Thursday, October 11, 2012

Statement of purpose

The only three words that can cause an intense attack of sea-sickness when both feet are planted firmly on terra-firma. On the whole, it really isn't a difficult thing to author. Given the right amount of time and deep introspection it is possible to come up with an intellectual portrait of who you are, what you stand for and the things that inspire you.
However, it's easier said than done. Most of us would have already started off the first paragraph with a moving sentence on how the stars inspired us at age six (the age would differ by several years from statement to statement) to study a course on astrophysics at age eighteen. Never mind the propensity for such motivation, the financial requirements to fund a degree course and most importantly, the intellectual fortitude to plow your way through tedious equations. Most people have an endpoint and work backwards to build a beautiful story that they hope, would bring a tear to the application officer's eye or an emphatic kudos on your strong beliefs and convictions. But this trope has been done to death and most articles from a Google search tell us quite bluntly to never say "when I was X years old." The Flying Spaghetti Monster cringes in his Noodly Abode every time this happens and so does the application officer and needless to say, your application is in the wastepaper basket.

So that's out of the question. How about a quote? A personal anecdote? A joke? Proponents of the Hook Theory (a term I just made up on the go) opine that the best way to catch the attention of a poor, jaded application officer at the end of hundred mundane applications is with a snappy quote (not from Shakespeare, mind, even that has been done to death; Byron or Homer is better) or personal anecdote; an example that will keep the memory of your application alive. ("Ah, yes, Michael...Wasn't he the chap who applied to Vet school and was bitten by a rabid pangolin on vacation?")

The body of the statement is the most important. You need to tell the application officer why they need to choose you, what you can give to the university and why you think your area of interest is awesome. The expectations are enormous: an accurate description of who you are and what you stand for; an intellectual description of the things that interest and capture your imagination; your foreseeable future; your research experience explained in detail; your extracurricular interests; your test scores and shining references.  Even as we begin to digest the information, another heavy rock is dropped upon the poor applicant's head: the statement of purpose can make or break his application. The reason for this is simple: the applicant cannot dodge the vicissitudes of Fate on the day of his GRE or TOEFL exam or even during the course of his degree where anything from personal health issues to a death in the family or loss of a breadwinner can hack away at the GPA. On the other hand, there is no such excuse for the SOP because you are in absolute control of what goes onto that document. You have a chance to explain any outliers or issues and make a case for yourself. The fact that a single two page document can sway the decision either way is probably similar to the way a politician reveres and fears the denizens of swing states before an upcoming election.

Finally, there are the unspoken rules of writing an SOP. 
Never be funny. Don't use words that can be misconstrued. Active voice over passive. Demonstrate abilities, not just state them. Personable but not personal. Add "spin" to your actions. Remain true to yourself; be honest and project yourself and not the "ideal" self. Sepll check. Grammar check. Multiple drafts and many,many corrections. Don't look needy or plead your case. Appear cool, calm and collected. Sell, baby,sell. 

The SOP, for all its auras of fright, provides a chance for the officer to see past the silhouette and really get a taste of the individual from the words that flow from the paper. However, we can never know how many of these a day they have to read and we can be damned sure that every one of them would follow the spoken and unspoken rules to varying extents and thus every one of them will look just as dull or equally brilliant. What more can a poor candidate do? As for myself, I'm going to abandon the hooks, the quotes and the flowery language and get straight to it. Simple sentences and examples of difficulties I encountered and how I learnt from them.

All in all, "Please give me a chance to learn" is the only message I'm hoping to patch through to the officer who holds an individual's hopes and aspirations on a piece of A4 paper.

1 comment:

Vyaas said...

"Never be funny" isn't necessarily congruent with "appear cool,calm and collected".
A dollop of humor with a pinch of wit and a dash of self-deprecation achieves a delicious subsistence for any SO(u)P.