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Can anyone pour in some advice here on how to hook the reader in the first paragraph?

 

For PhD in humanities/social sciences?

 

Now most advice is to avoid starting "since I was a child" etc. but then what kind of things can hook the adcom or avert them???

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While it's not specific to a PhD essay, I'd say any good piece of writing that "hooks" the reader often starts with something unexpected or starts in the middle of the "story." To clarify, starting in the middle of a story or event usually creates mystery and in turn creates a need for the writer to explain what's going on, which then fulfills the reader's need to have the mystery resolved. It keeps them reading.

 

I'd actually try to avoid the "I'm interested in this research and here's why blah blah" because honestly that's really boring - to start out with anyway.

 

Think of a watershed moment in your professional/personal career/life that really solidified for you why you want to pursue your particular PhD or your research interest, etc. Consider the entire arc of that experience, then pick the middle or the "a-ha" point in time and start the first paragraph there.

 

You can even start with a quote from something someone said that was really jarring or galvanized you to respond and stand up for yourself, anything really, that just captures the reader and makes them think, "I want to keep reading because I want to know what this writer is talking about" or "I want to know what happened!"

 

Finally, the best advice I got was to simply sit down and start writing. Don't edit yourself, don't try to perfect the language as you write. Just write. The best essays are those that truly represent what you're thinking/feeling/believing, etc. You can always clean it up and make it sound professional later.

 

Good luck!

Edited by excusemyfrench
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I'm going to agree with fuzzy and disagree with excusemyfrench. In my opinion, an SOP is a direct-to-the-point professional document rather than an long-winded essay about yourself and your experiences. So, I would also advise to begin with your research interests instead of a quote or an anecdote. I say this because the reader will be reading tens or hundreds of SOPs and unless you are a very good writer, attempting to write an interesting "hook" will just make yours look like everyone else trying to write an interesting hook. The reader is already interested in reading your application anyways, and they don't really have a choice. I feel that hooks are more useful when you want to make a reader choose to read your writing. 

 

So, instead of making the committee read through a few sentences of filler before getting to see what they really want, I would say to just jump right into it. I'd begin with "I want to pursue a PhD in X at School Y because I want to ___________" or some variant of that. State exactly what you want out of a PhD.

 

I agree that you do want to make yourself stand out amongst all of the other SOPs that the committee will have to read. But I think it's far better to do this by what you say in the SOP. In your SOP, you will describe your past experiences and skills and how they will help you achieve your PhD goals. Your experiences and skills here should be what you want the committee to remember you by. Note that these don't all have to be academic-related -- you may have experiences and skills that help you in a PhD through non-academic pasts. In my opinion, you want to stand out to the committee because of something you did in the past that is relevant to your future career goals. You don't want to stand out because you wrote an interesting quote said by someone else, or just because you have an interesting story about why you want to do a PhD. After all, every single applicant has been motivated somehow to do a PhD. But not every applicant can be as qualified for this particular PhD program as you, and I think that's the point you'd want to convey in the SOP.

 

But I don't think there is a single right way to write an SOP. This is just my opinion/style -- it's not like starting or not-starting with a quote/story will get you accepted or rejected!

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I'm going to agree with fuzzy and disagree with excusemyfrench. In my opinion, an SOP is a direct-to-the-point professional document rather than an long-winded essay about yourself and your experiences. So, I would also advise to begin with your research interests instead of a quote or an anecdote. I say this because the reader will be reading tens or hundreds of SOPs and unless you are a very good writer, attempting to write an interesting "hook" will just make yours look like everyone else trying to write an interesting hook. The reader is already interested in reading your application anyways, and they don't really have a choice. I feel that hooks are more useful when you want to make a reader choose to read your writing. 

 

So, instead of making the committee read through a few sentences of filler before getting to see what they really want, I would say to just jump right into it. I'd begin with "I want to pursue a PhD in X at School Y because I want to ___________" or some variant of that. State exactly what you want out of a PhD.

