How to Write a Statement of Purpose That Gets You Accepted [Show Summary]
Vanessa Febo is a PhD candidate in English Literature at UCLA and a writing instructor who has guided students to acceptance at top programs at Harvard, Stanford, and USC. In this episode, she shares her expert tips on mastering the writing required for a successful statement of purpose.
Interview with Vanessa Febo, a PhD candidate in English Literature at UCLA and Accepted Admissions Consultant [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 473rd episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for tuning in. The challenge at the heart of admissions is showing that you both fit in at your target schools and stand out in the applicant pool. Accepted’s free download, Fitting In & Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions will show you how to do both. Master this paradox, and you are well on your way to acceptance. You can download this free guide at accepted.com/fiso.
Our guest today, Vanessa Febo, is a PhD candidate in English Literature at UCLA. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor’s in English, and then worked in business for several years. While pursuing her PhD at UCLA, she has taught writing to undergraduate students and assisted graduate students in getting major grants and scholarships, including the Fulbright, Stanford Knight-Hennessy, and the Ford Foundation Fellowship. She has also guided students to acceptance at top programs at Harvard, Stanford, USC, and others, while an Accepted consultant.
How did you get involved in coaching applicants in the writing required for admissions as well as grant and scholarship applications? [2:08]
I was an English major, and I knew that I wanted to pursue a PhD. I wasn’t sure what that entailed at the time. I don’t think anyone necessarily does when they’re going into a PhD program, but I discovered a lot of it was teaching. I really loved teaching and a big part of teaching and the English curriculum is obviously working with students on their writing, which we’re not necessarily fully trained in. So I got additional certification in writing pedagogy as well. Then I managed to get a job at the Scholarship Resource Center at UCLA, which is a very unique center because it’s one of the only of its kind in the country. It’s really surprising to me that more universities, especially private ones that have so much money, don’t have centers like this. We’re one of the very few that actually help students work on applications for scholarships. Through that, I have the opportunity to work with students on what we might call national merit or nationally recognized international scholarships as well because that is operated through that office. I got to work with Dr. Rebecca Blustein, who spearheads this at UCLA. I’ve been involved on selection committees for scholarships through this office for in-house scholarships and for things like Phi Beta Kappa, the National Honor Society. I was recently on their selection committee for that, but it just finished. I’ve also worked with students with both interviewing and essay writing for all sorts of scholarships, large and small. So that’s what got me started. Then I branched out more into statements of purpose.
What’s the first step applicants should take when they’re thinking about writing a statement of purpose essay? [4:39]
I’m going to give an answer that’s going to sound really simplistic, but I’ll explain why it’s actually really important. My answer is to always read the prompt. It’s not always obvious that there is a prompt and usually there’s additional information on application webpages or on a school’s page that feeds into the prompt. They might state what type of applicant they’re looking for in a different section of the webpage from the actual prompt itself. I always consider this additional information as part of the prompt. Part of it is gathering all of that information together and seeing what they’re actually asking for in an application and what information they want to know about you.
The second part really directs everything about the way your essay goes. It can really shape the entire structure of your essay because some prompts are much more forward-looking and are more interested in what you plan on doing while in the program, what you plan on doing afterward career-wise, and short-term and long-term goals. But some prompts are a little bit more backward-looking than others. Some care a little bit more about you spending a lot of time on your accomplishments. It really determines the outline for your entire essay. You really can’t get started until you have an understanding of what they’re looking for and that means understanding the prompt.
Whenever I’m doing the final checks on a statement of purpose or a personal statement for a client, my steps are checking spelling and grammar and then rereading the prompt and essay to make sure the essay answered all of the questions in the prompt. You’ll be surprised. At that stage, it usually does answer the question because we’ve run over it so many times. But certainly the first draft, most of the time is missing many of the questions. That’s not a product of bad writing. That’s just a product of the writing process.
Also sometimes a question is answered, but only very briefly. They might ask a very detailed question about your future career and they want to know X, Y, and Z about it, but you only just briefly mention that you want to be a neurologist. You probably didn’t dedicate enough time to that aspect of the question. It’s a proportion thing as well.
How should someone who is applying to a program that has more than one essay divvy up their material? [8:03]
That’s a really good question because I think that’s a very common frustration with people applying to MBA programs. One thing is looking at the prompts side by side and seeing how they differ. Really do a comparison. The second tip is to keep in mind that all elements of an application are complimentary. You want to think about the application as a whole. If you’ve already completed one essay and it answers the question, check to see what isn’t being talked about in your first essay, resume, cover letter, or other materials. Sometimes it’s a really great opportunity, of course after answering the prompt, to get in additional experiences that you just didn’t have a chance to talk about.
How can applicants deal with writer’s block? [9:32]
So the first step of writer’s block is understanding that everyone including professional writers, including myself when I’m working on my own projects, experiences writer’s block. The second is really a strategy of breaking it down into much smaller, more manageable chunks. Sometimes when I work with a client and they’re not really comfortable writing, I’ll typically give them an outline to help them. If you’re working on your own and you construct an outline, make the outline a series of questions that are based on the prompt. Really, you can just then answer your questions. That’s a really simple way to get started.
