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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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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

I just had a professor who sits on admissions committees look over my SOP. My introduction was talking about how I liked to go to museums as a child and was fascinated by the ancient world. He s

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

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
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  • 1 month later...

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!

" Love is a better teacher than a duty" [ Great Mind-Albert Einstein]
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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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  • 2 months later...

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-professor.blogspot.com/2008/01/my-grad-school-application-essay.html

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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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This is definitely my biggest weakness when it comes to everything. Both applying for graduate school and jobs. I'm not good at talking myself up. Also, things other people see as achievements I never would consider an achievement, same goes for skills. Upon leaving my last internship the dir of HR gave me a letter of reference and she said things in the letter about me I would never have thought to mention in an interview. Same goes for my grad school letter of recommendations.

I added a section to my CV to explain the coursework I did. I also wrote briefly about a couple of courses in my SOP. When I wrote my statements for this past admissions round, I think I was too modest. I've heard that one reason women are less likely to be hired than men for the same position is that women tend to state their achievements and skills more modestly, whereas men are more confident about it. Not sure how true that is generally, but it definitely describes my approach! Next time I apply for PhD spots I will take a more straightforward approach, and won't bother talking about my weaknesses. No need to draw attention to that. However, hopefully by then, once I've done work on an MA, I won't have many weaknesses to deal with!

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One other thing; make sure that your SOP is in the right format (PDF vs. Word document vs. txt file). Rather obvious, but because one of my SOPs was the wrong file type, it didn't attach. Had to send it over via email. creating unnecessary inconvenience m( 

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It seems previous posters have pretty much covered it! I will say, though, that if you do have unique circumstances or some truly big event in your life, the rule against spending too much time on personal stuff may not apply so much. I think the issue is when you try to create the appearance of depth, as opposed to actually addressing major life experiences.

 

I viewed my personal statement as sort of a filter. I'm a nontraditional student, so I decided to be really up front about why I went to school a little later and how that affected my goals and direction. I figured that anyone who wasn't comfortable with that probably wasn't someone I wanted to spend 5-6 years working with. It's sort of like letting someone know on a first date that you have a kid; sure, some people might be turned off by the fact, but isn't it better to find that out early? This strategy seems to have worked for me, as I have been accepted to a program in which everyone I'll be working with seems to value and appreciate my life experiences!

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  • 3 weeks later...

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?

 

In my second time application, I asked the same question to the PhD coordinator. My question was like "do I have to change my Statement of Purpose since my application is now officially unsuccessful", the professor said that "no, don't change, you came close to be accepted, just make some editorial adjustments"

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I am so grateful for this thread and all of your responses. It's been hugely helpful and made me realize that my SoP needs a lot of work. Here's my question: is there a "sweet spot" for SoP length? I know many schools give you a range, but just wondering what has worked for others in the past.

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I am so grateful for this thread and all of your responses. It's been hugely helpful and made me realize that my SoP needs a lot of work. Here's my question: is there a "sweet spot" for SoP length? I know many schools give you a range, but just wondering what has worked for others in the past.

 

Here are some previous discussions of this question:

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It seems previous posters have pretty much covered it! I will say, though, that if you do have unique circumstances or some truly big event in your life, the rule against spending too much time on personal stuff may not apply so much. I think the issue is when you try to create the appearance of depth, as opposed to actually addressing major life experiences.

 

I viewed my personal statement as sort of a filter. I'm a nontraditional student, so I decided to be really up front about why I went to school a little later and how that affected my goals and direction. I figured that anyone who wasn't comfortable with that probably wasn't someone I wanted to spend 5-6 years working with. It's sort of like letting someone know on a first date that you have a kid; sure, some people might be turned off by the fact, but isn't it better to find that out early? This strategy seems to have worked for me, as I have been accepted to a program in which everyone I'll be working with seems to value and appreciate my life experiences!

 

This entire discussion in general is super helpful. I'm applying for the Fall 2014 and, as a bit of a compulsive planner, am thinking about starting my SOP now as I've already gotten some offers from potential program advisers to help me edit it. The advice you give, linelei, I think is something that I'm going to have to contend with. Has anyone had any experience with writing a "diversity statement?" This is something Berkeley is asking for and I'm curious as to the differences of approach -- my first thought is that the diversity statement is something like a place in which one can discuss hardships, how they got to where they are now, etc? This is perhaps not the best way of wording it, but it seems like a place to put some of the more fluffy/expository stuff that you'd leave out of the SOP?

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Very interesting and most enriching comments and suggestions about how to write an SOP and what to focus on. I am glad that I read this. I think I would be classified as a non-conventional student because I graduated almost 5 years ago, have been working professionally as an engineer for the last 4 years and I have been working as a research engineer for the last 3 years. I will have to tailor something according to my experience as that is what has driven me to go for graduate study.

 

Stupid question : I am not necessarily hell-bent on doing a PhD (though if I get the opportunity I will definitely go for it), doing a Masters of Science first is what I would like as I will get a feel of the University and the research itself, so my question is : are there major differences in writing a SOP for Masters of Science rather than PhDs ?

