Okay, I admit it – that’s a click-baity title. Obviously, admissions coordinators are invaluable resources, and you should reach out to them as early as possible when building your list of target schools. Yet, if this is true, why am I so willing to make such a bold, inflammatory statement?
Because, when it comes to SOPs, these noble graduate admissions folks often give horrendously useless advice
It’s not their fault, of course. By and large, they’re great people who really want to help. You can see this in the number of amazing posts, Q&As, and AMAs across social media. Here is a fantastic recent one from the Aerospace Engineering department at UIUC (one of which far too few Redditors took advantage).
But when talking about the SOP, it astonishes me how often these professors and administrators can’t articulate helpful advice. It almost seems as if they have a bank of vague stock responses crafted to make your writing task even more confusing.
For example, here’s a piece of advice from an interview with a director at a top R1 school:
“Don’t forget to clearly outline what you are willing to commit to the program.”
Uhhh…okay? What does that mean? What am I willing to commit to the program? The prime of my life? Two decades of student debt slavery? My firstborn child? This isn’t exactly helpful.
Yet, this shouldn’t be surprising.
Despite their willingness to help, grad admissions coordinators often suffer from cognitive blinders. These blinders arise from the nature of their jobs and educations, and prevent them from giving you actionable advice.
Certainly, they can tell you where you’re weak compared to other applicants. They can tell you what you’re doing wrong.
But often, they’re unable to tell you HOW to turn YOUR weaknesses into strengths.
This is our topic today.
Critics, Artists, and Teachers
Let me ask you a question. Can you tell the difference between good and bad movies?
Obviously, right? You’ve seen a thousand movies in your life. You can immediately recall the most amazing ones, the artistic wonders that left you in awe. Likewise, you can surely name a few that were absolute stinkers (I’m looking at you Wonder Woman 1984, you shimmering gilded turd).
Yes, you possess this ability to judge movies. Of course, there’s the issue of taste. There are undoubtedly a few films that you loved but your girlfriend hated. All in all though, you can discern an Oscar-worthy film (Parasite) from a generic-but-entertaining billion-dollar hot mess (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker).
But…can you tell me how to write an Oscar-worthy film myself?
Of course you can’t. You’re a film fan, not a screenwriter. You can undoubtedly watch a bad film and articulate why it’s bad. The story didn’t make much sense. The ending sucked. It felt rushed. The dialogue wasn’t realistic. But if someone asked you to fix these problems…could you do it?
Nope. You don’t have that education.
There’s a tremendous difference between 1) being able to judge the quality of something, 2) being able to produce that quality yourself, and 3) being able to teach someone else how to produce that quality.
When it comes to grad school applications, your Statement of Purpose is no different. Graduate admissions coordinators are critics. They’re qualified to tell you whether your SOP is “Oscar-worthy” or not. But ask them to teach you how to write one yourself, and they lack the education.
They’re excellent at telling you which elements successful applicants include in their SOPs. But knowing those elements does not AT ALL indicate the ability to coordinate them in a cogent piece of work, no matter one’s level of expertise.
Want proof? Any top dog at HBO can tell you what to include in a television show if you want it to conquer the world: outstanding actors, brilliant ensemble casting, marvelous costumes, and mesmerizing music, editing, and visual effects.
Yet, even with all of these elements present, those goons still gave us Game of Thrones Season 8.
Listen To The Writers
It’s no surprise that GoT went off the rails when they ran out of material from the novels’ author, George RR Martin. He gave the showrunners all the right pieces and wove them together for five seasons. But after he left, and the time came for showrunners to leave the audience with a final happy glow, they only succeeded in giving us headaches and an infinity of hilarious but depressing memes.
So it often goes with your SOP.
Maybe you’re feeling confused. Maybe you’ve written a first draft that doesn’t make you confident. Maybe you lack experience writing essays, but you’re smart enough to know that your draft is wordy, unfocused, and not exactly convincing. In either case…don’t go to the critics for advice!
Instead go to someone whose livelihood revolves around persuading people with the written word. If you’re still in university, go to your campus writing center. Seek out journalism students for help. Find professors in the Creative Nonfiction MFA department – it’s literally their job to teach people how to write persuasive, compelling essays.
To be honest, it’s not a terrible idea to get advice from professors or graduate students in your department. Much like a movie critic who can pinpoint bad dialogue, these experts can highlight any academic mistakes you’ve made. However, I don’t recommend talking to them until AFTER you’ve had a writer (or writing teacher) help shape your work into a structurally sound, sophisticated, logically flowing essay. Professors and admissions coordinators won’t pay attention to the academic argument if you hand them juvenile writing. Their brains will just flash “bad application! eliminate!” and they’ll tell you some polite nonsense about clearly outlining what you plan to contribute to the program.
Write Like a Writer, Not Like a Scientist
Of course, as a writer and writing teacher myself, I am tooting my own horn. But it’s a horn that needs to be tooted!
Far too often, bright, hard-working, capable students submit essays that aren’t essays at all. They’ve received conventional wisdom from well-intentioned people. But somehow, that conventional wisdom doesn’t generate offers of admission.
You’ve already done the hard work of becoming a scholar. Now your gatekeepers require you to write about your goals and credentials, a task you likely haven’t attempted since applying to undergrad. They require you to persuade them to actively choose you. For this reason, you’re better off following the advice of people who may not be experts in neural networks or microglial regulation, but who ARE experts in textual persuasion.
Luckily, I’ve already done the hard work for you.
My SOP Starter Kit tells you step-by-step how to construct a statement of purpose the way a polished writer would. It doesn’t give you vague, confusing advice. Instead, it gives specific, detailed, actionable steps for outlining an essay that can truly persuade admissions coordinators to see you for who you are: a dedicated scholar with a TON of potential.
Best of all, it’s completely free.
I hope you’ll download it and realize that the SOP process doesn’t have to be mystifying. Because it’s not. It just requires a little thoughtful planning and the same methods that professional writers use every day.
Our friends in charge of graduate departments, they really are amazing people who want the best for you. But they’re scientists and researchers, not writers. When they’re telling you what kind of students they look for, you should absolutely take notes. But when it’s time to put words on paper, when it’s time to “clearly outline what you are willing to commit to the program,” you’re better off heeding the advice of those who know how to weave a compelling, persuasive narrative.
Otherwise, don’t be surprised if your SOP ends up a vague and confusing hot mess like Game of Thrones Season 8.