The other thing to keep in mind is, especially in the initial stages, you’re really just trying to get that information down on the page. If you’re thinking, “I don’t think this should go here,” don’t worry about that. We’re not there yet. It’s really much more crucial to have that information in the essay, especially in early stages, which is typically when people experience the most writer’s block because they don’t have anything on a page yet. It’s the first draft, it’s okay to be a crappy draft as well. Just get the information on the page. If you can tell yourself that, I think it takes a lot of the pressure off. Just get the information on the page. If you can tell yourself that, I think it takes a lot of the pressure off.
What are some of the differences between a statement of purpose and a research paper? [11:31]
That’s a really great question. It’s something that comes up a lot because the statement of purpose is a really specific genre of writing. It’s a genre that even people whose academic careers required a ton of writing are not usually familiar with because it is not a research paper. The closest thing I can compare the statement of purpose to is a research proposal because you’re talking more about what you plan on doing in the program and in the future. Even then, there are differences because in a research proposal, you might only be focused on the research outcomes and you’re not really thinking in personal terms. A statement of purpose is a little bit more hybrid because you want to talk both about your personal professional outcomes that you’re looking for in terms of your career goals, skills you want to learn, and the type of professional you want to grow to be in addition to research outcomes. It’s a combination because they want to know both how you will contribute to the program in terms of your research, but also how you are going to participate in the program and grow within the program. I think that is the biggest difference.
What differences are there between a statement of purpose and a business memo? [13:01]
Again, the question is about being personal. In a statement of purpose, you might talk about failures and what you’ve learned from an experience in terms of, “This experiment failed five times. I learned not only these technical things, but I learned to rely on my lab partners and my PI. I learned that is a part of the process of this project that I’m working on.” Those aren’t things you would include in other types of documents, because it’s personal. You would talk about outcomes and deliverables, but you wouldn’t necessarily in a business memo talk about personal deliverables, if you will, or the personal lessons learned. That’s really not the point of a business memo.
How can you be authentic and maintain your own voice and not descend into texting, social media writing, and just casual writing? Where’s that line? [14:58]
That’s a really great question. It really comes down to recognizing that this is a formal document that you want to treat as a professional. When you enter into graduate school, whether that’s a grad program or an MBA program or any kind of advanced degree program, a huge part of it is professionalization. From the start, they want to see that you would fit in as a colleague, not as a student. It’s a really big difference from the way of thinking in undergrad. That’s why it’s important to be a little bit more formal than you are in your everyday speech. Those conventions are really basic like avoiding contractions if possible, no emojis or pictograms, following standard grammar rules, etc. You can think about it this way: it’s about being able to communicate. If you’re speaking with a lot of slang, and this also goes for tech jargon or even business jargon, they might not understand you. You have to know who your audience is.
As far as being too personal goes, I always say that it’s constructing a narrative about your life, but it’s not your whole life. You don’t have to share, “I was born in a one-room school cabin.” That’s not the kind of story you’re telling. You’re talking about the moments in your life that led you to this particular field of interest. If you’re in the business world, you’re talking about moments in your life that led you to this particular area of business and for you to want to develop that type of expertise. That’s very niche. The science experiment you did in high school is not relevant.
It is appropriate sometimes to get personal, but be aware of how you talk about it. A lot of students who have traumatic experiences are worried about trotting them out as fodder or feeling used when they write those types of essays and they want to include that experience because it’s relevant, but they’re afraid to. What I always direct students is that they have control over how they describe their experiences. A good rule of thumb is to dedicate minimal time to explaining what happened and more time explaining how you grew from it, changed from it, and what kind of impact it had on your life (hopefully positive).
Resilience is a big buzzword, but it’s also a really important aspect because PhD programs are grueling. These careers can be grueling. In the business world, they want people who are resilient. Showing resilience is a good thing and you can do that by talking about how you moved forward. I think the pity essay can be exploitative of the people who are applying because it’s saying, “What happened to you? How sorry should we feel?” And then you’re in competition with other people over traumatic experiences. That is a really terrible way to evaluate who is good for a program.
I think a much more important and relevant thing is to talk about lessons learned and survivorship. It’s important to acknowledge that sometimes the success of a traumatic experience is living through it and you can also be ambivalent about that. I think it’s fine to be honest that an experience wasn’t ultimately a positive good when something horrible happened to you. It is important to talk about it, because it is a big part of who you are and they do want to know that.
What are a few of the common mistakes that we haven’t discussed you see applicants make with their essays? [21:09]
A big one is treating a statement of purpose as a business memo or as a project proposal. I would also add the old-fashioned cover letter where you’re just listing everything you’ve ever done and you’re not crafting a narrative. You want to be selective about what you include because this is your chance to highlight your best accomplishments, not to talk about absolutely everything.
