I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my favorite success stories are those who come from students I’ve never met. Such was the case with this remarkable email I received after the incredibly competitive 2021-22 PhD admissions cycle. Lia titled her email “Thank you from a successful PhD applicant!” And though I’d never met Lia before — she’d only followed the free WriteIvy essay guides and blog posts — immediately, I was thrilled. Her Public Health and Social Sciences SOP was just as brilliant as her success.
Last year, she got only one interview and no offers.
This year, astonishingly, out of 7 applications, she got 5 interviews and 5 offers, including her top choice…and one that came from a school where she never interviewed!
Let’s examine the changes Lia made to her profile and SOP, and see how she transformed into a true Public Health and Social Science PhD rock star.
Table of Contents
- Lia’s Story in her Own Words
- Key Points to Remember from Lia’s Experience
- The Sample SOP
- What You Should Learn from this SOP
In the Applicant’s Own Words
“I’m sure you are getting many of these already, but just wanted to add another celebratory email to your pile! I applied to social/behavioral/community health PhD programs at public health schools for the second time this cycle; last year’s attempt produced only one interview and no offers unfortunately, but since then, I gained some solid research experience through my MPH thesis and new responsibilities at my research coordinator job, clarified my research interests with some inspiration from the events of the past year, and became much more deliberate in which programs I applied to.
Of course, I also completely rewrote my statements of purpose according to the advice on your blog – in particular, I kept each of my statements at about 1000 words (I had some really behemoth statements last year), tailored them much more to each program to the point that some of my statements didn’t share any content at all, and followed the Structure is Magic guide to a T. I’m happy to say this year that out of my 7 applications, I received 5 interviews and 4 offers [Editor’s Note: she later got one more!], including one to my top choice at [school redacted] with full fellowship funding (which is INCREDIBLY selective even as far as PhD programs go)!!
I’m so excited to attend the program where I’ve envisioned my research career starting, and I want to express my appreciation for the guides and Q&As that you provide at no cost to clear up such a stressful, opaque, and frankly inequitable admissions process. I’ve always had a bit of trouble advocating for myself and puffing myself up, and your guidance really helped me put my best foot forward in a way that still felt genuine. Please keep doing what you’re doing in creating such high-quality and accessible content for aspiring graduate students!”
Key Points to Remember from Lia’s Experience
- She Didn’t Quit
Last year’s PhD applications didn’t work out, but Lia didn’t let that destroy her confidence. She finished her master’s degree, took on new responsibilities at work, and perhaps most importantly, clarified her research interests even further.
This last notion is vital. All too often, bad admissions results come from an SOP with a research proposal that’s…kind of hazy. You kind of know what you want to research, or perhaps you know EXACTLY what to research, but haven’t articulated it in the clearest way. This happens most often when students rush their SOPs at the last minute. But either way, everyone can benefit from making their research questions as razor sharp as possible.
- She Shortened Her SOPs
Last year, Lia’s SOPs stretched on for pages. This isn’t good. Super-long SOPs only show the reader that you don’t know how to write, think, and communicate in a concise, effective way — a necessary skill for someone whose job in the future will revolve around producing research articles.
I always tell applicants to keep their essays under 1,000 words. Anything longer shows laissez-faire writing skills. And, honestly, I consider anything longer than 1,100 or 1,200 words a “kiss of death.”
- She Sold Herself in a Genuine Way
Like most applicants, Lia felt uncomfortable puffing herself up. This is completely natural! We all feel a little gross about selling ourselves. But in my experience, that feeling arises when we’re not entirely sure which criteria we’re being judged on. If we remember that it’s not us as human beings that schools will judge, but our research proposals …suddenly, things feel a little less icky, and a lot more academic.
- She Was Deliberate in Choosing Schools
Lia didn’t spam the Top-20 programs in her field. As you’ll see below, she methodically chose the 7 schools where professors are actively specializing in her niche topic. This is “fit” in it’s purest sense. Yes, it takes a great deal of research, but it always pays off.
A Beautiful Public Health and Social Sciences SOP
The headlines kept me awake late into a weekday night: six Asian women shot dead in Georgia, targeted for being “sexual temptations.” Amid my grief was a streak of bewilderment: how did anyone develop such a view of Asian women? I knew the stereotype had arisen from centuries of exotification and exploitation by the West. But this was in stark contrast to my lived experience and that of many young diasporic Asians, raised in immigrant families with little discussion and sometimes outright discouragement of sexuality.
