As someone who reads a lot of SoP's, here are the questions I want an applicant to answer, more or less in order:

  • What is your purpose? What are your career aspirations?  What type of research do you want to conduct?  What topics and methods are you intending to pursue?
  • What led you to your purpose? Why are you applying to this field?  This is a big issue in accounting, as many applicants could well have applied to programs in less lucrative and/or more competitive fields, like economics, psychology, finance or statistics. You need to convince the faculty that you are pursuing your purpose because you are truly interested in the subject material in your chosen field.   Research and teaching are simply too much work for anyone to succeed if they aren’t inherently interested.
  • Why will you succeed? The faculty already have your transcript and a CV that lists your accomplishments.  This is your chance to pull those facts together into a story that answers the questions that faculty are going to be most concerned about:  Do you know enough about accounting (or whatever field you have chosen) to ask interesting questions?  Are you smart enough?  Can you write?  Are you sufficiently well-trained in the fundamentals (math, statistics, psychology, depending on your purpose)?  Will you work hard enough?  Do you have the emotional makeup to learn and improve from constructive criticism (which you will receive in abundance throughout your career)?   But you can’t just write “I am smart and hard working.”  Follow the classic writer’s advice:  show me, don’t tell me.  You’ll be much more persuasive writing “As an undergraduate I regularly took 18-credit terms, still averaging a 3.6 GPA in statistics and calculus” or “During my 3 years at East Coast Investment Bank I learned how misleading accounting reports can be.”
  • Do you know what you are getting into? Many highly-qualified applicants are admitted but fail to thrive because they don’t actually want to do the job they applied for!  Being a PhD student or faculty member involves spending a lot of time alone with your computer, reading, writing, trying to find something new to tell people who already know a great deal.  You’ll have to put up with constant criticism–and learn from it.  Even though you are in accounting, you will spend most of your PhD years studying foundational material that is far removed from the applications that interest you.  When you finally conduct research on a topic of your choosing, it will be far narrower and more distant from real-world issues than you are probably expecting.   You might address this point in a specific paragraph, but an alternative is to weave in evidence throughout the entire SoP that demonstrates that you know what you are getting into, and you like it.
  • Have you ever conducted research? If you have, you can use that fact to address many of the above questions.  Perhaps a research project with a professor led to your interest in accounting.  Perhaps the paper provides evidence of hard work and math skills.  Perhaps it shows that you know what you are getting into.  There is no better way to show that you can succeed at conducting research than to have succeeded at conducting research! You probably need a separate paragraph to describe your research topic, method and conclusions.  But place that discussion in the context of one of the above bullet points.
  • What are your weaknesses and how will you address them? Almost no one has a strong answer to every question in the previous bullet points.  If you lack a strong math background or work experience, faculty will think more of you if you acknowledge that fact (after all, they already know from your transcript) and propose a plan for dealing with it.  This shows both self-awareness and an understanding of what the job requires.
  • Why us? You could pursue your purpose at any number of institutions.  Why are you applying to my school?  I strongly recommend reading articles posted on SSRN written by faculty at every school you apply to.  Here is your opportunity to explain which faculty you are hoping to work with, and why those people and the program are attractive to you.
  • Why you? Doctoral program admission rates are extremely low in accounting and other management fields (under 5%, usually just one or two people per field per year).  There are probably other applicants who are similarly qualified.  Why should the school admit you?  This is your opportunity to explain why you are special.  Everyone has some experience or training that will make them more memorable and suggest qualifications above and beyond the usual qualifications.  Use yours to stand out from the crowd, and as a means of drawing your SoP to the only possible conclusion–that the school should admit YOU.

A final remark on writing style.  Your SoP is also a way to convey that you understand how academics write.  Here are some rules successful doctoral students learn quickly:

  • Don’t tell us a mystery story. If you are writing fiction, keep me in suspense.  But if you are writing an academic paper–or a Statement of Purpose.  I have to read about 100 SoPs in a typical admissions cycle.  Don’t make me wade through any more words than necessary before telling me what I need to know.
  • Don’t tell us “what I did for summer vacation.” This is particularly important for academic research.  We want to know the conclusion, how you support it, what you found and why it matters.  We don’t want to know the fifteen different ways you tried to solve the problem before you found one that works.  Your SoP might deviate from this rule a little bit, because we want to know why you ended up applying to our program.  But even for that insight, what we really want to know is why right now, after all you have done and learned, you want to apply to our program.
  • Don’t overclaim. This cardinal rule of academic writing has three components.  First, never overstate the facts.  Don’t say that you were the best student in your class if you weren’t.  Any hint of overclaiming facts is going to raise questions about your academic integrity, and might be grounds for immediate disqualification.  Second, don’t overstate the implications of the facts.  Being first in your class doesn’t mean you are sure to succeed, so don’t say it does. Third, don’t overstate the value of the facts.  I wouldn’t recommend writing that being in first in your class is “extremely impressive”.  Many academic writers will advise you never to say that a certain fact is interesting, important, impressive, astounding, crucial, or the like.  Instead, just say that the fact implies a certain outcome or conclusion, and let the reader judge whether that is interesting,  important and impressive.  After all, you wouldn’t have even mentioned it if you didn’t think it was interesting, important and impressive.  Saying so explicitly just makes the academic reader want to take issue with you.  (This is how we roll.)  Just lay out the facts and their direct implications in a way that allows no conclusion other than “wow, that is interesting, important and impressive!”

Good luck!]]>