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Medievalmaniac

SOP mistakes: what to avoid

124 posts in this topic

SOP remorse- After submitting it, I found two grammar mistakes... and a missing comma.

Best advice- Proofread , proofread , proofread!!!!!

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This is the exact way to go.

Most first drafts of SOPs I've seen start with a narrative of the person's past and background, and only get around to their current/future interests towards the end of the essay. To have a good SOP, however, the focus should be on your current and (mostly) future research plans, and it should be apparent what your interests are as early as possible. It's the same advice I get now for writing papers - don't recount the history of all your failed attempts and bad starts, tell me the path that succeeded and show me what you can do with it.

For a good, focused SOP, you should be able to demonstrate that you are familiar with the inner workings of your field. Address strengths and weaknesses in current thought about your topic, or suggest a fresh way of looking at it; choose a project that is feasible in size for the degree you're applying to; aim to have similar interests/methodology/both as the researchers in the department you're applying to. Remember that you're not committing yourself to actually doing the project, you just want to show the adcom that you can think through the details of a possible project within your area of interest. Choose no more than 1-2 interests as your main interests and spend most of your time talking about them. It's OK to have secondary interests, but it should be clear where your interests lie.

Aside choosing the right kind of interests to discuss, fit is also understanding your intended department's attitude towards things like collaborations, innovation, going in unexplored directions, doing quantitative/qualitative/theoretical/practical/etc work. Talk about things that make sense for that department. Mention anything unique that the program offers - resources, reading groups, any kind of opportunity like an exchange or a diploma. If it's not a school that emphasizes teaching, don't dwell on that. If you're not sure that you'll be encouraged to take courses at other departments, make sure before you mention "resources" that are not really going to be there.

If you want to mention coursework in more detail, most applications will allow you to e.g. upload a summary as a supporting document or as part of your CV. You can also attached it to your transcript. Include a list of course names/numbers, the instructors, and a one-paragraph description of each course (+optionally, the grade and nr of credits, but that should be on your transcript; optionally2: the topic and short description of term papers you wrote for each course). All those details don't really have to be in your SOP, unless they're directly tied to your current/future interests. If you've caught the adcom's eye, they'll go look at your credentials anyway. Optionally: give a link to a website that contains all the work you're comfortable with the adcom seeing. It can be a simple googledocs-based site, I hear they are easy to make. If they're really interested, the adcom might want to know more about your work, and that's a great easy way to give them that extra information.

Very helpful, indeed.

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The SOP will vary A LOT depending on what type of program you are applying for. I'm sure those in the sciences would not go on and on about their volunteer experience, while those in the humanities might do just that (and it likely will work out well for them).

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LOL people in the humanities do not go on about their volunteer experience. We do research too. The SOP is about your particular take on the research you want to do as you work toward the Ph.D. Those in the social sciences, especially in fields like Urban Studies and Public Policy, have a lot more to gain by discussing volunteer work and unpaid internships.

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LOL people in the humanities do not go on about their volunteer experience. We do research too. The SOP is about your particular take on the research you want to do as you work toward the Ph.D. Those in the social sciences, especially in fields like Urban Studies and Public Policy, have a lot more to gain by discussing volunteer work and unpaid internships.

Even in those fields, alluding to volunteer and internship experience is enough for a personal statement (especially if you submit a CV which presumably covers the specifics of your past work in detail). The bulk of your personal statement in any academic field (I guess I mean for a research-based program) should be dedicated to answering four questions: What is an interesting problem in my field (research topic)? Why am I qualified to begin solving it(past experience)? How will ____ university help me solve the problem (fit)?

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Ok, so I did submit most (90%) of my applications and then one professor told me to add ONE thing to my SOP. He said it's a mistake "most make" (which I am relying on MOST to make..). He said that besides everything else, I should also add specific dates about what I did when in my SOP. Now this is in addition to my CV, which of course has specific dates and coursework done.

Should I add the dates or shouldnt I? Like saying "during my undergraduate years at XXXX, from 20XX to 20XX, I .....blah blah".

Ideas?

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I didn't. Who cares about the specific dates? I've never seen that advice given anywhere.

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I didn't. Who cares about the specific dates? I've never seen that advice given anywhere.

Specific dates could matter at an institution that has attempted to "move up the rankings" in terms of its academic reputation. This attempt can include significant upgrades (for lack of a better term) in faculty rosters, the re-formulation of undergraduate and graduate admissions criteria, and the implementation of higher academic standards for students.

Also, dates of attendance can matter if a school went through an interval of upheaval that saw extra-academic events impacting the established patterns of a particular institution. A discussion of such upheaval can be found in ISBN-9780691149622.

Edited by Sigaba

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Hmnm looks like I missed the chance to write on this forum, as it seems people look at it once a year :/ Anyway , I will try!

