Your Background Doesn’t Matter: SOPs and the Lost Art of Persuasion

Philosopher Statue Thinking About the Lost Art of Persuasion

If I asked you to name the single most important part of your graduate statement of purpose, what would you say? Your research experience? Fancy GPA? Most students certainly believe their background credentials are all-important. But this isn’t correct. Not even close. In fact, your background is the least important part of the SOP. If you’ve had a proper education in writing, rhetoric, and the lost art of persuasion, you understand why.

Unfortunately, few college students (anywhere in the world) obtain this education anymore. It’s a tragic failure of our public institutions, and this explains why, even today, I constantly encounter the question that saddens me more than any other:

“Why does the Why This Program section come before Why I’m Qualified?”

[sigh]

Despite what the conventional wisdom says, and despite what your misguided intuition tells you, there are very good reasons why a good SOP describes your future goals before it ever bothers discussing your past credentials.

Let’s examine three reasons why, and in doing so, begin to understand the Lost Art of Persuasion (and how it can make you maximally competitive in the grad school applicant pile).

  1. This is Literally a 4,000-Year Old Strategy

In the 5th century BC, Socrates, the Greek philosopher (and patron saint of all Internet trolls), spent a lot of time complaining about sophists and politicians. The sophists were public teachers of wisdom. The politicians were little different than ours today. According to Socrates, these noble gentleman rarely knew what they were talking about, but they had this maddening ability to persuade everyone who listened to them.

A sophist couldn’t explain what “wisdom” actually was, but he could convince entire cities that he was the only person who could teach them (for a fee) how to be wise. A politician had no clue what was actually best for his city (he usually suggested something that made him rich), but somehow, everyone believed him when he spoke.

This magical power was called rhetoric. The Mesopotamians and Egyptians invented it. The Greek politicians studied it and perfected it. Plato wrote about it in his Gorgias and Phaedrus dialogues, and in his legendary work, Rhetoric, Aristotle summarized the art of persuasion this way:

  1. Introduce Your Issue
  2. Present Your Case
  3. Address The Opposition
  4. Provide Your Proof
  5. Present Your Conclusion

Thanks, Aristotle. This does indeed sound like a fine way to make a convincing argument. However, this begs the question: what is the argument of the SOP?

If you’re smart, your SOP will make this singular (and very convincing) argument:

“If you admit me, Dream University, I’ll flourish within your program, prepare to achieve big goals in the future, and thus provide a strong return on your investment of time and resources in me.”

Your Why This Program section is your case (no. 2 above). It shows how you will flourish if they admit you. Your background credentials, however, are only the proof (no. 4) that you’re actually capable of flourishing.

Thus, if you describe your credentials BEFORE your Why This Program section, you’re getting the argument backward. Instead of arguing that you’re a perfect student for this program, one who will flourish, you’re arguing…what? That you’re educated? That you graduated from college? The reader can’t tell the point of your essay because this backward structure makes it clear that you don’t even know what you’re arguing.

(In fact, this is probably why you’re visiting this blog right now: you don’t know what you’re supposed to argue.)

So, if you STILL want to write your Why I’m Qualified section first, I have to ask:

Really, you think you’re smarter than Aristotle?

You’re confident you’re correct in ignoring the argument structure humans figured out three millennia ago…the one that Harvard and Oxford professors still teach today?

Really?

The Greeks had a word for this too, gentle reader.

They called it hubris.

It meant “dangerous overconfidence” and an “extreme transgression against the gods,” and it always led to a tragic ending.

  1. The Modern Art of Persuasion

Today, we have folks who’ve perfected rhetoric and persuasion in a way that would have made Plato shake with fury: advertisers.

Have you ever seen the show Mad Men? There’s one thing that every single one of these ad copywriters knows: if you want to persuade a customer to buy a product, you never explain the features until AFTER you’ve sold the customer emotionally. You do that by allowing the customer to first visualize themselves — in the future — happily using this product which eases their “pain point” and solves their problems.

If you want to persuade them to buy, they first need to see the end result. They need to feel good before you get logical with the proof of your argument.

Aristotle called this “pathos” — an appeal to the audience’s emotions — and it always came BEFORE “ethos,” or an appeal to your own credibility.

Aristotle would have made a great advertising man!

In the case of the SOP, the admissions reader is the customer, and you’re both the salesperson and the product. The customer’s problem is that they need an A+ rock star student who improves the university’s good name. If you want them to choose you as that student, you need to appeal to “pathos” first before you address your own “ethos.”

If you told those advertising professionals today, people who make millions of dollars, that you want to explain your credentials BEFORE you let the “customer” visualize what you’re selling…they’d absolutely laugh in your face. They’d spit up their coffee. They’d wipe their tears with dollar bills. Then, when they finally calmed down, they’d pull out their copy of Rhetoric (yes, they still study it today), look you in the eye, and they’d quote Brad Pitt from Troy:

Achilles Says: "That's why no one will remember your name"

  1. Every Applicant Looks the Same…At First

Among the 30% of applicants actually in consideration for admission — those who are actually qualified — virtually all have similar backgrounds. Similar research, grades, and internships. They all want the same job afterward, and maddeningly, they all use the same language in their essays (because they all copy “buzz words” from the department website).

Truthfully, they’re all great students, and all of them could be successful in grad school.

But not all of them get chosen, do they?

When an admissions reader has to slog through 50 of these boringly similar SOPs, they start to look blurry. It’s worse when the essays all start with a general statement of goals and a long list of past credentials. Since every applicant is applying to the same program, everyone has the exact same goal. To the professors and administrators reading the SOPs, everyone’s first few paragraphs look, sound, and feel exactly the same.

