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How to Write Outstanding Statement of Purpose (SOP) for Scholarships, Fellowships, and Internships

Statement of Purpose
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Whether it is a scholarship, fellowship, or an internship, a statement of purpose (SOP) is usually a crucial part of the application documents and plays a key role in determining who clinches the opportunity and who gets rejected. Based on my experience of winning over eighteen writing competitions, five scholarships, three internships, and getting shortlisted in several competitive opportunities, I can boldly say that crafting a stellar statement of purpose (SOP) literally elevates one’s chances of success. And the good news is that anyone can master the art of writing irresistible SOP.  That is my sole focus in this article—to show you how to write an excellent SOP that stands out all the time.

But then, what is a statement of purpose (SOP)?

A statement of purpose is a concise essay that an applicant writes to describe their professional competence and personal qualities that make them the ideal candidate for the opportunity they are applying for. Be it university admission, scholarships, fellowships, internships, or jobs, the central function of the statement of purpose is to convince the selection committee that you are the best.

Other Names for SOP

Statement of purpose has varieties of names. It could be code-named “personal statement”, “letter of motivation”, “letter of intent”, “statement of interest”, statement of goals”, “application essay” among other names.  Directly, you could be asked to “write a personal statement”, “statement of interest”…etc. Indirectly, you could be asked: “Provide answers to the following questions: why are you applying for this xzy? Why do you think you are suitable for this role? What makes you a good candidate for this? etc.  In any case, don’t get it twisted. What you are being asked to write is simply a statement of purpose—a short essay to pitch why the committee should select you for that opportunity!

The Content of a Statement of Purpose

A good SOP must clearly and creatively talk about these four things:

Who you are:

That is, your portfolio. Your educational and professional qualifications. It could also be what you have done or experiences and encounters you have had in the past that have influenced your current personality.

Why you are a good candidate:

Based on your portfolio, i.e. professional qualifications and experiences, what skills do you have that are relevant to the opportunity you are applying for?

Why you’re applying:

Based on your skillset, what is attracting you to the opportunity? What do you want to learn or gain?

And what you want to do in the future:

The skillset or exposure you want to gain, what impact it will make in your career, to humanity, and/ or to the sponsoring organization?

The necessary pre-writing tasks

I have read tens of acclaimed “best tips” for writing SOP but sadly, only an infinitesimal few talked about this incredibly important aspect of SOP writing. Before you start writing your statement of purpose, there are two indispensable tasks you must not underrate, which are:

  1. Read the application guidelines THOROUGHLY

Think about this: Juliet, William’s friend, called to inform him (William) about an occasion she (Juliet) is organizing. Immediately she mentioned that she is inviting him to the event, William hung up the phone out of excitement without asking her what the occasion is and where it is holding. Next, William dressed up and journeyed to any location. Alas, he is ill-prepared for the event and will definitely miss the road. How will you describe William? A no-brainer, right?

But that is how crazy it is when we apply for opportunities without taking the time to sufficiently read the guideline. I have reviewed statement of purpose for people countless times and I usually found out that many just scan through the instructions without taking time to comprehend all of it. Guidelines are the gateway to the opportunity you are applying for. You can’t access the opportunity without assimilating the application guidelines. No matter how simple you think the application guideline is, it is strongly recommended that you read it CAREFULLY for, at least, FIVE times.

  1. Guideline is not enough, go the extra miles

Bunch of the information contained in the application guidelines is usually about what the application entails, how the applicant can submit an application, and other clauses concerning the application. It says little or nothing about the “mission and vision” of the sponsoring organization. It will do you a lot of good to visit the official website of the sponsoring organization and find out their mission and Vision—that is, what the organization is trying to promote or put an end to.

For instance, if you are applying for Swedish Institute Scholarships for Global Professionals and you have a first-class degree, years of work experience, and loads of publications but you don’t have leadership experience and track record of volunteerism, you can hardly scale through first stage screening. This is because the Institute is interested in grooming the next generation of leaders who will use their leadership skills to serve their communities and contribute to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and contribute to a positive and sustainable development in their home countries. Little or no emphasis is placed on your class of degree (GPA).

On the contrary, if you are applying for Knight-Hennessy scholarship, and you have formidable leadership experience, and amazing volunteering records but you don’t have a first-class degree (with GPA as high as 3.96 on a 4.0 scale), forget about it. You won’t get it. Knight-Hennessy is interested in grooming academic geniuses with extraordinary intellectual promise. Same applies to other opportunities—internships, jobs, fellowships, etc. No organization wants to just throw resources in the air. Their programmes and corporate social responsibilities are mostly streamlined toward enhancing the organization’s overarching goals. Thus, doing this research will help you to properly highlight your skills, qualifications, experiences, or encounters that are in tandem with the organization’s interests. And it makes a glaring difference!

