I would guess virtually all grad-school applicants, when they write their first draft of the statement of purpose, will get it wrong. Much of what you have learned about writing and also about how to compatible partners present yourself will lead you astray. For example, here’s an opening to a typical first draft:
“I am applying to the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of Okoboji because I believe my writing will blossom at your program since it is a place where I will be challenged and I can hone my writing skills.”
How’s that? It’s clear, it’s direct, and it “strokes” the MFA program, right? Wrong. All of it is obvious and extraneous.The admissions committee knows you are applying to their MFA program because everyone in the stacks of applications they are reading is applying for the same thing. The admissions committee will also know that your writing will “blossom” there since they feel they have a strong program. Of course you will be challenged – all undergrads going on to a grad program will be challenged, no matter how well-prepared they think they are. And of course the new grad student will “hone [her] writing skills” – isn’t that the main purpose of the MFA program?
Let’s assume the required length of this particular program’s statement of purpose is 300 words. Well, with this opening you will have used up 15% of your space saying virtually nothing. 15%!
Many will say they “have had a love affair with books” – that phrase may sound passionate until you’ve read it a couple of hundred times
In fact, not only is this opening paragraph obvious, extraneous, and space-stealing, it’s boring! Imagine who’s reading this and where: five professors “locked” in a room with 500 applications. Do you think this opening paragraph will command their attention? Will they read the rest of this statement of purpose with an open mind that this applicant is the kind of student they want? Will they remember this application later? You be the judge.
“Hook”, which demonstrates the applicant’s passion for the chosen subject.
For a successful motivational essay, you need the so-called “hook”. For example, one student of the master’s program in library science made an excellent hook. It looked something like this:
“When I was eleven, my great-aunt Gretchen passed away and left me with something that changed my life: a library of 5,000 books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian.”
Everything is clear, it’s direct, it’s 45 words, and, most important, it tells the admissions committee about Susan’s almost life-long passion not just for books but for taking care of books. When the committee starts to discuss their “best picks,” don’t you think they’ll remember her as “the young woman who had her own library”? Of course they will, because having had their own library when they were eleven would probably be a cherished fantasy for each of them!
“I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the University of Okoboji because as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with books. Since I was eleven I have known I wanted to be a librarian.”
Surely the admissions committee will not remember this student among the other 500 applications they are wading through. Probably more than half of the applications, maybe a lot more than half, will open with something very similar.