Sometimes, good writers write the worst essays. When I meet an applicant with “creative writing experience,” it always rings warning bells. Almost without fail, that applicant will send me an SOP that begins with a “hook” – a flashy analogy or creative flourish that’s supposed to captivate the reader and show writing talent. Little do these writers realize that their “stylish” hooks are terribly inappropriate for a graduate SOP. Your grad applications are serious business. Your SOP introductions are no different.
“But wait!” you might ask. “Aren’t you the same guy who advocates starting the SOP with a story?”
Why yes, I am indeed. But this story I advise is properly called a “frame narrative,” and a frame narrative is completely different from a “hook.”
One is a nuanced literary technique used in serious essay writing, journalism, memoir, and autobiography, as well as in a great deal of fiction. The other is something that naïve high school students jam like bad Legos into Common App essays.
The opening sentence of your SOP – this is the first impression you’ll make on your admissions reader. What do you want them to think? That you’re a nuanced essayist in the school of Montaigne, Orwell, and Dr. Samuel Johnson? Or a pimply high school kid who thinks being “quirky” is the key to Harvard admission?
Let’s break those gimmicky hooks and write something intelligent and persuasive instead.
Hooks are Gimmicks
According to Master Class, a hook is: “the literary technique of creating an enticing beginning—the very first line or opening of a story—designed to capture readers’ interest. There are many different types of hooks, but a strong hook will grab readers, usually by throwing them into the middle of some dramatic action or by generating curiosity about an intriguing character, unusual situation, or important question.”
Theoretically, this is a fine goal – capturing your reader’s interest. But unfortunately, in grad admissions essays, hooks usually have the opposite effect — they repel the reader.
Well, think about your readers. Who are they? Are they bookstore loiterers looking for dramatic action, intriguing characters, and unusual situations?
No way! They’re professors looking for serious students!
Are they looking for the most talented creative writers?
No! They’re looking for the most brilliant scholars!
Sophisticated SOP introductions will certainly draw the reader’s interest, but they won’t do so in such a way that it conflicts with the purely academic nature of the SOP. A hook is a gimmick when it has no relation to the topic of your SOP. When poorly executed (as they almost always are), the only effect they achieve is drawing attention to the writing style itself.
This is a hangover from the pseudo-creative nature of undergraduate application essays. In those airy-fairy compositions, it’s sometimes good to draw attention to yourself. A hook says “Look at me! I’m fancy!” and that can be a benefit when most high school applicants write like troglodytes.
But a graduate SOP is not an airy-fairy essay, and your competition are not troglodytes.
The SOP should be intelligent, professional, and mature. Thus, sophisticated SOP introductions don’t draw attention to writing style. Instead, they draw attention to your intellect and goals.
As I often point out, your statement of purpose is a conversation between you and your dream professors. If it were a real conversation, sitting in their office, would you start it by breaking out into song or reciting poetry? Would you show up in a peacock feather boa or rhinestone cowgirl boots to seem unique?
Starting your SOP with “creative style” is no different.
Don’t start your SOP by marching into the office in a top hat and monocle shouting, “Look at me, I’m fancy!” Instead, walk in quietly and confidently with a razor-sharp gaze that says, “I am a serious and intelligent student.”
Examples of Bad Hooks
- “It hit me like a wrecking ball. It broke my heart. It would be two days before I received my diagnosis of lymphocytic myocarditis, and at the time, I had no idea this condition would spark my research journey. I only knew it hurt.”
Listen, I don’t care if this essay describes how your unexplained juvenile myocarditis inspired your devotion to research. I don’t care if you’ve spent three years exploring the infiltration of heart tissues by inflammatory eosinophil cells. You’ve already made me roll my eyes. You’ve already lowered my opinion of you, because this “hook” sounds like something a sad-eyed, 16-year-old Taylor Swift wannabe would write.
Rule: SOP introductions should never be melodramatic.