Writing the statement of purpose

When you have the necessary background checks, next is to start crafting the SOP. “Crafting”, because you have to be intentional, creative, and smart with every single sentence and segment of it. To end up with an outstanding SOP, these tips are paramount:

Hook the reader’s attention professionally from the start:

There is a cut-throat competition for opportunities. For instance, a scholarship that needs just ten beneficiaries might end up receiving over 3,000 applicants. Thus, the selection committee is, in most cases, overwhelmed with the number of applicants, making the selection work tedious and tiring. Starting your statement of purpose with a boring or an unserious sentence will likely get your application trashed at a go. The best way to start is to hook the reader’s attention from the very first sentence. To do that, use:

An intriguing story:

Starting with an intriguing story is a powerful way to hook your reader’s attention. In one of the scholarship application training I once attended, one of the resource persons who happened to be a Mastercard Foundation scholarship awardee shared his SOP which aptly deployed this approach. See how he started:

The love and ability to improvise, repair, and craft devices have remained my favourite pastime since childhood. In High School, my teachers noted this trait alongside my unparalleled performance in Chemistry and appointed me as the Laboratory Prefect. Since then, I have continued to develop this technical proclivity as an extra-curricular activity, and it has enhanced my problem-solving skills and innovative thinking. My interest in Translational Medicine stems from a desire to combine my training in biomedical sciences and penchant for innovation to improve healthcare delivery…

With this, the selection committee can easily understand that his intending area of study is his inborn talent and something he is quite passionate about. Plus, it is a loud demonstration that he will likely succeed in that field.

This is just a tip of the iceberg. I have noticed the story-telling approach in several winning SOPs.  However, when using this approach, avoid “all-pity stories”. Example:

“We are twelve in a family. My father died when I was 8 years. Now, I am 23 with no skill or hope for a better life… I need this scholarship in order to survive and help my poor family…

This is a no-no. Organizations that sponsor opportunities like scholarships, internships, fellowships, etc are not interested in the most pitied person but most skilled and resourceful game-changer. Always, let your story demonstrate ingenuity, resilience, productivity, and positivity. And as important, it is not recommended to conjure stories that are not real. The judges are likely to find out. Keep it real.

A shocking but factual statistics:

Starting with a revealing statistics is another awesome way to sound interesting and keep your judges engaged. In one of the fellowships I got, I used it. Take a look:

Today, notwithstanding that Africa spends a princely sum of over $35 billion annually on food importation, the continent is yet the most food-insecure region in the world with more than 232 million under-nourished people or approximately one in four.  Again, it is estimated that by 2050, Africa’s population will double and the continent will be home to about 2 billion people, which invariably means that demand for food will skyrocket. That’s not the crux of the matter. By 2050, it is also predicted that the population of the youth will double from the current 480 million to reach 840 million. Meanwhile, a third of Africa’s 230 million youths (about 20% of the global youth population) are currently unemployed; another one-third are in vulnerable employment largely in the informal sector…With this analysis, it is crystal clear that the future of Africa is closely intertwined with whatever the fate of agriculture is. I am passionate about…”

Figures like this say a lot about your knowledge of the subject matter and that you have good research ability.

Your outstanding feats:

Another reckoning way of kick-starting your SOP is to spill your enviable records. It could be your academic awards, your leadership exploits, your recognitions, etc. This is very evident in the SOP shared by

Philip Adebayo, a Mastercard Foundation Scholarship awardee. He started thus:

“I hold a BSc (honors) degree in Mechanical Engineering with a first-class from the premier university in Nigeria, University of Ibadan, where I graduated as the best student in my department with a CGPA of 6.4/7.0. This was made possible because of my passion for research and academic excellence…”

Highlight the skills that make you an ideal candidate for the opportunity.

Once you have got your readers hooked, quickly marshal out the skills that you think make you an ideal candidate.

This is a good example:

My qualifications and experience make me a strong candidate for this fellowship. I have a natural talent for teaching and have been teaching in both the public and private school sectors for nearly 9 years. Beyond the purview of talent, I have every qualification that makes for a good teacher—NCE in Biology/Integrated Science and B.Sc. in Education Biology. In addition, last year (2020), I was selected as a fellow of the UK-Nigeria Tech Hub/CcHub Innovative Teachers Fellowship. The fellowship culminated in a 6-week intensive training in which I was ingrained with 21st-century teaching skills focusing on the use of technology to create interactive learning content for students and the use of digital tools to support learning. Thus, inferring from my flair for teaching; in addition to these qualifications and many years of teaching experience, I believe I am an ideal candidate to join this noble fellowship.”

The response clearly captured the applicant’s interests in the fellowship and projects the relevant qualifications.

