How early should I start writing my graduate school statement of purpose (SOP)?

Writing a successful grad school statement of purpose (SOP) is an important piece of your graduate school application. After all, it shows [repeat stuff from home page].

Thus, one question that frequently comes up from prospective graduate students is when to start writing their SOP. In truth, it really depends on your writing style. If you’re the type of person who can write an amazing essay on the first draft, but it takes you hours and hours of non-stop focus to do so, then maybe you can write the first draft of your SOP in one go. On the other hand, you might be the kind of person who writes one sentence, hates it, deletes everything you’ve ever written, and tries again three months later.

So, I can’t construct the perfect timeline for everyone, but I can offer some tips and explain how I went about writing (and re-writing) my graduate school SOPs. I’ve also given a rough estimate on the timeline of my writing process in the hopes that it gives you some perspective on when to start!

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May

First, I read up on what the programs I applied to want in an SOP. I let these requirements percolate in my brain for a few weeks. I started months before my applications were due so I could really understand the task ahead of me, in addition to reintroducing myself to the academic mindset since I’d taken a year off.

June

I then researched “statements of purpose” more generally from different blog posts like this one, forums, grad schools, writing centres, and so on until I could develop a loose outline of tips and tricks for writing SOPs in my field of study.

July

From there, I brainstormed as many ideas as I could about my work and volunteer experiences, research interests; achievements; the programs I was applying to; my ideal future career; and so on. I put every single thing I could think of — even if I thought it probably wouldn’t make it into the final version of my grad school SOP. I wanted to gather a picture of who I was and where I wanted to go. I wanted to see if I could pick out any patterns, themes, or qualities about myself and my life that could be relevant to my application.

After a few weeks, I picked apart the list of ideas I’d generated, choosing what I felt were the best, brightest, and most compelling aspects about myself.

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August

A few months before my applications were due (ranging from November to January), I wrote the most horrible, terrible, awful draft I’ve ever written in my life. It was laughably bad, but I’d gotten over my writers block [link] and written something, which I was proud of. What is more, I was able to get over writer’s block more easily by telling myself that I was way ahead of the game. There was no pressure to write something incredible because I had so much time to make this draft better.

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I also made sure that this draft included all parts of every application I needed. For instance, some programs wanted to know about my intentions for a research project, whereas others wanted to know about my personal life. Because I applied to six programs, I included all these aspects in my first draft so I could copy a good version of this first draft and just delete what wasn’t needed later, when I wrote more specific versions for each program I applied to.

September

I reread my first SOP draft, died inside, and then essentially rewrote every single sentence except for maybe two or three. I also ended up including way more details, deleting a bunch of nonsense I’d already written, and felt a lot better about this second SOP draft. Every week in September, I went through this same process of rereading and revising my draft. As an editor, I knew it was important to give myself some space between revisions so I could get a fresh perspective each time I looked over my work. By the fourth revision, I felt pretty good about how my SOP was coming along.

October

I took a break in the first two weeks of October because I wanted to really distance myself from my SOP. During this time, I worked on other parts of my application, like my writing sample, CV/resume, any forms I had to fill out, etc. At this point I could barely remember what I’d written in my SOP draft, so I went back to it and revised it one more time. I sent this version off to my secondary readers [link] for feedback, including my professors, university-educated friends, and my parents.

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Upon receiving feedback from my secondary readers, I revised my grad school SOP. This is when I separated my draft into six versions for the six programs I was applying to. Four of the programs I was applying to were due in November, so I focused on those ones for the next few weeks. I cut out parts of the SOP I didn’t need, based on the content and word-count specifications of each program.

November

In the weeks leading up to my grad school application due dates, I started using proofreading techniques [link to blog post you’ve already written on the FE site!] to make the statement look “new” to me, such as changing the font or reading my SOP on paper and as a PDF. At this point I wasn’t changing the content or structure of my SOP, but looking for details like spelling mistakes and word choices.

December-January

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My process was similar for my SOPs due in January, though I took a much longer break before looking at them, which helped give me a more critical and unbiased perspective during the revision process.

After working on my graduate school SOPs for months and getting lots of helpful feedback from many people, I felt confident in submitting my work! I hope this timeline gives you an idea of what might come up in writing your own SOPS, and that it gives you something to contrast against your own writing and working style. As you can see, I have a pretty Type-A personality, so I work best when I’m organized and start early. You can decide what works best for you!

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