How does one go from working as a flight attendant to conducting anthropology research at the #1 grad program in the world? This is no riddle. Nor is it a Hollywood movie. It’s a true story, and it sounds absolutely unbelievable. Heck, I’d probably have thought so too. But then I met Leah, and read her sample SOP (below), and quickly I realized that in grad admissions, nothing is impossible.
Today, I want to introduce you to the work of one of the most remarkable and intelligent applicants I’ve ever known. For half a decade, Leah read textbooks while strapped into the jumpseat on international flights. She wrote research papers across time zones, working unbelievably hard to chase her academic dreams. Her story is an inspiration to ANY student applying from a nontraditional background, and it’s proof that you can overcome any obstacles if you’re smart, write beautifully, and refuse to quit.
Perhaps you’re an older applicant in your 30s. Maybe you’re a mother whose children are sleeping as you pen your SOPs. Perhaps you’re a musician applying to data science programs (I’ve seen it!). Whatever situation you’re in, this story will give you motivation.
Since Leah’s SOP tells her story perfectly, I won’t exaggerate. The simple facts are thus: after withdrawing from undergrad for financial reasons, Leah became an airline attendant. After five years, she returned to school part-time, at a state-school branch campus in her airport hub, where she majored in Anthropology and minored in Biology. Four years later, she graduated with a 3.9 GPA and was admitted to research-based master’s programs in both the #1- and #2-ranked universities in her field.
Anthropology, focused on Primatology, with a heaping dose of intensive Cognitive and Evolutionary Biology. This sample SOP is a STEM and Social Science essay all rolled into one. The goal: a research-based master’s program that funnels graduates into PhDs.
US immigrant. Family and financial hardships. Studying while working full-time. COVID-19 destroying research opportunities. Most students would just throw up their hands and say, “It’s not my fate.”
Yet, the thing that I love about Leah’s SOP is that it never…NEVER…dwells on the difficulties she faced. It’s no pity party. It does tell her story, but in a mature and thoughtful way that never detracts from the primacy of her academic argument.
In fact, those personal obstacles are barely present in the essay. She doesn’t mention her immigrant background at all. When she discusses a failure she faced, she only does so in order to bolster her research proposal.
That’s right – this sample SOP is all about intelligent research. With every word, this essay rings with the brilliance and authority of a future professor.
“But wait,” you ask. “How can anyone conduct research while working on an airplane?!”
Believe me, I asked the very same question.
The answer is: she didn’t.
“What?! No research experience at all?!”
That’s right, friend. It’s a remarkable story.
As you read, think about how long it takes before she introduces her nontraditional background. Think about what she’s discussing first. Think about what’s most important to Leah.
The Sample SOP
As I approached graduation from Metropolis University at Coventry in 2020, I looked forward to attending the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya, as well as an internship at Chimp Haven, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Louisiana. When both programs were unexpectedly postponed due to COVID-19, I used my newfound free time to explore enduring questions I had about human behavioral evolution that lay outside the scope of my undergraduate studies. During this period of self-study, I became fascinated with the contentious human self-domestication hypothesis that attempts to integrate morphological, physiological, developmental, and genetic evidence to understand the evolution of human sociality and cognition. Thus, when I came across the peculiar and little-studied Kinda baboon, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to assess the explanatory powers of self-domestication framework, and to investigate how and why the Kinda is behaviorally and morphologically divergent from more well-known baboon species.
I believe the MS in Biological Anthropology at Gotham University is perfectly suited to help me pursue this line of inquiry. The program’s rigorous supervision and research focus will deepen my understanding of human behavioral ecology, primatology, comparative psychology, and cognitive anthropology, and equip me with the tools needed to conduct research in evolutionary anthropology at an advanced level. If admitted, I especially look forward to studying under Dr. Barbara Gordon as her expertise on the reconstruction of primate diet, ecology, and paleoecology using phytoliths and stable isotopes would greatly inform my approach in assessing Kinda baboon ecology. This perspective will be crucial in helping me understand how their socioecology relates to their behavioral and morphological divergence from other baboons. In addition, Dr. Talia al Ghul’s Behavioral Evolution Research Lab, with its extensive resources for primatological field work and modern isotopic sampling, would provide the ideal collaborative environment to further my understanding of primate research.