In ultra-competitive grad school admissions, it’s probably not a great idea to look exactly the same as everyone else. Nor is it particularly useful when a professor skims past your first paragraphs because she already knows what they say. Is that what you want? To be skimmable? To be a faceless member of the herd? To be the literary equivalent of a “grad student” emoji?

But if one SOP in the pile introduces a boldly specific Sentence of Purpose, then transitions into a vivid Why This Program section…well now, that’s different, isn’t it?

The reader doesn’t know WHY it’s different (they haven’t read their Aristotle), but they do know that this essay is immediately unique, immediately intelligent, and immediately goal-oriented.

Most importantly, they quickly SEE their problem getting solved. They can SEE you contributing something unique to the program. They can SEE that you’ll be an A+ rock star, the diamond in the rough they’ve been searching for.

Dozens of professors have publicly stated that THIS is the type of essay they prefer. When every other applicant is a bland, faceless list of credentials, they want to read about real students, with real plans, who want to solve real problems.

They honestly do not care about your undergraduate credentials. They’ve seen it a thousand times! They want to know the same thing that every customer who views an advertisement wants to know. The same thing every citizen listening to a politician wants to know:

What can you do for me?

The ancient Greeks and Advertising Men have taught us how to answer this question. If you’re applying to a Creative Nonfiction MFA program, it’s exactly what you’ll be studying every day.

So, perhaps the question isn’t: why does the Why This Program section come first?

Perhaps the real question is…

Why do people recommend listing your credentials first?

If you ever Googled “how to write an SOP,” the first results that pop up are from fine, stalwart universities. They recommend an essay that starts by listing your credentials.

But…look who’s giving you the advice.

Is it a brilliantly persuasive writer? Is it an advertising man or creative nonfiction scholar?

Nope. It’s the faceless corp. of the “graduate division,” an army of professional pencil pushers led by one or two professors in the social sciences. (And let me tell you, social science professors aren’t exactly renowned for their writing abilities. Have you ever read their journal publications? They’re not exactly paragons of clarity and heart.)

The graduate division employs a specific kind of person who’s had a specific kind of education (one that doesn’t involve persuasive writing). They also have a mandate for the kind of students they want — a list of demographics to meet. So, when these administrators tell students what to write, they’re thinking in terms of pure information. They’re visualizing an info dump.

They know what they want, but they aren’t considering how to teach you to be what they want.

Curiously, however, the graduate division administrative office isn’t the only source for SOP instructions. Google doesn’t show you these results…but the individual academic departments often give very different instructions.

Consider the English Department at Harvard, who tells you to write your SOP this way:

  1. The Statement of Purpose is not a personal statement and should not be heavily weighted down with autobiographical anecdotes.

No heavy autobiographies! Your past experiences are not what’s most important here. They only want the barest hint of a personal story. (Frame Narrative Introduction!)

  1. It should be no longer than 1,000 words.

Keep it short and tight!

  1. It should focus on giving the admissions committee a clear sense of applicants’ individual interests and strengths. Applicants need not indicate a precise field of specialization, if they do not know, but it is helpful to know something about a candidate’s professional aspirations and sense of their own skills, as well as how the Harvard English department might help in attaining their goals.

Why This Program!

  1. Those who already have a research topic in mind should outline it in detail, giving a sense of how they plan their progress through the program.

Why This Program!

  1. Those who do not [have a research goal] should at least attempt to define the questions and interests they foresee driving their work over the next few years.

Study Plan! Career Goals Statement!

…and that’s it! Never once do they ask for a list of credentials. Harvard instructs you very clearly. The only want to know:

What can you do for us?

Want More Proof?

Check out this brilliant Reddit AMA from a former admissions committee chair. You’ll find a lot of great advice, but this quotation stands out:

“A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that an SOP is your life history, or what draws you to the field. It’s not. It should be a very clear, very detailed statement of what you plan to do in the degree program, why it’s important, and why you’re qualified to undertake it. I know that sounds simple, but it’s amazing how many people can’t manage it. Why is this program the right program for you? What’s the fit between you and the intellectual resources they offer? Why are you qualified to do what you say you want to do? A really great SOP can do a lot to override poor test scores! Good luck!”

Heed this advice, gentle reader. It’s begging you to use the Lost Art of Persuasion…in the exact same format Aristotle gave us 2,400 years ago! Plus, when a professor and admissions chair tells you this directly, it’s probably a good idea to listen.

Conclusion on the Lost Art of Persuasion

Folks, listen to the English professors at Harvard (who have studied Aristotle). Listen to the advertising men and other experts in the Art of Persuasion.

Ignore the pencil pushers.

The administrators have never learned how to write persuasively, nor in a way that captivates readers’ hearts and minds. If everyone in our universities knew how to write this way, we wouldn’t have an advertising copywriting industry which I once saw described as “a $50 billion industry where you’ll find plenty of work and no competition.” Nor would we have astoundingly greedy top-5 business schools charging thousands of dollars for overblown sales-writing courses (while 500,000 students take better courses on Udemy for less than twenty bucks).

It’s kind of appalling. Yet at the same time, it’s a glittering opportunity for you.

Follow the timeless rules of rhetoric.

Employ the art of persuasion.

Don’t be a faceless member of the herd.

Be bold. Be unique. Be the diamond in the rough.

Use pathos.

Sell yourself.

Write your Why This Program section first.

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