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SOP mistakes: what to avoid


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#61 TexasGuy

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Posted 19 January 2012 - 04:51 AM

edited

Edited by TexasGuy, 19 January 2012 - 06:14 AM.

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Applied: UT Austin, Princeton, Georgia Tech, U Wisconsin & Carnegie Mellon

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#62 DustSNK

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Posted 22 February 2012 - 06:17 PM

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, 22 February 2012 - 06:19 PM.

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Applied : McMaster,McMaster (Globalization), WLU, Guelph, Waterloo, Brock
Rejected :
Accepted : Brock, McMaster,McMaster (Globalization)
Accepted offer : Brock

#63 coffeeplease

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Posted 22 February 2012 - 06:34 PM

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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#64 DustSNK

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Posted 22 February 2012 - 10:21 PM

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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Applied : McMaster,McMaster (Globalization), WLU, Guelph, Waterloo, Brock
Rejected :
Accepted : Brock, McMaster,McMaster (Globalization)
Accepted offer : Brock

#65 SeriousSillyPutty

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Posted 04 March 2012 - 05:25 AM

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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#66 jenjenjen

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Posted 05 March 2012 - 10:33 PM

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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#67 bearsalot_

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Posted 20 April 2012 - 09:25 PM

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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#68 Sigaba

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Posted 20 April 2012 - 09:53 PM

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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In the effort to create an “instant history” with which we could live and prosper, our early historians intentionally placed our early national heroes and leaders beyond the pale of criticism. . . . And this distorted image of them has not only created a gross historical fallacy, but it has also rendered it utterly impossible to deal with our past in terms of the realities that existed at that time. To put it another way, our romanticizing about the history of the late eighteenth century has prevented our recognizing the fact that the founding fathers made serious mistakes that have greatly affected the course of our national history from that time to the present.


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Taking critics seriously, and responding to them thoughtfully, is a sign of respect.

 

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#69 jessybessy1

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Posted 25 April 2012 - 05:47 PM

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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#70 Sigaba

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Posted 25 April 2012 - 06:10 PM

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, 25 April 2012 - 06:12 PM.

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In the effort to create an “instant history” with which we could live and prosper, our early historians intentionally placed our early national heroes and leaders beyond the pale of criticism. . . . And this distorted image of them has not only created a gross historical fallacy, but it has also rendered it utterly impossible to deal with our past in terms of the realities that existed at that time. To put it another way, our romanticizing about the history of the late eighteenth century has prevented our recognizing the fact that the founding fathers made serious mistakes that have greatly affected the course of our national history from that time to the present.


John Hope Franklin, ISBN-0807115479, p. 154.

 

Taking critics seriously, and responding to them thoughtfully, is a sign of respect.

 

William G. Bowen, ISBN-9780691149622,  p. 53.


 


#71 emmm

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Posted 26 April 2012 - 02:52 AM

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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#72 SeriousSillyPutty

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Posted 05 May 2012 - 04:58 PM

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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#73 GradHooting

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Posted 17 May 2012 - 10:50 AM

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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#74 SeriousSillyPutty

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Posted 17 May 2012 - 12:05 PM

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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#75 rio-ne-ru

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Posted 07 June 2012 - 07:58 PM

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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#76 rio-ne-ru

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Posted 08 June 2012 - 09:02 AM

Suddenly, I realize what makes a stellar SOP! Substance! Substance over style!

If the essence of the SOP is meaningless, flowery words won't cover it.

The problem is there is no clear standard to define meaningful SOP! We only know that stellar SOP has high standard!!!!

Hahaha!!!

Correct me if I'm wrong :)

Edited by rio-ne-ru, 08 June 2012 - 09:03 AM.

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#77 Zama

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Posted 14 July 2012 - 04:11 PM

Medievalmaniac, I really don't think that the SoP is the right place to explain your coursework, unless it has direct relevance to the narrative you're writing about your development. I just attached a sheet with all my applications called "Undergraduate Coursework in Literature" or "Relevant Coursework," and then divide it up into "English" and "French." Under each category, I had the course number, the actual full title, the prof, and my grade in it. That way they can cross-reference with my transcript if they want, but they have the important info that they'll really be mining my transcript for isolated for them already. And I didn't have to take up precious space in my SoP explaining them.

