What to focus on in a statement of purpose

For most international students hoping to come to the United States for a master’s or doctoral degree, one of the most significant challenges they face is writing the statement of purpose (or SOP). If that’s you, let us spend some time covering what you need to know.

Graduate statement of purpose

What is important to remember in applying to U.S. graduate programs is that each department within a university may have different things it looks for in what prospective students write in their application statement of purpose. As a result, we strongly encourage applicants to focus on the department they are applying to more than the university when composing their thoughts. Oftentimes the graduate departments that require statements of purpose have the final say as to which applicants are admitted to their programs.

Tips for graduate applicants

There are many suggestions out there for writing an acceptable statement of purpose. Four tips have consistently shown to be reliable as international students approach this important writing assignment.

  • Find the right academic program
  • Investigate the specifics of each program
  • Get to know the faculty and their research
  • Be careful – one SOP does not fit all

There are many experts out there who offer advice on this writing process. The Princeton Review has put together a useful article with suggestions on how to proceed. If you are searching for what examples of good SOP look like, this site provides good samples of successful statements.

Final advice…

As you begin this process, we have some final words of advice. Remember this:

  • Nothing is perfect the first time.
  • Don’t be afraid to start over.
  • Be honest, specific, and concrete.
  • Proofread.
  • Have others read your drafts.

In the end, your SOP should reflect who you are, why you are applying, and what this degree will help you achieve in life.

For more insight on this topic, check out our Facebook Live chat from March 2021. Good luck!

IELTS Writing Myths Debunked (Part 3)

Internationally acclaimed language tests like IELTS are known for their transparent and robust assessment methods. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always stop people from drawing conclusions about the test experience, based largely on hearsay and guesswork.

Read on to know about some more IELTS myths that we’ve laid to rest for you.

Myth #7: The more linking words or phrases in your essay, the better.

When you aren’t well informed about the test, you may feel that achieving cohesion is all about peppering your response with cohesive devices, such as firstly, however, and despite. Further, reading ‘poor’ model essays will only reinforce this misconception of yours.

The truth: Too much of any one ingredient can ruin a dish, and the same rule holds good for essays. While prudent use of discourse markers can make your writing cohesive, overuse is definitely something to avoid. A quick look at the IELTS Writing Task 2 band descriptors will help you see what we mean. 

Myth #8: No word should be used more than once.

Many a test taker has wasted precious time during the Writing section trying to identify synonyms so that they don’t repeat words. And if some can’t think of any synonyms, they invent new words!

The truth: Exhibiting a wide range of words and phrases can boost your vocabulary score, no doubt. However, nowhere does it say that test takers shouldn’t write any word more than once. In fact, some technical words (e.g. computer, robot) may not have synonyms at all. Focus on words, such as verbs and adjectives, which can be easily replaced so that you present the examiner with a nice variety of vocabulary.

Myth #9:  It’s useful to learn up answers to past essay questions.

When you aren’t adequately prepared for the test, it’s natural to get desperate and look for shortcuts at the eleventh hour. Some take the easy way out and mug up answers to past IELTS essay questions.

The truth: IELTS essay questions are hardly ever repeated in the same form! This is done to dissuade test takers from reproducing answers from memory. A more fruitful approach would be to identify common IELTS essay topics and read up on them.

The next time you hear an IELTS myth, do check with an authentic source before you make up your mind.

IELTS Writing Myths Debunked (Part 2)

In Part 1, we spoke of how handwriting has no bearing on your band score, why overwriting should be avoided, and how bombast won’t help push your vocabulary score up.

Here are some more misconceptions about IELTS that prospective test takers tend to believe.

Myth #4: It’s not important to meet the word limit.

Many test takers think that the word limit set for each IELTS Writing task is just a recommendation. This could be the reason why they don’t bother keeping track of the number of words they write while practising their writing skills.

The truth: A good number of test takers get penalised in IELTS Writing for the simple reason that they fail to meet the word limit prescribed for Writing Task 1 (at least 150 words) and Task 2 (at least 250 words). Learn how many words you normally write per line; use this information to estimate the length of your responses. That way, you won’t fall short on test day.

Myth #5: In the essay task, only your language skills matter, not your ideas.

Being language assessment tools, the main purpose of tests such as IELTS is to ascertain the proficiency of the test taker. However, by no means does this mean that the ideas introduced in an essay don’t really amount to much.

The truth: The ideas in your essay are just as important as anything else. If the points you make aren’t pertinent to the topic, it’d be virtually impossible to achieve logical progression throughout the response. The end result would be a lower band on the Task Response criterion.

Myth #6: The personal pronoun ‘I’ should not be used in the essay.

