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Whats the P-SOP ? August 5, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, education.

I wonder what use college essays/Statements of Purpose (SOP) are. In other words, what is the purpose of the statement of purpose (P-SOP) ? Especially given that you can always hire someone to do that for you. And people do. For something like $80.00 per essay in this particular case from Jay Matthews. (Jay Matthews is from the Washington Post and in columns titled “Class Struggles” writes used to write on American Education, mostly regarding high school and after.)

Why do educators still persist with these essays ? If an essay is well-written, what really does it say about the applicant ? That she/he has a great story to tell ? Stories often not verifiable ? That the applicant has excellent command over the English language ? Or knows someone who does ? As with several other measures, these essays have a good purpose – they are pretty much the only part of the application where the applicant does not merely fill blanks with factual details and so it gives her/him some control, perhaps helping them stand out. But as with several other policies, we have to judge them by their results rather than the intention behind them.

Over the last 10 years, I have worked with over 40 essays – where ‘working with’ could mean helped draft/edited/reviewed and in some cases written in full. This is mostly helping friends, or friends of friends or in a scant few cases, juniors from college I have never known. They have ranged from applications for American grad schools to Indian B-schools to American med schools. In all but perhaps 4 cases, there was an existing draft which is somewhat changed – sentences reconstructed, cases of poor grammar edited, inappropriate/out of place words (out of the GRE wordlists) replaced by simple ones. I have now gotten (perhaps long gotten) to a point where I would puke at another request for working on the SOP. But each time I tell myself that this is the last SOP I am working with, I am proved wrong.

I don’t think this is a principled stand I am taking up – I am just numbed looking at a SOP and nothing seems new enough or innovative. Now imagine admission officers who read thousands of SOPs every year. Most SOPs are rehashes of previous SOPs, or some sample college essay ripped from the web. Most of these sample SOPs that I have read out of mere curiosity seem too good to be true, giving admission officers exactly what they expect to see, or rather what we think they expect to see. I have known people who have spent over 2 weeks drafting their essays – some kind of an iterative software design where you want to incorporate every little change that every friend-reviewer wants.

What discriminatory power then does a SOP exhibit ? I hope someone (or more than one 🙂 ) who has (have) been on admission committees in US graduate school or IIMs or just about anyone knowledgeable reads this post and has comments to offer.

While I wrote this post, I was reminded of my own graduate application days in 2003. I wrote my SOP in 2 sittings, got it reviewed by 2 people ( one of who said no changes were required). It was okay and it turned out the way it did – part mushy, part geeky – because a few sentences are from a letter to a friend. For 3 years now it has been a part of a zipped archive ( along with a few other SOPs and other material) that is the firs thing I send to friends who ask for help with application process (I then solicit specific questions, if they don’t find what they want in the archive). The SOP has gone to so many that its almost pretty much in the public domain. But never mind I thought, I will put it up myself.

Related Link : Previous post on the topic.



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