As for what I did in my SoP that I think worked, I have some perspective on that, having been roundly rejected two years ago and pretty decent success this round (though UVa and U Washington, what is UP?! Still waiting on them). I really think the difference between my two SoPs is the big thing that made the difference, as my numbers and other qualifications (and even most of my writing sample, though I edited it) are the same. So here's what I think made the difference, in three alliterative categories:

1. Focus. Like it or not, they want to be able to categorize you. You can have secondary interests, but they have to be clearly secondary and bear some relation to your main focus. Last time I tried to tell too many stories of my development, and there were too many directions I could go in. This was partially a reflection of where I was at the time, and honestly I think they were right to reject me straight out of undergrad - I needed some time to reflect, to think about what I actually wanted to do in the field. Now that I have, my SoP reflects that clearer sense of direction and purpose.

2. Fit. Everyone tells you this, but it's true. I spent a lot more time really researching profs on the websites, then looking up and scanning through a few key articles, and skimming through the courses they taught. It really gives you a better idea of whether their interests and methodologies ACTUALLY fit yours, or whether it just looks like that on paper. I then tailored my fit paragraph to show how multiple faculty members could support my research interests (this may be English-specific, as in other non-humanitites disciplines you are applying to work with one advisor). Also, if the department has a pet methodology, it's helpful to know that - they'll look for students who fit that bill. Interdisciplinary programs that faculty are involved in and subfield/methodologically-specific colloquia, etc. are also things to look for.

3. Future. This could vary, depending on how much of an academic past you have, but for me what helped was focusing discussing even my past towards showing how it formed a trajectory for the future. I've said in other places around here that the best advice I got for my SoP was that you should think about demonstrating that you are capable of conceiving of a larger project; whether or not you end up doing that project is irrelevant, as you probably won't and the adcomm is well aware of that - the point is that you are CAPABLE of conceiving of a future direction for yourself. I focused on telling a story (i.e. "I'm interested in the relationship to place in Modernist literature") and cutting all details of my past that didn't mesh with that. So by the end I was able to say look! What I discussed doing in paragraphs x (gloss of relevant coursework/advisors, focus), y (challenges and triumphs of writing my thesis and learning theory), and z (teaching, living different places) all feed into the project I'm proposing in this last paragraph (though the project was sufficiently broad so as not to pigeonhole me). I said that I wanted to go in certain different directions, but it was clear that it would be a continuation of my development, not starting anew. They want to see that you are capable of functioning independently as an academic (should be demonstrated by your past and by the fact that you can independently come up with good future directions), but that they have something to offer in terms of guiding you.

Hope that helps!

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#78 Zama

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Posted 14 July 2012 - 04:37 PM

I am grateful to all of you who started this topic. Keep going. Most of advices influenced me greatly and my SOP on which I am working right away. Now, I wonder is it correct to mention the financial problems because of which the undegraduate years were challenging and affected my grades enermoulsy. Yet, my gpa in eng.ng is around 3.8 and in science around 3.7 ( double major). Because of the financial problems I had to work(kind of hard-work no related to eng.ng or science) in evenings and had little time for research. Anyway I keep going to work in my proffesor's lab... Is it correct to mention those problems or not? and about the length of SOP why only two pages??? Thankkkssssssss. Whish all of us enter the desired programs..
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#79 mandarin.orange

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Posted 06 October 2012 - 07:29 PM

I've linked a few of her other blog posts in various Grad Cafe threads, but I really like the advice and insight of FSP into the admit process.

Here's one post where she mentions do's/don'ts (reiterating many of the points made on p. 1 of this thread), followed by a hilarious example of a really, really bad (not real) SoP.

http://science-profe...tion-essay.html
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#80 Vavasor

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Posted 08 October 2012 - 06:49 PM

The DGS at my undergraduate institution said to be extremely leary about mentioning names of faculty members because often they'll get applications and either (1) The person is dead/retired (2) The person doesn't work with grad-students so it wouldn't make sense. Of course there are some applications I've filled out that specifically ask you to mention what professors you could see yourself working with.

So I guess the rule of thumb would be do it if they ask you to, or if there is a scholar whose work you're very familiar with and see your own work as contributing to similar critical debates it can't hurt to mention them, but if that's the case they would probably realize that such was the case without you mentioning them.

Botton line, error on the side of caution!
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