- “Gardening is my favorite hobby because, much like educational technology, its goal is to nurture young seeds until they flourish and fill the world with wondrous new life.”
Though beautifully written, this hook is ridiculous. Why? Because it tells us that we’re reading an essay about gardening. If you start with a convoluted metaphor like this, you now have to spend a whole paragraph trying to work the narrative back around so the reader knows we are in fact concerned with graduate school, and not organic lettuce.
Rule: SOP introductions should never contain fancy metaphors.
- “Since I was a child…” “All throughout high school…” “All my life, I have had an interest in computers…”
Alright, these aren’t hooks. They’re just bad writing. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to rage against “autobiography” essays again.
Rule: SOP introductions should NEVER initiate a childhood story. (Save those fanciful tales for your Personal History or Diversity Statement.)
How is a Frame Narrative different?
A frame narrative has two components. Both of them are contained in the name: “frame” and “narrative.”
The latter means you’re telling a story. The former means this story will both initiate and conclude your essay, encapsulating everything in between (or “frame” it). This is the difference between a story and an essay. A story is a story from beginning to end. An essay weaves a story throughout a more complex intellectual argument.
When we include stories in our SOP introductions, we often refer to them as “catalyst moments.” They describe you in a specific place and time when your intellectual curiosity galvanized. These catalyst moments may have a “hook-y” feeling. They may draw the reader in. But they don’t do this in a fancy “look at me!” show-off way.
Instead, the narrative functions by grounding your intellectual journey in reality. It says: I’m a real person living a real life. I’m the main character here, and I’m deadly serious about these ideas in my head.
Thus, the narrative, or catalyst moment, must include necessary details: Who, What, When, and Where.
The “Who” is easy: that’s you, the author of the essay.
The “What” is the activity you were pursuing. Perhaps you were struggling over a failed experiment in a lab. Perhaps at the same time, you were watching your mother suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. Perhaps you were a Psych/CS double major wondering how gene-environment interaction theory might actually be realized through machine learning. Perhaps you were managing a company’s social media account and wondering how to incorporate storytelling marketing. Whatever you were doing, this What should describe a problem you’ll learn to solve in graduate school.
The “When” is simple: just say when this happened! Was it in 2021? Spring of your sophomore year? Give the reader some context so they can envision you as a real person.
The “Where” is equally simple: At Brandeis University. At Google Summer of Code. In the Wayne Lab at Gotham University. Again, just give the reader context.
“But wait!” you ask. “Where is the Why? Isn’t it the 5 Ws? Who, what, when, where, and why?”
Yes, you brilliant teacher’s pet you. There is a “Why.” That’s your Sentence of Purpose, and it comes at the end of your frame narrative.
In the end, this frame narrative isn’t flashy. It doesn’t draw attention to the writing style. It draws attention to YOU…and the intellectual argument you’re about to present: that you are going to achieve big things in grad school.
Examples of Good Frame Narratives
- PhD Version
“When I ended my career with the California Ballet in 2016, I looked forward to an academic experience studying the metabolic and neurological systems which had silently governed my physical reality as a performer for so long. Surprisingly, the opportunity proved more rewarding than I could have imagined. The perseverance I cultivated as a ballerina proved essential as I immediately dove into the Psychology, Biology, and Philosophy curricula at Stark University, and I soon developed an interest in the neural regulation of metabolic development. After joining Dr. Jean Grey’s research lab in my sophomore year (a position I have maintained ever since), I had the great fortune of studying the effects of obesogenic diets on conserved signaling pathways governing metabolic regulation in Drosophila melanogaster. Through this work, I have become singularly fascinated with the myriad factors that contribute to the growing obesity epidemic, and its developmental origins in particular.
“The questions that underpin our work in the Grey Lab are compelling. How do critical or sensitive periods of neuroendocrine development contribute to long-term functioning in animals and humans at the behavioral and cellular levels? Interestingly, current research at Gotham University seeks answers to these very questions, and that is precisely why I apply as a PhD candidate to the interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Neuroscience.”
