Matt Pearcey, Ph.D. Adapted from ARC Graduate Summer Institute
No denying numbers (GPA and GRE) are important. They narrow a pile of 300 applicants to 60 based on numbers . Getting from that 60 to 15 is largely to the statement and letters (and the accord between them) Whether you are at the top of the pile vying for scare fellowship resources, or at the bottom trying to make the cut between accept and wait list—the statement is often THE make or break A really effective statement of purpose not only proves that you are worthy of admission but can get the reader to become your advocate . In the fast moving sudden death match that is the admissions review process, it can be extremely helpful to have someone in the room on your side. Taking the time to prepare a clear statement of purpose can help not only your chances of admission but your performance once you begin. It gives you talking points when you meet faculty, allows you to hit the ground running in your new program. Finally, this skill, writing about yourself and your research interest , is something you will use again and again throughout your career. In applying for grants, jobs, postdocs. Worth your while to really work on developing effective writing strategies now as you begin.
Not just a document that says things, it should do things. First item is most important—but an effective statement will do all of these things Set yourself apart—this is your chance to attach a story to your name , people remember narratives, we think through narratives , this is your chance to shape that story and make it work for you
Look at any group of successful essays for one program and they vary widely—and this makes sense since difference is what they are looking for . The one attribute they will share is the grad committee found them promising . (Some will have a very precise topic for individual research that they can begin on right away, others might have a more general idea of what their particular topic will be but have demonstrated through their prior experience that they will be able to narrow that into something doable.) You will have to determine how best to represent your particular promise . Finding that perfect balance is a highly individual task and is the work of many drafts/revisions and help from advisers. If you are applying to several different programs, be sure to take the time to tailor your essay to each program . Obviously large portions will be useable in all—but you must make sure you answer the particular prompt appropriately. For instance, Loyola’s psychology program statement of purpose tells you a particular sequence to follow. Other programs might give a set of questions to answer. In each case, you must be sure to follow the directions thoroughly. Finally—all should be professional and scholarly. These will be VERY different from the essays you wrote to get into undergraduate. There you were applying as a student, here you are apply to become a colleague .
Be prepared to go through all of these steps. Not a place you want to cut corners . Re-vision is not proofreading—look at it new . Your new motto: Writing is rewriting. 4 essential actions slide—who remembers? [two slides back]
Point out prewriting worksheet—we won’t go over this now, but this is a great place to begin your writing process. Even if you already have a draft , I highly encourage you to follow the prewriting steps outlined in your handout. Even if it yields just a few more lines it is worth it. Best to start here—before reading books or looking at models , before you fix on what you think you should stay. We want you as open, creative, and thoughtful as possible.
In writing the outline you take the chaos of the brainstorming and construct a linear, coherent narrative . Narrative is how people remember things, its how we understand and order information. So if your statement has a clear and coherent narrative, you will be more memorable to your readers. Narrative covers time : There’s a back-story, how you got there, experiences, there’s the present and your immediate future applying to graduate school, and then there are your long term goals. This is a good time to look at models . How did others structure their material? How did they connect their past experiences with future? Go with the parts that feel strongest. If you have a great trajectory of how you came to your research project tell it. If that didn’t emerge in your writing, but you have a rich response to the question about the most important concept in your field, go with that. Look critically at your response and see where there is truth, passion, interest Don’t let others overwhelm your story: name dropping is fine to a point but make sure you are the central character in your story
It may seem to contradict with the advice on an earlier slide to sound scholarly and serious. Often guide books say to avoid jargon , and yet to discuss what you learned in research lab would require inclusion of some rather technical terms. Keep your audience in mind . These are established experts in the discipline, although they work in different fields, they will know major concepts and terms. Rule of thumb: you should be able to explain line in the essay to a layman. Doesn’t mean you have to put it in layman’s terms, but you need to KNOW what you are talking about. Don’t overreach for the sake of sounding fancy . Stay with what you know well. Using “I” is good here . Most sentence will be structured around this I. Don’t even think about saying “One being study in the sciences should first consider….” Show don’t tell—make your claims concrete by demonstrating them. Instead of “in this lab I learned to perform individual research” say “in this lab through doing x, y, and z, I was able to generate and execute my own research plan” that SHOW your ability to perform individual research
First paragraph should demonstrate the best of your writing . You should sweat over this paragraph. It should perform each of the four actions of the statement. Your reader may never get to the end if the first paragraph doesn’t hook. Also they often stand out as false : In the first draft of my SoP, I mentioned my experience working with a group of students to organize and curate a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and how wonderful and rewarding that experience was. My adviser read that and said that no one who had done that work could say those thinks. In fact, it was a much more contentious experience that gave me a new perspective on the politics and power of representation and the difficult navigation of identity politics . Here the truth was much more interesting and much more telling about my learning process than the empty descriptors I began with. Only now, Proofreading : double check spelling of any proper names included.
When you are soliciting advice from this many different sources you are bound to get contradictory advice . Don’t be discouraged. Evaluate the expertise of the individual in relationship to the topic of their advice. If your adviser tells you to attach a supplemental bibliography, but the program you are applying to tells you they throw out applications that don’t follow the guidelines exactly, who will you listen to? If a writing instructor encourages you to rephrase something as jargon, but your adviser thought the sentence was strong, who will you listen to? And remember. It is your statement, it reflects on you . So only you can make the decisions about what should or shouldn’t go. Trust your gut.
