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Reflections on My SOP Process

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Writing the Statement of Purpose is hard. It's supposed to be. It is a synthesis of years of experience and intellectual development, but, depending on your program, it is also a very purpose-driven document. It forces you to think clearly about why you want to take this next step, and how best to communicate that vision to different stakeholders. The Masters of Public Policy was my program of choice, and I can't think of better preparation.

Before the process I considered myself a strong writer; my personal Bible is Strunk and White, and my work has performed well in the professional contexts it has been tested. Still, the Statement of Purpose is hard.  So, I thought I might offer a few pieces of advice. They may not be helpful, but they're what I wish someone would have told me. Disclaimer: I realize the hard sciences and research-driven SOPs have specific research requirements. While my SOP didn't require that, I'd venture to guess the creative processes are still similar. 

1. If you feel like your first drafts are "perfect", you're doing it wrong. It's relatively easy to string together a narrative and slapdash a philosophy into a few relatively coherent paragraphs (or pages, as the prompt may be). You're applying to graduate school. Everyone can do that. Play with structure, from narrative to thesis driven, always understanding writing as the aligning of audience and purpose. Figure out what works best for you and why it works best. What are the weaknesses you are compensating for, the strengths you are accentuating, and how can you do that with a "show" rather than "tell" execution? How can you set a tone? How can you be different while still being you? These are the questions behind the white page and blinking cursor, and by answering them through writing exercises or more "informal" writing sessions (I prefer pen and paper), you can begin to create a fully functioning draft. 

2. Give yourself time to sit on a "fully functioning" draft for two weeks before doing anything with it. I'm terrible with time management, so the first school I applied to also happened to have the most worked-over, crafted SOP. By being able to shelve it and come back with fresh eyes, I could do a re-write as opposed to a revise, emphasizing certain parts and cutting others. Once I felt comfortable with this document, I started sharing it among my network of LOR writers, peers I admire, etc., which leads me to...

3. Listen to all of your advice, but also none of it. Everyone who has a note is pointing something out that isn't working, even if their identification is off or their diagnosis doesn't work. So be open to potential changes. That said, if you're taking the road less traveled and are truly being a little original, a little novel, a little -- dare I say -- interesting, some people will hate it. One of the people I admire most said of my final draft something along the lines of "It's well written, but it's certainly not what I would have written." At the time it felt like a slight (or a huge blow), but I've grown to appreciate the sentiment. Only one person really understands your Statement of Purpose, so while constantly looking for a better execution is a virtue, being confident in your basic construction is essential. Unfortunately, you're still an academic, which means...

4. You're probably going to hate your SOP by the time you send it out. It's never going to be a perfect distillation of your potential as a graduate student or professional in your field. It's never going to talk the adcomms into admitting you. It's never the all-powerful document we make it out to be in our minds when we are obsessing over dependent clause construction. Still, it's the one-thing (outside of maybe the GRE) you can really control heading into admissions, which makes it a lightning rod for doubt and self-loathing. So, unless your mental health is much better than mine, you're pretty much destined to hate your SOP until...

5. When you finally know where you're going to go, take a look at the SOP you wrote. Most people tell you to tailor your SOP to the school, and while I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly, I also felt it was important to be honest about my study and career aspirations, even if they didn't align perfectly with the school. That's not strategery out of the "How to Write Your Way Into Grad School" game plan, but at the end of the day it led me to a school with a great fit that also happens to be Top 5 in my field. Also, I'm surprised to report, outside of one typo, one misplaced however, and one flawed introductory clause, it was a document I can be proud of. 

Good luck, and remember. It's supposed to be hard. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

These are all good tips!

However, I would also recommend ask third party for help (that may be a friend, a relative or a proof reading service) - you may have up's and down's with your work, but the look from outside may really help you to understand on which things you should really focus more (let's agree that we can be picky with our own works).


Edited by TakeruK
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I completely agree with asking for help or assistance, but I think at the end of the day the Statement of Purpose is yours -- and personal. The most important questions, in my mind, are audience and purpose (does it connect with the intended people with the intended message). But yeah, all advice is coming from somewhere. Even if you don't agree with the comment, there's probably something going on with the section. 

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