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7 common mistakes people make when writing their statement of purpose

Sean Campbell
Last Updated: 17 July 2021 • 8 min read

The statement of purpose (SOP), also known as a personal statement, is a pretty crucial part of your university application, along with your exam results and your admissions interview.  

But what exactly does the SOP entail, how do you write a statement of purpose, and what are some common SOP mistakes that students make? 

Here, we’ll take you through all you need to know. 

What is a statement of purpose?

A statement of purpose is a short essay that prospective students write while applying for university. It’s usually about a page long (around 5 paragraphs), and should detail a little bit about you, your achievements and ambitions, and why you should be accepted onto a university course. 

Essentially, the SOP is the student equivalent of a cover letter for a job application. University admissions panels will use your SOP, along with your exam results, to help decide if you should be granted a place on a degree course. No pressure then! 

But not to worry, as with any seemingly daunting task, there are ways of making it easier! Let’s take a quick look at 7 common SOP mistakes -- make sure to avoid these mistakes while writing your own SOP! 

7 common mistakes to avoid while writing your statement of purpose

  1. Leaving it to the last minute
  2. Not adhering to the word count
  3. Dishonesty, over-exaggeration & overconfidence
  4. Too much praise for the university
  5. Extravagant presentation
  6. Extravagant writing or informal words
  7. Not proofreading

1. Leaving it to the last minute

Give yourself a few weeks before the deadline to work on your SOP. 

Of course, not all this time will be spent writing, but use it to brainstorm ideas and study sample SOPs. You don’t want to copy these word for word, since that’ll seem too obvious, but by reading enough samples, you’ll begin to see patterns of content and format emerging. 

Leaving just about any task until late is a recipe for rushed work and a poor final product

2. Not adhering to the word count

In most cases you’ll be informed about the approximate word limit. Make sure to avoid going over it! 

One single page or page and a half in size 12, Times New Roman font will usually suffice. Even if you have LOADS of relevant things to say, keep them succinct, to the point and written in short sentences. This makes it easier to read and leaves less room for mistakes with your SOP! 

Plus, if your SOP is too long, chances are it won’t be read with proper care. University admissions teams read hundreds of SOPs after all, so make it easy for them!

3. Dishonesty, over-exaggeration & overconfidence

OK, 3 SOP writing mistakes in one, but they’re all related. 

I’ll admit that most of us tell some innocent little fibs when applying for just about any position, but there’s an important difference between embellishing the truth and telling a flat out lie. So keep your SOP honest and forthright. Remember that the admissions team could contact your referee, so any lies could be caught out. 

And when it comes to talking up your own achievements, try to write these in a fuss-free, modest way. You want to create an impression of a driven, focused and curious person, rather than an over-confident or arrogant one. 

Even if you are actually amazing (we’re sure you are!), try to stay somewhat modest when telling them.  

4. Too much praise for the university

By the same token, being overly complimentary or even too admiring of the university doesn’t pay off. Try not to waste too many words telling the university and the professors how amazing they are -- they probably already know! Your goal in submitting your SOP is to explain why you and the university are a good match, not why the university is the greatest in the world! 

The thing about compliments is that they’re easy to see through when they’re not completely genuine and are given with selfish intent. So do yourself a favour and play it more cool. 

If there’s a particular module you’re interested in, or a particular achievement by the university that impresses you, by all means give it a brief mention, but always pull things back to you.

5. Extravagant presentation

We mentioned Times New Roman, size 12 font above. We know it’s a little bit boring, but it’s easy to read and is still the style of choice in academia. You could also use Arial or Verdana unless instructed otherwise, but the point is to keep it neat, tidy and minimalist. 

Go with a 1.5 line spacing, and avoid using italics, bold, and underlined text. 

Even if you’re a great designer or a creative whizz, the SOP is all about the contents, not the presentation, so hold back that creativity for another time

6. Extravagant writing or informal words

The same principle applies to the language that you use. Your statement of purpose should be written in a formal, grammatically accurate way, so avoid slang words and phrases at all costs! 