Soo I got rejected last cycle, and leading up to another round of apps for 2012, I took some non-degree graduate courses. In one I did a lit review and facilitated a undergraduate course lecture for a day, and in another did a research essay. I spent a good paragraph talking about my graduate level experience (I am applying for only MA programs, in sociology), what I did in those classes, and how I felt it gave me an advantage over others who apply from a BA as I got into a rhythm already and can pick up where I left off. Anyone care to share their opinions about what I did to gain a bit more experience for applications and/or my decision to include this in my SOP? Thank ya.

Edited by DustSNK

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Hmnm looks like I missed the chance to write on this forum, as it seems people look at it once a year :/ Anyway , I will try!

Soo I got rejected last cycle, and leading up to another round of apps for 2012, I took some non-degree graduate courses. In one I did a lit review and facilitated a undergraduate course lecture for a day, and in another did a research essay. I spent a good paragraph talking about my graduate level experience (I am applying for only MA programs, in sociology), what I did in those classes, and how I felt it gave me an advantage over others who apply from a BA as I got into a rhythm already and can pick up where I left off. Anyone care to share their opinions about what I did to gain a bit more experience for applications and/or my decision to include this in my SOP? Thank ya.

I applied for PhD programs, so maybe things will be slightly different for you, but I would only spend time talking about those classes as they relate to your research interests. The fact that you took them (and presumably did well) will tell the adcom that you have that advantage and are in the rhythm. However, I'd suggest only discussing the actual content of the courses and what you did if it is relevant to your proposed area of study.

Somewhere near the beginning of this thread is advice that I didn't fully see the wisdom of until I'd already submitted my applications: the SOP is a narrative about the future, about what you want to do in grad school, and anything not relevant to that should be removed or limited to save precious space. So if you took a course in X, that's great, but if you want to study Y, you should spend much more time talking about your interest and background in Y. If you took a course in Y, then it's fine to talk about the content as it relates to your goals in the "future" portion of your essay.

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I applied for PhD programs, so maybe things will be slightly different for you, but I would only spend time talking about those classes as they relate to your research interests. The fact that you took them (and presumably did well) will tell the adcom that you have that advantage and are in the rhythm. However, I'd suggest only discussing the actual content of the courses and what you did if it is relevant to your proposed area of study.

Somewhere near the beginning of this thread is advice that I didn't fully see the wisdom of until I'd already submitted my applications: the SOP is a narrative about the future, about what you want to do in grad school, and anything not relevant to that should be removed or limited to save precious space. So if you took a course in X, that's great, but if you want to study Y, you should spend much more time talking about your interest and background in Y. If you took a course in Y, then it's fine to talk about the content as it relates to your goals in the "future" portion of your essay.

Thank ya :) Yea I spent about a sentence saying taking grad classes helped me out, then the rest when talking about the course I talked about the research I did. I would say of that paragraph, I mentioned how it will help me in general as a future researcher having those experiences. The other half I would say did the same but 50% tied into direct future research. I basically spent a good amount of the SOP talking about my past and most recent research experience, a job abroad that contributed to my current research agenda, then explaining why I would like to work with certain faculty. We will see >_< Thanks for replying!

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When I was at my meet & greet/interview day, one of the professors I met with said that when he looked through the application, he immediately deleted the ones that mentioned a desire to work with him (but hadn't actually contacted him about this). So DON'T NAME PROFESSORS YOU HAVEN'T MADE CONTACT WITH. They may take it the wrong way. (Incidentally, this professor seemed happy to work with me, even though I hadn't mentioned or contacted him before.)

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When I was at my meet & greet/interview day, one of the professors I met with said that when he looked through the application, he immediately deleted the ones that mentioned a desire to work with him (but hadn't actually contacted him about this). So DON'T NAME PROFESSORS YOU HAVEN'T MADE CONTACT WITH. They may take it the wrong way. (Incidentally, this professor seemed happy to work with me, even though I hadn't mentioned or contacted him before.)

I didn't contact any professors before application time (some schools actually discourage it) but still wanted to sound knowledgeable about the schools to which I was applying. So I sort of edged around the issue by saying something along the lines of "At XYZ University, I am especially intrigued by the work of Drs. ABC and DEF and would relish the opportunity to learn and work in the same environment." So I wasn't entirely saying that I absolutely wanted to work with John Smith, but that I was aware of the faculty whose interests align with my own.

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Here's my major question about writing the SoP. If you have many awards and/or publications, do you bring that up in the SoP at all or just leave it in the CV. This year, I explained the work I'd done and told at the latter end of the paragraph that the work resulted in X, Y, or Z award. This apparently was deemed arrogance (kiss of death). Since I will be trying again next year, how does one strike the balance between arrogance and proper assertion of strengths? Or again, is it more appropriate to leave that sort of detail out of the SoP and only have it listed on the CV where the adcomm can hunt for it if they decide you interest them post-reading of the SoP?

