[Uh, I haven’t written for a while. I’m exhausted somewhere between grad school applications and a full-time teaching job that often feels more like playing taskmaster than educator (how does this country function with such poor school discipline?). I’m probably going to need to slow down this site even more. Lately, I come home, eat dinner, and just sleep]
Oh, what to do when procrastinating a graduate school application essay… why, quote a dead French intellectual of course! After all, what better way to demonstrate your academic pretentions? Make it snappy though, I can’t slack off for too long. Nicolas Chamfort wrote in his Maxims:
“All passions are exaggerated, otherwise they would not be passions” (trans. Hutchison)
Yeah, that sounds about right to me.
I keep repeating the line in my head while writing — and reading advice on how to write — my statement of purpose for graduate school applications. The implicit prompt for most application essays asks the candidate to convey their passion / drive / ambition / will to succeed / find your synonym for their desired program. However, the formal tone of such essays requires that the applicant well… tone it down. This results in a bunch of silly soft contradictions in boilerplate writing guides for statements of purpose that encourage moderation while still trying convince an admissions committee of an immoderate, exceptional passion. For example, take a fairly typical suggestion from the advisors at Wabash College in Indiana:
“Your personal style and passion should shine through the essay. Although this is a formal essay and you should avoid slang or overly casual constructions, its tone should be engaging, even personable (though not personal).”
Personable, not personal, got it. But remember to convey your personal style and, yes, your passion. Oh, and back up though, just not too passionate…
“Extreme effusion backfires. [Several goofy examples] suggest possible psychosis, not reasonable enthusiasm.”
Alright, maybe I’m crazy then. To return to Chamfort, I thought the point of passion was exaggeration. You know, passion, not mere enthusiasm. Would I recruit a “quantum enthusiast” for a physics graduate program? No, that sounds amateurish. But then if someone with a real passion expresses it as such… oh, now that’s just Romantic childishness. To slightly modify one of Wabash’s silly bad examples, “I live and breathe pufferfish” would get your essay laughed into a marine biologist’s trash can, regardless of authenticity.
I understand the point the guide means to make. Hit some happy medium – don’t hold back and don’t exaggerate. Impress but don’t show off. Demonstrate drive, not obsession. However, as far as giving advice goes, it’s bog-standard and near useless, obvious to anyone except the most oblivious writers. For example, consider another point Wabash College asks applications to consider in their writing:
“You may hold strong opinions about the field or be motivated by particular causes. Do not mask your opinions…”
That immediately followed by
”… but be aware of presenting yourself in a tactful, judicious fashion.”
In other words, do not mask your opinions. But do, actually (Not there, there. There. Not there, there). It’s a crapshoot where the idiosyncrasies of each individual essay will override any generic advice. So, what choice do the guide-writers have but to contradict themselves? The actionable tips boil down to the obvious: revise, run through a spell-check, revise again with a live coach, and then make sure to have a strong CV and letters of recommendation before you even begin writing anyway (as a note, the contradiction is not unique to Wabash but I’m nitpicking them because they had one of the better guides).
At moments like this, I hate how dishonest language becomes when it encounters self-interest (so… like always). If the admissions committee really wanted to see my passion, they would watch me in action, not ask me. Of course the problem is that it’s too expensive to observe or interview every applicant. But in writing, I can be anyone, making the question almost pointless as an honest inquiry. For god’s sake, Wabash College even recommends that applicants think of the statement of purpose as a work of fiction! Yes, really!
You are fashioning a “fictional” version of yourself. … You decide what goes in and what does not, and in what order. The notion that you are writing fiction can free you up to be more creative and less uncomfortable that you are “baring your soul.”
Of course, they emphasize that you should not outright lie and, sure, there is some strained, philosophical difference determined by intent that separates fiction from deceit. Though, how about this quote from John Steinbeck:
I think the difference between a lie and a story is that a story utilizes the trappings and appearance of truth for the interest of the listener as well as of the teller. A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape. I suppose if that definition is strictly held to, then a writer of stories is a liar – if he is financially fortunate. (East of Eden)
Skip Steinbeck’s delightful ironic rub about a writer’s finances. Aren’t I applying to graduate school for “profit” or, more honestly in my case, “escape?” I mean, I could pump out some cheap, chipper, maudlin lie about doing it for future public service if you want, overflowing with all of my non-existent enthusiasm (but not passion – don’t exaggerate). To elevate it to fiction, is that also in the interest of the admissions committee, like Steinbeck’s listener?
I don’t know. I imagine that with hundreds of applicants for most of the top programs, it doesn’t even matter – decisions will just come down to some arbitrary distinction between all-excellent candidates. A terrible statement of purpose might hurt me but then I doubt that an exceptional one would do much to help me. Like I said before, look at my CV and read my letters of recommendation first. Because of the pressures to fictionalize and genericize, the statement of purpose ought to operate on the margins.
Again though, I’m really just procrastinating. I’m grasping for any reason to delegitimize the process so that the possibility of doing poorly won’t hurt so much. I know I haven’t done my best work for the draft statement I have written so far because how could I – I work a full-time job that wipes me out at the end of the day, every day. When you’re so tired, it’s hard to feel passionate about anything. I couldn’t exaggerate if I tried.
So, I suppose then, even if I disagree, I’m taking the advice. Thanks Wabash =/