Applying to grad school? Here’s what you need to know: Part II

In my last post, I shared my experience with diving into grad school applications, as well as my advice for getting started with the application process. By now, you’ve hopefully decided whether (and why!) you’ll be applying to grad school, and if you are, you’ll have taken the GRE and settled on a few programs that pique your interest. (If not, not to worry – read my previous post on applying to grad school here.) In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on navigating two of the more complex aspects of grad school applications: crafting a statement of purpose (also known as: the longest two pages you’ll ever write) and advocating for yourself throughout the application process (and beyond).

A great statement of purpose will make your application. And while a not-so-great statement of purpose might not break your application, it would be a lost opportunity: the statement of purpose is your chance to convince the admissions committee that you are a good fit for the graduate program they oversee.

The trouble? Writing a convincing statement of purpose is tricky, and it comes naturally to almost no one. When I first tried to write mine, I spent a great deal of time staring at a blank page – writing a few words, only to delete them immediately.

The opening “when I was ten years old…” felt cliché. Plus, my interest in math was less a revelation than it was a snowball effect, made more difficult to ignore with each new, tantalizing piece of information I absorbed (the Fourier transform can decompose sound waves into their constituent parts?!). So pretending that my fifth-grade teacher or a childhood science fair was the singular impetus for my impending commitment to a lifelong career in mathematics seemed dishonest. On the other hand, starting the statement with some variation on “I am excited to apply for the PhD program in math at University X” felt too generic.

In the end, I decided to begin my statement of purpose with, well, a statement of purpose. Without preamble, I laid out my professional goals (they were specific, and somewhat unique) and explained how they had come to be. This opening allowed me to segue into my reasons for applying to each program, and from there, into my research background – two integral components to any statement of purpose.

I say this not to argue that this is the best or only way to structure a statement of purpose – it’s not – but to emphasize the following point: a great essay is always genuine, thoughtful, and specific. Providing unique details about your motivations (think: a story about a memorable encounter with mathematics, rather than a generic “I enjoy problem-solving”) will make for an honest, compelling essay. For more specific advice on crafting a statement of purpose, read this.

If time allows, share your essay with the professors who are writing your recommendation letters – it will allow them to write letters that reflect your strengths as relevant to the programs you’re applying to. And don’t forget to have friends and/or professors edit your essay.

If the prospect of crafting a statement of purpose is overwhelming, remember: at the end of the day, your goal in a grad school application is to communicate that you are prepared, both academically and personally, to do research in the program you’re applying to. That’s it. If you successfully communicate why you’re prepared for a research career in your statement of purpose, you’re well on your way to making a convincing argument for why you should be admitted. And once you are, remember:

You are your own best advocate. You may feel lucky to get into grad school when it happens – and you should! – but remember, too, that whichever graduate program you choose is lucky to have you. Advocate for yourself accordingly, and stick to your boundaries when it comes to work environment, hours, pay, health care, teaching load, and the like. While grad school requires a certain amount of sacrifice and compromise, on the whole, it should support, rather than hinder, your personal life – just like any other job.

Here’s a scenario I hear all the time: “My partner and I applied for all (or many) of the same grad schools, but we were accepted to different ones (on different sides of the country).” Sometimes, I’ll ask whether they communicated this fact to the relevant universities, and more often than not, I get a look of confusion in reply. If you’re accepted to a particular program and your partner isn’t, you can write a polite note to the department informing them of the situation – delicately, of course. Yes, you can – and should!

Graduate school is a significant, long-term commitment that people undertake as fully-fledged adults, often with partners, dependents, and major life considerations (starting a family, caring for parents) in tow. In this respect, it is a far cry from undergrad, and should be approached accordingly. When making the decision about which programs to attend, remember that finding a supportive program and advisor, and communicating your personal and professional goals to them as appropriate, is key. Because ultimately, grad school should be a means to pursuing a fulfilling life and career.

For advice on how to survive – and thrive! – in grad school once you’re in, read my previous post here.

About Susannah Shoemaker

Susannah recently earned her M.A. in applied math from Princeton University. She is interested in the mathematical foundations of structural techniques in biophysical chemistry.
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One Response to Applying to grad school? Here’s what you need to know: Part II

  1. Behnam Esmayli says:

    Very nice. When I was in Iran, I used to edit SOP’s for people applying to foreign universities. By far, the main mistake I found in many of them was their “lack of specificity.” Change the candidate’s name and it will just as well be an SOP for anyone else applying to that school!
    Some more tips on writing an SOP:
    – Your qualifications are already in your your CV. So, do not include numbers and dates and other details.

    – Tell a story rather than having scattered facts. Try to weave all you want to say into a unified piece that has flow. If your paragraphs can be reordered freely, then it is a sign your essay lacks cohesion.

    – Decide on an impression you want to make and adjust your language and choice of details accordingly. For instance, you may want to present yourself as an organized and hardworking person than, say, a smart/genius one. Deciding on the personality image you want to convey will really give your essay a soul!

    – Include specific details not just about yourself, but also about the department. Let them know that you know them, and that they are not “just another school on your list.”

    Good luck 🙂

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