What are the points to be covered in a statement of purpose for applying for graduate school?
First of all, let me emphasize the fact that any applicant's SOP is THE most important organ of the overall application. Everyone read the statement above 3 times and let it sink into you that this is the part of your application you are gonna work upon the most. Before answering the question, I would like to explain why is an essay of around a 1000 words going to decide your future:It is the only part of your application through which you actually communicate with the admissions committee - You must have often heard that the interview is the deciding factor when sitting for job placements. Except for a few programs (mostly Ph.D.) graduate school admission process does not constitute of an interview round. So how is the university going to judge you (yeah I have to use that word), and how are they going to decide whether you are fit to roam their campus? They can't hear you talk, so they read you, through your SOP.The admissions committee know that anyone with a large number of influential contacts can build up a pretty decent CV, but if he/she is not as capable as his/her resume speaks, then it will clearly show when they start talking (in this case, writing in their SOP). It is the only chance you have to wash your previous sins and confess/explain clearly - By sins here I mean a sucky grade or an unfinished project, nothing more. Lets imagine you are applying for an MS in Computer Science in a really reputed university. You are not there in the top 10% of your class. You have 2 stinky incomplete projects, a ghost of an internship and no research papers. However, you have definite and clear goals and you are brimming with motivation for grad school. Can you show the university this side of yours? OF COURSE! Explain in your SOP! Be honest and tell them why you failed to work to your best of capabilities, but also tell them that you plan to do so now, and explain how. The university will be impressed. Of course, you need really great professionally persuasive skills and a touch of crispness. You are really marketing yourself through your SOP, thats what you are doing. Your SOP should portray you like this guy here:It is the only way you can express your desire and motivation for enrolling in that specific university - There can be a thousand reasons for you to enter a specific university, for example, a unique course content, a specially designed program, a qualified professor, research/entrepreneurial focus, etc. Please just don't say that the university was top ranked so you wanted to study there. That will achieve nothing.Talk about laboratory resources, specific research opportunities, potential for cross-disciplinary academics and other such stuff, and you will get the committee listening.It is the only component of your application where you get to be YOU - The committee really looks forward to reading your SOP as that is the only way they can get to know you and your thought processes before you actually enter the college. You can get even get a teeny tiny bit humorous and personal in your SOP. It doesn't hurt as far as your basic aim is to show the university your motivation for graduate studies and the solidarity of your goals. Do not lie, be transparent, and the university will definitely get impressed.Ok, I think now that I have displayed the significance of the SOP, I should go on to answer the actual question - What are the points to be covered in a Statement of Purpose?Due to the fact that my SOP got me selected to MIT and Stanford, the top ranked institutions in the world (trust me, in real life I am really modest), I will break down my SOP here paragraph by paragraph and try to explain everything as clearly as I can. Here I go:Para 1: Explain the significance of your field to the world in general. Start with an analogy or a fact. For example if you are going to pursue Environmental Engineering you can express concern about the depreciating state of energy and water, and carry on gracefully from there. Then mention how are you gonna solve this so called issue and to do that what course do you intend to pursue at the desired university.Para 2: Explain how your undergraduate education will play a significant role in your graduate development. Mention specific courses you opted in your undergrad (and why) and how will they complement the courses you intend to take in your grad school. At this point, visit the university's department website, open the course contents, and copy down the relevant courses from there. The university gets impresses by this research you did. Para 3: Mention you source of motivation here. It really helps to include a short story (2 lines) that explains how you built up this solid motivation. Then explain what you plan to do after grad school. This is a very important section of your SOP. Make sure you show the school that your goals are crystal clear and you are a serious prospective student.Para 4: Mention here all the relevant projects/internships you have completed at this stage. It is essential to include some relevant details and what have you learnt from these projects that would inch you closer to your set goals you mentioned in the previous paragraphs.Para 5: Your position in class and justify it. This is a short paragraph where you can also mention some abstract skills.Para 6: This is dedicated to all the social activities you have been involved in since you were born. US universities have a soft corner for social activities so make sure you do have something to write here! It can be anything from blood donation to some serious NGO work.Para 7: Mention some of your co-curricular activities here, which show that you are not just a boring academic person, but also do have a life! This content makes the admission committee get to know you on a personal level, and it really helps them to form an image of you. One thing, it may seem easy to lie in this paragraph, but please don't. The committee people have this uncanny ability to detect such lies, and trust me, if they think you are just boasting, it can have a negative impact.Para 8: Ok, now according to my POV this is THE MOST IMPORTANT PARAGRAPH of your SOP. Here you have to tell the university people why the hell do you wanna go there!! As I said earlier, make sure you give them solid reasons for doing so. These reasons should get them thinking and admiring their university. You require a lot of research to write this para. I used to scan each and every word on the department website before even thinking to come out with my reasons. Mention names of professors, labs, courses, facilities, projects and what not to get their attention.Para 9: This is the conclusion of your SOP. Remember to be modest and be soft. Express your gratitude and humbly ask for scholarship if you want one. That should do it.To conclude my answer, I would like to stress on the fact that it should be you and only YOU that writes your SOP. Do not hire experts to do this for you. The admissions committee is very experienced and will definitely come to know about this.So everyone, bring out the you on paper in about a 1000 words and make your future!! :)To witness the power of an effective SOP, see:UPDATE: Hi everyone! Please have a look at this piece of information below. It turns out the significance of the SOP is largely dependent on the program you are applying to. While the SOP has a major impact for engineering/science programs, it may not be so for economics or maybe some other majors.Following is a comment I received on this answer by Tolga Yilmaz:First of all, let me emphasize the fact that any applicant's SOP is THEmost important organ of the overall application.Not so in economics. A friend of mine who has been admitted to Yale Econ PhD was told by one of his professors that they hadn't read his essay until after he was already admitted (they just wanted to see who they had admitted :)). See Page on Ucsb"How important is that statement of purpose in the application.Not so much. It’s important to sound intelligent, but probably no one will read the statement until after a first screening. In economics, the statement of purpose is mostly an opportunity to “do no harm.” (A good way to judge getting-into-graduate-school advice is by the emphasis on the personal statement. Advice emphasizing the importance of the SOP is probably bad advice on other topics too. In other disciplines the SOP is very important. It ain’t in economics.) The SOP should be well-written and straightforward. If there’s a credible reason you’re interested in this particular school, it’s fine to say so. Mentioning relevant research experience is fine. In general, don’t go overboard."