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How to stand out in a SOP


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Hey everyone! 

One thing that I see emphasized regarding personal statements for graduate school is standing out, and being unique. There is one event that I think was the most influential in my life academically, professionally, and personally, so I would love to write about it. However, I'm not sure if it's unique enough to put in an application!  

I studied abroad for one year in Rome, Italy, and was able to grow as a historian, academic, and person during this time. Studying abroad is pretty common, so would this even stand out to admissions counselors?  

TIA!

Edited by webbks
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Oh brother.

Are you thinking of applying to master's programs, or to PhDs?

I don't actually know how master's program admissions work—there were no viable master's options for me (I have weird interests). Some of them may request mostly a personal statement.

However, for PhDs and many master's programs, your admission will not be based primarily on a "personal statement." Rather, it will be based on a STATEMENT OF PURPOSE. That may sound equivalent, but it is very different! A statement of purpose is basically a cover letter: the two most important things to get across are why your research project is interesting, and why you are qualified to do it. You're right that it helps for your research project to be interesting and novel (although "unique" is maybe too high a bar). People like reading about interesting approaches to things. I don't think you necessarily have to prove that you personally are this shining beacon of fascination, or that you are unique. Some places do require both a statement of purpose (research focused) and a personal statement (somewhat college-essay-like). Your application will be judged primarily on the former, however.

If you're interested in applying to master's programs, I get the impression that you don't have to have a research project per se: an interesting approach or subject matter is often fine. "I'm interested in feminism, religion, and conservatism in the 20th-century United States—I may be interested in how those three intersect, or develop a research project based on just one of them" kind of thing, rather than, "I want to compare how Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists each reacted to changes medical care in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the medical field professionalized and became more male-dominated." The latter is more the PhD kind of thesis statement that you want for an SOP. You can be open to change, of course—in mine, after I explained the question I want to answer, I think I said something like, I have no idea what kind of evidence would be best to investigate this, but here are three possibilities I am considering and where I heard each of them might be promising.

So I don't think how your study abroad let you grow as a person is very interesting or appropriate to share in an SOP, which is research focused. It would be appropriate for schools that ask for personal statements. But once you've explained your research project—I assume it has something to do with Italian history?—your study abroad would be VERY relevant for proving why you are a great person to carry out this project. What skills did you gain as a historian while you worked on whatever you worked on in Italy? Those skills are something you'll want to highlight.

The best sample SOP for the humanities is this one from Berkeley. It is a lot longer than most SOPs will ask for—is one-page single-spaced standard, or is two? (Three isn't.) I hope you find the footnotes from a professor explaining why he likes this essay particularly illuminating.

http://ls.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/statement_of_purpose.pdf

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@hats has provided excellent advice, including that Berkeley SOP (I used it myself as a sample). 

I cannot stress enough that this is not a personal statement, but a statement of purpose.

16 hours ago, hats said:

However, for PhDs and many master's programs, your admission will not be based primarily on a "personal statement." Rather, it will be based on a STATEMENT OF PURPOSE. That may sound equivalent, but it is very different! A statement of purpose is basically a cover letter: the two most important things to get across are why your research project is interesting, and why you are qualified to do it. You're right that it helps for your research project to be interesting and novel (although "unique" is maybe too high a bar). People like reading about interesting approaches to things. I don't think you necessarily have to prove that you personally are this shining beacon of fascination, or that you are unique. Some places do require both a statement of purpose (research focused) and a personal statement (somewhat college-essay-like). Your application will be judged primarily on the former, however.

 In our field, the SOP needs to show competence: Competence to ask good questions, competence to think of a plan to get good answers, and competence to learn. See the SOP from Berkley and you'll notice the author does not rumble, they show evidence. As you can see, this is a professional statement, not a personal one. The drama of your life should not appear. We all have drama, we all overcame terrible hurdles of many kinds, and standing out as a needy student will not get you in [I'm not saying you, @webbks, are; this is a broader response to other people in this forum]. 

