Most universities require a statement of purpose as part of the college application process. This is an important way for a student to put a personal touch to his or her application compared to impersonal factors like test scores and grades. If you are applying to a top university you will compete with other students with great scores and marks and the SOP may be a way of distinguishing yourself.

The main purpose of the SOP is to link your past, present and future in the context of your academic goals. It should discuss your past achievements and the challenges you have overcome. That should fit in with your immediate goals and the courses you are applying for. You should also talk about your long-term plans and what you hope to do with your education. Finally your statement should provide some insight into the kind of person you are.

Here are 8 tips on writing a good SOP:

1. Carefully read what is required
This is obvious but needs to be mentioned first. Different applications forms will have different instructions on the SOP. Read them carefully and write your statement accordingly. If there is a word limit, stick closely to it. If the application has a question-and-answer format, stick to answering the questions instead of going off on a tangent.

2. Adapt your statement for each university
Don’t send the same SOP to each university. Do a little research about the institution and the department where you will be studying and try to think of concrete ways in which you would be a good fit. Most colleges and universities will have extensive websites and it’s easy to learn about their history, the research interests of the faculty and so on.

3. Plan your statement carefully
Before writing your statement you should decide what your main theme is and structure your essay around that. The individual paragraphs should support that theme and flow logically from one to another. You statement should be more than a bunch of random sentences about your accomplishments and goals.

4. Be specific
Avoid clichés and vague generalizations. If you are talking about your strengths provide examples of achievements where you have demonstrated such strengths. At the same time don’t just a reel off a string of accomplishments. It’s better to focus on a couple of successes which you think are really important and write about them in detail, explaining how you overcame challenges and what you learnt from the experience.

5. Get advice from different people
Pass around your statement to your friends and professors for advice and tips. Listen carefully to their advice but at the end of the day you are the person who understands best what it is you are trying to communicate. You should trust your own judgement.

6. Revise your statement several times
Like any piece of serious writing, the first draft is only the beginning of the process. You need to constantly examine your draft, sentence by sentence, looking to improve it and incorporate some of the suggestions you have received. It helps to read your work out loud to see how it flows.

7. Check your grammar and spelling
A spelling mistake or grammatical error can undo much of the good impression of the rest of your statement. Don’t rely on your word processor’s spelling and grammar checks. If necessary ask someone whose language skills you trust to examine your statement.

8. Be honest
Remember the people who read your statement are experienced faculty and staff who have read thousands of statements. If you make false or exaggerated statements they will likely smell something fishy and nothing could hurt your application more.

To sum up, the statement of purpose is important and deserves a serious amount of time and work. Other parts of your application like your test scores and academic results take months or years of effort; you shouldn’t dash off an SOP in a few hours. Spend a few weeks going through all the main steps: planning, writing, getting advice and revising your SOP. That is the kind of effort needed to write something that is genuinely distinctive and impressive.