But it’s equally important to avoid being too fancy. The annoying thing about, ahem, an overabundance of loquaciousness, is that it’s, well, annoying… 

See? You probably like me less because I wrote“an overabundance of loquaciousness,” when I could have just said “too many fancy words”.

Language and words are there to be understood, and overdoing it can often create the wrong impression. So try to keep your language straightforward and easy to understand

7. Proofreading

...Or a lack of it… 

When you’re done writing, take the time to make sure you’ve made no simple mistakes with your Statement of Purpose. Read through it carefully a couple of times to check for any little spelling or grammar mistakes. Sending in an SOP with mistakes in can create a careless impression of you, so you want to make sure it’s watertight. 

A good strategy for proofreading your SOP is to leave it for a day or two, since our eyes can often play tricks on us. But with fresh eyes after a few days away, you’ll be able to see most little mistakes. Even better -- have someone else read it too, as they might pick up on some things you miss. 

How to write a statement of purpose

Ultimately, the actual contents of your statement of purpose will be down to you. However, there are a few tried and tested methods for structuring and formatting your SOP, and there are also a few details that you should definitely include. 

Here’s how you should structure your SOP:

1. Personal introduction and intention

Briefly introduce yourself and offer some details on your background, before stating your academic and potential career goals. 

2. How & why you’re interested

Go into a little more detail on how you became interested in this specific course, and why you want to pursue both this field of study and any potential career or further education after graduation. 

3. Why you’re the ideal candidate

Now it’s time to sell yourself a little. Take two paragraphs here to really let the reader know why you’d be a perfect fit. Refer back to the things you’ve already written, but go into a little more detail on specific passions, work experience, internships or projects you’ve done that relate to the course of study. 

4. Talk about the future

Again referring back to your introduction, use this final paragraph or two to speak in more detail about your future goals and ambitions. This is your chance to let the university know that you are a great investment, and that their time spent helping you learn and grow over the next few years will pay off. 

Perhaps you want to one day start your own business, or rise to a high-powered position in a large company. Or perhaps you’d like to become one the country’s top human rights lawyers. Whatever your grand ambition, put it out there and link it back to how gaining a place at this university or on that course will help propel you towards these goals. 

Statement of purpose FAQs

How many words should a statement of purpose be?

Your statement of purpose should be between 500 and 1000 words, and should not exceed one page of a page and a half.

Is it okay to exceed word limit in your statement of purpose?

You should avoid exceeding your word limit when writing your statement of purpose as this can make it difficult to read and digest. Try to be succinct and choose your words wisely, making your points in as few words as possible.

Should I mention backlogs in statement of purpose?

Only mention backlogs or low grades if you have extraordinary circumstances that might mitigate them, such as serious ill-health. Do not try to justify or make excuses for poor grades but demonstrate you’re willing to work harder in future.  

Can I lie in my statement of purpose?

You should never lie when writing a statement of purpose. Universities may ask you follow up questions if you have an interview and will most likely use the things you have mentioned in your SOP. It would be very embarrassing if you knew less than you should because you have lied about a project or grade that you have worked on.

Can my statement of purpose be 3 pages?

Your statement of purpose should be no longer than one page or a page and a half in a readable font, at a size of between 11 and 12pt. This allows the reader to easily digest the information you are giving and means that your SOP is more meaningful.

Can my statement of purpose be a copy?

You should tailor your SOP for the course and university you are applying to. It should be succinct and relatable to what you want to study. You should not copy it, and definitely not copy it from another person. Instead, talk about your academic achievements, background, research interests and future goals and what you can offer the university.

How do I introduce myself in my statement of purpose?

Introduce yourself by talking about your interests and why you want to study the course and at the university you are applying to. Be honest and genuine in your motivations, and make sure to put across your passion for the subject.

How do you write a conclusion for a statement of purpose?

Conclude by summarising what you have said in your statement and highlighting your main points. Make sure it is well constructed and concise, and highlight what you can offer the university and course you are applying for.

Now that you know a little more about the common mistakes made in the SOP, it might be time to think a little more about the university and degree you’d like to pursue while studying abroad. Get started here!

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Sean Campbell
Written By
Sean Campbell

Sean is a writer, copywriter & editor from Ireland.

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