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Starting The Grad School Statement of Purpose

January 07, 2019 :: Jacob Allison

A successful graduate admissions essay communicates the experiences and accomplishments of the applicant and how they relate to their pursuit of grad school. But how does an applicant know what kinds of experiences and accomplishments programs are looking for in applicants?

Well, each program’s statement of purpose (SOP) prompts can tell us a lot about the steps that you, as someone thinking about applying to graduate school, should be taking to become a competitive applicant. Below, we look at Stanford’s graduate SOP prompt and analyze it to see what it reveals to potential applicants.

First, let’s look at the prompt:  

“[The SOP] should describe succinctly your reasons for applying to the proposed program at Stanford, your preparation for this field of study, research interests, future career plans, and other aspects of your background and interests which may aid the admissions committee in evaluating your aptitude and motivation for graduate study.”

Three elements of this SOP prompt should immediately jump out as applicant guidelines:

  1. Plans
  2. Motivation
  3. Preparation and Aptitude

Now let’s dive into each individually.


Two parts of Stanford’s SOP have to do with the plans you’ve made in regards to your graduate education. The first is basically asking, “why Stanford?” A successful applicant is going to have a rock solid understanding of why Stanford is the BEST place for them to achieve their specific goals. This means that applicants need to do in-depth research into the courses, clubs, and experiential learning opportunities that make the program they’re applying to uniquely suited to their goals.  

Want to study Artificial Intelligence at Stanford? Then you probably should find out which professors at Stanford are doing groundbreaking research in AI, and communicate to the adcoms how excited you are to become one of those professors’ research assistants. Remember not to just name drop, though! You must be able to describe EXACTLY how your work with Professor X, Y, or Z will help you achieve your goals.

The second plan that the SOP prompt is asking for is an applicant’s future career plans. This one sounds pretty simple, but it’s not just about what you want to do after graduation, it’s also about what you’ve already done to explore your future career.

Interested in building tools for Fintech after getting your masters in computer science? It would be a huge competitive boost if you’ve already done a summer internship at a bank or Fintech startup. That way, you can communicate to adcoms that you know what working in that industry requires, and that you’re ready to leverage their school’s resources to get there.


Successful applicants to elite graduate programs aren’t just interested in their fields of study, they’re passionate about them. The best way to communicate this passion to adcoms is to talk about the experiences that sparked that motivation.

Let’s say you did an undergraduate study abroad semester in Vietnam. While there, you spent some time living with farmers in a rural village, and from this experience, you developed your idea of using technology and computer science to help these rural farmers get their goods to market. Instead of simply being “interested” in your field of study, you’ve now shown the adcom that your motivation has ROOTS in real-world experiences.  

Preparation and Aptitude

This part of Stanford’s SOP prompt isn’t simply about what courses you’ve taken and the grades you’ve gotten. Those things are important, but just as important is communicating the things you’ve done outside of the classroom to prepare yourself for your field of study.

  • Get School Specific – Have you gone on a campus visit? Have you reached out to current students and leadership of the clubs and organizations you’d like to join? Writing about these experiences demonstrates to adcoms that on DAY ONE of your graduate program you’ll be ready to start making the most of what the school has to offer.
  • Showcase Prep-work – Have you worked as a research assistant in a lab during your undergraduate studies? Have you done an internship in your target industry? If so, did you work on any interesting projects or help with any impactful research during this experience? If you can demonstrate that you’ve already started creating results in your desired field of study and industry, it will be a huge competitive boost to your application.

Whether it’s doing in-depth research into your target program’s resources, communicating how you’ve demonstrated your passion for your desired field of study, or writing about that amazing internship you did and how you’ll deepen your experience ON CAMPUS, your graduate program statement of purpose should focus on the actions you’ve taken inside and outside of the classroom, and the actions you WILL take upon admission.


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