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janenen

SoP question

8 posts in this topic

I'm a graduating senior who is planning on applying to PhD programs for the fall of 2018, and I have a few questions about the process.  I want to begin working on an SoP so I can tighten it up as much as possible before submitting my applications, and I'm wondering exactly how much I should tailor my SoP depending on what program I'm applying to.  Is it sufficient to have one set statement of my research interests and then interchange a paragraph or two that is specific to the university, or is it necessary to rewrite my SoP for each application?

There are also a number of funded MA programs I'm looking at in the event that I get rejected from all the PhD programs I'm applying to.  How true is it that PhD programs don't care where you get your MA?  How much does an MA actually strengthen your application, assuming you work hard and do well?

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Hi! First off, congratulations on making the decision to continue on toward a graduate program in history!

I went through countless revisions with my adviser on my SoP while applying to PhD programs. I'm actually moving on to one from a terminal MA history program so I worked closely with the director of graduate studies to fine tune my SoP from a heaping pile of crap to just a mini pile that didn't smell quite as bad. I also went through the same questions of how much can you reuse going from one school to the other. My adviser made it clear that you absolutely can reuse the general framework. In the process of revising your statement, you'll find some phrases that you really like and that flow really well. You can reuse these! When you work so hard to revise your SoP you should be able to swap some aspects for sure, especially when you are talking about your own experience and research interests. It is in how you tie this experience and discussion of your interests into your argument on why [insert school here] is the best for you that matters.

Second, while I don't know how true it is whether PhD programs care about where you got an MA from, I don't believe there are many ways in which it can be seen as a hindrance. With how competitive PhD spots are as funding pools diminish, schools (especially state schools) want to make sure that you can hit the ground running and are ready to work toward your dissertation. Candidates with MAs therefore are ideally meant to be more prepared. Now I'm sure people will comment on how this makes an assumption and how students entering w/o an MA could be just as prepared, but it's a reasonable claim. Therefore, I think any extra schooling beyond undergrad is looked favorably upon by admission committees.

Hope this helps a little and I look forward to what input others can provide!

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For mine, I had two main starter drafts - one for those that require both an SOP and a personal statement, and another for those that require only the SOP. For the latter I worked in a few important details that I would have otherwise belonged to the personal statement, but both had a lot in common.

When individualizing the statements, I began with one of the two starter drafts. I then looked at the faculty research and campus resources (e.g. interdisciplinary centers, workgroups, or reading groups in my area of specialization). So my statements all included a paragraph saying that I believe this faculty's expertise in X and this other faculty's groundbreaking research in Y will be a great resource for my future studies in Z. Resource A on campus will also be great since it'll allow me to interact with scholars focusing on B from other departments on campus. Well, not in those words exactly, but you get the point. Occasionally I've also had to edit further to account for word limits.

Sometimes you'll also want to edit to match the faculties' interests further. Not major overhauls, just a few words would suffice. For example, one of my friends edited her statements to be more theory-oriented when her prospective mentor works more in that direction. I personally didn't do that, however.

For MA's, on one hand, you will be more prepared, you will have a better idea of your research interest, you will be better read in your field, and you can better prove that you're cut out for graduate work and research. On the other hand, however, I've been told that admissions committees hold students with MA's to higher standards than students with just an undergraduate degree. Meaning, a student with an MA who is at the level of a competitive undergrad may not be competitive him or herself.

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In terms of tailoring the SoP, I did pretty much what you described. I wrote up my statement, and then ended with a paragraph about why each school would be a good fit. I may tweaked a few things for the various applications, but I didn't make any huge changes to the main body of my SoP for each application unless one application had a very different word count/length requirement. However, I think this also varies depending on how many schools you end up applying to.

Personally, I only applied to four, and all four had similar strengths, so an SoP that was applicable to one was able to work well for the others provided I included a paragraph at the end discussing specific people I'd like to work with and resources that would be beneficial for each school. If you're casting a wider net (As a side note, I would recommend it applying more broadly. I planned on applying to more schools, but my dad got sick right around when applications were due, and in the midst of everything I ended up losing track of some deadlines and not spending as much time as I probably should have on applications, so I ended up narrowing my list more out of necessity than anything else. All that to say that while applying to a small number of similar programs worked out for me, it wasn't entirely intentional, and it's not something I'd advise someone else to do.), you may find that the strengths of the programs on your list are more varied, in which case it may be beneficial to tweak your SoP a bit more. You still probably won't have to do a complete overhaul or anything, but just adding a sentence here or there to highlight aspects of your work you think might make a better case for why the strengths of a specific program work so well for your research interests can't hurt. Anyway, I would advise looking at the list of schools you're interested in, thinking about the ways in which their different, and deciding how much you need to tailor your SoP based on how wide a net your casting and how significantly one program differs from the next.

As far as the MA, I would only do it if it's funded. Personally, I don't think the return on investment is necessarily worth taking on debt. I think how much having an MA helps your application really varies. If you have a chance to talk to people at any of the programs you're interested in, it might be worthwhile to ask how they look upon students with a BA vs. students with an MA and if there's a preference for one over the other.

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I did this as well.

