The Statement of Purpose is the Graduate school version of the Personal Statement. While both of these writing pieces offer a personal and humane aspect of the applicant, the Admission Committee of top business schools usually requires more in-depth mission statements and places more stress on professional experiences, as they are looking for the most impactful scholar-practitioner.
1.1. What is a Statement of Purpose?
The Statement of Purpose (SoP) is one significant piece of writing that puts other documents in your MBA application package into context. The statement focuses on why you aspire to the program and how the program will fit into your career path as a whole.
Oftentime, B-schools do not ask for the SoP directly, and wordings of the question might vary. It is also called by different names of Motivation Letter, Personal Statement, or Statement of Intent. Though slightly different in the format, these writings all reveal qualitative characters of yours. Schools are generally curious to know some or all of these information through your Statement of Purpose:
- Your portrait: the personal and humane aspects of yours, rather than cold facts and numbers in your transcripts and resume.
- Answers to “Why?” questions: Why this program? Why this school? Why at this stage of life?…
- Your in-depth understanding of the program and the school: How the syllabus and the study environment there will benefit you attaining your career goals, short-term and long-term?
- Professional summary: relevant past experience that puts you in a competitive position among thousands of applicants
Below are writing prompts of top programs from previous years:
- “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?”
(Harvard Business School 2019-20 application)
- “What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA?” (500 words)
“Taking into consideration your background – personal, professional, and/or academic – how do you plan to make specific, meaningful contributions to the Wharton community?” (400 words)
(Wharton 2020-21 application)
- “What matters to you most and why?”
(Stanford 2020-21 application)
1.2. The importance of a Statement of Purpose
The unique, memorable story you tell in the Statement of Purpose is one strong distinguisher, considering all else – GMAT scores and reputable firm names – are usually common assets among the pool of applicants.
While information about your past experience and achievements describe your competency in academia and in the business industry, the SoP tilts towards your initiativeness, your vision to make impacts, your potential to be a game-changer… It is a forward-thinking question through which the AdCom looks into your future prospects. They rely largely on this to determine whether you’re a good fit for the school, too.
1.3. What the AdComs look for in a Statement of Purpose
The AdCom wants to know why the applicant is potentially a mutual benefit for the school
through a unique, inspiring, but down-to-earth and not over-romanticized story. A strong connection between this personal story and the school context must also be driven. This could be done by showing a fair amount of appreciation for the school: praise its curriculum, its faculty, its teaching method,…, but do take one step further by explaining why it’s a good match for you personally. With every statement you make or story detail you tell, relate it back to your career goals or the values you can bring to the institution.
The AdCom wants to see a thorough, assertive future plan
Top MBA programs look for impact-makers. They want to see such strong drive and determination from applicants to make innovations. They want to know how influential such a milestone their program will be to your career path. After the program, what are your goals in short term, and long term?
Career goals are tricky to explain – you want to show a fair amount of rationality there, but also want to impress the AdCom with a punchline. We’ve covered that in another article:
Within a structured space, your essay should succinctly and clearly convey your interests and passions. Careless grammar, spelling mistakes and poor writing are signs of you not taking the application seriously, and can immediately send you home.
2.1. The Ideal Length
Follow your school’s instructions and guidance on the length of the essay. Don’t mess with the word count allowed, as it is one of the grading criteria. Schools like Harvard and Stanford are extra tight on their word count as a way to challenge applicants.
As always, brevity is much appreciated. Keeping your essay tight and concise but still delivering an awful lot of information is such a way to impress. Usually, you want to make it 500-750 words for the Statement of Purpose / Career Goals Essay. It should not be over one page, and it should never cross 1000 words.
2.2. An Example Structure
Here we recommend an effective structure that is comprehensive content-wise, presented in a coherent logical flow. While the first and the last parts should only consist of one short paragraph, the other two parts are best explained with 2-3 paragraphs.
- Part 1: Introduction of yourself, your interests and motivations
This should be short, crisp, and impressive: it is the grand entry! A proven effective way to start your essay is with a strong, personal story that sparks your desire to pursue that specific degree at that specific school. The story is not necessarily about big events or projects. As long as it was meaningful to you personally and helped determine who you are now, it should count. Some examples could be your first closing a deal, an occasion you were underestimated, a proud achievement (something not presented in other application documents),…
Introduction of yourself
DOs: Tell an intriguing, authentic story; Tie it with a strong “So what?” in the context of the application; Provide more than just a casual story: your perspective, your positioning, your outlook on the future…
DON’Ts: Too much of storytelling that makes it an autobiography; Cliche and romantics, things like “I have dreamt of studying here since grade 2”; Repeat what already presented in other documents.
- Part 2: Connect the dots – A summary of your past and current activities that drive you to apply NOW and your plan thereafter
This part is where you highlight your career progressions throughout the year, proving that you’re a true scholar-practitioner ready for the rigors of graduate school.
When describing an achievement, one good way to not sound arrogant and overselling is to “show, don’t tell”: mention it in great details, and lightly touch upon factors and individuals who contributed to your success. Some prompt virtues to be highlighted are: leadership potential, multicultural perspective, vision to make impact, people management and team skills, analytical and quantitative skills, honesty & work ethics…
Additionally, AdComs are all curious about the matter of “Why at this period of time?”, so you must provide a strong, grounded reason for taking this turn. A thoroughly planned career path afterwards strengthens your future prospect, and proves that you’re taking this MBA not merely because you’re “lost”.
