Over the years I have read hundreds of applications for graduate school. I am to the place now where I can tell you within about thirty seconds whether or not I am excited about an applicant, based on the story they tell in their applications materials. What makes me light up? Well, I am a linguist, so you might not be surprised to hear that it is not about the numbers: GPAs, GREs, or TOEFL scores. I jump immediately to the statement of purpose. I get excited when the first 50 words of this document shows me something about who this person is and how they understand and interact with the world.
So, when I am asked for advice about what to say in a statement of purpose, I say: “show me your city block.” As I will explain in this blog post, this advice is informed by different experiences and sources of knowledge, but it is shaped most strongly by one very compelling statement of purpose that I read from a woman who was applying to graduate programs in urban planning. She took her reader through the experience of driving to school when she was a kid growing up in Atlanta, showing us what she saw through the passenger window as she and her mother left her affluent suburb and passed through poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Her struggles to comprehend the disparities that she saw for those few minutes at the beginning and end of every day so impacted her, that they have fueled her passion for study more than 20 years later.
Part of what made her statement of purpose so very compelling was that it contextualized her graduate studies as the first step to realizing a broader professional vision. You saw how this step was just the next logical progression in the expression of her goals. So as you think about how to articulate your professional vision, start by thinking about what you said in your own statements of purpose if you went to grad school. And if you are just thinking about grad school, here is one site and here another which give good advice on composing a compelling letter of rec.
But of course she would pick a block, she is an urban planner!
Think of it as a metaphor, but the truth is that everyone sees something different when they are out there in the world, and a city block is as compelling a place to start as any. The point is to think about what you might notice because of who you are, the experiences that you have had and how these have shaped the way you understand the world.
Show us the world though your eyes
When someone is deciding about whether or not they want to hire you, they want to see the world through your eyes, and what they most want is to have a sense for how you feel about what you see! What makes you empassioned? Why? We talk about this in improv as creating a filter or a lens for your character. There are certain things that only you will notice in the first place because of who you are and what your experiences have been. Once you have noticed them, how do you react to them – what do you make of those things that you notice. What do they mean? WHY?
I grabbed this photo from a site that I found called Living City Block because I realized that I saw things here that were informed by my own recent experiences of looking for a condo. Because of my budget, I have been restricted to looking at small floor-plans, mainly studios, and because I am buying rather than renting, I wanted a space that would suit my priorities in the long term. I had to articulate my thoughts about HOW I want to use my living space now and going forward. When it came down to it, I realized that I need a quiet place in which I can write. In a studio, depending on the layout of the building, I could have up to five noisy neighbors with whom I will have to share a wall (or ceiling or floor). Consequently, one of the first things that I now notice about buildings now is how far apart the windows are as a quick point of reference for how the building is laid out. Even before I walk into a building, I try to deduce from the window configuration how big the units are and how they are oriented relative to one another. So, when I looked at this city block, the first thing that I saw was how much further apart the windows in the building in the foreground were as compared to the taller one in the background. I bet this wasn’t the first thing that you noticed!
So take a minute and think about what you see here.
Maybe you ride a bike, so you notice the bike lanes. Maybe you are drawn to big cities like New York City or London, so you notice that these buildings are not highrises or that the sidewalks seem relatively empty. Maybe you hate spending time in a city, so you are drawn to anything that reminds you of green things growing: the trees. Maybe you are an architect, or a visual artist, so what jumps out at you when you look at this picture are the qualities of the artistic rendering. Whatever it is, get some of it down on paper to see whether why you see what you see means anything.
Show don’t tell!
A classic exhortation for writers, this is how you do it and why it is important.
For a great example of an MLCer who has done this particularly well, check out Katie McIntyyre’s: The five object that tell my story
Can you give me some theory?
Charles Goodwin explores this his Professional Vision using the example of a patch of dirt. To a farmer and an archaeologist, the same patch of dirt will yield different information because of how the dirt is being scrutinized and why:
An event being seen, a relevant object of knowledge, emerges through the interplay between a domain of scrutiny (a patch of dirt, the images made available by the King videotape, etc.) and a set of discursive practices (dividing the domain of scrutiny by highlighting a figure against a ground, applying specific coding schemes for the constitution and interpretation of relevant events, etc.) being deployed within a specific activity (arguing a legal case, mapping a site, planting crops, etc.).
Our ways of seeing are entirely shaped by who we are, what we value, and what we do with our lives. Use the patch of dirt, the city block, or whatever object or experience you chose to talk about to highlight and articulate your passions, your skills, your values.
And when you have figured out a way to tell your story, tell it to me! 🙂