On 7/16/2017 at 10:51 PM, webbks said:

I studied abroad for one year in Rome, Italy, and was able to grow as a historian, academic, and person during this time. Studying abroad is pretty common, so would this even stand out to admissions counselors?  

 Yes, studying abroad is relatively common. Yet, not everyone experiences it the same way (I have taught in studying abroad programs so I can vouch for this). So think on  how grew. Did you develop better questions/more precise research interests? Did you participate in workshops/conferences? Did you do an internship? Display the evidence of that growth. 

I agree with @hats, again, in their suggestion of the research project but I also know people that got into R1 programs with no project. I have no idea how they did it, but I sense it has to do more with the broader questions that they brought than the specific project per se. I can definitely see them having a good SOP with excellent research questions and arguing that the POIs they chose would be the best to guide them through them. 

Finally, I want to address your question on uniqueness. This is a very historian-ly question, right? We study not general trends but the difference, change over time, the unique. The SOP should not show you are unique because that assumption would get you in anywhere you apply, but that doesn't happen. Hence, is a question of your unique education as a historian fitting in a specific department. Does this make some kind of sense? (It's pretty early here, sorry!)

 

 

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@AP Thanks! I am actually somebody who got into an R1 more or less without a project, so perhaps I can speak a little more about that. It is, however, a lot harder to write an imaginary example of a bunch of good questions that point toward a compelling project than it is to write an imaginary project's thesis statement. That's why the Jehovah's Witness example is as specific as it is, because "interesting questions" are harder to write. Let me see how much I can reveal about my own project while still being unidentifiable: this may be an interesting thought experiment.

Hello my name is hats. There is this entire (large) ethnic group that is very important to (issue) in (place). Although there is a fairly large literature on this group (elsewhere and/or elsewhen), less than five scholars have really dug into (particular issue) in (time/place I want to study). I suspect that if I approach this issue through (methodological/theoretical lens), I will make an important contribution to scholarship. I have a strong background related to (region) and I have a strong background in (methodology adjacent to the one I am actually proposing to use). I have applied to your school in part because of its strong opportunities for training in (actual method/theory). I do not know which communities I would work with, or which historical sources I would use, or even whether enough sources for a historical component to my project will exist. Here is my overview of three ways I think my project could turn out to be productive: maybe in this region there are these kinds of evidence, or I could work with this kind of organization, or etc.

That final product may or may not be of interest to you, but it was a hard exercise even for my own work (as it existed a couple years ago)!

I do wish I had more website links to send you @webbks, but I don't actually know of very many that explain statements of purpose very well. (That's why "oh brother": because I should just be able to answer this normal, FAQ by dropping a few links to primers for people interested in starting this process, but I realized I don't know of any so I was going to have to write same myself.) Are there perhaps greatest-hits posts on the fora that would cover some of this? Does the Professor Is In have one, or is she too, "nobody should go to graduate school so I'm not going to help you write your admissions essay"?

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On 7/18/2017 at 4:23 PM, hats said:

@AP Thanks! I am actually somebody who got into an R1 more or less without a project, so perhaps I can speak a little more about that. It is, however, a lot harder to write an imaginary example of a bunch of good questions that point toward a compelling project than it is to write an imaginary project's thesis statement. That's why the Jehovah's Witness example is as specific as it is, because "interesting questions" are harder to write. Let me see how much I can reveal about my own project while still being unidentifiable: this may be an interesting thought experiment.

Hello my name is hats. There is this entire (large) ethnic group that is very important to (issue) in (place). Although there is a fairly large literature on this group (elsewhere and/or elsewhen), less than five scholars have really dug into (particular issue) in (time/place I want to study). I suspect that if I approach this issue through (methodological/theoretical lens), I will make an important contribution to scholarship. I have a strong background related to (region) and I have a strong background in (methodology adjacent to the one I am actually proposing to use). I have applied to your school in part because of its strong opportunities for training in (actual method/theory). I do not know which communities I would work with, or which historical sources I would use, or even whether enough sources for a historical component to my project will exist. Here is my overview of three ways I think my project could turn out to be productive: maybe in this region there are these kinds of evidence, or I could work with this kind of organization, or etc.