If two prominent academic concepts are to be believed – the immigrant paradox in public health, and the model minority theory in sociology – then one may conclude that Asian Americans are healthier and less prone to risky behavior than typical Americans. Perhaps as a result, Asian Americans are frequently erased in health research, even that which purports to present racial disparities in a particular health area. However, these simplifications have led to neglect of the very real challenges that Asian Americans, particularly women, face in the United States. I hope to challenge these generalizations and study how young second-generation Asian American women navigate sexual health and safety in intimate relationships, given the conflicting messages they may receive from the different cultures with which they grew up. How do these Asian women grapple with being simultaneously hypersexualized and desexualized, and what vulnerabilities does that contradiction generate?
The PhD program in Community Health at Gotham University would uniquely empower me to explore my research questions, given the university’s exceptional strength in both public health and the study of Asian-American communities. Those in public health often exalt the field’s interdisciplinary nature, and the CH program truly lives up to this by building an outside minor right into the curriculum; with my interests inextricably linked to Asian-American and gender studies, I would embrace the opportunity to formally weave these disciplines into my public-health education through a sociology minor. Similarly, the Wayne School features an array of faculty and research centers specializing in immigration, race, and gender, a telling sign that my own research directions would have ample support.
I am particularly impressed by the work of Dr. Barbara Lee, whose expertise on the confluent impacts of immigration status, ethnic background, and gender on health closely mirrors my own interests. Her leadership of the BOLD research project highlights the healthcare access challenges of vulnerable Asian American young adults, the same underrecognized population I hope to center in my own research. I learned in a conversation with Dr. Lee that she is starting to investigate how immigration status impacts access to sexual and reproductive healthcare through both the BOLD study and a potential upcoming project, and I can tell that working on either of these projects as a graduate researcher would build the precise skills I need to answer my own inquiries. The CH program’s strong grounding in social sciences and social justice, along with Dr. Lee’s mentorship, would provide a foundation for me to fully explore my research interests in a manner unparalleled by other programs I’ve seen.
At the University of Metropolis, I was fortunate to have access to the unique Health & Society major and Asian-American studies courses, through which I combined the study of health and medicine with a social-sciences perspective in a manner similar to the CH program’s approach. My personal and academic background sparked my passion for studying how social structures and identities are connected to health; subsequently, I’ve sought opportunities to work on meaningful public-health topics and accumulate research experience. I took on the role as a research coordinator at Metropolis Medicine’s Department of Ob/Gyn to immerse myself in the field of sexual/reproductive health – a topic at the foundation of my research interests, but one I had little interaction with growing up. At the same time, I learned how to execute research projects from quick survey studies to years-long clinical trials. I also gained data-analysis skills through a statistics minor and survey research internships, and qualitative research experience through my student capstone projects and my organization of a study on pregnancy-care experiences for my current position, providing openings for me to utilize either method or even mixed methods in my future research.
Most recently, for my MPH capstone project, I oversaw a focus-group study assessing perceptions of campus intimate partner violence resources. As a former student worker at the Metropolis Violence Prevention center, I was familiar with the range of resources offered by the school, but I learned in conversations that they were often unhelpful or simply not promoted enough, and I sought to transform these conversations into something more tangibly impactful. When the COVID-19 pandemic and campus closures threatened the project’s recruitment efforts, I drew upon my experience to suggest student groups and other campus entities with whom to collaborate. I contributed to not only recruitment but also discussion moderation and qualitative analysis, culminating with a research report and presentation about how remotely-offered student services could convert the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic into an opportunity to increase access. Thus, my extensive research background, adaptability, and passion for advocacy all prepare me well to join the CH PhD program and continue uplifting the voices of community members through research, while further developing my simultaneous interests in ethnic studies, sexual/reproductive health, and gender-based violence.
I envision my future self as a professor at a school of public health or a similar socially-conscious institution, expanding upon my PhD work to teach and conduct research on the social determinants of Asian American and immigrant health. It shouldn’t take a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy and temporary media buzz to spotlight these overlooked groups when my peers and I have been grappling with racism and acculturation for as long as we can remember. I hope that my academic career can validate these stories, and highlight the everyday – but no less important – challenges to our well-being that arise from our identities. I would be honored to begin my career in academia at Gotham’s Community Health program, a department just as committed as I am to pushing the disciplinary boundaries of health-equity research and intersectionality.