33 minutes ago, angesradieux said:

In terms of tailoring the SoP, I did pretty much what you described. I wrote up my statement, and then ended with a paragraph about why each school would be a good fit. I may tweaked a few things for the various applications, but I didn't make any huge changes to the main body of my SoP for each application unless one application had a very different word count/length requirement. However, I think this also varies depending on how many schools you end up applying to.

Personally, I only applied to four, and all four had similar strengths, so an SoP that was applicable to one was able to work well for the others provided I included a paragraph at the end discussing specific people I'd like to work with and resources that would be beneficial for each school. If you're casting a wider net (As a side note, I would recommend it applying more broadly.

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1 hour ago, angesradieux said:

I may tweaked a few things for the various applications, but I didn't make any huge changes to the main body of my SoP for each application unless one application had a very different word count/length requirement.

All of the above is good advice, but I wanted to underline up the length thing. My applications had a range of a 500 word limit to a 4 page limit so I aimed for the middle of that range for my starter draft, but I did end up having to do some substantial revisions for the shortest and longest. Since you just can't fit as much into 500 words as you can into 1000 (if you can, your 1000 words probably could be tightened) the shortest ended up more tailored throughout because I had to ruthlessly cut anything that wasn't specifically relevant to that school. Similarly, for the longest I didn't just stretch out my standard statement, I wrote a new "section" specific to that school about the links between my professional background, their resources, and my goals. 

Also, I think the earlier you can start tailoring the SOP to programs the better. I spent a lot of time polishing that core middle section upfront and ended up writing the "fit" pieces much closer to deadlines- at which point I realized I had some questions about specific programs I had run out of time to ask. 

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Posted (edited)

On 06/04/2017 at 4:56 PM, angesradieux said:

I didn't make any huge changes to the main body of my SoP for each application unless one application had a very different word count/length requirement.

[...]

As far as the MA, I would only do it if it's funded. Personally, I don't think the return on investment is necessarily worth taking on debt. I think how much having an MA helps your application really varies. If you have a chance to talk to people at any of the programs you're interested in, it might be worthwhile to ask how they look upon students with a BA vs. students with an MA and if there's a preference for one over the other.

I did exactly what @angesradieux has suggested, and totally agree re: the MA. The reason many programs have become fully funded for accepted students is because, well, there are hardly any jobs at the end of the road. In the past, a student could justify taking on some debt, knowing there'd be a decent position at the end of it. That time is no more. 

One thing I wish I'd known before applying (if you're interested, I wrote about other things in a recent post in the "Lessons learned" thread) was: if you have a first-choice school, communicate that to the adcom and/or to your POIs, especially when it's a school without a waitlist. They want to admit people they know have a good chance of coming. 

Edited by laleph

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1 hour ago, laleph said:

I did exactly what @angesradieux has suggested, and totally agree re: the MA. The reason many programs have become fully funded for accepted students is because, well, there are hardly any jobs at the end of the road. In the past, a student could justify taking on some debt, knowing there'd be a decent position at the end of it. That time is no more. 

One thing I wish I'd known before applying (if you're interested, I wrote about other things in a recent post in the "Lessons learned" thread) was: if you have a first-choice school, communicate that to the adcom and/or to your POIs, especially when it's a school without a waitlist. They want to admit people they know have a good chance of coming. 

I second reaching out to professors letting them know you're interested. First, it may save you some application fees. There was one professor I would have loved to work with, and if I had the chance, that would've been my top choice school, no questions asked. But, when I reached out to him, he said he wasn't currently accepting graduate students. That e-mail exchange saved me wasting money on an application that wouldn't have gotten me anywhere, anyway. Somewhere else, a professor told me I was welcome to apply, but said point blank that he didn't think it would be a great fit and emphasized how selective the program was, so I opted to also save money and not apply there, since the general tone implied that my chances were slim. Someone at another school came back immediately telling me how lackluster their funding packages were, and I also elected not to apply there because it sound like if I got in, it wouldn't matter because I wouldn't be able to afford to go. Once my applications were submitted, I was also contacted by someone asking me exactly how serious I was about their program, because they like to know that information before making final admissions decisions. I know that the person I spoke to also had a conversation with another student who applied to far more schools than I did and presumably didn't express very high interest in the program, and based on what I heard at their prospective weekend, I'm pretty sure that person wasn't made an offer. So definitely reach out to people to let them know how interested you are in the program. It makes a difference.

On a side note, it really helps to read some articles and familiarize yourself with the work of professors at the various schools you apply to. Knowing their work well will help you tailor your SoP to make a strong case about why a particular program is a good fit. Also, most of the professors I reached out to in the application were friendly enough. However, there were some whose work I knew better than others, and I think in those cases it made a difference to be able to say that I'd read their book and/or articles. The school I will be attending is one such case. I reached out to my POI there and explained that I'd read her book, found that it was really interesting and helped broaden my perspective on the subject, and would really like to be able to work with her. I got a very nice response offering to talk to my further to answer any questions I might have during the process, and I like to think that initial exchange probably made a difference.

It might not work in every case, I do think it's a good idea to try to get in touch with people at least at the programs you have at the top of your list. If you encounter situations like mine, it could save you from wasting time and money applying to schools that probably wouldn't work out, and in cases where you get a positive response, it may make your application stand out a bit more because people recognize your name and you've already shown some commitment to their program.

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