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500 words? Are they Serious?


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Does anybody know if the "maximum of 500 words" is actually a hard line for the Fordham PhD statement of purpose? I mean, trying to discuss an idea for a 100 page doctoral dissertation AND fit to a program AND preparation for doctoral study is hard enough in a statement of 2-3 pages or 800 words like most schools ask. 500 words is just ludicrous! Is there anybody around who has gone over the limit at a school and still been admitted?

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I, personally, did not go over my word limits, but I did have SOPs ranging in length from 500 to 1,250 words. The part that I truncated was mainly the details paragraph of my dissertation/grand scheme, so that I combined two paragraphs of stuff about that into one slightly lengthened paragraph that summarized the parameters of my project with a *few* specific examples or questions. I also went over my entire SOP and cut every extraneous word, phrase, passive voice, and fatty bit that I could. It was a brutal process, but in a funny way it strengthened my other SOPs as well, because I forced myself to define and relate my interests more succinctly and elegantly in the rest of them that still had broad allowances for word count.

I have heard a few stories about people submitting longer SOPs and still getting in. I'm not familiar with Fordham's program, so I can't tell you if they tend towards the forgiving on that sort of thing. I *can* tell you that it's risky, though, at any school. Your writing would have to be rock solid, and you would need to still make every word count if you turned in something that was 800 or only shortened to 700.

If you didn't apply last year as well, it might be news to you that it was an extremely tough application year. Schools were getting double, if not more, their usual applicant pool. Some people got personal emails from adcomms after their rejection saying "In any other year, we would have been happy to have you. You are an amazing candidate with a bright future, but we just didn't have room for you." Excellent candidates got rejected for sometimes totally arbitrary reasons, and I would not be surprised if some of those arbitrary reasons included things like "This person did not follow our directions" or, from a grumpier and more overworked perspective, "Who does this person think they are, writing something almost twice as long? The others students cut theirs down, why should this person get an extra 300 words?" or "Perhaps the other students had ideas that are just as amazing as this student's, but they were considerate to our time constraints and abridged their SOP like we specified."

It's a calculated risk you'd be taking, if you ignored the direction and submitted something longer. In such an uncertain application climate as we had last year and very well might have again this year, I would do my utmost to follow directions as closely as possible to avoid offending those fickle gods of the adcomms.

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Poco_Puffs gave solid advice. And beware - Fordham is not the only school with such a limit - I believe Columbia's is the same? Also, some schools, I've heard, have you enter your SoP online and the application simply won't LET you go over the limit, so if you decide to take the risk and send them something longer, make sure that doing so is physically possible! Also, for schools that give shorter limits, scour their website carefully for clues as to what they would like to see emphasized in an application so that you can decide whether to spend more time on fit, project proposal, preparation, or whatever. Look at the actual application thoroughly to see if they allow a supplemental personal statement, or a CV, or something else that would allow you to communicate information you can't fit into your SoP.

Does anybody know if the "maximum of 500 words" is actually a hard line for the Fordham PhD statement of purpose? I mean, trying to discuss an idea for a 100 page doctoral dissertation AND fit to a program AND preparation for doctoral study is hard enough in a statement of 2-3 pages or 800 words like most schools ask. 500 words is just ludicrous! Is there anybody around who has gone over the limit at a school and still been admitted?

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Wisconsin and Northwestern also ask for 500 words max. I think I might go over a little, up to 600 words maybe, but not more than that. Basically, I'll keep it within one single-spaced page. I figure if they don't like someone's SOP, they'll probably stop reading half-way through, and if they like it, they won't mind reading a few extra words.

A related question: is it absolutely necessary to discuss a proposed dissertation idea? I mean, I know what areas I'm interested in, but I don't have a specific topic narrowed down. And isn't it too premature to have a dissertation topic already? Or do adcomms expect us to have one?

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Wisconsin and Northwestern also ask for 500 words max. I think I might go over a little, up to 600 words maybe, but not more than that. Basically, I'll keep it within one single-spaced page. I figure if they don't like someone's SOP, they'll probably stop reading half-way through, and if they like it, they won't mind reading a few extra words.

A related question: is it absolutely necessary to discuss a proposed dissertation idea? I mean, I know what areas I'm interested in, but I don't have a specific topic narrowed down. And isn't it too premature to have a dissertation topic already? Or do adcomms expect us to have one?

I think the inclusion of a proposed dissertation topic is totally optional, and it might depend on whether you're coming to the PhD program with some graduate school or an MA under your belt already (if that was the case, it might be that you've already done some graduate research and understand the scope and implications of a proposed project). Most of the things I've heard on here and at my school imply that most professors and advisors do NOT expect you to come into graduate school with a dissertation topic in mind, and even fewer would expect you to commit to whatever you write about in your SOP. I have been told repeatedly at my school that I should just focus on coursework for now, and keep big research ideas in mind but on the back burner. Some schools might differ, of course, but learning is a primary objective, you know? They don't expect you to come in fully formed.