 

I agree that you do want to make yourself stand out amongst all of the other SOPs that the committee will have to read. But I think it's far better to do this by what you say in the SOP. In your SOP, you will describe your past experiences and skills and how they will help you achieve your PhD goals. Your experiences and skills here should be what you want the committee to remember you by. Note that these don't all have to be academic-related -- you may have experiences and skills that help you in a PhD through non-academic pasts. In my opinion, you want to stand out to the committee because of something you did in the past that is relevant to your future career goals. You don't want to stand out because you wrote an interesting quote said by someone else, or just because you have an interesting story about why you want to do a PhD. After all, every single applicant has been motivated somehow to do a PhD. But not every applicant can be as qualified for this particular PhD program as you, and I think that's the point you'd want to convey in the SOP.

 

But I don't think there is a single right way to write an SOP. This is just my opinion/style -- it's not like starting or not-starting with a quote/story will get you accepted or rejected!

Good point. I happen to be a very good writer and can use hooks pretty well. But definitely stay away from it if you doubt your ability to integrate creative writing techniques into an SOP. :)

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The best hook would be to explain quite simply what your research interests are and why pursuing those research interests at the school you are applying to makes total sense. fuzzylogician and TakeruK have said it well : a SOP is about being straight to the point and I might add that you need to carry a sense of knowing not just what you want to do but also how to get there successfully.

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Hmm I think people are misunderstanding what a "hook" is. You can still be straight to the point and be interesting and different from the rest of the pack. Every other applicant will start out with "I became interested in neuroscience/literature/insert interest here when I blah blah blah." The hook can literally be the first sentence. Instead of saying THAT you can start with some interesting learning moment you had or something you discovered in all of your research up to this point (if you have any).

 

Or you can just use the standard style that everyone else is suggesting. Of course, I don't know how PhDs work but already having one professional degree under my belt, I've felt it was a good thing to "hook" my reader with an unconventional first paragraph or sentence even for these kinds of essays.

 

I feel like I have to stand up a little for the creative writers here! Either way, I'm sure you'll write a great SOP. Use your own voice. Do what comes naturally to you.

Edited by excusemyfrench
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I feel like I have to stand up a little for the creative writers here! 

 

The thing is, this is not an exercise for a creative writing class. You don't need to hook your reader, they will read your essay either way -- or at least, skim it quickly for relevant information (ignoring here general cutoffs that may land your application in the rejected pile without your essays having been read, hook or no hook). What you want your essay to do is *help the readers answer the questions that they are asking themselves* - namely, is this a good candidate (in general), and are they a good fit (for our school)? You want to give them quick and easy soundbites, framing your research interests up front, and you want to show that this is a good school for you (e.g. by having interests that match potential advisors, by working with similar methodologies, by showing that you've been successful in the past and are prepared for what you want to study in the future). Yes, you could be the guy with the unusual interest in basket weaving or the girl with the inspiring quote from the Dalai Lama, but personally I'd rather be the applicant with the really interesting research questions and cool past projects. 

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What I am attempting to do in my SOP is make it the most interesting few pages about my research interests and experience as possible while leaving the mawkish stuff for my personal history statement. Please let me know if you guys disagree, but the route I took was to introduce a simple, yet unique idea about my education that I then used as sort of a stylistic ribbon woven throughout each paragraph. My undergrad institution is famous in a weird way. I discussed how all my unique experiences there (conspicuously inserting a bunch of bragging points) contributed to my desire for a graduate education. I think the idea behind the "hook" is not to change the content of your SOP, but really just make it stand apart a little, tiny bit. We all have to talk about the same stuff. My goal is for the adcomm committee to remember it apart from everyone else. "Oh yeah, wasn't that the girl who...such and such..."

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Kris - You're lucky to have both a personal statement and SOP option! AND It sounds like your doing it right. I don't think there is any reason for an SOP to be dry. If you can come up with a stylistic ribbon (I like your term) that doesn't take up a lot of space, why not? It will make your piece seem more polished. 

 

I do think it would be helpful if the OP clarified whether s/he was writing a personal statement or SOP - I guess to determine what kind of hook and how much space to expend on it. 

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I guess the difference is a bit blurry here.

 

Actually no, I think it's quite clear. Go by the description of the essay, not the name. If they want a statement of your research interests and plans for the PhD, that's what people on this website tend to call a "statement of purpose." A "personal statement" will always be a second document, in addition to the essay about your research interests, that asks more about your past and background.