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Possibly, but that depends on what your MS is in and what MSs in your field are like.

 

FWIW, I applied to MPH programs (typically professional degrees, with students who typically want to work directly after) with statements very similar to my PhD statements.  I was very clear about wanting to apply to PhD programs after I completed my MPH and that I wanted to do research while I was there, so I highlighted the research strengths of each program and professors I'd want to work with just like I did with the PhD program I applied to.  However, I also threw in some references to the professional development these programs offered, such as centers and internships or practica. I got into all the MPH programs I applied to, so I think it worked.

 

I think it would really depend on the program.  Although an MPH is a professional degree, a lot of MPH graduates end up doing research professional since the engine of public health is research, so that's not too out of line.  But if I had applied to an MBA or MPA program saying I wanted to do research, I might not have gotten in.  If your MS is research-oriented in a field that is also research-oriented, your SOP will look more like a PhD one.

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Hello juilletmercredi (funny, your pseudo is French and I am from France myself, hehe),

 

Thanks for your answers. In my case, I am more into wireless communications, so yes : there's plenty of engineering and research in my field. A M.Sc can give you openings in research, provided that you have some prior research experience and good fortune favours you (like with everything I guess). Great effort that you got into all the programs you applied to, you must have written some super-strong SOPs :)

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This thread has been extremely helpful! The one thing I am struggling with is whether or not to include an explanation for some bad grades during my first two years, which has caused my overall GPA to be a low 3.1 (although my last two years GPA and major GPA are both 3.8). The thing is, though, I don't have a sob story or anything of the sort....I was simply unmotivated because I was in what I now realize was the wrong major for me- I often felt unchallenged, and unfortunately, being an immature 18/19 year old, let this hurt my grades. As corny as it sounds, I didn't truly understand the value of education until I changed to my current major. Would it be a bad move to include this in my SOP? I know it's not a legitimate excuse like having health problems, taking care of an ill family member, etc., but it's honest.

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This thread has been extremely helpful! The one thing I am struggling with is whether or not to include an explanation for some bad grades during my first two years, which has caused my overall GPA to be a low 3.1 (although my last two years GPA and major GPA are both 3.8). The thing is, though, I don't have a sob story or anything of the sort....I was simply unmotivated because I was in what I now realize was the wrong major for me- I often felt unchallenged, and unfortunately, being an immature 18/19 year old, let this hurt my grades. As corny as it sounds, I didn't truly understand the value of education until I changed to my current major. Would it be a bad move to include this in my SOP? I know it's not a legitimate excuse like having health problems, taking care of an ill family member, etc., but it's honest.

 

I really wouldn't put it the way you just did. That is, I would not mention immaturity or being unmotivated. I'd have a short explanation: "unfortunately during the first two years of undergrad I chose a major that I later realized did not fit my interests - XXX - which caused my grades to suffer. However, since discovering/switching to YYY (your current major) my grades have been on an upward trend and both my major GPA and my overall GPA from the past two years are 3.8." or similar. It may also be a good idea to have a recommender address this issue instead of doing it yourself, if you have a trusted professor you can ask to explain this (e.g., someone who only knows you from the new major and knows you do well there, who could talk about the lower previous grades as resulting from a bad fit).

 

But just to make sure - is it not clear from your transcript that your lower grades are in a different major and the upward trend started once you discovered your current major? That is, will this addendum to the SOP or to the LOR add anything the adcom won't already know from looking at your transcript? I think that many people have a hard time adjusting and therefore have low grades from early semesters, and what matters is how you deal with it and how your later years GPA looks. If you're simply stating the obvious, I'd maybe advise to keep this in an addendum (if at all) -- many apps have a "is there anything else you want to tell us?" question, so this is still out there but not as a component of a major document.

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This thread has been extremely helpful! The one thing I am struggling with is whether or not to include an explanation for some bad grades during my first two years, which has caused my overall GPA to be a low 3.1 (although my last two years GPA and major GPA are both 3.8). The thing is, though, I don't have a sob story or anything of the sort....I was simply unmotivated because I was in what I now realize was the wrong major for me- I often felt unchallenged, and unfortunately, being an immature 18/19 year old, let this hurt my grades. As corny as it sounds, I didn't truly understand the value of education until I changed to my current major. Would it be a bad move to include this in my SOP? I know it's not a legitimate excuse like having health problems, taking care of an ill family member, etc., but it's honest.

I had a similar issue - a very clear divide in my transcript between below 3.0 semesters and straight 4.0's in the second half (with an alright cum. GPA). I also didn't have a good reason besides being unmotivated and in a slightly different major. I originally wrote a paragraph explaining this, but I cut it to a sentence because there was just too much more to talk about. 

 

My advice is don't even say anything negative about your first two years. Find a good place where it will "flow" and put a sentence in with a positive statement about your second half and be done with it. Draw attention to the fact that you excelled towards the end, not to the fact that you did poorly in the beginning - if that makes sense. 

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  • 3 months later...