This one has got to be one of the most amusing IELTS myths – the personal pronoun ‘I’ should be avoided at all costs in Task 2, or you run the risk of getting penalised for informal writing style!

The truth: Most IELTS essays ask the test taker to express their opinion about a particular facet of the topic. And when you wish to give your view on something, the personal pronoun ‘I’ is the obvious choice, so it’s okay. Just don’t overuse the word and make your essay sound too personal.   

There’s more to follow, so please do watch this space.

IELTS Writing Myths Debunked (Part 1)

When a language test has been around for 30-odd years and has been taken by millions of test takers, then just about everyone has opinions about what strategies might or might not work. Unfortunately, notions born out of half-baked research are often little more than misconceptions about the test.  

In this series, we’ll debunk some of the popular myths surrounding the IELTS Writing section.       

Myth #1: Good handwriting automatically leads to higher writing scores.

There’s no doubt that good handwriting makes a great first impression on the reader. Perhaps this has helped peddle the myth that neat handwriting is the key to securing high scores in IELTS Writing. And every time a test taker with good handwriting gets a high Writing score, more people tend to believe it.  

The truth: Such a misconception fails to take into consideration the fact that good handwriting simply cannot be equated with language proficiency. The most your IELTS examiner will expect is for your answers to be legible.

Myth #2: It’s a good idea to write as much as you can.

A common strategy that test takers employ is to write long responses to questions, especially in the essay task. This is usually done with the intention of showing the examiner just how much language they are capable of producing. Additionally, some also believe that a longer response indicates fluency in written English, something they hope will improve their chances of getting a high score.  

The truth: Examiners only ever consider the length of a response if there’s any doubt that the word limit hasn’t been met. Ideally, you should aim to write only about 20 to 30 words more than the prescribed word count for each task. Remember, a lengthy answer often lacks coherence because of being wordy and repetitive.

Myth #3: High-sounding words are necessary to get a high score on vocabulary. 

Many test takers mistakenly believe that fancy words are a must when you aim for a vocabulary score of 7 or above. Cramming your essay with high-sounding words won’t really help your cause. This is because examiners consider various aspects of lexis and vocabulary before awarding you a band score.

 The truth: While you need to use some less common words, it is more important that the vocabulary you choose is appropriate for the topic. Other equally important aspects of vocabulary assessed include collocation, paraphrasing, and connotation. 

We’ll bust some more IELTS Writing myths in the next part.

IELTS on Paper vs. IELTS on Computer (Part 2)

In Part 1, we mostly focused on test features unique to IELTS on computer that help you keep track of time, manage your word count, highlight text, and make notes.

More Test Dates

A significant advantage of IELTS on computer is the degree of flexibility it offers test takers. For starters, exam dates are available round the year: many test centres have exam sessions up to 3 times a day and up to 7 days a week. This means that IELTS on computer can be taken on a date and at a time that you find most convenient. So, if you need to take the test at a moment’s notice, the computer version could offer you many more dates to choose from.

Test Venue

As far as test venues go, IELTS on computer is normally conducted in small, custom-built facilities that can accommodate only about a handful of test takers. These computer labs typically make use of the latest technology and have technical staff on hand to help test takers if needed. IELTS on Paper test sessions, on the other hand, are usually held in larger spaces at places such as universities or hotels. This is because there are fewer test dates per month, so test taker numbers per session is generally higher.

Fast Results

Finally, the best selling point of IELTS on computer is perhaps its faster results turnaround time. If you take IELTS on computer, your results can be previewed online 3 to 5 days from your test date. So, if you’re someone in desperate need of IELTS scores so as to meet a visa or university application deadline, look no further than the computer version.

If typing into a computer is something you find easier than writing by hand, then IELTS on computer is definitely the test for you. You can book your test today and have your results by next week, allowing you to pursue your study or work goals without losing any time. And all this at no extra cost!

The View From Campus: What’s Life Like In A US College Classroom?

Let’s face it, the last year has not been easy. With a global pandemic affecting every part of our daily lives in almost every country on earth, we’d be forgiven for thinking things may never be the same again. In many ways that may be true, but for many international students seeking to study in the United States there are and will continue to be several important parts of academic life that will remain.

While many courses have been taught online and those taught in-person having significant physical changes to the classroom space, the following areas remain consistent.

The Informality

What surprises most international students when they get into their first classes at U.S. colleges is how professors can be so friendly. You may be used to a very formal relationship between students and faculty members in your educational institutions in your home country. For many professors in the United States, the opportunities to help students become what they hope to be is a calling. Faculty members are routinely required to have a set number of hours each week that they are available outside of class periods for students to schedule appointments about topics in class that need clarification or even drop by to have a conversation. International students often develop close relationships with faculty members in their academic program who serve as mentors for students as they progress through their degree program.

