Exaggerated Sample: Grad School Statement of Purpose/Personal Statement Essay

The difference between a good essay and a bad essay is that good essays are read willingly. Bad essays are only read because someone is paid to read them.

Too often, I see applicants write their grad school statements of purpose in the following form:

Paragraph 1:

Generic statement about the riveting nature of their field of interest. Uninspired sob story describing how it influenced their childhood. Vague description of how it will alter the course of humanity in the next decade. Obligatory statement brown-nosing the department they're applying to, proclaiming how it is the leader in said field. Bold and unsubstantiated claim that they are the ideal candidate for spearheading the department into the next frontier of this field.

Paragraph 2 to n-1:

Description of a relevant project or activity that they've participated in. Vague description of the skills they've developed, with few or no concrete examples showing how they exercised these skills. Claim that they are now an expert at this skill. Vaguely supported claim that this project changed their worldview and irreversibly altered the direction of their career.

Paragraph n:

Overly broad statement of how this is only a stepping-stone in their future career in this field. Hand-wavy description of what they might do in this field after graduation. Statement reiterating how significant the field is to the fundamental principles of human civilization. Concede that working in this field will be difficult, but then conclude that their skills and experience make them uniquely suited for this position and that they will make the department and the world "a better place."

I exaggerate a bit, but I've seen enough of these that without prior payment, I refuse to read another statement of purpose or personal statement like this ever again. I can only imagine how many of these the reviewers have seen over the course of their careers, but I hope they're compensated appropriately.

The problem with this kind of writing is that not only are generic and broad statements boring to read, but they lack substance. Just like a 1st grader can proclaim himself to be the king of the world, anyone can write bold claims in their essays, and readers will simply toss out any credibility they have for you. If you want the reader to know that some event changed your life, show it. Give examples of actions you took since this event. Often times, we intentionally choose to be vague because we can't think of any examples, but we must keep in mind that this only hurts us.

I strongly urge everyone to have at least one other person read over their essays before submitting them. While our writing might make sense to us, remember that we are not writing for ourselves, but rather for other people.

Check out the links below for specific criticism regarding this kind of sample essay.

Conciseness: When Word Count Matters

Storytelling: Selling a Life of Mediocrity


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