Let them know exactly what you want to gain from the opportunity:

Now that your interests and qualifications have been communicated, next is to pinpoint what you desire to gain from the opportunity. This goes a long way to portray you as a purposeful applicant who is intentional about his/her pursuit. Put differently, you are making it clear that you are not just coming to while away time.  For example:

“I am enthusiastic about Stellar Foundation Education Fellowship for three reasons. Firstly, it will allow me to fulfill my passion for teaching and make a difference in the lives of Nigerian children. Secondly, it will provide me with an unparalleled opportunity to make an impact on the education system in Nigeria. And finally, I will be able to enhance my professional skills and knowledge through the course of the fellowship.”

Describe how you intend to utilize or apply the skills and exposure you will gain if selected:

This is the last section of SOP and should aptly describe how the skills and exposure you will gain from the opportunity would reposition you to become a better person and/ or accelerate your positive impacts. In that way, the organizers will be convinced that you are not going to waste the exposure garnered from the opportunity they are giving you but rather apply it to your career development, service to humanity, and advancement of its overarching interests. For Stellar Foundation Education Fellowship, a good response would be:

Overall, my short-term goal is to be a leading teacher and a formidable quality education advocate. My long-term vision is to establish and manage a school. I believe the experiences, motivation, and networks this fellowship offers will help in shaping my knowledge towards these paths.”

Also, another perfect example is an excerpt from Arawu Samuel’s SOP, a former Mastercard Foundation scholarship awardee. He wrote:

“…after the Masters, I will be engaging in doctoral studies while in active public service. Between 2022 and 2025, I plan to establish an NGO in Lagos in collaboration with the Nigeria Institute of Medical Research and the National Agency for Food Administration and Control. Between 2028 and 2031, I hope to be a professor. From 2028 and beyond through professionalism and hard work, I will be an indispensable asset in decision and policy making in Nigeria’s development process, especially in health and education. I will also establish scholarship awards for academically talented indigent Nigerians. On or before 50, I hope to win the Nobel Prize in health through innovation.

Mastercard Foundation is interested in empowering young generation of Africans who can use their professional expertise to play positive leadership roles in the continent. By reading this, you will quickly understand that the scholarship will springboard this applicant’s ambitions and he has a clear vision of impact. Thus, it is quite clear why he was selected.

Summarily, when writing your SOP, use an interesting story, revealing statistics, or your extraordinary feats to grab your judge’s attention. Highlight the skills that make you an ideal candidate. Articulate what you desire to gain. Describe how you intend to utilize or apply the skills and exposure you intend to gain.

Editing your statement of purpose

A single error can undermine a great write-up. Also, when your write-up is riddled with errors, it sends a subtle message that you are an unserious person. Thus, editing your SOP is as important as writing it.  The following tips can help you edit your Sop professionally:

Put it away for a while:

After writing your SOP, put it away for some time. The best is 4 to7days. This will make you come back to it later with a refreshed mind. You will be amazed at the new ideas you have got and the things you can spot that need to be removed or rearranged.

Cut out redundant words:

Redundant words are phrases made of two or more words that express the same idea. They include such examples as “at this point in time” and “true facts”. Redundant words clutter your writing, waste space, and can confuse the reader. A good rule of thumb is to try to eliminate any extra words and simplify your writing as much as possible.

Use active voice:

When you use the active voice, your sentences tend to be shorter and more direct. This helps you emphasize your point and get to it faster. Overall, it makes your writing stronger, clearer, and more direct; making your write-up sound confident and authoritative.

For example, consider these two sentences:

  1. The paper was written by our company’s lead researcher. (Passive)
  2. Our company’s lead researcher wrote the paper. (Active)
  3. The book was written by the author. (Passive)
  4. The author wrote the book (Active)

You can immediately see a difference in these sentences: the first one is vague. The second one removes that vagueness and tells us exactly what happened and who/what was involved.

The word count is sacred; don’t overshoot or underwrite: if the instructions say “your responses should be limited to 500words”, write 501 words and risk being disqualified or heavily penalized. Whichever way, it is not in your favor. Always adhere to the given word count. However, always try to reach 80 or 90 percent of the benchmark. If it is 500 words; make sure to write up to 480 or 490 words. If it is 1000 words; make sure to write up to 800 or 900 words, etc.

Format your write-up appropriately:

This is very important if you are submitting your SOP in MS word or PDF format. Formatting your write-up appropriately helps improve readability and create a good impression about the writer. Avoid fancy fonts and outrageous font sizes. Time New Roman and font size 12 are always recommended. Also, always justify your document by pressing CTRL+J.

Get extra pair of eyes:

There is a saying that “Two good heads are better than one”. Finding a trusted friend, colleague, family member, or mentor to help proofread your write-up could be helpful. They can offer valuable input. Another succor can be automated editing software. In that case, Grammarly is highly recommended.

When you have diligently done all these, you will surely have an outstanding statement of purpose that would leave the selection committee enthralled. Once your SOP encompasses these partitions, it will sound professional and convincing.

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