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SOP Jenga



I am on my billionth revision of my SOP, as I'm sure most of us are. I had it looked over by some of my colleagues and also my graduate director, who had some good and bad things to say about it. In the end, she said it seemed polished enough in her eyes to be submitted, so I felt somewhat relieved.

The other day one of my other old-school profs (a Yaley who did all three of her degrees there), took a look at my SOP and said it needs almost a complete re-write and that I come off as uneven in tone and too "student-y."

I appreciate direct feedback like this but, to be honest, it was pretty crushing. I feel so torn about my SOP now. Do I keep what my younger, more contemporarily-informed graduate director says or do I take the old-school prof's revision feedback or a combination of both? I have no idea.

Most of my SOP has been built on conversations with POI at the school to which I am submitting it, so I feel like it was rather well-informed.

I don't know. I just feel like my tower tumbled.


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Yes, it can be confusing to receive conflicting advice, especially if the contradiction comes from someone you respect. It seems your younger professors have given you good feedback and building your SOP around your POI's conversations is a smart move, so it doesn't seem like there should be any truly glaring problems with your SOP.


That being said, your old-school professor probably didn't want to just crush your enthusiasm with her recommendation, so it is worth considering what she said. Did she point out specific areas that you could improve on, or did she just say to rewrite the whole thing without giving specific corrections to be made? If it is the former case, then it would probably be wise to combine the suggestions from your professors as best you can.


Personally, I think it is a little weird that she recommended a total near total re-write. Furthermore, what does coming off as "student-y" even mean? Is this opposed to sounding like a researcher? Why is it bad?

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Thanks! I definitely respect what she said and I think she has a really good point with her points of revision but the gist of it is that she thinks I should sound more confident about my place as  scholar in the department rather than seeming like I'm a student requesting admission. So yes, I think she wants me to project more of the confident-researcher vibe rather than humble student. 


Tonal and voice issues definitely tend to be the most difficult part of writing for me and the thing towards which I feel the most anxiety.

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I once complained to one of my dissertation committee members that I was getting conflicting advice about how to structure my research statement for job applications. He told me that getting conflicting advice, especially on matters of style and structure, is very good news because it means that I am doing a good job and we're now down to personal tastes, which can vary from person to person. He said I should worry when everyone thinks I did something wrong and suggest that I fix it in one way or another. I think it was very good advice--it helped me accept that this kind of proposal is never "done" or "perfect," and if you give it to people to read they will try to be helpful and offer their opinions on what you have. It can be hard, but at that point you need to learn what advice you want to take and what advice you choose to ignore. Tastes vary and you can't please everyone, so this is when you just need to do what you think is right for you. Maybe there is a way to take some of the advice you got and integrate it into what you have; for example, I do think it's better writing to sound more confident. But that doesn't need to mean that you have to start over from scratch! 

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Ah, that's good to know! Now it's a matter of finding out whose taste is more relevant to each of my schools.... I'm assuming there are still some places that have a super old school approach to admissions too. In the end it's just going to be a crapshoot...

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It sounds like a mix of tone and narrative issues. She needs to give you concrete examples; it might not require an entire rewrite, but maybe you do need to chop out several paragraphs and refocus what you're saying.


The confident-researcher vibe is a huge part of the SOP. That's the exact advice a prof gave me after my 2nd draft. I had to cut out part of my narrative and refocus it around the super important stuff because everything else was fluff compared to the work I've done and why I wanted to continue doing it.

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I think the primary guildline is always to answer the prompt. As long as you answer the questions, your SoP will serve its purpose. In most cases, satisfying this condition will not make you stand out, but it is at least safe. I think.

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I don't think the age of the reader matters too much, nor does tone, student-y, or polish.  Those all sound a bit superficial to me and the writing issues can be proofed away.  Does your SOP answer the mail?  Does it make you a unique, superior, and entertaining applicant?

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I do think you should exude more confidence, and establish yourself as a scholar, rather than as a student in any final draft, but I understand the impulse to listen more heavily to younger professors, because they are the closest to being on this side of the process (but, on the other hand, your Yalie has more experience on that other side of the process, the important, the one that decides your admission...).

Is this really something that your other professors have explicitly contradicted? I would just ask them point blank: "Hey, Professor X said this came off as a little blah blah blah, do you mind taking another look?"

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Thanks everyone.


I definitely think I answer the prompt. I spend a good amount of time talking about my projects, research interests, and relevant language skills. I though that that would be good to show my interests and curiosity as a scholar.


One issue that older prof pointed out was that in my interests seemed a little scattered. I have one paragraph on my early modern/classics foundation (in which I have the most accomplishments) and a second paragraph detailing newer interests in queer theory. At the end of this second paragraph, I tie my interests in early modern together with queer theory to make it seem coherent but she thought that the theory section made me sound unfocused or hesitant.


In the end, I guess it really is a crapshoot. I do want to be honest by saying that the queer theory learning is in its early stages and I'm hoping that it will show that I am growing as a scholar and that I am able to think critical and with an interdisciplinary bent. 

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It's definitely a crapshoot. I guess that is a big reason I've applied 9 places, not just one.  I've noticed on this board that sometimes people obsess over details when one really doesn't know what the holistic response will be to their application. One of my professors who got his PhD at a little known state school, said he started an application at Harvard but never completed it because he thought he had no chance. Then later Harvard called him and said they had a place for him but could he please complete his application (he had already accepted the state school spot which he felt obliged to honor). So you never know.

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