I appreciate the help, as always!

~ m

Who told you that discussing achievements you earned through your work is arrogant? Psssh. Publications, fellowships, recognitions.. all of those things are relevant and reflect on how good of a candidate you are. Especially things like publications, reseach awards, presentation awards--you are being recognized for your skill at the sort of work that is the bread and butter of grad school! It'd be foolish not to mention these things--they are way more relevant than making up some silly story about your childhood or even dreaming up some pie in the sky 5-year dissertation plan for them to laugh at. I highly doubt that was any sort of kiss of death for you.

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I didn't contact any professors before application time (some schools actually discourage it) but still wanted to sound knowledgeable about the schools to which I was applying. So I sort of edged around the issue by saying something along the lines of "At XYZ University, I am especially intrigued by the work of Drs. ABC and DEF and would relish the opportunity to learn and work in the same environment." So I wasn't entirely saying that I absolutely wanted to work with John Smith, but that I was aware of the faculty whose interests align with my own.

Another way to show this awareness is to describe one's research interests in terms similar to one or more professors at a school. For example, if John Smith's research interests center around A, B, and C, one can point out that one wants to do research on A, B, and D. (Compare the impact of domestic politics on American foreign policy during the Second World War to the impact of domestic politics on American foreign policy during the Vietnam War.) To be clear, this approach should only be used if one is representing honestly one's projected research interests.

HTH.

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Going to be re-applying next year to a program that had around 100 applications for 10 spots, and then interviewed 40 people from thos applications for 10 spots.

I got an interview and know I screwed it up and got rejected.

My question is: Do I really have to change anything about my SOP if I made it to the interview stage this year? Or can I send out the exact same one?

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Going to be re-applying next year to a program that had around 100 applications for 10 spots, and then interviewed 40 people from thos applications for 10 spots.

I got an interview and know I screwed it up and got rejected.

My question is: Do I really have to change anything about my SOP if I made it to the interview stage this year? Or can I send out the exact same one?

Were I in your position, the first thing I'd do is vet my assumptions. That is, how do you know that you screwed up the interview and that your gaffe is why you weren't offered a spot? (Unless you were ranked as one of the top ten of the forty, this conclusion might be unwarranted.) Edited by Sigaba

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DON'T send out the same SOP. If they remember your old one, this will look lazy. Do you want to send the message that you haven't improved yourself at all in the year since your last application? Or that you don't care enough about the program to update your application?

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I'm sure that by this fall you will have done some other interesting things. If they do remember your SOP (and they should remember your somewhat from the interview), then the underlying question you'll need to answer is, "Why am I a better candidate this year than last?" (Of course, you may feel equally qualified and know you just screwed up an interview, but they will assume that you were accurately represented in the first interview, so from their view the question still stands.)

Part of your answer will be that, over the past year, you have read up on issues in your field, gained experiences that sharpened your focus, and become that much more "mature" a contender. You'll have another year of experience to brag about, so I say make sure to add it into the the SOP.

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When I was at my meet & greet/interview day, one of the professors I met with said that when he looked through the application, he immediately deleted the ones that mentioned a desire to work with him (but hadn't actually contacted him about this). So DON'T NAME PROFESSORS YOU HAVEN'T MADE CONTACT WITH. They may take it the wrong way. (Incidentally, this professor seemed happy to work with me, even though I hadn't mentioned or contacted him before.)

This is interesting. Maybe this is why I've been so consistently rejected. I just specified the specific research done by specific professors that I was most interested in getting involved with.

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This is interesting. Maybe this is why I've been so consistently rejected. I just specified the specific research done by specific professors that I was most interested in getting involved with.

Like JenJenJen said, this isn't apparently a steadfast rule, but it did surprise me that this one professor was so black-and-white about it. Maybe another way to split the difference between profs who don't want to be bothered and those who want communication is to shoot out a short email that says something like, "Hi Dr. X, I've been reading about your research on your website and it looks really interesting. Is there anything else I should know before apply to your school/department?" Then the ball's in their court if they want to talk to you, but it shows that you're not just talking to them about stuff you could learn on your own.

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I'm still wondering what makes a stellar SOP.

In mine, i begin my sentence with my area of specialization. After that I give a story on how I choose this subject and what kind of research I did before (undergrad thesis+publication+research experience with international research institution). Also, I only mention my weakness in one sentence and cover it with my strength.

Seriously, I'm still wondering whether this is the best way to convey my feeling for graduate studies. Of course, I'm looking for perfection but it seems that it is impossible to achieve perfection.

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