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Actually no, I think it's quite clear. Go by the description of the essay, not the name. If they want a statement of your research interests and plans for the PhD, that's what people on this website tend to call a "statement of purpose." A "personal statement" will always be a second document, in addition to the essay about your research interests, that asks more about your past and background.

Exactly. If it doesn't ask for your "personal history" then I wouldn't give it. It's really hard to tell how much of a person's backstory a school will want to know. Maybe they'll ask if they invite you for an interview. Maybe they won't. But I think its best to err on the side of caution and give them EXACTLY what they ask for. If it's an SOP then they want it to be pretty concise.

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I would rather read something that "hooks" me with every line rather than just some catchy introductory line followed by two pages of formulaic bore. I think you can be straight to the point but also write in a style that captures your voice and lets your personality shine through the page. I've read a lot of SOPs from people who spent an entire paragraph telling a story about how they have always idolized Sherlock Holmes, only to follow it up with another seven paragraphs that put me to sleep. I think you can display your writing ability without inserting an obligatory hook at the beginning. Lots of people are bad writers. Just write something that doesn't make the reader quiver that also allows them to clearly understand exactly what your interests are. 

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The thing is, this is not an exercise for a creative writing class. You don't need to hook your reader, they will read your essay either way -- or at least, skim it quickly for relevant information (ignoring here general cutoffs that may land your application in the rejected pile without your essays having been read, hook or no hook). What you want your essay to do is *help the readers answer the questions that they are asking themselves* - namely, is this a good candidate (in general), and are they a good fit (for our school)? You want to give them quick and easy soundbites, framing your research interests up front, and you want to show that this is a good school for you (e.g. by having interests that match potential advisors, by working with similar methodologies, by showing that you've been successful in the past and are prepared for what you want to study in the future). Yes, you could be the guy with the unusual interest in basket weaving or the girl with the inspiring quote from the Dalai Lama, but personally I'd rather be the applicant with the really interesting research questions and cool past projects. 

 

 

I agree with you - for 99% of applications and applicants.

 

Creative fields (which people seem to forget have MFA's and Doctorates too) need to avoid the "My interest in blah blah blah" intro at all costs.

 

This is the general prompt for all majors at a design/art college:

 

"The statement should be a 500- to 750-word overview of the applicant's academic and professional accomplishments and should demonstrate a high level of interest in and a highly developed understanding of the discipline. The applicant should describe knowledge of the discipline, approach to past work, qualifications for graduate study and intended focus, as well as personal and professional goals."

 

I'm not saying they should start with an interpetive dance (unless that's their major) but it lends itself to some flexibility. There's also enough words in the word limit to hash out a real "thing" with a flow, possible bookend statements, etc.. Usually in the arts that "highly developed understanding" and "knowledge of discipline" along with "approach" are going to fall squarely outside of data dump. It commands something other than being a robot.

 

I do think every applicant needs to stop at the end and ask a few questions..

 

A) Is this boring?

B) Do I answer all the questions asked in the prompt?

C) Do I sound like a jerk?

D) Do I sound like someone who's trying to sound like I'm not a jerk?

E) Can I say the sentences outloud without having to take a breath?

 

The "hook" can help overcome the boring bit and give a sense of flow . People who read applications are paid to do so.. but it doesn't mean they don't get horribly bored with their jobs and looking at nearly identicle qualifications all day.

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I agree with you - for 99% of applications and applicants.

 

Creative fields (which people seem to forget have MFA's and Doctorates too) need to avoid the "My interest in blah blah blah" intro at all costs.

 

Definitely agree. My advice was for the 99% that you mentioned! 

 

The "hook" can help overcome the boring bit and give a sense of flow . People who read applications are paid to do so.. but it doesn't mean they don't get horribly bored with their jobs and looking at nearly identicle qualifications all day.

Here, I am not as sure. As far as I know, people in my field do not get "paid" (not in the traditional sense) to look at applications. The people evaluating applications are professors that are paid a salary to do all aspects of their jobs: mentoring, research, teaching, supervising, serving on committees such as admissions. So, sure, they are "paid" in the sense that everything they do for the school is paid work, but your sentence makes it sound like there are paid professionals whose sole job is to evaluate applications. 

