If we consider the volume of SOPs being reviewed by any given admissions officer, it’s not hard to imagine that they can quickly become physically taxing on the reader. If you’ve ever stared at your own document (any) or even let your eyes glaze over while tackling your umpteenth GRE practice exam for the night, you know the feeling. You’re reading, and you see the words well enough, but you have to work especially hard to keep things in proper focus, and even harder than that to maintain proper comprehension. With these points in mind, it is important to do what you can to mitigate such things by way of properly formatting your SOP.
First Things First
Always check with each individual university to determine their specific SOP formatting requirements. Some will be detailed and strict. Others won’t provide any guidelines at all. But, by all means, find and closely follow any directions given. University requirements are always first and foremost when it comes to your SOP—always, always, always. The last thing you want is the admissions committee immediately realizing that you’ve either failed to check their submission specifications or—even worse—that you looked them over and moved on with conscious disregard. However, if you’re applying to a school that does not specify—and many do not—please, read on…
There are a few things to consider when it comes to selecting a font for your SOP. All (reasonable) fonts fall into one of two categories—either serif or sans serif. Serif fonts, like Times New Roman, Courier, and Georgia have embellishments at the tips and base of each letter, like little hands and feet. Sans serif fonts, like Arial, Century Gothic, and Verdana are simpler and do not possess any additional trimmings or ornamentation—“sans” meaning without.
Serif fonts are best for readability in print, and sans serif fonts are best for legibility in digital viewing. So, which one is best for your SOP? This is where things get a little sticky. Why? Because you’re most likely going to submit your SOP in a digital format, and it might be viewed electronically upon receipt. For closer examination, however, the admissions committee could very well get cozy with a printed copy—something they can hold, and scrutinize, and mark up. For this reason, serif fonts are going to be your best bet.
Do not bold, italicize, or underline any text in the body of your SOP unless it’s absolutely necessary. Avoid the volition to use treatments solely for the sake of impact or emphasis. Doing so detracts from readability and could give the admissions officer cause to ponder the firmness of your grasp on the rules of writing. When employed in excess, unnecessary font treatments make the SOP looked “fluffed up,” giving the impression that the words lack confidence or the writer spent an inordinate amount of time trying to polish sub par content with contextual smoke and mirrors. Such tactics are not appreciated by admissions officers, and therefore, the appearance of such should be avoided for the sake of mitigating any potential misinterpretation.
Titles are different. Yes, your SOP should have a title—just “Statement of Purpose” followed by your first and last name (in case the document becomes separated from the rest of your application package). If the thought of labeling your SOP with plain text makes you cringe, it is acceptable to use a bold or underlined font.
Do not use decorative (or even functional) borders. Same goes for illustrations and the like. “Never say never,” but, I have yet to encounter an SOP that could justify the use of such.
Your best choice for text alignment in the SOP is flush left. This is the standard for most (if not all) academic writing. Resist the temptation to use full justification. Although the attraction to those nice, even edges on both sides is understandable, full justification is intended for use with columnar writing—like in newspapers and magazines. When full justification is used for standard paragraphs, it frequently leads to unusual spacing and irregularities throughout, which disrupts the natural flow and readability of your content and makes for a debilitating and disjointed visage. The only exception to the flush left alignment standard is your title; it can be centered if that is your preference.
Unless otherwise instructed, the spacing in your SOP should be set to 1.15. 1.0 is commonly referred to as single-spaced, but this setting can be a little tight and, therefore, rough on the eyes. Double-spaced (or 2.0) is useful when your reader needs to make manual editing marks, but unless otherwise instructed, this setting can lead one to believe that the writer adjusted the spacing to compensate for an insufficient supply of content. Remember that readability is key, and the admissions committee will thank you (no, not literally) for not making it any more difficult than it has to be.
Paragraph Spacing and Indentions
Paragraphs need separation to help the reader understand and follow the organization and flow of your SOP. This can be accomplished in one of two ways. The first is to add a space after each paragraph. You can set MS Word to do so automatically, or you can manually insert a blank line as needed. The second option is to tab-indent the first line of each paragraph. Both options serve to distinguish one paragraph from the next equally well; however, one method or the other is absolutely necessary. Although not considered mandatory, it is perfectly fine to use both.
Spacing Between Sentences
There are two schools of thought when it comes to how many spaces should separate your sentences—one or two. Until recently, the universal standard was the latter—two spaces. The function of that additional space (much like appropriate use of the period as punctuation to end each sentence) is to signal your reader to pause briefly before moving on to the next written thought. This was all fine, well, and good until digital communication became the new normal. Some programs—especially email clients—don’t know how to manage the two-space format when it occurs at the end of a line of text, which can lead to unintentional indentations throughout the body of the message. For that reason, the one-space method has gained broader general acceptance. However, word processors still know how to handle the original guidelines, which are still the most effective way to facilitate readability and flow. Although both options are technically correct, the two-space approach is preferable.
Ideally, your SOP’s margins are set to 1” on all sides (MS Word’s “Normal”). This is a widely accepted standard. If the university specifies a maximum page length for the SOP (not a word count), and your content runs a little over, it’s okay to trim the margins a bit--.75” is perfectly acceptable, but anything smaller is going to be very obvious and cramp the appearance of the SOP on the page.
Headers and Footers
It’s okay to use headers and footers to encapsulate the non-body elements of your SOP. They’re organized and effective as long as the information contained therein is limited to what’s necessary (and only what’s necessary—your name, the title, the page number, etc.). However, if the font is too large, the content too voluminous, or the formatting too obtrusive, headers and footers can serve to clutter the SOP and detract from its content. The bottom line is to proceed with some caution. Although headers and footers aren’t an absolute no-no, it can be tempting to get overly fancy with the extra bits, and when it comes to formatting your SOP, less is really more.
A Word to the Wise
If you’ve been circulating your draft through friends and seniors, consider copying and pasting your final text (text only, that is) into a fresh, blank file. After pasting your content, apply (or re-apply) your format settings, and save the SOP with a new filename. This extra step ensures that all commentary, tracked changes, and markups are permanently removed. Otherwise, deleting the evidence of your editing process can yield a file that temporarily looks clean but, upon closing and reopening, mysteriously(?) reveals your notes and changes for all to see. It is unclear what causes this apparent anomaly (bad install, software version, corruption from something else on the hard drive—no telling), but I’ve personally witnessed it more than once, and this is something you want to be certain to avoid. Another option is to save your final copy with a new filename, close it, and reopen it to verify that all comments and markup are still gone. Personally, however, experience has taught me that it’s best to play it safe and go with the former option in place of the latter. Having your behind-the-scenes thought processes and commentary (constructive or otherwise) exposed to your admissions officer(s) in what is intended to be a well-refined, best-foot-forward, and first-impression-worthy document is, to say the very least, less than ideal.
To enroll in a free global test series for the GRE, visit Testizen.