- Part 3: Why the program is perfect for you and vice versa
It needs concrete evidence to prove that “this MBA program is perfect for me”, unless you want to make it a mushy cliche love letter to your dream school “I’ve dreamt of attending HBS since I was little (for no specific reasons)”. Research about the school, join the school’s veteran forums, get informational interviews with alumni, and you’ll have a truthful lively viewpoint of it. Pick out one or two characteristics of the school that make you believe “It’s a match!”.
Mention details of the academic environment, the study methods, the faculty and alumni, etc. that get you excited about the school. It may be that you’ve got inspired by respectable alumni’s accomplishments, or you believe that the Case method used in classes would be challenging yet exciting for your academic life, or you could highlight professors with whom you want to study. With this level of detail
With every point you make, remember to mention it the other way around. If the school can benefit you in that specific way, then you’re sure that you too, will bring values to the school’s community. Whatever your promise is, it should be aligned with your set of personal strengths and values, as well as programmatic interest and success of yours in related fields. It is so that the AdCom feels it’s trustworthy.
- Part 4: Summary
When wrapping up the statement and succinctly covering highlighted points, it’s also good to leave a punchline here. However, keep the paragraph short since no actual additional information is presented.
3.1. Your tone of voice matters
“Voice trumps everything”. One cannot emphasize more the importance of voice tone and delivery in communication and negotiation. The voice with which candidates speak through their essays can speak volume about their personality too. Characteristics of “good voice” include:
Authenticity and Sincerity
Let the AdCom have the chance to know you personally, rather than giving them the “canned” answer that you think they want to hear. A theoretical piece about politics, the economy, or complex business issues, as much well-written as it could be, lacks personal color. You don’t need any sugar coat or too fancy introduction to level up your essay. Rather, a relaxed, conversational writing style with everyday vocabulary can still impress them, and even create a likable tone of voice.
Candidates need to present examples demonstrating their introspection and self-awareness. People knowing themselves extremely well are able to constantly improve and likely to make an impact on others.
One of the most difficult challenges of application essay writing involves balancing impressive accomplishments with humility. As mentioned earlier, bragging in an essay equals self-sabotage—you want to avoid that. It’s hard to squeeze every of your accomplishments into a single one-page essay, and you actually don’t have to. Be picky on what to highlight here. Stay true to yourself and don’t oversell.
Ideally, candidates need to sound like previous applicants from the same industry. Applicants with work experience in investment banking need to sound like students the school accepted with investment banking experience; applicants with military experience need to sound like students the school admitted from the armed services, and so on.
3.2. Compelling stories & writing style
Many experts suggest that effective application essays do not need to be particularly well-written. After all, business schools are interested in selecting and training future business leaders, not Pulitzer Prize-winning writers. That said, the most successful essays do appear to demonstrate many characteristics of great writing, such as:
The style focuses on distinctive features of the candidate’s story that make it compelling. This approach is effective because it helps differentiate writers from other candidates and exudes confidence.
Active Voice and Verbs
Passive voice creates those cold, detached feelings that distance you away from the reader. Keep your verbs simple and active.
Powerful, Compelling, and Sometimes Shocking Introductions
A typical admission committee member might review as many of 30 or 40 of these applicant essays on an average day. A compelling introduction not only differentiates an essay in the mind of that reviewer, but also grabs their attention.
The best essays not only display compelling first paragraphs, they also lead with first sentences that grab the reader’s attention through vivid and sometimes shocking images. Here is a remarkable example:
“Three broken glasses, a damaged candle and a blistering burn on my left hand. Despite the physical carnage, I beamed with theatrical pride. At age twenty, I quit school to work as a magician with the Cirque de Soleil European troupe. The fact that I knew nothing about “magic” didn’t deter me in the least. After several weeks of practicing the tricks in an entertainment magazine, I was finally on the right track. Our seamstress made a beautiful cape for my debut, in which I dazzled my attentive audience. Not even my mistake on the floating glass trick could ruin the joy of my performance.”
Source: Ivy League Admission: 180 Successful Business School (MBA) Essays by Nancy L. Nolan
The first sentence virtually guarantees further reading because it’s nothing like other typical “My name is… I’m working at…” introduction. It’s a short and crisp story-telling line that promises a worth-watching event. Indeed, the next part arouses the reader’s curiosity about this exotic “magic” passion of the author and the rough path he/she has been through to learn it from scratch. What’s also significant about this introduction is that it highlights some unique values of the author: genuinity, determination, hard working, etc. that the AdCom is going to treasure.
Here is another compelling introduction:
“Six months into my tenure with Dell Computer, the company opted to outsource the manufacturing function of our mother boards to a tiny firm in Venezuela. Although senior management assured us that the company was not a sweatshop that used child labor, I had my doubts. In my previous position with Hewlett-Packard, I had visited a manufacturing plant in the same city where Dell planned to do business. I saw with my own eyes the age of the workers and the inhumane conditions they endured. I strongly disagreed with Dell’s decision to support this practice.”
Source: Ivy League Admission: 180 Successful Business School (MBA) Essays by Nancy L. Nolan
This candidate is definitely not an ignorant employee. He/She spotted an ethical issue relating to its manufacturer, something people usually abandon or don’t prioritize in his/her scope of work. It is the characteristic of an impactful person, a servant leader who cares about the community that b-schools look for. The story introduces a humane side of the person, and at the same time lists out some work experience subtly.