Within evolutionary anthropology, another area of research that interests me is cumulative culture or cultural ratcheting, as it is generally believed to be one of the defining features of human culture. However, it frustrates me that the bulk of the literature focuses on defining and delineating proximate mechanisms of cumulative culture with laboratory and in silico experimentation, while comparatively less attention is devoted to uncovering its ultimate causes using real-world datasets. I was excited to discover that recent efforts have begun to address the origins of cumulative culture while incorporating archaeological, ethnographical, and socioecological evidence, particularly Stout et al.’s analysis of Gona Oldowan tools in investigating high-fidelity social transmission, and Migliano and Vinicius’ proposal that cumulative cultural evolution is linked with social dynamics shaped by the evolution of the hunter-gatherer foraging niche. In this regard, I believe would benefit by studying under Dr. Pamela Lillian Isley. Her expertise on the evolution of highly complex human social structures, such as kinship and marriage, would complement my interest in studying cooperative behaviors, social transmission, and cumulative culture in humans.
In terms of coursework, I am excited for modules on Evolution and Human Behavior, and Mind and Culture. Unlike my undergraduate courses which were often field-specific, these modules take highly integrated approaches in exploring the dynamic relationships between behavior and biology in an evolutionary framework. Combined with dedicated coursework in applied statistics, these modules will help me unite methodology and theory as I begin empirical research. Furthermore, I plan to capitalize on the wide range of supplemental seminars and training offered by CEAI and Gotham to broaden my education in the human sciences. I was overjoyed to discover the Gotham-Drimolen Field School, as it offers precisely the kind of interdisciplinary training I hoped to receive in the aforementioned research programs in Kenya and Louisiana. Most importantly, the master’s program will serve as a key steppingstone in my goal to obtain a PhD in evolutionary anthropology, and eventually become a professor. The rigorous education will allow me to grow from being a mere student of evolutionary anthropology, to an adept researcher capable of contributing original research in the field.
Undoubtedly, studying at Gotham will be intellectually demanding. However, I believe my experiences as an older, nontraditional student have uniquely prepared me for such a task. I matriculated at Central City University to study anthropology in 2012, but family and financial issues at the time led to my withdrawal. I returned to university in 2017 after having established the financial means and independence to complete my degree: for the past four years, I worked full-time as a flight attendant for DC Airlines while completing my undergraduate coursework in person. It was an unorthodox academic experience to be sure. I wrote essays and read abundantly on my jumpseat during breaks on long flights, and I did coursework and studied for exams on layovers all over the world while dealing with jetlag. My efforts proved worthwhile: I graduated Summa Cum Laude from Metropolis University at Coventry with a GPA of 3.9, even while augmenting my comprehensive anthropology curriculum with a minor in biology. This latter coursework proved crucial in bolstering my understanding of human behavior and culture from genetic, evolutionary, and comparative perspectives. I was also grateful to have received various merit-based scholarships and a fellowship intended to fund my training and research at Koobi Fora. My nonlinear academic experience was certainly challenging, but it stands as a testament to my commitment to education and my ability to thrive academically under pressure.
During my last year of undergraduate studies, I took the initiative to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship hoping to explore my nascent ideas about the Kinda baboon. I proposed a behavioral study to assess reduced aggression in a population of Kindas in Kasanka National Park in Zambia. The grant-writing process provided an invaluable experience in learning how to conduct literature reviews, identifying gaps in existing research, proposing relevant research questions, formulating methodologies, and establishing the significance of my proposed research. In working with research affiliates from the Luapula Primate Project and my university’s Fulbright review committee, I was continuously encouraged to deepen my understanding in primatology theories and methods, as well as the research process itself. Although my project was not selected to proceed in this ultracompetitive cycle, the application process only motivated me to work harder in my pursuit of graduate level research. I am still fascinated by the Kinda baboons, why they are morphologically and behaviorally divergent from other more well-known baboon species, and whether they could provide a new line of evidence for the much-debated self-domestication hypothesis.
