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Grandiloquence in SOP; using big words to impress. Avoid using that new-found GRE vocabulary.


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I just read this statement off a prominent grad school's website, in an advice given by a grad school student there. He/she did not explain any further. So I turned to the good folks here at gradcafe.

 

I was disappointed after reading this advice. Now, I don't mean using a thesaurus for every word to the point where the text becomes indiscernible, but I wish to use some 'nice' words in my SOP as I know they are taking this to be my best writing sample.

 

What is the protocol on using big words in SOP? Is it going to make my SOP incomprehensible to the adcomm? But then, isn't the adcomm comprised of erudite professors, and wouldn't they be able to fluently read such language? Do I need to cutback on such words in fear of appearing grandiloquent in SOP?

 

I am applying to Computer Science, PhD programs. (Are only arts major students expected to use such language? Because I read an SOP by an arts major student and frankly the language was so convoluted, I couldn't understand a word)

 

Note: I used some "big" words in here on purpose to give you an idea of how I am thinking of writing my SOP ("big" words-wise). Let me know what you think.

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I'm not sure how to define "big words."  A word may appear "big" to one person but is just a day-to-day word to another.

 

Think of a SOP as a research proposal.  Use the same language as you would in a research paper.  I don't expect an arts major student to understand a research proposal in computer science.

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The important idea here in my opinion is that this is your opportunity to introduce the adcom to a bit of your personality. You want them to get to know you and your interests. You do want to sound professional but you don't want your essay to sound fake. If you use large words every few lines like you did above then It will be harder for the adcom To become absorbed in your story because it will sound unnatural. I would personally rather the adcom become absorbed in my story and sound passionate about my subject area than use a lot if big words.

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You would want to avoid using any words like "grandiloquent." 

A good rule of thumb is if you really have to think about how to use a big word, spend that time thinking of a simpler one to use in its stead. The key to SOPs is clarity and precision, not fancy vocabulary. Remember your audience: these are professors who, yes, should understand all these big words, but have to read through possibly hundreds of statements and will very much appreciate something clear and precise over something wordy and flowery.

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I agree with 1Q84 that the key is clarity and precision. You also want to be concise. One handy set of rules is Orwell's rules, which are paraphrased and explained at many places on the Internet, here's one example: http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/george-orwells-5-rules-for-effective-writing/. One rule in particular is (paraphrased): "Don't use a long word when a short one will do".

 

I also agree with bsharpe that you want to express your personality more than your ability to write. In fields where they care about your writing, they will ask for a writing sample. So, I wrote my SOP with the tone similar to what I would use if I was in an interview with a professor on the admissions committee and the prof leans back in his/her chair and asks "So, tell me about yourself and why you want to go to grad school." So, I would write my SOP like I would speak in a slightly formal setting (i.e. not as formal as a presentation but more formal than the way I might speak while having lunch with my friends!).

 

As for the big words in your example post, I would say that words like erudite and grandiloquence would not really work as words in a SOP in my field. That is, I cannot really think of an example where you would say that naturally. However, words like "indiscernible" or "convoluted" are pretty regular in my field. But as I said above, it's really the way you use the word, not the actual word itself.

 

Sometimes you need to use a "big word" because you need to use the precise meaning of the "big word" and a "lesser word" will mean something completely different. In these rare cases, go for the big word. But remember that although sometimes a "big word" might be a tiny bit more precise than a "lesser word", that is not always justification to use it over the "lesser word" if the general sense of your sentence is still preserved with the lesser word.  Also, don't use a big word just because you can and definitely don't use a big word just because you want to sound more intelligent! It will just sound fake and awkward. 

 

Finally, another one of Orwell's rules is (paraphrased, again): "If you can remove a word, then do so". Especially in scientific writing, this usually means stripping off all unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. I think SOPs and other scientific writing pieces become very clunky when extra adjectives are added, especially since this is the easiest way for people to add in "big words"!

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I agree with the preceding posts. I would add that the SOP is used for communicating your message. This means clarity and precision, but also telling your story, not choosing low frequency words

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I was very glad to have the word "provenance" newly added to my vocabulary, because I discuss for quite a while the "roots," "antecedents," "lineage," "origins," and more of the same body of knowledge in one of my SOP's.

I used it. I'm proud.

I mix academic writing with more simple writing also to vary it up a bit.

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The whole point of using "big words" is to communicate your message clearly.

If you have to stop and think about whether or not to use a word, chances are, it's not going to sound natural.

If there's a simpler, more natural word you can use to communicate your message without sacrificing meaning, then you should use that. If not, go ahead and use your "big word."

 

After reading your post, I feel like the words "erudite" and "grandiloquent" sounded unnatural and forced. The other underlined words were fine. Just my gut impression (and I am a human being, just like the "erudite" professors who will read your SOP are).

 

Good luck.

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