Where do I begin my SOP?

The kitchen chairs are hard and uninviting.  The table, save enough space for a laptop, is littered with university pamphlets, sample SOPs, and GRE test-prep material.  A small bowl of fruit sits precariously on top of some books next to the computer.  Blueberries are brain food.  The scent of freshly-steeped tea still hangs loosely in the air.  A modest clock ticks faintly from the closest wall.  It’s 11:04pm.


You sit deliberately and open a new document.  After saving the file, you carefully type S-t-a-t-e-m-e-n-t o-f P-u-r-p-o-s-e at the top and center it.  You stare dutifully at 11:23 and 11:24.  Tea will help.  Two more sips from the still-steaming cup, and you add your name.  11:29 and 11:30.  Another sip.  More Staring.  Try the fruit.  11:42 and 11:43 produce nothing.  11:54, 55, and 56 bring about more of the same.  52 minutes, 16 blueberries, and half a cup of tea have converged to yield: absolutely nothing.


Consider the Function


The introductory paragraph of your SOP can accommodate any variety of countless statements of intent, succinct run-throughs, generalized summations, and the like.  It’s the place where we give mention to the content that will be expanded in the paragraphs that follow.  It is also, and more importantly, a place where we must capture our reader’s attention and offer them something memorableIf our writing is forgettable, so are we.  This is why we employ “the hook.”


Many applicants are wont to dismiss the introductory hook as an overly-literary approach to the SOP.  Contemplate, however, the risks associated with neglecting it.  If you’ve failed to engage your reader, they will be less attentive to your statement as a whole, and that’s bad.  And, if you fail to imprint something unique on their memory, you’ll blend right into the background—also bad.  Sure, you’ve got the rest of your application package there to defend you, but why squander a perfectly good opportunity to increase your chances of acceptance? 

Consider Your Options


“I’ve always been passionate about ________.”  Yes, you, and me, and every applicant in between—we’re all very passionate.  And for that reason, this isn’t just a bad way to begin your SOP, it’s the worst.  These are the metaphorical cement shoes of the applicant pool.  It doesn’t matter how much passion you have for your field of interest or even if you were literally born to pursue it, because what you’re saying is incredibly cliché.  It has been said before, and it continues to be said over and over (and over) again.  No matter how sincere this sentiment is, you’ve got to find a different way to convey it. 


A wise man once said, “I found this awesome quote.”  Quotations are okay.  As with any introduction, they should be relevant to the content of your SOP.  And, as long as you avoid the clichés, you stand a perfectly decent chance of opening with something unique.  But, there is no guarantee.  Furthermore, it is easy to appear inadvertently haughty or narcissistic when we open with someone else’s profound and scholarly words.  In this scenario, applicants have the urge to write as if the quoted words came out of their own mouth.  They try to match the phrasing of the quotation by using inflated vocabulary or quasi-erudite jargon.  To avoid this, the language surrounding the quotation should instead exude respect and veneration.  It should explain why you aspire to or are inspired by those quoted words, not how you could have just as easily said them yourself.  


How many undergrads does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  No jokes.  Humor and wit can be used as an introductory hook, but both require a tremendous amount of awareness and tact.  There is a huge margin for error when it comes to people’s sense of humor, and anything but the most polished execution of such is likely to fall flat on its face—or, worse yet, serve to offend others.


Is it okay to open with a question?  Questions are also okay.  But, don’t ask something obvious and continue by answering the question yourself.  For instance, “Why do I want to attend XYZ University?  My primary motivation is…” or “How will I use my advanced degree?  I anticipate…”  These are so rudimentary that they tend to insult the reader’s intelligence, and that’s not a good start.  What’s more effective is the rhetorical question.  A rhetorical question is one that is asked without the expectation of an answer, often for the purpose of emphasizing a point.  Much like quotations, however, there are potential pitfalls, including clichés, swollen vocabulary, etc.  Rhetorical questions also lend themselves easily to drama and an overly-theatrical air, both of which are best avoided in the context of your SOP.  But, when properly executed, they are an engaging way to introduce yourself and your document. 