Who? The author, a neuroscience PhD applicant.
What? Transitioning from dance to a research career, contemplating biological systems.
When? 2016, then sophomore year.
Where? The Grey lab.
Why? Because current research at Gotham University seeks answers to these questions.
- Master’s Version
“Among international students in the U.S., it is a common joke that “we can’t afford to be ill.” I learned this myself during freshman year, when a viral infection required an emergency room trip. It wasn’t a complicated procedure, and I was home in a matter of hours. In fact, the virus was much less harrowing than paying for my treatment, a torturous, year-long process of back-and-forth between the hospital which was never able to accept my insurance, a physician who demanded separate payment, and an aggressive debt collector who made veiled threats. The total amount was $1,012 dollars. I remember it clearly. I paid it in cash, bewildered and aggravated.
“The real problem for international students is not whether we can afford healthcare, but whether we can efficiently utilize the American system. This is a genuine problem. Social demographics are changing worldwide. Immigrant communities don’t stop growing. Thus, this is not merely a personal affair, but also a risk issue which needs to be addressed by service providers and their international counterparts. That’s exactly why I seek to study at Gotham: I want to play a role in improving this system, both here in America, and in China, my home.”
Who? The author, an MHA applicant.
What? Struggling with US healthcare as a foreigner.
When? During freshman year.
Where? In a bewildering hospital.
Why? Because these risk issues need to be addressed by service providers and their international counterparts.
Don’t Forget to Close The Frame
More often than not, students forget that the opening of their essay should echo in the end. Instead, they end with a polite conclusion that just sums up their candidacy.
Honestly, this isn’t so bad. It’s not a “mistake” per se…just a lost opportunity. “Closing the frame” in your essay has a subconscious effect on the reader. They may not realize it logically, but when the essay has a circular feeling, a sense of “wholeness,” the reader will have an intangible sense that “this is a very good writer.”
Not a bad effect for your SOP, huh? Even if you’re a Computer Science student, being recognized as a “good writer” will only make you seem intelligent compared to your troglodyte competition.
Luckily, this isn’t difficult. It only takes one sentence.
- PhD Version
“When my career in ballet drew to a close, I looked forward to fully devoting my time to the study of the human brain’s infinitely curious adaptive processes. Now, I find myself in a similar situation, once again eager to devote myself to the study of the developing brain and how it governs metabolic regulation.”
In this SOP, the author only needed 2 sharp sentences to remind the reader of that truly fascinating intro to her essay. This was the start of her final paragraph, and gives the reader a true sense of wholeness and completion. It closes the frame.
- Master’s Version
“Even so, I know that there is no end to learning, and studying in Gotham University will be a significant step toward achieving my goal of working as a strategy consultant in a major multicultural city, such as New York or Hong Kong. If given this opportunity, I will work extremely hard to be a credit to the university, and thus prepare for a career in service to the global citizens whose lives are dearest to my heart.”
In this very short SOP, with a truly restrictive word limit, the author closed with that final heartwarming promise that recalls the topic of early paragraphs – global citizens often have trouble navigating healthcare.
Throw your “hook” in the trash, friend. A hook isn’t a sophisticated writing technique, and it has no place in an essay that’s supposed to convey your readiness for graduate school. It’s a gimmick. It only draws attention to itself, and it makes you look like a high schooler.
Instead, use a nuanced “frame narrative.” Keep it deadly serious, but don’t be melodramatic. Remember to include the Ws: who, what, when, and where.
Then, in the end, remember to “close the frame.” This will give your reader a warm, happy feeling, and make them think you’re just as brilliant a writer as you are a cancer researcher, machine learning specialist, or economic historian.
Want helping crafting your SOP introductions? I’m ready to help.
How are you going to start your essay and truly impress your reader?