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January 13, 2023 7:22 pm

Navigating the Path to Studying Abroad – Part II


Now let us talk about Statement of Purpose (SOP), also called Personal Statement or Letter of Motivation. It is one of the most important documents in your whole application package. It is perhaps the first thing that admission committee members grab when they assess your application, and it is crucial that SOP is attractive enough to hook them. Remember admission committee typically gets hundreds of SOPs of prospective students and each SOP has just 10 seconds to create an impression. So, write your SOP with utmost care and diligence.

Different universities have different word limits for an SOP but in most cases it shall be an under 1500-word document. Sometimes there is variation within the same institution. For example, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education asks: “It should be typed, double-spaced, and no more than 1,500 words” and the same university’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences says: “Unless otherwise noted, your statement should not exceed 1,000 words.” So, it is better to double-check, always visit the website of the department where you are applying for requirement check-list. Sticking to word limit is very important because not adhering to the guidelines can make your application ineligible. The University of Oxford is categorical about this: “If your statement of purpose or research proposal significantly exceeds the permitted length stated on the relevant course page, it will be removed from your application and your application will be considered incomplete and is unlikely to be assessed by the academic department.”

Also Read: Navigating the Path to Studying Abroad – Part I


Divide your SOP into 4 or 5 paragraphs with first paragraph being more personal, where you mention what prompted you to pursue a particular course or program. You can say, for example, that you attended a seminar somewhere or a particular professor taught you a course or an event ignited your interest in the subject. Let me give examples of attention grabbing first paragraphs:

“During my undergrad studies, I got a chance to demonstrate my heat-trapping model at National Science Exhibition…”

“In 2008, I was pursuing Masters in Political Science at University of Kashmir. In International Law class, our professor once said, ‘Peace processes are ploys to further entrench the occupations’”

“As a teenager I was sent to study in North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, because political turmoil in Kashmir was claiming many lives. I enrolled for B.A in English literature…”

An account of personal experience in the opening sentence must connect logically with your proposed research. Example 1 above suits a person who is applying for MSc or PhD in Physics. It demonstrates consistency of interest in the subject. Example 2 gives indication that the applicant’s interest stems from a particular International Law class which she attended in Kashmir University, and is logically connected to her proposal if it would be a critical appraisal of a peace process. Similarly, example 3 can be used to pitch a research proposal on literature of exile. You can work it many ways. But do not make up. Just be creative. Write your story in your own unique voice.

In terms of a framework, I can suggest the following:

  • My context: which experiences have generated my interest in this field of study?
  • My aims and objectives: what are my career goals, what knowledge and skills I expect to gain through enrolment in this program?
  • Rationale for choosing this institution: why this specific course or program? Why studying at this university or department, and this master’s program, is crucial in helping me achieve my career goals?

In short: tell your story in terms of who you are, what academic and professional experiences you have obtained so far, and where you aspire to reach in your career. Write about your relevant experiences, any internships and volunteer work you have done which complements your academic profile. In brief and crisp lines show your progression over the years, highlighting your achievements, such as high grades, gold medal, award/s, etc. Mention any course, conference, publication related to your proposed research project. Also, you can tell them what you can bring to the class based on your background and unique life experiences.

In case your academic progress has suffered (for example, receiving lower grade in some course/s) due to some event, like natural calamity, political turmoil etc., do mention it.  If you have done your previous study in one field (for example, BSc Botany, MSc Environmental Studies) and you are applying for MA or PhD in another field (say International Relations or Journalism), you should tell your reader why and how this transition from one field to another took place and how you are prepared enough or possess requisite skills to pursue the program. It is always better if your master’s thesis or your work experience (or something you have done previously) and the proposed research for PhD are similar, because it is a good way to show the consistency of your academic interest.

To write why you have chosen the school or department you are applying to go through the department’s website and read about it carefully. Scan through the courses it offers, its publications, your proposed supervisor’s profile and research interests. Write down what specific qualities this department has in terms of resources and staff. What kind of students they wish to enrol in the course and what they expect them to leave with after they have finished the program?

Process this whole information and write in bullet points your key observations. After you have done this research, write something along these lines: ‘I chose this department because it has strong expertise on [your chosen field] and, particularly, [your proposed supervisor] has done a considerable work on [your proposed research theme] and can provide me better guidance.” You can then highlight the proposed supervisor’s achievements, by saying, for example: “Professor Suzanne is an experienced mentor who has brought 12 students to successful PhD completion, including on [mention research areas]. She has mentored students from different backgrounds and her mentees have found employment in various organisations, such as [mention if available]. Her knowledge of [mention the areas of study] and her quantitative approach or comparative method [mention what applies in your case] make her an ideal mentor for my proposed project. She has received [mention the funding body] funding for her project [mention the project], and she has also been a visiting professor at [mention the name of the universities]. Her extensive network, include [mention the organisations or entities]. These contacts will be very helpful to my career development and are available only in very few places in [mention the country where you are applying].

In this part of SOP, you will address why this department is the right place for you to study and why this professor is the right person to work with. Overall, you should be able to convince the admission committee why you are the most suitable candidate out of hundreds of other applicants. Portray yourself as a capable candidate who has real passion in the chosen subject, has shown consistency and can undertake a rigorous academic program or research.


Don’t try to impress by inserting complex sentence structures and difficult vocabulary. Write in simple English with sentences of reasonable length. Revise your draft many times for a coherent and persuasive narrative. Send it to the people who can provide an informed feedback. Incorporate useful suggestions, leave out what might seem like a tangential comment. Once you have a polished draft, go to the mirror and read it to yourself as you read a story to an audience. If you can find a friend who can listen, read it out to him or her. Ask for their feedback on language of the document, whether it tells a good story or not. Revise further based on this feedback. Repeat this process till you are satisfied.

Understand the document by reading SOPs of successful candidates. You can imitate them, but don’t copy verbatim. Learn how to draft the whole thing and weave together different elements of your CV to create an interesting story. Preferably use Times New Roman, font size 12, and 1.5-line space. In no way should the document exceed to more than two pages. Always remain within the word limit. Here are some useful resources to write a persuasive SOP:

(to be continued…)

  • Muhammad Tahir is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at Dublin City University, Ireland 

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Muhammad Tahir

The author is an independent researcher