Statements of Purpose and Personal Statements: Genre Conventions and Rhetorical Demands

Last December, I wrote a series of posts, starting here, dedicated to breaking down the academic job search process from application to campus visit. The academic job search was still very much in my memory, still cycling through my credit card payments, and still baffling. But for Master's candidates, the academic job search is still just so much nightmare fuel. Many MAs choose to pursue additional credentialing. That application process creates its own set of anxieties, costs (both personal and fiscal), and problems. But like the academic job market, it relies on careful attention to genre conventions.

Doctoral programs are, it seems, attracting larger pools of applicants, which makes entry more competitive. And while candidates--for either doctoral programs or jobs--can't control where the jobs are or the quality of the competition, there are many factors that they can control. In this post, I'll deal with the personal statement and the statement of intellectual purpose, two separate but similar documents. Transcript bobbles can't be revised, and letters of recommendation follow too long of a timeline to change significantly. (I suppose an MA student could possibly dramatically improve his/her relationship with a referee in a semester. Possibly. Not probably, though, and I certainly wouldn't take that risk.) Elements like the personal statement, the statement of purpose, and the writing sample are fully within each candidate's control.

To be considered for graduate study, candidates submit a dossier, or a collection of materials intended to communicate their academic narrative and potential within that specific program's trajectory. Doctoral admissions are, by and large, holistic decisions which may take the following metrics into account: transcripts, letters, writing samples, GRE scores (either general or subject), and the personal statement or statement of (intellectual) purpose. Know this: the doctoral dossier is a job application, not a biography. It is a PR document with a purpose. Candidates should carefully attend to those elements within their reach to supplement cumulative elements, like GPA or letters.

The rhetorical situation
You have 10-15 minutes to make a positive impression. You are 1 of maybe 100.
Five years of working relationships will be judged quickly.
Admissions committees are exhausted and overtaxed. Give NO reason to be shuffled to the NO pile.
The PS/SoP is a small but important part of a larger dossier.
It’s the portion over which you have the most control.
The committee wants to get a firm sense of how well you might progress through the program, enrich it, and (eventually) become a colleague.

Personal Statement 
Who you are makes you well qualified to succeed in graduate school. 
This includes reflections on success and failure, worldviews, philosophies.
Answer: Why graduate school? Why you? Why that focus? Why that program?
Situate experience in theoretical frames, if relevant and not only novel.
Otherwise, self-check for heavy name dropping.
On that note, careful to mention specific faculty members by name. You can't possibly know a department's internal squabbles, plans, or problems. Outlining a plan to attend a specific university to work with a specific faculty member may backfire if that person is retiring or going on sabbatical. Focus instead on program strengths and opportunities.
Personal experience should be relevant and applicable, not maudlin.
On that: guard against the sappy-sweet or precocious.

Statement of (Intellectual) Purpose
What you know, your future plans, makes you well qualified to succeed in graduate school. 
This includes reflections on future plans and aspirations. 
What will graduate training help you do? Be action-oriented.

In both
How do you fit into the department or program?
What do you have to offer them? What is your potential?
Know your schools. Tailor one or two paragraphs.
Think about the coherence of your educational narrative. Are you claiming overwhelming interest in science and technology but have submitted a writing sample that’s a literary analysis? 
If you do project scattered focus, use the PS or SoP to connect the seemingly disparate points. 
Project maturity, discipline, and active engagement.
Rely on detail in a very short form. Think prose poetry not novel.
Be vivid but also serious.
Focus locally.
A SoP may not include personal details, but a Personal Statement will include a Statement of
Intellectual Purpose. 
Don’t overpromise or overreach (with language or application).
Follow basics of good writing (avoid the “Since I was a child…” intro). It counts.
At this level everyone “loves” what they study (books, literature, teaching, composition).
Have multiple people read. Take revision seriously. Typos are noted.  
To prepare
Talk, talk, talk about your research and positionality.
Write, write, write for difference audiences.
Read, read, read the current conversations in your field.


Susan R Wing said...
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gujjar g said...

Thank you for share this informative post.

Abner Carl said...

I enjoyed reading your post and found it to be informative and to the topic. Thank you for not rambling on and fantastic!
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Jenny Hunt said...

Writing a grad school personal statement will be a frightening and troublesome task. you're merchandising yourself and making an attempt to let the admissions representatives recognize WHY you must be chosen over different qualified candidates. masters personal statement

Dennis Turner said...

Rhetorical demands and the experiences through which it needs to pass on, would also far be a good idea, the purpose of writing about PS also clearing out many of the points here as well. sample personal statement for graduate school