How to Talk About Yourself in Your Graduate School Statement of Purpose (SOP)

In this post, I will talk about the ways in which you can describe yourself in your graduate school statement of purpose without sounding desperate, over-confident, or awkward. It’s a difficult line to walk, but it’s an important skill to develop early if you plan on remaining in academia. After all, if you want to successfully apply for grants, scholarships, and other awards, or if you want to apply for PhD programs, fellowships, teaching gigs, and so on, you have to be able to sell yourself through your writing.

Let’s start with content. You’re going to have to describe not only your characteristics and skills, but also your experiences. For instance, you can try to answer the questions below. I suggest going through them one by one and brainstorming, writing down anything and everything that comes to mind. You never know what might be useful later, during the writing portion of your statement.

  • Why are you a unique applicant?
    • E.g., are you an international applicant? Do you have a relation or background with the research topic you wish to pursue? Will you investigate an unstudied or understudied topic?
  • What skills do you possess that will help you in grad school?
    • I.e., research, reading, writing, revising, teaching, public speaking, networking, organization, time management, etc.
  • What experiences do you have that have prepared you for graduate school coursework, the research you wish to pursue, the program’s requirements, the time committment?
    • I.e., paid employment and volunteer experience in and outside of university; your personal background; courses you’ve taken in and outside of university; relationships you’ve developed; communities you’re a part of; and so on.
  • How do your goals and experiences fit with the program you’re applying to?
    • Does your program focus on public speaking and you love presenting research? Does your program offer a creative writing program and you want to pursue creative writing as part of your project? Does your program offer an internship and you’ve been dreaming of working with ABC organization?

Moving on to more detailed matters, let’s speak about word choice and tone. You want to avoid talking yourself down in any respect. If there’s something you’re not good at, don’t mention it! Speak to your strengths. And I get that this is difficult, especially with the rise of imposter syndrome, where folks believe they shouldn’t have earned the achievements and skills others have given them or see in them. But if imposter syndrome is stopping you before you’ve even applied, perhaps reconsider whether graduate school is a good fit for you at this time in your life, or maybe see a therapist (everyone should have one!).

Let’s get into some examples to show what I mean:

  • “I think that I am an excellent…”
    • Stylistically speaking, saying “I think” is an easy part to delete from any paper. Obviously if you’re writing about something, you think it’s true. Second, instead of making your achievement a statement of fact, you’ve watered it down with your personal beliefs.
  • “For the most part, I’m good at” or “Sometimes I engage in XYZ work/skill”
    • This example shows the graduate admissions committee that you don’t believe in yourself or your skills. And grad school is a pretty competitive and overwhelming place to be. So, show the committee that you’re life experiences are enough to get you through their program and your research.
  • “While I am less knowledgeable in…I am well-established in…” or “Relatively speaking, I am good at…”
    • Again, don’t mention things you’re not good at or compare yourself to professionals. If you do mention something you are missing, make sure the program you’re applying to has the resources to help you. For example, maybe you have a lot of practical, hands-on experience, but you haven’t taken a theory course in a few years. Good thing your program has a required theory course in the first year!
  • “I am a competent…”
    • Now this example is tricky because you’d think that saying “I’m good at this one thing” is exactly what I’ve said you should do. But the word “competent” specifically makes it seem like you’re only good at the thing, instead of great. And you want to appear great.

So what words can you use instead? Here’s a list I’ve made of words that I like to use or that I’ve seen others use when talking themselves up:

  • Excellent
  • Exceptional
  • Distinguished
  • Adept
  • Accomplished
  • Expert
  • Dedicated
  • Passionate
  • Committed
  • Intentional
  • Eager
  • Strong
  • Critical

Let me know in the comments if you have any tips or tricks for talking yourself up in your applications!

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