What You Should Learn from this SOP
- Brilliant Sentence of Purpose
At the end of her Introduction section, Lia tells the reader exactly what she plans to accomplish:
I hope to challenge these generalizations and study how young second-generation Asian American women navigate sexual health and safety in intimate relationships, given the conflicting messages they may receive from the different cultures with which they grew up.
This isn’t just applicable to a Public Health or Social Sciences SOP. ALL effective PhD SOPs offer this kind of thesis statement that lays your intellectual goals out in the clearest possible way.
- Marvelously Effective Research Question
Immediately after her Sentence of Purpose, Lia presents her research question with remarkable concision:
How do these Asian women grapple with being simultaneously hypersexualized and desexualized, and what vulnerabilities does that contradiction generate?
Does your SOP present explicit research questions? If not, you’re making a huge mistake. Admissions Committee chairs have told us this directly!
I can’t repeat this enough. If you’re applying to PhD programs, your statement of purpose MUST express what question (not topic!) you want to study and why this department is the best place to study it.
- Why This Program
Throughout the essay, Lia is adamant about this program’s relative uniqueness for her academic niche. Remember what the Ad Comm chair said in the AMA above? A good SOP expresses why their department is the best place to study your research question? Lia made this abundantly clear.
Her “Why This Program” section never praises or flatters the department. She never describes how they’re good in a general way. Every single sentence she writes conveys a single idea:
I want to study these specific issues related to Asian-American women, and you have better resources for this than virtually any other school.
Thus, when we reach the final line of her SOP, it rings inescapably true as she claims that this department is “just as committed as I am to pushing the disciplinary boundaries of health-equity research and intersectionality.”
- Closed Frame Narrative
Often, students interpret our WriteIvy SOP structure incorrectly. Often, they craft an interesting story in the Introduction, but then never mention it again. This too is a mistake. It’s called a “frame” narrative because it encapsulates the entire essay. Thus, we “close the frame” in the end by recalling our story (briefly) and giving the reader the sense that you are powerful and thoughtful writer.
Like virtually all great SOPs, Lia does this in a single sentence. You don’t need anything more than that:
It shouldn’t take a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy and temporary media buzz to spotlight these overlooked groups when my peers and I have been grappling with racism and acculturation for as long as we can remember. I hope that my academic career can validate these stories….
- Wonderful Writing
I can’t teach you basic prose skills, but I do want to celebrate Lia here because her writing is just so solid and effective. She’s a wonderfully talented writer, and she’s proof that science students can be just as capable in the literary arts as anyone.
This is a subtle point, but think about it. Many STEM students don’t take writing seriously. It’s never been a crucial part of their education, and they believe, perhaps subconsciously, that it’s not important now. But if students like Lia, and Erin, and Martina, all of whom got 5 or more PhD offers, are submitting beautiful, poignant, profound, and hyper-intellectual writing…
And you submit poor, lazy, superficial writing that you scrapped together in one afternoon…
How can you compare?
I’m sorry to tell you, but you can’t. Students like Lia, Erin, and Martina have set the bar for excellence. This is the standard against which all applicants are compared.
Luckily for you, this standard is achievable. Just like Erin, Lia wrote her essays entirely on her own with no outside help. She used the WriteIvy PhD guide and spent months editing, polishing, and getting feedback from people she trusts. ANYONE can do the same. It just takes time, planning, and a proper strategy.
Whenever I see anguished stories from applicants who’ve received a lot of rejections, my heartbeat quickens. I understand. It’s brutal. It’s painful. BUT…I always try to remind them that they still have wonderful opportunities in the future. I tell them that they still have brilliance within them, and now it’s time to articulate that brilliance in the clearest possible way. It takes courage and planning, but it’s possible, and Lia is undeniable proof of this.
Lia has my gratitude for sharing her story. More than anything though, I hope it inspires you to strive for similarly uncanny success.
Keep your SOPs short and focused.
Sell yourself in a genuine way.
Be deliberate in choosing schools.
Write razor-sharp research questions.
Follow this advice, and when you receive those fully funded PhD offers in the future, I hope you’ll send me an excited email too. I’d really love to hear from you.
Need some 1-on-1 guidance for your Public Health or Social Sciences SOP? I can help!
How will you craft an SOP that reveals your innate brilliance?