An SOP should, on the other hand, indicate at least one or two general areas in which you are interested and maybe have some experience or research done already. My understanding is that your SOP is the place to a.) line you up with their school and faculty and b.) show that you might have formed, on at least a basic level, some directed questions or interests about certain topics, and might be able to-- down the line-- find a unique project that will become a dissertation. That could be as vague as a general period or genre of literature, with perhaps a theory or methodology you might like to pursue.

Edited by poco_puffs
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I mean, trying to discuss an idea for a 100 page doctoral dissertation AND fit to a program AND preparation for doctoral study is hard enough in a statement of 2-3 pages or 800 words like most schools ask. 500 words is just ludicrous!

Thousands and thousands and thousands of applicants before you have done it just fine.

Are you really *that special*, that YOU are the ONE person who can't be compressed into 500 words? If you really do think you are that Special Snowflake, those 300 extra words better be damn good.

(The upside is, those same thousands and thousands and thousands of applicants have complained about it bitterly, too. ;))

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Short answer: No, they're not serious.

I've heard that most members of admissions committees don't even know that their programs HAVE such word limits. I guess Northwestern is one such program. They tell everyone 500 words, but those in-the-know understand that this is not a hard-and-fast rule.

However, if everyone else is respecting a certain word limit, then your 4-page-single-spaced statement is going to look a little obnoxious.

This goes against the general grain of advice on this topic, but I sincerely do believe that all statements should be around 1-1.5 pages single spaced (or three pages doubled spaced). For the most part, you should ignore word limits when putting together your statement. You can always cut down later. And yes, your statement should be as specific as possible.

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Short answer: No, they're not serious.

I've heard that most members of admissions committees don't even know that their programs HAVE such word limits. I guess Northwestern is one such program. They tell everyone 500 words, but those in-the-know understand that this is not a hard-and-fast rule.

However, if everyone else is respecting a certain word limit, then your 4-page-single-spaced statement is going to look a little obnoxious.

This goes against the general grain of advice on this topic, but I sincerely do believe that all statements should be around 1-1.5 pages single spaced (or three pages doubled spaced). For the most part, you should ignore word limits when putting together your statement. You can always cut down later. And yes, your statement should be as specific as possible.

So you think it's okay to single space your SOP? I prefer the way it looks single spaced (without indentation and with a space between paragraphs), but I wasn't sure if that'd be acceptable.

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So you think it's okay to single space your SOP? I prefer the way it looks single spaced (without indentation and with a space between paragraphs), but I wasn't sure if that'd be acceptable.

I don't think it matters very much.

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Three pages for a statement of purpose? That actually seems a bit long to me. I'm also going to go against the grain and say that I think a singled spaced document is probably not okay. After reading a couple hundred papers, the last thing many professors would be willing to put up with is a document that's difficult to read.

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I single-spaced mine and did fine. Lots of people I know did. It seems to be common, but not mandated, for such things as SoPs, personal statements, fellowship proposals, abstracts, etc. - even weekly response papers in my seminars now. Basically, unless otherwise specified, I've found single-spacing to be acceptable for anything that'll turn out to be about 2 pages or less.

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I single-spaced mine and did fine. Lots of people I know did. It seems to be common, but not mandated, for such things as SoPs, personal statements, fellowship proposals, abstracts, etc. - even weekly response papers in my seminars now. Basically, unless otherwise specified, I've found single-spacing to be acceptable for anything that'll turn out to be about 2 pages or less.

Really? Weird. I still haven't encountered this as common but I've seen single spaced weekly response papers. Oh well. Then I stand corrected.

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Really? Weird. I still haven't encountered this as common but I've seen single spaced weekly response papers. Oh well. Then I stand corrected.

I think it must vary a lot. Anyway it seems to vary to the point that people will specify when they really care.

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To the poster above who said that Columbia had a 500 word limit, I just received an email response from the admissions office saying the limit is 1,000 words. Yale's however, is 500. Sheesh!

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To the poster above who said that Columbia had a 500 word limit, I just received an email response from the admissions office saying the limit is 1,000 words. Yale's however, is 500. Sheesh!

Where are you getting to 500 for Yale from? As far as I can see the application says 500-1,000 and the departmental page doesn't specify any limit. I feel like I'm missing something...

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Where are you getting to 500 for Yale from? As far as I can see the application says 500-1,000 and the departmental page doesn't specify any limit. I feel like I'm missing something...

I am applying to the Medieval Studies department at Yale. The department doesn't have much at all about application materials, but defers to the Graduate School website. That is where I found the 500 word limit. I assume that if the English Dept. gives a different stipulation, that should be your court of highest appeal. I'm glad you let me know, though. I will have to shoot them an email to find out if the 500 limit applies to the Medieval Studies program or not.