Tell me a story.  It’s the only uniform instruction for the introduction of your SOP that guarantees unique results.  I’ll literally say it again because this point is just that important.  It’s the only uniform instruction for the introduction of your SOP that guarantees unique results.  It goes without saying that the anecdote should be relevant, with some relationship to your interest in pursuing an advanced degree, your chosen field of interest, and/or your character as an applicant.  You could describe what motivates you to pursue your education, the time you overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles, or your experience observing a problem you’d like to solve.  You can fasten your story to an interesting or little-known fact, a fascinating process, a contrast between past and present or image and reality… These are just a few examples; the possibilities are practically endless. 


When opening the SOP with a narrative, there are a couple of basic tenets to keep in mind.  First and foremost, keep it short.  Many universities specify a maximum word count requirement, so don’t go on and on.  If you’re careful, you can paint your introductory picture with just a sentence or two.  Within whatever such space is available, it is also important to use your senses.  How did your experience look, smell, or sound?  Were you alone or in a crowd?  What was the weather like that day?  The more sensory the details are, the better our reader can bring their mental image into focus.


Sit Down and Write


Get a pencil, or start typing.  Don’t worry about your grammar, or your punctuation, or the flow, or even the introduction, for that matter.  Don’t make excuses or indulge distractions; just write.  If you’ve prepared an outline, let it guide the overall direction, but don’t get too caught up in the details.  You can address the specifics and the idiosyncrasies later.  Write, and write, and write some more.  This gives you something tangible to manipulate, arrange, and fortify—something to work with.  It’s almost like brainstorming out loud.  Ideas—even bad ones—generate more and refined ideas.  And that, combined with voracious and attentive proofreading and editing, is how we improve our writing within both specific documents and just in general.


When your capacity for new content plateaus, start looking for your introduction within the newly-drafted material.  Did you mention a turning point in your academic experience?  Is there an honor or award you received that would make for a compelling story?  Maybe the whole of your undergraduate and professional involvement has been so utterly droll that you’re pursuing graduate school for the challenge.  Even that could make a good introduction. 


And, keep an open mind.  It’s not necessary to take a single-sided approach.  This is not a lock-and-load type process.  If you struggle to identify a relevant anecdote, start looking for quotations that are connected, or jot down a list of appropriate questions (rhetorical or otherwise).  Sooner or later, you will lock on to something that suits you and achieves the desired effect.


In Conclusion


Yes, we can summarize the various tips and tricks for beginning your SOP mentioned throughout this post… Use your introduction to capture your reader’s attention.  Questions and quotations have their pros and cons.  Jokes are usually a bad idea, and “I’ve always blah, blah, blah…” is the best way to blow it.  Stories, however, always win because they’re unique and engaging.  And, the best way to truly get started, is to sit yourself down, and write with abandon.


But, if you want to go one better, link the introduction of your SOP to the conclusion of your SOP—the actual conclusion (your last paragraph).  It’s not crazy talk, it’s sophisticated and damned near brilliant.  Why?  Because, just as you’ve employed the first paragraph to simultaneously capture your reader’s attention and present yourself as a unique and memorable candidate for admission, you can employ the conclusion to remind them of same just before the metaphorical paper is released from their life-changing hands and swooshes onto the metaphorical table, only to be replaced by another.

You don’t have to spell it out or use multiple sentences to achieve this connection; a simple reminder will suffice.  Bring your story full circle and use it as a basis for comparison to or contrast with your current aspirations.  You could say something like, “I’ve come a long way from tinkering with toasters and model rockets, but….”  Or, perhaps, “It’s been many years since I felt the excitement of that first science fair, and…” As in this post, the connection between your SOP’s introduction and conclusion can be forged with a simple reference to blueberries, brain food, or the faintest ticking of a clock.  Tea will help.  And, 52 minutes later, you might just have…something.

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