The other thing is the jargon issues. This is just a reflection of the fact that you’ve developed some expertise in a field so you can assume when you’re applying to an engineering master’s science program, that the people reading it will have engineering degrees. There is a level of expertise you can absolutely assume. However, they may not be specializing in robots. So if you’re going to talk about their software engineers, maybe there are elements that they are not specialists in. It is important to keep in mind that there’s a general degree of expertise that you can expect from your reader but you may want to explain some terms and spell out some of your acronyms, at least the first time you use it.
How would scholarship essays differ from statements of purpose or an application essay? How are they similar? [22:54]
They’re very similar in a lot of ways. I think one difference is that scholarship essays can differ so wildly. Generally speaking, for an admissions essay for a program, you can expect them to want to know how you’re going to fit into the program. You can expect that they want to know about your career outcomes and your career aspirations related to the degree you’re going to get. It’s pretty straightforward.
Scholarships can sometimes be a free-for-all. It can be anything from a philosophical question, to reading a book for an essay for a scholarship. They can be much more personal and frequently, that is the case. We were talking a lot about your personal experiences and how to delicately include those in essays and that’s an issue that comes up way more frequently in scholarship applications because sometimes they’ll directly ask you about those kinds of questions.
Once an applicant has the essay down on paper, should they show it to others? Whom should they show it? How many people should they show it to? [24:07]
I don’t think you should show it to every single person that you know. The reason is for your own sanity because the point of showing it to someone is that they give you feedback. Feedback, from a psychological perspective, is difficult to hear. You need to be selective of the quantity of feedback you’re receiving because you don’t want to overwhelm yourself or get really upset because you feel like it’s so hyper-critical.
The second is you want different types of feedback. Working with us, we are looking at the structure, the writing, and the quality of the writing. At Accepted we are experts, generally speaking, in understanding how different programs work, how admissions work, what they’re looking for, being able to interpret those prompts, et cetera. But there may be a professor who was an expert on the project that you worked on together. They would be really great to show the essay to because they can speak to the technical aspects and make sure that you are describing your project and outcomes accurately. I think that’s a really especially valuable one. If you have a professor or someone who’s in the field, to check for accuracy and to gauge, “Okay, is this as innovative as I think it is?” And making sure that it’s not basic but that it’s specific enough. Then you might just want someone who’s a complete layperson who knows nothing about what you did, to read the essay. This might be a family member or friend who can tell you if it sounds like you. I think being selective and choosing people for different types of editing questions really helps.
How do you recommend an applicant effectively proof and edit their essay? [26:52]
First off, getting an expert look at it is a really good idea. I do think it is beneficial, but generally speaking, the first step is really to go through comment by comment and incorporate that into the essay. Don’t worry too much at that stage about line edits, grammar, or spelling. Once you’re at the refining stage and you’re really trying to polish the essay, you might do a couple of things.
In terms of the structure of the essay, you might do a reverse outline, which is where you take the essay as it is and you make an outline based on the essay. This way you can see where everything is and get a sense if it’s proportionally right to the questions being asked and if you’ve answered all the questions. That’s a structure trick.
In terms of grammar and spelling, it’s really about getting as much visual distance from the paper as possible. Print it out and read it out loud. I recently have been employing Word’s read-aloud function. I love that. It’s really great because it catches things that aren’t spelling errors that you might not see. So you might have written “goat” instead of “great”. And “goat” is spelled correctly so it’s not catching it and you didn’t catch it because it’s so similar.
The thing that’s the hardest is walking away, taking a break, and putting it away. You need distance from the essay in order to see it clearly.
What do you wish I would’ve asked you? What would you like listeners to know about writing essays for a scholarship or application? [29:54]
One underrated thing that I think we don’t talk about is the difference between a personal statement and a statement of purpose which is a little bit of a subtle distinction.
The difference is a personal statement is much more backward-looking. It’s how your experiences shaped you into the person who was pursuing this type of project, wanting to go to this type of school, complete this program, and have this career. It’s how you became the person you are at present. You will also talk about the future, but it’s much more focused on that formative process of how you came to be who you are as someone who is ready to engage in that program and hit the ground running.
A statement of purpose, as we talked about primarily in this podcast today, is much more forward-thinking. It will touch on those formative experiences usually in terms of projects you’ve done that are leading up to what you want to currently work on. But the majority of the essay will be focused on what work you are planning on doing while you’re in the program, both in terms of the project that you want to work on, experiences that you want to have professionally, professors you want to study with, or organizations you might want to join. MBA programs really want participation so that’s a tip for MBA people. Then looking to your future career, how do you want to start out your career and where do you see yourself in the height of your career? What is your end goal at the apex of your career? All of that might not be in a personal statement.
You can tell the difference, again, in terms of the prompt. Are they asking you about your past or are they asking you about your future? That’s something to watch out for because a lot of people conflate the two essays and they are very different.
- Contact Vanessa
- Fitting in and Standing Out, a free guide
- 5 Fatal Flaws to avoid in your Statement of Purpose, a free guide
- Accepted Admissions Consulting Services
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