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  • 5 weeks later...

I know I'm way behind the ball on this thread, but I have to chime in.

Actually, I've found that the schools which list a 500 maximum were the easiest to write. I have everything I need - a concise explanation of my past research and how I'd like to expand it in the PhD, and a paragraph for fit. Everything is perfect; I don't say any more or any less than I need to (or so I think for now...).

However, I just realized my big reach school requires 1,000 words - twice what I've been using - and I've been pulling my hair out, trying to rewrite passages that don't offer blather where there was once a clear explanation. Blah. But this has given me the excuse to re-read my writing sample all over again and work myself into another lather over how excited I am to *maybe* have the chance of expanding it... I guess there's the silver lining.

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Is Columbia's the same? I am pretty sure it is 1,000 words. I checked and doubled checked and submitted 1,000. Fuck me if I am wrong.

I know that Columbia's was 500 last year, but this year I read 1,000. BLASDJLFKASDL

Poco_Puffs gave solid advice. And beware - Fordham is not the only school with such a limit - I believe Columbia's is the same? Also, some schools, I've heard, have you enter your SoP online and the application simply won't LET you go over the limit, so if you decide to take the risk and send them something longer, make sure that doing so is physically possible! Also, for schools that give shorter limits, scour their website carefully for clues as to what they would like to see emphasized in an application so that you can decide whether to spend more time on fit, project proposal, preparation, or whatever. Look at the actual application thoroughly to see if they allow a supplemental personal statement, or a CV, or something else that would allow you to communicate information you can't fit into your SoP.

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Is Columbia's the same? I am pretty sure it is 1,000 words. I checked and doubled checked and submitted 1,000. Fuck me if I am wrong.

I know that Columbia's was 500 last year, but this year I read 1,000. BLASDJLFKASDL

Columbia's limit is 1,000 words. I am sure of that. I am applying to 10 different schools, and Fordham is the only one with a 500 word limit. I am going to email the department early next week to make sure because some schools, like Yale, don't state a limit on the department website but also don't use the graduate school limits. You have to email them to find that out, though.

Edited by bigdgp
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So here's another question -- is it necessary to expand a 500-600 word SOP in order to get closer to the 1000 word preference articulated by schools like Columbia, Harvard, etc.? The one area I'll be expanding/spending more time on is fit, but even with expanding that discussion, I'll still be shy of 700 words. To my mind, if you can say it in fewer words, all the better.

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So here's another question -- is it necessary to expand a 500-600 word SOP in order to get closer to the 1000 word preference articulated by schools like Columbia, Harvard, etc.? The one area I'll be expanding/spending more time on is fit, but even with expanding that discussion, I'll still be shy of 700 words. To my mind, if you can say it in fewer words, all the better.

I am of exactly the same mind - and consequently in the same dilemma!

I'm expanding my discussions of all three of the aspects of my SOP (past & future research and fit), but even including stream-of-consciousness rambling (that will be edited out!), I'm still 300 words shy.

This school's department is huge, so maybe I'll discuss more than 3 professors? But perhaps 3 pages is sufficient? You would think top schools would require shorter statements, considering how many they "get" to read!

EDIT: And I would wager it's necessary to have about 1,000 words - they wouldn't specify otherwise, and I don't want to take the chance that a short statement will automatically kick me out of the running.

Although I was ranting and raving about this to my partner a little while ago, and ended up repeating "1,000 pages! 1,000 pages!" so add a pinch of salt for my diminished mental state :blink:

Edited by Chumlee
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I am of exactly the same mind - and consequently in the same dilemma!

I'm expanding my discussions of all three of the aspects of my SOP (past & future research and fit), but even including stream-of-consciousness rambling (that will be edited out!), I'm still 300 words shy.

This school's department is huge, so maybe I'll discuss more than 3 professors? But perhaps 3 pages is sufficient? You would think top schools would require shorter statements, considering how many they "get" to read!

EDIT: And I would wager it's necessary to have about 1,000 words - they wouldn't specify otherwise, and I don't want to take the chance that a short statement will automatically kick me out of the running.

Although I was ranting and raving about this to my partner a little while ago, and ended up repeating "1,000 pages! 1,000 pages!" so add a pinch of salt for my diminished mental state :blink:

This is intriguing to me - you only get 700 words after writing about your interests, past and future research, and fit? My fit paragraph is like 250 words. Would you like to exchange SOPs so that perhaps we can learn from each other?

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I'm also applying to Columbia and my statement is just shy of 600 words! I won't make it any longer, though. I figure, if it's well-written and interesting, shorter sounds more focused.

ETA: Btw, the breakdown: ~230 words on my interests and proposed research project, ~220 on past research and academics, ~150 on fit.

Edited by Alyanumbers
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