mention a word limit, my presumption is that they find a full 2-page SOP (just below 1200 words) to be too long. I am wondering what are the least important points for an M.Sc. application, so I can cut out those parts from my SOP.

Given the programs I'm applying to, it seems to me that they care a lot about the courses I've done, and not only a few important ones, but almost all relevant coursework. I also know that they don't really expect any research experience, but I thought my research experience is what could make my application stand out in the pool of applicants to those M.Sc. programs (a lot of whom have little to no research experience). There is also a part about my interest in the subject and my long-term plans, where I explain my research interest (since I'm definitely going to do a Ph.D. after my M.Sc. and pursue an academic career). I don't know how necessary it is, but I think they might care about why I wanna do a master's degree at all (this is separate from the part where I write about their program in particular). The rest of it is about my educational background and skills.

Which one of these parts do you think is the least important so I can exclude it?

(I list the paragraphs here: )

  1. My interest + view on the subject + long-term goal
  2. Background from college 1
  3. Background from college 2 (I've transferred from 1 to 2)
  4. Skills and other important points about my background
  5. Research experience 1
  6. Research Experience 2 (I've briefly described the project too.. is it necessary to do that for Master's programs?! )
  7. Short-term plans
  8. Why this particular master's program
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This is impossible to answer without seeing your SOP (which you should not post here). I'll give some general advice about what's important and not in an SOP.

Your mileage may vary of course, but on average, SOPs are very poorly edited. For the average student in your position, they could keep all the content and save 30% just by eliminating unnecessary detail. Common offenders:

  • Stuff that's in the CV.
  • Pointless stories about their childhood
  • Lectures about their love of their chosen (sub)-field, or pontifications about how important the subfield is
  • Complicated verbiage (a good editor can really help you here, but can be hard to find).
  • Technical detail -- choose one or two specific challenges you had and how you overcame them, don't describe everything you've ever done
  • Therapy sessions about a traumatic experience they had (unfair professor, etc.) -- SOPs are not the place for this

To your paragraphs:

My interest + view on the subject + long-term goal

Your first paragraph should be an attention getter (bonus points if it's humorous). Make sure you aren't pretentious about your "view on the subject." You should state your research interests -- what you've researched and what you want to do next. If your long-term goal is to be a professor, omit this (everyone would like to be a professor in the same way that every basketball player would like to be in the NBA).

Background from college 1

Background from college 2 (I've transferred from 1 to 2)

Good, focus on challenges, in particular program-relevant challenges (lab work, most difficult/enjoyable class, etc.)

Skills and other important points about my background

Skills should be in your resume. "Important points about my background" sounds a little suspicious, but of course I do not know what you plan to say. If you keep this section, it should be about any major accomplishments during college that do not fit elsewhere (teaching, sports, career, etc.).

Research experience 1

Research Experience 2 (I've briefly described the project too.. is it necessary to do that for Master's programs?! )

The project should be on your CV. Here you should describe what you did, what you learned, challenges/highlights of the project, and how it affects your career trajectory (e.g., interest in doing more, wanting to do something else).

Short-term plans

I assume your short-term plan is to go to the master's program, not sure what you plan to say here. Consider omitting this unless there's something really interesting.

Why this particular master's program

Yes.

  • About my short-term plan, I explained what I'm going to do from now until the start date of the program I'm applying to. This includes a brief reference to the research project I'm going to work on this summer. Do you think it is unnecessary? – nra Mar 16 '18 at 20:28
  • Hard to say, but in general, it might be better to mention it with your other research (if it is related) or just to list it on your CV. Exception would be if it's something awesome you want to draw attention to (e.g., working at NASA). – cag51 Mar 16 '18 at 21:05
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By way of background, I am an admissions tutor for a competitive MSc and read around 400 personal statements each year. @cag51's answer is great and already says most of what I would offer as advice. Especially, it's worth repeating: avoid biopic fluff about your earlier years. Sorry, but if I have to read 400 of these statements in 2 weeks then I don't care that you enjoyed your first chemistry set.


What I would add to @cag51's answer is that

It might be helpful to think of your personal statement as a piece of evidence of your suitability for the programme.

The key question is how can that that evidence be made more convincing? One important way is to minimise the amount of cheap talk and maximise the content that is specific, verifiable, and credible. Cheap talk is something anybody could write, regardless of whether it is true or not.*

For example, suppose that you are trying to evidence the claim 'I have a long-standing deep interest in the subject matter of the degree'.

A story about how the subject has been your lifelong passion since childhood, however well written, is cheap talk. You could have made the whole story up to try to schmooze your way onto the degree. There's no evidence! On the other hand, if you write about how a couple of specific papers/books you read shaped your thinking then there is verifiable evidence that you have engaged with the topic before. Someone who isn't interested enough to make time to look at the literature couldn't possibly have written about what these papers say.**

Another way to evidence the same point would be to write specifically about interesting things to have come out of your earlier academic experiences. For example, maybe you had a lab internship where an experiment produced some unexpected results. Writing about what you did about this, how you reconciled the results with your expectations, etc. is verifiable evidence that you have been actively and intellectually engaged with the subject matter, whereas writing in general terms about 'how great the internship was' is cheap talk.

Likewise, if you want to argue that 'I am invested in the idea of continuing on to research in the future', how might you provide evidence? Talking vaguely about interesting topics is cheap talk (anyone can say it's interesting to study lipids or the spread of fake news without putting any thought into it). But talking about specific research questions you'd like to answer, methods that might be used, or gaps in the literature you'd like to fill is evidence of individual thought. It would be impossible to do that unless you genuinely spent time thinking about what the interesting open questions are, so it is a credible way to signal that you are serious about research.


*Ironically, my claim to be an admissions tutor is cheap talk.

**You'd be amazed how many people who already have an undergraduate degree in a subject can't even do this in a cogent fashion!

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