I am deeply grateful for the experiences I gained from my career in aviation and the financial means it provided for me to complete my undergraduate education. However, I am ready and eager to move onto greater challenges and commit myself to the study of evolutionary anthropology in graduate school and beyond. I am certain that Gotham’s Biological Anthropology program will play a critical role in helping me achieve my goals of becoming a researcher and a mentor in evolutionary anthropology. If given the opportunity to enroll, I am confident I have the capability, tenacity, and enthusiasm to thrive in this program and unfold this new chapter in my life-long intellectual journey to understand the uniqueness of what it means to be human.
What You Can Learn from this Brilliant Sample SOP
- Perfect Organizational Structure
This essay is a 100% perfect iteration of the WriteIvy SOP template. In crafting this essay, Leah used the SOP Starter Kit and Structure is Magic to outline the narrative and framing aspects. It features, in order:
- A compelling Introductory Frame Narrative (12% of word count)
- A profound Why This Program section (43% of word count!)
- Her wildly unique Why I’m Qualified section (34% of word count)
- An elegant and straightforward Closing Frame Narrative (10% of word count)
My favorite thing about this SOP? The “Why This Program” section is nearly half of the essay! For all of you applicants who insist on writing 900 words chronicling every detail of your research experience, take note. Why is Leah’s essay so effective (especially when she has no research at all)? What’s most important here?
- Your Intellectual Proposal is Most Important
As we noted above, Leah’s remarkable background is just that: background. It’s not the most important element of her essay. Not even close. Almost every word of this essay revolves around a single idea:
“Why is the Kinda baboon behaviorally and morphologically divergent from more well-known species?”
It’s also fantastic how, when describing an off-shoot of this idea, Leah highlights gaps in the literature:
“…it frustrates me that the bulk of the literature focuses on defining and delineating proximate mechanisms of cumulative culture with laboratory and in silico experimentation, while comparatively less attention is devoted to uncovering its ultimate causes using real-world datasets.”
She is NOT saying: I want to study Topic X.
She IS saying: I want to study Aspect Z of Topic X which previous research has largely ignored.
In describing this gap, Leah shows that she really has read and understood the existing literature, and is capable of forming new questions based on others’ work. She’s showing that she is a real researcher.
- Program and Professor “Fit”
Again, Leah’s “Why This Program” section is marvelous. She argues that these professors aren’t perfect for “her,” but are perfect for “her research questions.” It’s not just that they’re experts in her general field. It’s not that they teach interesting classes. The point is that she has specific lines of inquiry, and this program can help her explore them in uniquely powerful ways. Admissions committee chairs, after all, have told us that this is exactly what they want to see.
- Turn a Weakness into a Strength
Leah’s “Why I’m Qualified” section is a little long at 34% of word count, but even that’s unique because half of it focuses on something other students wouldn’t imagine writing about: her failed Fulbright application.
Remember, Leah has no research experience. Her attempts to gain that experience were all thwarted by COVID. Even so, in her failure to obtain a Fulbright, she learned a tremendous amount about the tasks that take up HUGE swaths of a researcher’s time: grant writing, literature reviews, formulating methodologies, and working with review committees.
She didn’t shy away from her weaknesses. She explained how they were tremendous learning experiences, and shows how she’s now prepared to learn even more. You can do the same. Perhaps you do have research experience, but never got a paper published. That’s great! Explain how intimately familiar you are with the submission process. This will only give grad schools confidence that you have the grit and determination to keep submitting like a whirlwind in the future.
As always, I offer sincere gratitude to the students who let me post their work to help others. Leah is a saint, and a marvelous scholar. Her sample SOP is proof that anyone can succeed in grad admissions if they have the brain power and tenacity to do whatever it takes to succeed. For this, I owe her thanks.
If you’re an applicant with a nonlinear background, let this story inspire you. You may have to squeeze in journal reading while you’re doing the laundry. You may have to hold down part-time jobs. You may have a family distracting you, a sick dog, no access to labs, or some other seemingly impassible obstacle. Heck, you may just be older than those hordes of recent undergrads, and feeling somewhat awkward.
Fear not. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, maturity, unique life stories, and the ability to turn hardships into learning experiences can be a huge asset in your applications.
Not sure how to turn your unique life story into a brilliant SOP? I can help!
How are you going to overcome obstacles and achieve grad school success?