Writing the Statement of Purpose for Admission to Graduate School
Outcomes Expected <ul><li>Overall understanding of what committees generally want in essays </li></ul><ul><li>Pre-writing of major accomplishments: papers, presentations, research activity </li></ul><ul><li>Brainstorming of narrative of your essay and your opening line </li></ul><ul><li>Questions about the essay answered </li></ul>
How important is the SOP? <ul><li>Personal statements allow admission committees to distinguish between otherwise very similar applicants </li></ul><ul><li>Opportunity to get an advocate on the admission committee </li></ul><ul><li>Helps you to begin graduate study with a clear focus </li></ul>
Topics to Avoid <ul><li>Do you agree with the commentator? </li></ul><ul><li>http:// www.youtube.com/watch?v =Ago6tIEnL0g&feature=related </li></ul>
General Essay Question <ul><li>Please write a brief statement describing your academic and research interests as well as your professional goals. Please note that departments may have a research paper requirement that needs to be completed in addition to this section. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>How would you go about starting this essay? </li></ul></ul>
Specific Essay Question (s) <ul><li>Students applying to the Clinical Psychology PhD degree program should respond to the following questions in their statement of purpose: </li></ul><ul><li>1. What is your specific area of interest in clinical psychology: child and family, adult, health psychology, neuropsychology, or other (please specify)? </li></ul><ul><li>2. Among the many alternatives, why are you applying to Loyola University Chicago? </li></ul><ul><li>3. What relevant clinical and research experiences have you had that have prepared you for advanced training in psychology? </li></ul><ul><li>4. What are your short-term and long-term professional goals? </li></ul><ul><li>5. Please identify at least two clinical psychology faculty members with whom you would like to work during your graduate training. Please visit LUC.edu/psychology for the latest information on faculty interests and research areas. </li></ul>
Essential things your SOP should do <ul><li>Articulate a clear, realistic research purpose (essay 37) </li></ul><ul><li>Set you apart from other applicants (essay 17) </li></ul><ul><li>Demonstrate evidence of relevant experience and preparation (essay 16) </li></ul>
Variety within limit <ul><li>No universal formula—balance of personal to professional information, types of experiences, depth of research plan can vary </li></ul><ul><li>Different essays for different programs, work carefully from each essay prompt </li></ul><ul><li>HOWEVER…Always maintain professional scholarly tone and only include relevant information </li></ul>
Steps of the writing process <ul><li>Prewriting—open ended brainstorming </li></ul><ul><li>Outline—identifying a few main points and a logical sequence </li></ul><ul><li>Draft—putting ideas into words, backing claims with evidence </li></ul><ul><li>Revision—step back and assess how it accomplishes four essential actions, make big changes if necessary </li></ul><ul><li>Proofreading—double check spelling and grammar, polish prose </li></ul>
Prewriting can save your life <ul><li>Avoid getting stuck—sitting in front of a blank screen is not writing </li></ul><ul><li>Brainstorming turns off the inner critic and allows an open creative process </li></ul><ul><li>Explore all the things that COULD go into your statement before you think about what SHOULD go in </li></ul><ul><li>Beginning from a state of plenitude allows you more options and flexibility </li></ul>
Pre-Writing Exercise <ul><li>Complete the pre-writing form </li></ul>
The outline—finding your story <ul><li>Find an angle. Evaluate the prewriting notes and look for patterns or pieces that fit together. What is the central story? </li></ul><ul><li>The heart of the story is your research interests—all other elements should resonate with this </li></ul><ul><li>Identify a few main points or mini-narratives. Rich and reflective descriptions of one or two experiences is better than a more thorough but shallow gloss of many </li></ul><ul><li>Choose a logical and readable sequence—remember that chronology is not only way to tell a story </li></ul><ul><li>Be the protagonist of your story—use the structure of the SOP to frame yourself as an actor rather than a reactor </li></ul>
Create the Narrative <ul><li>Now use your pre-writing document to create your basic outline </li></ul><ul><li>What is the theme of your experience? </li></ul><ul><li>What is your central story? Back story? </li></ul><ul><li>What makes you different? (there is something that makes you unique) </li></ul>
The first draft—hitting the right tone <ul><li>Clear, precise, effective writing works best here—try not to sound pretentious or obscure </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Avoid postmodern: vocalities, intertextual, post-collonial </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Develop a comfortable professional “I” voice that is articulate, serious, and confident </li></ul><ul><li>Emphasize the qualitative over the quantitative—a thoughtful evaluation of an experience is better than a strictly technical description of the activity </li></ul><ul><li>Avoid passive voice </li></ul>
Matters of style and proofreading <ul><li>Take extra care with your first paragraph </li></ul><ul><li>Avoid empty or vague words: “rewarding,” “challenging,” “wonderful,” “important” </li></ul><ul><li>Avoid repetition—make your limited words count </li></ul><ul><li>Vary sentence style—avoid beginning every sentence with “I [verb] that…” </li></ul><ul><li>Be obsessive about proofreading—no room for errors here </li></ul><ul><li>Review essay guidelines again </li></ul>
Enlist help from the experts <ul><li>Solicit input from current faculty and advisers—you should include a polished draft of the SOP with your request for reference letters </li></ul><ul><li>Be proactive—make an appointment with your advisor to discuss your draft of the SOP </li></ul><ul><li>If you have access to a writing center, take the essay to them for help polishing and proofreading </li></ul><ul><li>Contact the programs you are applying to ask for clarifications on the application process </li></ul><ul><li>Consult our resource guide for further advice on the process </li></ul>
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