Category Archives: The Writing Process

What Matters in a Statement of Purpose

I’m seeing an awful lot of SOP/grad school flailing going on on my various social media platforms, so here are some highlights from the workshop I ran for our students a couple of weeks ago along with the handout I distributed. All materials are the property of the New Economic School Writing and Communications Center.

First, a few statistics:

  • Of all of the students who enter any kind of PhD program in the United States, only 50% actually finish (Cassuto).
  • In 2010, a study followed 583 students entering various university PhD programs in Economics beginning in 2002. After 8 years, 59% had earned the PhD, 37% had dropped out, and 4% were still writing their dissertations (Stock 176).
  • Of the 59% who finished, 45% took 5 years. The remaining 55% took 6 to 8 years.

What does this mean?

  • Graduate school is a long-term investment that requires considerable self-discipline, focus, and internal motivation as well as intelligence. Even very, very smart people do not finish. Indeed, many finish their coursework only to stall at the dissertation stage.
  • Admitting a PhD student also represents a significant investment of resources in terms of stipend money and advising and mentorship. The return graduate programs want from that investment is that you will finish and get a good job, thereby boosting their completion and placement numbers and conferring additional prestige. Those who make admissions decisions for graduate programs are looking for evidence that you will do this, which isn’t always easy to tell from your grades and GRE scores.
  • Your Personal Statement is the document where you make the argument for why you will be a good investment, demonstrating:
    • That you understand what advanced academic work in your field entails and that you have at least a general plan for getting through it.
    • That you have thought about your areas of interest and are able to describe the shape that your future research might take.
    • That you have done research on this specific program and understand how their specific strengths fit your goals.
    • That you have some idea of what you want to do with your degree (even though that may be a decade in the future).

Brainstorming:

  • Start writing early. Your personal statement will likely go through many drafts before you are ready to submit it.
  • If a school asks you to answer specific questions, be sure to do that. It’s crucial to show that you’re individualizing your application for each school and that you have thought seriously about their questions.
  • And even with a specific set of questions, you still must work to make your answers meaningful and unique.
  • Ask yourself the following sets of questions as you brainstorm.
    • The Field:
      • Why do you want to be a _____? Don’t think about why other people may choose this profession; why do you want that as your profession?
      • What are the benefits and drawbacks of the profession?
      • How and when did you learn about the field? Was it through a class, reading, work experience, or a professor? Is that story important to your story? What have you learned about it that has further stimulated your interest?
      • What particular path in the field interests you now? What are your career goals?
    • The Program:
      • Why do you want to get into this program? Don’t talk about Economics programs in general, but Harvard’s Economics Program or Stanford’s Economics Program. Maybe there’s a particular professor with whom you want to work. Maybe the school offers excellent research opportunities or teaching experience to graduate students. If you’re not sure, do more research about the school or talk with a professor or student.
    • Yourself:
      • What’s special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you and your story?
      • Are there details about your life that can help the committee understand you or that will make you stand out from other applicants?
      • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (i.e. economic, familial, physical)? Admissions committees are interested in unique personal narratives and evidence of having overcome adversity.
      • What personal skills or characteristics do you possess that would make you successful in the field? How can you show admissions committees that you have those?
      • Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school and/or more successful in the field than other applicants?
      • What are the most important reasons the admissions committee should be interested in you?
      • Does your academic record have gaps or discrepancies you need to explain (i.e. excellent grades but poor GRE)

What Makes a Poor Personal Statement:

  • Isn’t specific or unique—relies on clichés “I have always wanted to be an economist” or “I have always dreamed of attending Harvard.”
  • Doesn’t indicate that you’ve researched the institution
  • Doesn’t indicate your past work that serves as evidence of your potential as a student
  • Rambles or includes irrelevant information

General Tips:

  • Tell a story—show what you want to say through concrete experience. Rather than “I have an adventurous spirit,” tell us about the service trip you went on with a group of strangers to India.
  • Find an angle—most people have “normal” stories, so a focus that makes yours interesting.
  • Be focused—if the application asks you to answer specific questions, answer them. If there are no specific questions, still maintain focus. Choose important qualities/characteristics and write only about those.
  • Be specific—do not make claims you cannot back up with experience.
  • Avoid clichés.
  • Be coherent—the way you write indicates the kind of person you are. Someone who writes clearly is likely a sensible person.
  • Interpret material for your readers. Don’t repeat the material in your application—instead, explain how those experiences relate to the program for which you’re applying.
  • Don’t be afraid to be personal, as long as it’s appropriate.
  • Tell what you know about the field or profession. Share what you’ve already learned—refer to experience (work, research), classes, conversations you’ve had with people who work in the field, books you’ve read, seminars you’ve attended—and then show why you’re well suited to the profession.
  • Research the school.
  • If the school’s location provides a major geographical or cultural change, consider writing about that.
  • If there is a word limit, stay within it.

More, including samples, here: Personal Statement Workshop Handout

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A Writer’s Time

I want to take a moment to say thanks to SKM from Shakesville, who so thoughtfully includes me in the blogaround from time to time.  I’m consistently shocked and flattered when I find out that such well-respected bloggers read this site and actually think enough of it to recommend it to others.  The Shakesville blogaround has also introduced me to some other kick-ass feminist and academic bloggers, and I was thrilled to find out about this post by Maud Newton on the “tricky valuation of a writer’s time.”  I was particularly struck by this quote from E.B. White:

[T]here is nothing harder to estimate than a writer’s time, nothing harder to keep track of. There are moments — moments of sustained creation — when his time is fairly valuable; and there are hours and hours when a writer’s time isn’t worth the paper he is not writing anything on.

This is a much more succinct and, I think, poignant statement than the many posts I’ve made on this subject.  I am always fascinated and surprised when I learn about the writing processes of authors whose work I consider to be transcendent.  On some level, I’ve long believed that they wrote effortlessly and continuously, never wanting for an idea.  Of course, that isn’t true.  I’ve been reading the Ron Powers biography of Mark Twain (who Maud credits as a source of inspiration), and while the guy obviously wrote prolifically, he also went through long periods where nothing got done.  The well of inspiration would go dry, and the only solution was to set the project aside until the well filled up again (Twain used this actual metaphor).

Theodore Dreiser experienced the same problem.  After the publication of Sister Carrie, it took almost ten years for him to complete another novel, and he nearly starved to death and had to resort to manual labor (for which he was completely unsuited) until he eventually got a job as an editor.  Even as established and famous authors, both men regularly missed publisher’s deadlines and endured long periods of total unproductivity.

I’m not sure if that’s reassuring or depressing.  At the very least, it perhaps points to the need to keep a day job.