The Syllabus

Typically, the first time each class meets, all students in the room receive what is called a syllabus. This document serves as an informal contract between students and the professor. The syllabus outlines all requirements for the duration the class meets, what textbooks or other resources will be studied, when assignments or papers would be due as well as the dates of quizzes, tests, and/or exams. Oftentimes, the syllabus breaks down all content that will be covered as well as how grades will be determined. Quizzes might be worth 10%, a mid-term test 25%, a paper 20%, final exam 30%, and classroom participation 15%. That’s right, you read that last part of the preceding sentence correctly – how well you participate in class can count as a significant portion of your academic grade for a course!

Asking Questions

While you take a minute to digest that last part, let us explain that whether it’s simply asking questions to demonstrate you are engaged in the conversation or need explanations of certain topics, the expectation is that students participate. Speaking with new international students over the years, I have found that while they can usually adapt to the informality of relationships with professors, the real challenge is in changing the way they approach class. Faculty members, in general (certainly not all), encourage debate and discussions on the issues that the topics of the day’s class cover.

Academic Integrity

The realities of the differences in how classrooms operate here compared to your home country may take you some time to become comfortable with them. But one area of how U.S. classrooms operate on college campuses that must be understood immediately after classes begin is academic integrity. In effect, this means there are university policies that require students to practice academic honesty and not engage in plagiarism or other forms of cheating while enrolled.


In the end, you’ll need to prepare for the academic transition to a U.S. college. For additional resources on these topics and more, check out this video playlist from our colleagues at EducationUSA that answers questions on the different facets of the classroom experience in U.S. colleges and universities.

IELTS on Paper vs. IELTS on Computer (Part 1)

One test that can take you places is IELTS, the world’s most popular English language assessment tool for higher education and migration. There are several factors that make it so popular, one being worldwide availability – you get to choose from over 800 test centres dotted around the world.  

Paper or Computer

The added appeal is that IELTS now comes in two forms, giving you the choice of taking it on paper or on computer. Whether you take IELTS on paper or on computer, most aspects of the test are the same: content, question types, security measures, scoring, speaking test delivery, test report forms, results verification.

The only thing that is different is the test experience.

What’s the difference?

For a start, in the Listening section of IELTS on paper you get 10 extra minutes at the end to transfer your answers from the question paper to the answer sheet, while on computer you don’t. Here, you need to type answers on to the computer as you listen to the audio extract in each part. Although you’ll have time between parts of the test to check answers, there is no extra transfer time at the end. This is because you’ll have already completed entering answers to all 40 questions by then.

Another feature of IELTS on computer that test takers are likely to find useful is the display of word count in the Writing section. Unlike in IELTS on paper, you won’t need to spend time forming a rough idea of how many words you’ve written in response to each Writing task. The word count for each response will be displayed at the bottom of your computer screen throughout; all you’ll need to do is ensure that you meet the word count set for each task.

And since we are on the subject of handy features, here are two more: IELTS on computer comes with tools that you can use to highlight text and make notes during the Listening and Reading sections. In the next part, you can read about how IELTS on computer offers more flexibility – don’t miss it.

Fun Ways to Learn English: Using Subtitles (Part 3)

In this final part, we’d like to tell you a bit more about how subtitled content can be good news for your English.  

7. Learning topical vocabulary

We’ve already established that subtitled content is generally rich in phrasal verbs and colloquialism. What is also true is that it can be a shortcut to discovering topical vocabulary. In other words, if you wish to learn new words and phrases related to a particular subject, all you have to do is find a movie or programme on it. For instance, it’s hard to think of a better way to improve your legal English than by watching a law-related TV show.  As well as entertaining you, it will also introduce you to the specialised variety of English used by lawyers and seen in legal documents.  

8. Understanding appropriacy

In any language, mastery of grammar and vocabulary alone cannot fully equip you to communicate effectively. Having a limited understanding of cultural or situational contexts will most certainly lead to communication breakdown, with the possibility of offending others. If you fail to use the style of communication that a context demands, the outcome could be something undesirable. This is where subtitled movies and videos come handy – they can teach you when to use formal and casual language, and when not to. 

9. Controlling your learning experience

Perhaps the greatest benefit of using subtitled content is the degree of flexibility it allows the learner. For a start, since you are free to choose your own “learning materials”, there’s no question of you losing interest midway. If action is your thing, you could watch thrillers; if you are a romantic at heart, there are scores of romcoms to choose from. Another good thing is that you can pause or replay sections to your heart’s content. This gives you a rather unique advantage: you get to review the language components in subtitles at leisure, allowing you to learn at your own pace.

