Recently we were featured at http://www.gradschoolsmag.com/fall2010.html to share our perspective on admissions writing. Please find the article below!
So, you’ve worked tirelessly to obtain near perfect grades in high school and college. You’ve amassed an inimitable battery of leadership experiences, both as a student and throughout a young but promising career. Now, all that’s left is the graduate school admissions process, and one of the many hurdles you face is writing your statement of purpose.
Fact: the statement of purpose (SOP) is a marketing opportunity that many applicants fail to seize. It is a valuable barometer for your aptitude, communication skills, vision, values and passion. It is not your resume: it is a forward-thinking, reflective essay that can make your candidacy more than a sheet of paper, and resonate with an admissions committee representative.
For many, it can be a daunting task to effectively translate an impressive resume into a humanizing application and SOP. In most graduate programs, the SOP is intended to give insight into your academic and/or professional history, your goals and interests, and your reasons for applying to a specific institution. Quite understandably, applicants feel constrained by these criteria and a perceived inflexibility in essay structure. Take the following introductory paragraph for example:
“After graduating from MIT in 2003 with a degree in mechanical engineering, I began working for a start-up that has been an industry pioneer in the development of robotic prosthetic devices. Today, I seek admission to USC’s Biomedical Engineering Program in order to build on my current interests and help develop a new wave of medical technology that revolutionizes patient care and lives of people everywhere.”
Your introduction may sound like a subtle variation on this—not poorly constructed per se, but absolutely underwhelming and flat. Simply asking the right kinds of questions can give this paragraph more heft: why have you chosen your career goals—an intellectual passion, a unique cultural circumstance or a serendipitous event? What about the connectivity between your past, present and future? Have you encountered roadblocks along the way? Why is it important to “revolutionize patient care and people’s lives”—what personal values are beneath this cliché?
As admissions processes grow increasingly competitive in every sphere, there is a higher premium on your admissions package. And while certain programs will place greater emphasis on communication and writing ability than others, all graduate programs—no matter how small—will want inspired applicants that are self-aware community members and energized contributors. This is where deeper, more authentic writing truly comes into play. You don’t have to be a super-human candidate, and in fact, embracing certain career missteps or rites of passage can make your application even stronger.
Of course, different types of applicants face very different expectations. MBA applicants must answer a dizzying array of targeted questions that uncover their strategic career goals, medical school applicants must display the prerequisite drive and comprehensive skill set for a medical career, and law school applicants must craft more open-ended statements that underscore their analytical and communication capabilities.
However, regardless of what type of graduate program you’re applying to, you must launch a persuasive, authentic campaign to distinguish yourself from hundreds of other applicants. So, before writing your materials, take the time to consider the more difficult ‘why’ questions: why do I want this education and what path will it enable? Why did I make certain career decisions and how are they related? What are the drivers behind my ultimate goals?
Applicants that adequately answer ‘why’ questions are able to tether their accomplishments and goals to values, a keen self-awareness, and the seasoned EQ required of today’s leaders in business, medicine, law and elsewhere. In a recent study, when given a list of a dozen words to describe their CEO, only one in five employees picked “caring” or “warm”; ironically, CEO’s picked these words twice as often to describe themselves. Business and academic communities are becoming increasingly sensitive to this marked disparity. Across the admissions spectrum, automatons with perfect resumes and test scores are being outnumbered by more authentic, visionary and even imperfect leaders.
Your ability to answer the “why “ gives a powerful window into your soft skills, and your potential to develop them to lead tomorrow’s organizations and industries. You may not be the perfect applicant, but your ability to embrace imperfections and craft authentic materials can make you exceptional.
It can also make the critical difference in your admissions results.