 

So, since professors are super busy people, you don't want to bore them with your SOP. However, they are very interested in hiring a good batch of new graduate students (either for themselves or for their department) so they have motivation to read your SOP. I personally think it's better to invest time in making your SOP deliver your message clearly and concisely so that these busy (and perhaps bored of reading SOPs) professors can get your point right away and move on, instead of using that time to make your SOP sound more creative but not necessarily deliver the message as well. Of course, if you are an excellent writer and can do both, then that's great! But not everyone has that skill or the time and I see tons of SOPs posted here that have creative and flowing intros but then leaves the readers with lots of questions and doesn't deliver the message well. I would advise everyone to first write the SOP to deliver your message as cleanly as possible, and then if you have the time and the inclination, make it creative and unique to you.

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I would advise everyone to first write the SOP to deliver your message as cleanly as possible, and then if you have the time and the inclination, make it creative and unique to you.

 

+1 to the statement that professors don't get paid to read SOPs (but rather to do their job in general, which may include reading SOPs along with many other things).

 

But here is what I don't get: why don't you think that describing your research interests and your background and your future plans makes your statement unique to you? Your personality can come across in your word choices, in your past education and work, and in research interest choices. Your story is yours, and others' will be different. What probably won't be as different as you might imagine is your eureka moment or your 'ever since I was a child' opening. Even quotes tend to be repetitive. You can't begin to imagine how unimaginative these things often are, even though everybody thinks they are writing a very compelling opening paragraph. I've been reading SOPs on this website for several years now, and almost without a fault these "hook" beginnings are the most trite, common thing you can find. Of course, it's possible that you are a better writer than that and you can make it work, but I'd be very careful with that assumption. I'd start -- as TakeruK proposes -- with polishing the content, and then I'd see if I still thought there was any need to make the statement more "creative." But for those of you that want to have a career in academia, you need to recognize that this is the first in a long series of SOP-like documents that you will need to write. There are accepted ways these essays tend to look, and "creative" is not one of them. You stand out as unique and interesting because of what you do, and you can help yourself somewhat by also being a compelling writer, but having a quote, anecdote, story, etc. is just out of place in these documents. 

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But here is what I don't get: why don't you think that describing your research interests and your background and your future plans makes your statement unique to you? Your personality can come across in your word choices, in your past education and work, and in research interest choices. Your story is yours, and others' will be different. 

 

I agree with you here -- I definitely would say that your own experience and your way of telling it is the best way to show the committee your personality and what's great about you. What I meant by "making it creative/unique to you" is the extra stuff that one could argue is not necessary for a SOP, but some people might prefer to add on as an extra -- for example, the personal stories. I wouldn't want to put one in any SOP-like things I write in the future, but I know plenty of people that have gotten into good programs with "creative" / non-traditional SOPs. That is, having these quotes, or stories, or doing other creative things isn't going to mean your SOP gets tossed out. But, spending time trying to achieve this while neglecting the important parts of an SOP would hurt you!

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I know plenty of people that have gotten into good programs with "creative" / non-traditional SOPs. That is, having these quotes, or stories, or doing other creative things isn't going to mean your SOP gets tossed out. But, spending time trying to achieve this while neglecting the important parts of an SOP would hurt you!

 

I completely agree. I don't think anyone is saying that having a hook is going to get you automatically tossed (or tossed at all), but rather that it's not necessary nor normally expected (with the usual caveats that fields differ, etc), and worrying about the opening paragraph before actually taking care of the content is absolutely not a good way to spend one's time and efforts. Personally, I think my SOPs were all personalized and unique because they told my story, which was personal and unique. I struggled for a while with writing a good "hook" in my opening paragraph, and I'm very glad that others here and elsewhere convinced me it was unnecessary because I think it made my application stronger and more professional. (but this is not to say that I believe that my outcomes would have been much different if I had had a different opening paragraph; if I had to guess, I'd say it would have made no difference.)

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But here is what I don't get: why don't you think that describing your research interests and your background and your future plans makes your statement unique to you? Your personality can come across in your word choices, in your past education and work, and in research interest choices. Your story is yours, and others' will be different.

Agreed. I was really worried about standing out and being unique but I had my "ah-ha!" moment today when I realized that my specific line of research in undergrad was unique and what I want to pursue is probably not very common. Even if I end up changing routes once I'm there, this part of my SOP will hopefully be what sets me apart. Once I explain my interests, most people are like, "YEAH THAT IS SO COOL!" so I'm hoping that the adcomm will do the same.