To sum up, if learning English the conventional way leaves you bored silly, subtitled content could help break the monotony. Do give it a shot if you haven’t done so yet.

The View From Campus: What’s Life Like on a U.S. College Campus During a Pandemic?

If you are wondering what international students currently in the United States have been experiencing over the past nine months while studying on college campuses, you are not alone. Life for most of the world has changed as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic in more ways than we would have ever imagined. On campus in the United States, whether at a small rural college, a suburban mid-size institution, or a big city university, life is dramatically different for all students. So, what’s the story?

How Campuses Re-Opened

While no one was really prepared for what happened in March last year when most all U.S. colleges’ and universities’ courses went online, as the new academic year began in August and September, many institutions thought long and hard about what the “new normal” would be. While there was not one way that every college approached how to respond to the pandemic’s impact on the day-to-day lives of students, faculty, administrators, and visitors to campus, each one made decisions that were best for their communities. Some university systems like the California State University’s 23 campuses made the decision early on to be fully online for the fall 2020 semester, others like Purdue University in Indiana decided to have a largely in-person academic year.

From regular testing, health screening for temperatures upon entry of buildings/classrooms, quarantine procedures, to mandatory mask and social distancing policies, U.S. colleges introduced a wide range of health and safety measures to protect their campuses. For new students arriving for the first time, most all universities held virtual orientation sessions to limit unnecessary exposure. In the end, there were successes and issues colleges faced, particularly for international students. A recent Twitter chat around this theme addressed what the major challenges were for overseas students on college campuses.

General satisfaction

No one could realistically expect a perfect response from colleges to the pandemic as there simply have been so unexpected variables that have impacted life on campus. From recent national polling of U.S. college students, the general sense was of satisfaction with the education received. There were difference in levels of satisfaction depending on how classes were taught on campus. For those who had all in-person education this fall 85% rated their experiences as “excellent” or “very good” while for students who classes were completely online 71% indicated similar feelings.

Care for International Students

There are many ways U.S. colleges have met the various needs of international students during the pandemic. Calvin University in Michigan realized early on that a large group of new international students would not be able to make it to campus to begin studies. As a result, 65 students from overseas were offered a virtual semester put together by faculty and staff to provide a customized academic and personal experience. 

More than anything else, we all prefer getting more regular communication than too few messages in times of uncertainty. Purdue, as well as other institutions, dedicated pages on their website specifically for resources for international students on Counseling Center services available to help students cope with the very different environment they faced on campus. Other colleges like the University of Louisville saw its international student and scholars services staff feel even more responsible to ensure every international student was attended to at various points during the academic term.

Each college has its own way of responding to the concerns of students. So, as you explore your different options for U.S. colleges and universities, it is critical to hear from currently enrolled students like this article from Penn State University, especially international students like you, to learn how campus life might be for you. Whether that be live chats held by current students, blog articles they write, or emails they send, you need to ask colleges you are considering for ways to hear from current students before you make a final decision.

Fun Ways to Learn English: Using Subtitles (Part 2)

In the previous part, we began discussing some benefits of taking an unconventional approach to language learning – watching English movies or programmes with English subtitles on.

Here are some more reasons why this method can be both entertaining and productive.  

4. Building vocabulary

If there’s one thing that almost all English learners wish to have, it is a wide vocabulary. And one of the best sources of conversational phrases and idiomatic language is films and programmes made in English. While watching them, you are likely to come across tons of phrasal verbs, phrases and colloquialisms of the street that native English speakers commonly use in everyday conversations. The added advantage here is that you get to experience vocabulary in context, so you’d have a fair idea of how to use the lexical items you learn.

5. Bettering pronunciation

English pronunciation could be a nightmare, especially if your first language is syllable-timed and the idea of word stress is something you’re new to. Listening to words pronounced the right way is the easiest way to improve your diction, which is what you get to do when you watch something in English with subtitles on. When you see as well as hear words, you tend to learn pronunciation a lot faster. What’s more, you also get to watch the mouth of the speaker move, helping you produce difficult sounds that are perhaps absent in your first language. Subtitled content is also an excellent source of various intonation patterns in English.

6. Improving word recognition and grammar

Quite often films and TV programmes use less formal English that is common among native speakers. Exposure to such content is a great way for a learner to get introduced to chunks that form a key part of a native speaker’s spoken language. These can be lexical chunks like fixed collocations (e.g. crying shame) or grammatical chunks (e.g. If I were you, I’d + bare infinitive). On seeing and hearing the same chunks repeatedly, your brain begins to gradually recognise patterns and process language in real time.

Watching a favourite movie of yours again is a good idea – since you already know the plot well, it allows you to focus on subtitles. We aren’t done yet, so do read the final part in this segment.

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