One thing I struggle with is how to write what I admire about the program in a way that feels genuine, and not like a fawning fan girl.
This is a common problem for lots of students!
My first thought is this: a really dynamite SOP shouldn’t express admiration at all. Because who are we to admire a university’s graduate department? How are we qualified to make this judgment? I mean, if I were the Chair of the Econ department at Harvard, then I might be justified in saying that I admire the M.A. in Econ program at Yale. But for someone who’s just left undergrad, we need to take an entirely different tone, right? Obviously you understand this, because of your aversion to sounding like a fan girl. So, that leaves us with the question: what’s the right tone to take?
I always, always, always recommend students map out a “study plan” for the entire duration of their graduate study. This shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes per school. You just look at the curriculum and figure out which classes you want to take, thesis option or no, capstone project, target professors, whatever. Find all of the opportunities that are right for you. This is the ammunition with which you’ll pepper your Why This Program section. These are your reasons for applying. You’re taking something vague and abstract (“Georgia Tech is the #1 Computer Science program and studying here will get me a good job”) and turning it into something very concrete and specific, like this:
“Since my work revolves around processing textual data for the state of California, I want to take Text Information Systems and Introduction to Data Mining in my first semester. Then, Applied Machine Learning and Advanced Bayesian Modeling will give me a solid foundation in forecasting and prediction, something I have only skimmed in my career thus far. Finally, Data Visualization will help me become better at representing data for decision-makers who affect government policy – people who typically have little experience interpreting data. I’ll also be eager to study under Professor X, who designed the data hub for the city of Atlanta – this is the exact type of expertise I need to acquire from my master’s education.”
Notice how each of these points are related to our fictional applicant’s ultimate goal? You can tell what her goal is by reading the paragraph – she wants to work in government, processing data for decision makers.
Thus, the Why This Program paragraph isn’t just a bullet-point list of niceties about the university – it’s a roadmap for the applicant’s path to career success. When the admissions committee reads this, they don’t perceive flattery. Instead, they see a meticulous and thoughtful student who knows exactly what she needs to do to succeed. They’re not reading about themselves. They’re reading about her.
In order for this to feel genuine, we just need to make sure that each point is tied directly to our goal. (Of course, that requires knowing what our goal is in the first place.)
Thus, our attitude shouldn’t be that “studying at University X will be a great honor, and here are the reasons why.”
Instead, it should be: “University X is the most effective TOOL to help me achieve my goal, and here are the reasons why.”
The paragraph isn’t about the school. It’s about us!
I hope this makes sense?