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SOP for theology/religion: any tips?


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I'm starting to think about my SOP for my fall application, and I feel pretty clueless. I'm not sure where to begin. I get two whole pages to share all relevant information and make a good impression that will make or break my whole application :)

So, any tips? Any great resources to help me write a fantastic statement of purpose for an application to a doctoral program in religion and/or theology? And can anyone link me up to an example or two online somewhere?

I feel a bit like I did in my most recent degree when we were all assigned a particular style of paper and asked to present it. I got to go first, and, after I was done presenting and was moving into the discussion part of the class, we were all told that I had failed to follow the prescribed format. Which had never actually been given to any of us :(

Any tips or info would be much appreciated!

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I second Kuriakos. A prof who has sat on an adcom will have a general idea of what they look for.

 

Of the profs I spoke to about this, they all stressed the importance of making it clear that you have a direction in which you want to go, that you're somewhat familiar with the department and your POI's work, but you're not so specific that it seems you have nothing left to learn. Humanities programs in the U.S. all want to know that their program will shape your thought in a significant way, and if it seems like you think you already know everything and are ready to jump right into the dissertation, (or have even written a substantial part of it already!) they're going to be less interested. Obviously striking the balance between demonstrating enough interest and preparation while not over-doing it can be quite difficult, but keeping in mind that your interests are not set in stone based on your SOP and that POIs all understand and expect you have things that they can teach you and work with you on can be helpful.

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YAD, I have no wisdom of my own to share, as I'm in the same boat you are and am currently trying to write my SOP as well. I related to your example about the "ambiguous" guidelines, I feel that about half of what I read says, "Tell a great narrative because everybody that applies is going to have good grades, etc, so its your story that matters," and then the other half says, "Adcoms are tired of hearing about how you loved talking religion when you were 3, emphasize your academics!" (see: http://chronicle.com/article/Leave-Dr-Seuss-Out-of-It/126098/). The conclusion I've come to is to highlight your academic goals and focus first, and then fit it into the larger story of your life, but avoid cliches. Now there's a mission for you. Hopefully some of those who have already made the journey can share some better insights!

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Write, proofread, share with others (profs, fellow students you are applying with, people who have been through this before), re-write, proofread, re-share, re-write, proofread, think about it, tweak, lose sleep over it, tweak some more, freak out, send it in. You'll be fine.

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YAD, I have no wisdom of my own to share, as I'm in the same boat you are and am currently trying to write my SOP as well. I related to your example about the "ambiguous" guidelines, I feel that about half of what I read says, "Tell a great narrative because everybody that applies is going to have good grades, etc, so its your story that matters," and then the other half says, "Adcoms are tired of hearing about how you loved talking religion when you were 3, emphasize your academics!" (see: http://chronicle.com/article/Leave-Dr-Seuss-Out-of-It/126098/). The conclusion I've come to is to highlight your academic goals and focus first, and then fit it into the larger story of your life, but avoid cliches. Now there's a mission for you. Hopefully some of those who have already made the journey can share some better insights!

I think people often confuse a statement of purpose (SOP) with a personal statement (PS). The PS is usually required by professional degree programs that don't necessarily require previous study in the subject matter. To get into law school, business school, or a divinity program, for instance, you don't need to have studied law, business, or theology, respectively, to have gotten into those programs. A PS is to provide a greater sense of who you are, of your story, of why you want to study x, adversities you've overcome, special achievements that don't appear on your resume, or anything else that makes you stand out as an individual. The SOP, on the other hand, is usually required for research degrees, like doctoral programs, where applicants are expected to have had previous education in the subject matter. It isn't, primarily, about your personal story; instead, most programs want to know what qualifies you for the study of x and why they should choose you over the dozens or hundreds of other well-qualified candidates.