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Well, think of it this way...

 

How many people are admitted to the area you're going into each year.

 

What's the selectivity for that department? As in, how many people apply and don't get in relative to those who apply and do get in?

 

Number of people admitted.. number of people who apply and don't get admitted per admission.. That's how many of these things the adcom will be reading. If there's a firm deadline and process, they very well may be doing a whole batch all at once. The school i'm applying to creates little portfolios for each person and once everything is submitted they send that package to each person on the comittee and the read through it all at once (I wrote a book, i was warned not to send too many pages as an excerpt because of this specific scenario).

 

And it can be like the GRE essay portion - different people assigning scores to your various application parts. Weighted whatever way the school chooses. Many do it that way to avoid a single person making the final decision on a candidate. 3 yes, 2 no, you're in - 2 yes, 3 no, you're out.

 

At some point at some schools (particularly the names we all keep seeing on these forums) are going to have people who work in admissions going "Yes. No. Yes. No. No. No. No. Yes. No. Yes." vetting your basic folio before it's sent anywhere - especially if a department has a huge number of applications.

 

I've come at this from the other end, being in an industry that really has very few applicants per school aside from the big big name schools. In my world, for my first grad degree attempt, it was "talk to faculty, get asked to apply." And that's when you learn that there are people in admissions, who have nothing to do with the department itself, will be vetting you on basics to see if you meet the core requirements that the school wants and if they will vote yes/no to get you in, despite the faculty, chair, dept head, etc.. all already asking you to go there. I thankfully wasn't downvoted by anyone, but I learned about the process because I asked out of curiosity one day while on the phone with the right person.

 

There is probably a person in the admissions department assigned to your department/major/area/whatever on top of a bunch of other things. They vet all the applications for that area - even if they know nothing about the subject at hand. Often they do - and that's why they have that area assigned to them  but people call out sick, take vacation, whatever. A random person who knows nothing about the boring technical aspects of what you want to research is looking at your SOP and going "Yes.. no.. yes.. no.. no.. no.." very likely at some point.

 

So I think if anything i think the idea of a "hook" is a reminder to most people not to be boring, not to assume the reader knows jack diddly about you, what you want to do, and how you want to accomplish it - and has veto power over your life. I'd rather people try hooks and get the concept of "be interesting" in their head when writing, rather than cranking out a longwinded restatement of their resume that is as interesting as watching paint dry.

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A couple of things.

 

First, this outside admissions person that makes decisions about which files to forward to the department for consideration happens at some schools and for some departments but it's not a hard and fast process that happens without exception everywhere. In linguistics, I don't think it happens anywhere, because the field is not that large. Admissions committees at top departments (and elsewhere) take the time to carefully look at all the files. At my school, the DGS will narrow down obvious 'no's but then a large portion of the files goes out to everyone to read and grade, the DGS will then tally up the scores, and then the committee meets to discuss the top candidates. There are always more good people than spots, unfortunately. My professors spend more time than you might imagine carefully reading these files, and I can tell you that what impresses them are serious applicants who can propose interesting and well-defined questions and possible avenues where you might search for answers. I've been writing job applications these days and have had conversations with 5 different faculty members in my subfield(s) in the last month about these essays and what makes them stand out.

 

Second, in places where there is someone in some centralized office who knows nothing about your field making the first cut, this is often made based on numeric cutoffs, not based on reading essays, precisely because the person in that office has no way of knowing if your SOP is any good. That's where the GPA and GRE (and TOEFL) scores become important, because having a low score will mean your application will go no further, even if you have a brilliant hook or (more importantly) a fascinating research topic. I'm not going to tell you it doesn't ever help or make you go from the 'no' pile to the 'yes' pile, but I think this is the point of diminishing returns. You worry about an extreme fringe case instead of directing your efforts more sensibly because of the imagined clueless person in the central office, but the chance that this 'hook' will make a difference seems scant. Why wouldn't a cool research question and an explanation of why your work is interesting and important not an as good a way (if not better) to get this person's attention and have them put you in the 'yes' list? They're admitting academics, not creative writers, at the end of the day. (I also happen to know someone who works in the admissions office at my school and I think he'd be very offended by your assumptions about him and his colleagues and how they do their work.)

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