I, too, have a question about explaining a period that don't hold up to the level of the rest of my "package" - except it was in my final semester of my undergraduate degree, not early on. I had to withdraw from a few classes and had mediocre-to-poor grades in the ones that I did not drop. This was due to a number of things converging in my life leading to me becoming overwhelmed. The main reason was the increasing sickness of a loved one and my responsibility for them, and the emotional toll it had been taking for a couple of years catching up.

 

However - just a couple of years later, in graduate school, I maintained a nearly perfect GPA while working full time which I think illustrates that I was able to fully overcome that difficult period. The low point I am concerned about was 8 years ago now, and I feel that the rest of my application will be strong - so, do I directly mention it and explain it (briefly) in my SOP or do I just let it be and hope that the dramatic rise in my work later on will be evident and speak for itself?

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  • 2 weeks later...

Guys read this : http://honors.tamu.edu/downloads/Personal%20Statement%20Invitation%20to%20Frustration.pdf

 

MajorityMinority posted this a few months ago, but WOW! I can honestly say this will help me clear up my SOP. Read it! Digest it! Use it!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi to everyone who contributed to this topic.

 

I do thank you very much for all your comments and pieces of advice. This page really is one of the best pages on SOP that I have seen/read so far. At the beginning of my trying to write an SOP, I had no idea; did not even know where to start, how to start, what to write, how to write. Asking people if they had any samples to send me, googling a lot, reading school web pages a lot are just a few to show you how anxious I was and how inundated and overwhelmed I was feeling.

 

However, after reading every sentence of yours on this forum, I can frankly state that I learned a lot. I have now finished my SOP, which is only 1 page long. Starts with ''why I am choosing that university and why it is a good fit for me'',consisted of just 6 lines in total. And then, continues with a new paragraph of 4 lines only stating ''why I love that field''. And then, continues with new 2 paragraphs of ''my focus/my past educations'' ; a paragraph for undergrad focus, and  a new paragraph for grad/work focus. This way, I only wanted to show the adcom that my past experiences and projects prepared me very well for the field that I am choosing in grad school. Not to mention that I also mentioned about my non-academic work experience with 2 lines only, at the end of the last paragraph, to show them how those experiences, in return, helped me improve my character, etc.

 

And finally comes a new paragraph of my ''future work'', explaining what I would like to do in future at that university, during PhD and after, just with 4 lines and ended with a new very little paragraph to thank them to consider my application. I did not mention about any POI names or so, because I can work with any of them.

 

After having been doing so much reading on this topic, I agree with most of you on the fact that there is really no need to find a catchy quote from the big idea people in history or in related fields; just making it lucid and 'brief' /to the point is, I believe, the best way of all. Because, I think, regardless of how much we use cliché quotes; at the end of the day, the POIs really don't care about what Einstein said or what M.Jordan or Edison said when they failed, stood up again, and succeeded in their fields again. The POIs are looking for ''great fits'' for their research groups. The POIs are ambitious to publish amazing articles and get awards with their projects and be recognized and do great scientific work. And this is only possible if they can , somehow, recruit their research groups with those who have aligned/parallel backgrounds or research interests with them. So, in that case, I believe, they like to see those in their group whose work speak for itself rather than those whose catchy quotations speak. Therefore, I agree with the previous posts on this topic.

 

I am thankful to you all for all your great comments and your taking the time to post your opinions on this forum. I hope we will all end up at the places we dream of.

 

Bonne Chance !

 

 

ps: sorry for my typos.

Edited by newlyadmit13
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It would take an entire book to do justice to this topic (and a good number of books on the subject have in fact been written) but if I were obliged to offer what I consider to be the single most important point about writing such essays, based on more than 30 years of experience assisting hundreds of applicants, it would be this: Unless the specific instructions dictate otherwise (always pay careful attention to the instructions), think of this type of statement as an intellectual autobiography.

 

Writing at its best - ALL writing - is storytelling. Here, you are telling the story of your intellectual development, as it relates to your proposed field of study. If you are wondering about whether to include something, ask yourself whether it belongs in this context.

 

Follow the guidelines of good storytelling. A good story, for example, always begins in a way that gets the reader's attention. It flows logically from one point to the next. It doesn't cause the reader to suddenly stop and wonder what the writer was trying to say. It doesn't seem too long or too short. And the most successful stories are the ones that the reader would likely remember and want to tell to others.

 

The single biggest and most frequently recurring mistake that applicants make is not giving themselves enough time to write this critical and challenging essay. Contrary to an earlier comment, it is NOT the case that the statement of purpose can only help you and cannot hurt you, in terms of your chances for admission. In competitive programs for which admission is selective, these essays are routinely used as a tool for screening applicants out.

 

Don't be afraid to get help. This type of essay calls for a very special skill set, which few applicants have developed, even those who may be considered good writers. Some of the applicants you will be going up against will inevitably have sought out expert assistance. Those who do not will be at a disadvantage. Reading the thread here at The GradCafe Forums is an excellent first step, so congratulate yourself for heading in the right direction.

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