That final product may or may not be of interest to you, but it was a hard exercise even for my own work (as it existed a couple years ago)!

I do wish I had more website links to send you @webbks, but I don't actually know of very many that explain statements of purpose very well. (That's why "oh brother": because I should just be able to answer this normal, FAQ by dropping a few links to primers for people interested in starting this process, but I realized I don't know of any so I was going to have to write same myself.) Are there perhaps greatest-hits posts on the fora that would cover some of this? Does the Professor Is In have one, or is she too, "nobody should go to graduate school so I'm not going to help you write your admissions essay"?

Great exercise! Thanks for that too. 

I forgot to say @webbks that my best resource was a blatant friend. He read my SOPs with no mercy and chopped out all my weepy paragraphs. Keep someone like that close to you. 

Regarding websites... I can't recall any other but I think I also googled "terrible SOPs for grad school" or something like that. Sometimes it is helpful to see what not to do. (maybe this one?)

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  • 3 weeks later...

Thanks, everyone! 

I decided to apply to Ph.D. programs, so my question is a bit moot! I did draft a SOP for a Ph.D. program, which did have a brief introduction about how studying abroad caused me to choose my field, before going into research interests, academic background, and preparation. 

As for phrasing of my research interests, I wrote: 

My intended field is modern European history, with a comparative geographical interest in Britain and Germany. I am particularly interested in historical and cultural memory and everyday life, with a special attention to the war, interwar, and post-war periods of the twentieth century. My intended research is a comparative study of daily life in Britain and Germany in the early to mid-twentieth century, with an emphasis on the effects of culture on nationalism and memory. Further, I would like to explore the intersections of gender, religion, and ethnicity in daily life during these periods. A side interest of mine is imperial conquest and its effects on culture and national identity. 

I'm not sure if this is too broad, or if it is too abstract.

Edited by webbks
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3 hours ago, webbks said:

Thanks, everyone! 

I decided to apply to Ph.D. programs, so my question is a bit moot! I did draft a SOP for a Ph.D. program, which did have a brief introduction about how studying abroad caused me to choose my field, before going into research interests, academic background, and preparation. 

As for phrasing of my research interests, I wrote: 

My intended field is modern European history, with a comparative geographical interest in Britain and Germany. I am particularly interested in historical and cultural memory and everyday life, with a special attention to the war, interwar, and post-war periods of the twentieth century. My intended research is a comparative study of daily life in Britain and Germany in the early to mid-twentieth century, with an emphasis on the effects of culture on nationalism and memory. Further, I would like to explore the intersections of gender, religion, and ethnicity in daily life during these periods. A side interest of mine is imperial conquest and its effects on culture and national identity. 

 

I'm not sure if this is too broad, or if it is too abstract.

 

dolt, I meant Russia, not Germany. 

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@webbks I personally think that is too broad. I have been drafting my own SOP and working with a couple colleagues with their own versions. The common critique we keep getting from our professors is that we are not citing enough theory and using it in our explanation of our intended topic. For instance, I kept describing development theory and the historiography surrounding the field, but I continuously failed to mention post-modernism, post-colonialism, modernization theory, institutional economic theory, or convention economic history. Without giving at least a passing remark to these theories, my topic seemed detached from the actual historiography, despite my depth of knowledge.

In your paragraph, I would ask you the following questions (hopefully to help you tighten it up a bit). Have other historians attempted such a research project? If yes, why and how do you differ from them? Which theories and schools of thought will help you form your ideas? Can you fluently speak Italian and Russian? If not, are you learning the languages? Why are you choosing the twentieth century? Granted, you might not be able to answer all of the questions, but being able to answer some of them shows a level of understanding and competence which the SOP needs to demonstrate.

Edited by Tigla
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