Apart from grades and test scores, many colleges and universities (especially in the US) rigorously examine students’ statements of purpose to determine what unique talents each applicant brings and how this would contribute to the larger student body.

Here are a few tips for writing a distinctive and compelling statement of purpose:

Start Early: Give yourself at least 4-6 weeks to write your essay. Not because you can’t turn it around in 2 days, but rather just to avoid the stress of it, and to give yourself enough time to get feedback. If you are a procrastinator, give yourself an internal deadline of a week (which is at least 3 weeks before the deadline for the application) so as to have enough time to review and revise your essay if necessary.

Understand the Essay Question: Most statements of purpose or essay topics are posed as a question. It could be as simple as ‘Tell us why you should study at our university’ or ‘What would you gain from your experience at our university?’  Either way, make sure you read and understand the question. Underlying all questions are two subtextual questions: Why do you want to come to this university and why you instead of someone else?

Some Self Reflection: Start jotting down notes on why you; and what you bring to the table by way of your own interests, talents and skills. Aim to stand out from the rest.

Get to Know the School: Find out what the school you have chosen is known for and proud of, and identify why they’d be a good fit for you and your interests. Use this knowledge to show the admissions committee that you understand the school and value what it stands for. For example, if you’re interested in a school that happens to have a large undergraduate research program, tell them you’d love to be part of that (if you could benefit from that, in your major). If there’s a particular professor you’d like to work with or take a class with, mention this.

Create an Outline: Follow the classic essay writing formula; start by introducing your idea, explain it in the middle of your essay, and summarise it in your conclusion. Start and end on a strong note and aim to convince. 

Show Rather than Tell: Use examples of actions that prove your talents and beliefs, rather than just describing your commitment to those things. Include examples of yourself that talk about you as a person and not just as a student. These could include  professional and personal interests that are relevant to your study. For example, if you’re interested in studying engineering in college, it’s worthwhile to mention that you were on your high school’s robotics team and created the winning project for your school’s exhibition/science fair. If you’re looking at a grad school, focusing on your professional experience reinforces your well-roundedness.

Put Pen to Paper (or Rather Your Fingers to the Keyboard): Start writing. Get all of your thoughts down on paper and don’t stop to clean up, perfect or tighten; that’s what editing is for. Don’t write and edit at the same time. If you try, you’ll end up staring at a blank screen. If you don’t like what you read after your first attempt, don’t get disheartened, the first draft is usually not the best, and there is no way around this. Keep writing; allow yourself to go off on a tangent if you want to pursue a thought or idea. Once you’ve got all your thoughts down, it easy from thereon to clean-up, re-arrange and organise.

Edit, Re-evaluate and Improve: Here are some questions to ask yourself as you edit. Did you answer the essay question? This is the most imperative part of this exercise, so if your answer is no, be prepared to start again and re-do. Does the first sentence grab your attention? Do your ideas flow logically? Are you telling or showing? Do you appear special, distinct and interesting? Does the essay include your lifestory or just relevant parts? Aim for the latter.

Have Someone Else Read It: Make sure to pick people who have either undertaken the same exercise or are experienced in reviewing statements of purpose. The US style of writing is more spartan and self-involved than other countries, so your reviewers should know this before reviewing.

We hope these tips help you in writing a convincing statement of purpose and get you into the school of your dreams.

For more helpful advice and guidelines for international study, check out our blog.

About the Author: Mishri Someshwar is a marketing director at a Washington DC-based association. She is a native of Bangalore, India and moved to the US in 2003 to attend college at American University in Washington, DC.