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Common mistakes that applicants make in writing SOP and application essays

How to avoid most common SOP mistakes while writing application essays for your MS, MIS and MBA applications? And, what does this Computer Science Professor at UCSB has to say about SOPs?

The biggest scare for an applicant is to write the SOP. We have seen even the star performers getting stumped in front of the Word screen when it comes to writing a SOP. We have already talked about the technical aspects of a SOP in our previous post. Today, we will look into how to avoid some common pitfalls. For other application mistakes, look at this post.

Here are some common problems we have observed-

1. Rehashing the resume

SOP is not a verbose form of your resume. The worst SOPs are the ones that say – ‘I graduated from XYZ with a GPA of 8.9. Here, I took courses A, B  and C and did projects E, F and G. After graduation, I joined company K and worked on blah blah’. The problem here is that it is adding nothing to what you have already told in your resume, so you are wasting a precious opportunity to connect and communicate to the admissions committee what your other unique qualities are.

SOP is your personal story that is unique to you. Use it to highlight your soft qualities, successes and failures. Show them your vision and why you will make a great student. Show them that you have done the groundwork and you know what you are talking about.

2. Hollow claims

Nothing is more frustrating than reading a page full of baseless claims. As in literature, one rule holds true here as well – don’t tell, show it to me. If you say you are hard working, show it – give me a specific example that will tell me you are hardworking without having to say it. Same goes with claiming that you are an innovative thinker. When a student tells how he came up with unique ways to raise huge funding for a college event, I automatically know that he can think out of the box. So, instead of inserting hundred of adjectives there, try to tell 3-4 meaningful stories that show what you are capable of.

3. Lack of confidence

Did you read other SOPs and felt that others had something to write about but you have nothing? Believe me, you have as much to write as they did and your life is no less eventful than theirs. Their SOP got to that point after multiple iterations. If you see anyone’s first drafts, you will snicker! So, don’t lose heart, just get started.

Nothing can replace the dint of experience, and Nistha has clearly incorporated hers’ in her counseling. Her valuable advice has helped me explore different dimensions of my “Statement of Purpose” and “Resume” and she personally reviews and re-reviews the same to perfection – See full testimonial 

4. Lack of planning

Writing a SOP takes time and you should have at least good 4-5 weeks for the revisions and your final draft should come after at least 3-4 iterations. Why? Because howsoever great you may be in last minute work (especially the engineers), SOP needs reflection which takes time. You may have skipped some important event or detail in the first time and you only remember as you revise and revise. You have to proactively think – ‘what makes your profile credible, strong and interesting‘. Build a theme and structure for telling your story. Best SOPs are the ones that connect small parts of the applicant’s life (decisions and events) with a bigger vision and goal. It is a matter of building a story and it takes time. You just cannot rush it.

In our counseling, we start from scratch and help the applicant build his/her unique story over 4-5 iterations. This process has worked wonders and helped in creating high quality essays for our students.

4. Discounting your failures

Often, students avoid talking about things that they haven’t done well at such as GRE score, GPA, a course grade etc. However, you can use your failures to demonstrate that you have the ability to overcome these – and that makes for some very strong stories! For e.g. look how an applicant uses his failure to demonstrate another strength-

With my father’s illness and added responsibilities at home, my academic performance in second year suffered a lot and my GPA took a plunge. However, it only made me more motivated to work harder and restore my confidence. With extra hours and renewed focus, I was able to restore my GPA to a more respectable figure. While it is way below what I feel I am capable of, I am proud that I could take care of my family when needed and still manage three B’s in that semester.

Now you can imagine what will the admission committee feel about such an applicant – sure, his GPA might be much lower than many other applicants but he has demonstrated enough determination to overcoming hurdles and embracing failures. This is undeniably a strong admirable quality to have in a student. Choose to be honest. After all, there are humans in the admission committee who may appreciate an honest explanation way more than a denial.

5. Being too humble

Ok, so I understand that humility is a virtue and all that. But at the end of the day, an applicant needs to sell himself to the admissions committee and the SOP is his advertisement. That’s right – SOP is a marketing tactic. This does not mean that you have to be dishonest, it just means that you cannot afford underselling yourself. This is your chance to shine and sometimes, humility can mislead since the admission committee doesn’t know you well enough to understand that you are just being shy or humble (especially Indians), they will take your lack of self-praise to be lack of accomplishments. Don’t fall into that trap! You need to speak up for yourself loud and clear (it is not the same as indulging in self-flattery or braggadocios).  If you have achieved something, take pride in it and mention it without sounding arrogant. Sell yourself.

6. Cheesy cliches

Don’t try to fit in by citing similar examples and using same quotes that thousand other applicants are using. Try to tell YOUR story in your own words. Note that admission committee goes through thousands of SOPs and can only remember those who stand out. Everyone is writing about ‘how I began assembling computer at the age of five’ or ‘made my first game at the age of eight’. Be honest and spend more time preparing your story – I am sure there is a way to make your honest story sound as impressive. So, don’t take a short cut by following any pattern – spend some time and tell your own story.

Extra tip for PhD applicants

This is what a Computer Science Professor at UCSB has to say about PhD SOPs –
Read Quote of Ben Y. Zhao’s answer to What are the points to be covered in a statement of purpose for applying for graduate school? on Quora But, he does mention few exceptions- Read Quote of Ben Y. Zhao’s answer to What are the points to be covered in a statement of purpose for applying for graduate school? on Quora


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