Again, this shouldn't be stuff that can easily be ascertained from your CV. If you'd like to explain certain items on your CV in greater depth that have a direct bearing on future graduate work, then do that in your SOP. For instance, if you were a TA or RA, discuss some of your responsibilities; if you helped organize a conference in your field of study or a related field, you might want to explain that; if you wrote interesting paper or did interesting research, discuss it -- although not in excruciating detail; if you have had work experience in your field that bears on your research interests, elaborate on it in the SOP. I'd be careful with work experience when it comes to religion. Certain theology programs might be ok with ministry related experience but most religious studies programs probably won't be, and for good reason: they want to know that you can think like a scholar of religion, not a practitioner of a particular religion. Within these constraints, you can still talk about ministry experiences, but discuss them as if you were a religion scholar. Say, for example, that you got involved in inter-religious/multi-faith dialogue when you worked in ministry and that that experience got you interested in religious pluralism in democratic societies. You can discuss that in your SOP, with the caveat that it not be a huge part of your SOP. Remember an SOP is still about your academic qualifications.

Edited by Lux Lex Pax
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Thanks for answering, everyone. I'm researching and planning, slowly. I'll post anything I come up with that might be helpful (if anyone else wants his?) Anyway, I found this as an example of a theology SOP: http://theologyandculture.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/BU-STh_PersonalStatement-Snyder.pdf The doc title is personal statement, but the title on the page is SOP. It reads like what I expect a theology SOP to be (a blend of personal and academic, not just personal story) but I could be off on this. If anyone with experience would care to weigh in, I would appreciate it.

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And a post about how-to from a theology PhD. Not sure his advice lines up with the very excellent advice given earlier in this thread (re not going to learn in the phd), but another perspective can't hurt. http://michaelhalcomb.blogspot.com/2009/08/how-to-write-statement-of-purpose-or.html Is this helpful to anyone else?

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**Caveat lector** I am not a theology student. However, I proofread many of my colleagues' SOPs who *were* applying to theology programs. What I observed was that often their goal seemed to be to tell about *their theology*. As confessional Christians applying to religious institutions it's easy for them to do that. However, I think it is *very* important that you remember that you are applying to be a *student* so be sure to communicate that your interest in theology is an *academic* venture not only (or perhaps not at all) an ecclesiastical/existential/prophetic/whatever venture.

 

I know the whole "tell a story" thing is pretty popular, but I went for direct and concise. Remember, these people are reading dozens (perhaps hundreds) of SOPs, and they probably don't *really* care about my life up to this point. But again, I did't apply to theology depts. and others' experiences were likely different.

Edited by Qaus-gabri
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  • 3 years later...

Absolutely agree with the previous answers, here's what I think as a former committee

In the admission process, I notice lots of common misconceptions, I belong to the admission committee who checks statements of purpose for those students who strive to become a theologist. Probably the most severe problem with their admission writing is the wrong understanding of the purpose of admission writing. It's great when students have their strong stances and religious beliefs but the theology studying is not about religion, not about writing about how you believe in God or how you were influenced by something of a divine nature, it is about giving the insight about your academic strengths in theology as a researcher, learner and investigator and what it is you can enrich the discipline in the future.

I wrote the helping article that could help you understand what elements and misconceptions ruin your sop in theology, what questions are better to include and those that you need to get rid of immediately in 2017 How to write theology SOP.

Usually, the most annoying things that kill the first impressions are entering sentences, just look at stats how often they're used:

  • I am currently studying … (used 464 times)
  • From a young age I have always been interested… (309 times)
  • It is a very challenging and demanding career (275 times) and so on.
  •  

  • So if you want to be fully prepared check out the article and find out what to be ready! Good luck! 

 

writing my theology papers advice.png

Edited by EmilyBrown1
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  • 3 weeks later...

I applied to history programs (with one sweet Master's consolation prize) and one religion program for historical studies (which I managed to get into.)  My most successful SOP's (all two of them) started with my topics, not me.  I painted a portrait of a historical event or person, showing them to be interesting first and then what particularly I found interesting about them.  I then went on with "my story" showing how my background equipped me to study what I had presented and then ended on some big note of why study religion/history was important in the grand scheme of things.  I had the hardest time with the religion application, actually, because religion departments are hard to get a read on.  I had a pretty terrible statement right up to the deadline when a former professor told me to scrap basically the whole thing and just use adapt one of my history SOP's -- making it a lot more academic and a lot less confessional/personal -- and that was the statement that ultimately succeeded.  (That particular program did not require a writing sample so basically the whole application was riding on my stats and those 3-4 pages.

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