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During my freshman year at Yale University, I was sitting in Postcolonial African Literature class when Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o succeeded in attracting me to the study of African literature through nothing more than a single sentence. He asserted that when a civilization adopts reading and writing as its chief form of social communication, it frees itself to forget its own values, since those values no longer have to be part of a lived reality to have significance. I was immediately fascinated by the idea that the written word can alter individual lives, affect one’s identity, and perhaps even shape national consciousness.
Professor Ngugi’s assertion forced me to think in a radically new way; I was finally confronted with the notion of literature not as an agent of vital change, but as a potential instrument of stasis and social stagnancy. I began to question the basic assumptions with which I had, until then, approached the field. How does “literature” function away from the written page, in the lives of individuals and societies? What is the significance of the written word in a society in which the construction of history is neither necessarily recorded nor even linear?
Ruminating on such questions, I found the general scope of comparative literature to be woefully inadequate, since it did not allow students to question the inherent integrity or subjectivity of their discourse. Comparative literature approaches Asian, African, European, and American texts with the same analytical tools, ignoring the fact that, within each culture, literature may function in a different capacity and with a completely different sense of urgency. Seeking out ways in which literature tangibly impacted societies, I began to explore other fields, including history, philosophy, anthropology, language, and performance studies.
The interdisciplinary nature of my work is best illustrated by my senior thesis, “Time Out of Joint: Issues of Temporality in the Songs of Okot p’Bitek.” In addition to my literary interpretations, the thesis drew heavily upon both the Ugandan author’s own cultural treatises and other anthropological, psychological, and philosophical texts. By using tools from other disciplines, I was able to interpret the author’s literary works while developing insight into Ugandan society and the popular psychology that gave birth to the horrific Idi Amin regime. In addition, I was able to understand further how people interacted with the author’s works and incorporated (or failed to incorporate) them into their individual, social, and political realities.
On a more practical level, writing my thesis also confirmed my suspicion that I would like to pursue an academic career. When I finished my undergraduate studies, I felt that a couple of years of professional work would give me a better perspective on graduate school. I decided to secure a position that would grant me experiences far removed from the academic world, yet which would also permit me to continue developing the research and writing skills that I needed to tackle the challenges of a future academic career. I have fulfilled this goal by working as a content developer at a Silicon Valley Internet company for the past two years. The experience has been both enjoyable and invaluable–to the point that colleagues glance at me with a puzzled look when I tell them that I am leaving the job to return to school. In fact, my willingness to leave such a dynamic, high-paying job to pursue my passion for literature reflects my keen determination to continue along the academic path.
Through a master’s degree program, I plan to explore further the issues I confronted during my undergraduate years by integrating the study of social, cultural, and linguistic anthropology into the field of literary analysis. I believe that by adopting the tools used in such disciplines, methods of inquiry can be formulated that will facilitate innovative interpretations of works that are both technically sound and sociologically insightful. Thus far, my studies have concentrated largely on African and Caribbean literatures, and I am particularly interested in studying these geographic areas in more specific historical and cultural contexts. I also seek to increase my knowledge of African languages, which will allow me to study the lingering cultural impact of colonialism in modern-day African literature. Eventually, I would like to secure an academic post in a Comparative Literature department, devoting myself to both research and teaching at the college level.
The Modern Thought and Literature program at Berkeley is uniquely equipped to guide me toward these objectives. While searching for a graduate school that would accommodate my interdisciplinary interests, I was thrilled to find a program that approaches world literature with a cross-disciplinary focus, recognizing that the written word has the potential to be an entry point for social and cultural inquiry.
The level of scholarly research produced by Berkeley’s Comparative Literature department also attracts me. Sanjay Kadavera’s, “Culture, Power, Place,” for instance, provided one of my first and most influential glimpses into the field of cultural anthropology. Professor Kadavera’s analysis of the local, national, and foreign realms, achieved through a discussion of postcolonial displacement and mixed identities, has led me to believe that–given the complexity of modern societies–comparative literature’s focus on borders (both national and linguistic) has been excessively arbitrary. Even more significant is the accurate rendering of individually-lived realities that may then be synthesized with other experiences. I could greatly benefit from Professor Kadavera’s teaching and guidance in applying these ideas to the literary arena, for his work is representative of the rigorous yet creative approach I would pursue upon joining the department.
“Overall I thought the service was excellent. In fact, I am quite overwhelmed. I know the value of a ‘second pair of eyes’ as I do quite a bit of writing myself, and my editor did an excellent job finding the inherent themes in my essays that I had only been fumbling at. Being a perfectionist myself, I felt that my original work was unconvincing, but now my essays are so much improved that if I were on the admissions council, I’d admit me.”
You are clearly a strong and vivid writer. Your writing is elegant and precise, and this essay makes a very compelling argument in favor of your admission. Nonetheless, this essay did contain a few weak points, as well as a number of information gaps.
Your personal statement was structurally solid, but your tendency to “over-write” sentences at times obscured the meaning of what you were trying to express. You managed to pack a lot of information into the piece; my job, then, was to draw on this information to clarify your ideas by both refining your language and by shoring up your arguments.
With respect to the information gaps, there were a number of questions that popped into my head as I read your essay. Naturally, the answers to some of these questions will be apparent from the remainder of your application, but as a rule of thumb (and for the sake of clarity), it is best to make the essay as self-contained and thorough as possible.
When did you graduate, and what have you been doing since? Why did you choose your current job? How does this experience relate to your academic experiences and goals? To which degree program are you applying? Why do you want to pursue this degree? Do you want to become a professor?
In revising your essay, I attempted to blend answers to these questions into the text. I indicated where you should include additional information, but in general, I tried to extrapolate answers from your note and from your original essay.
Elsewhere, rather than make radical (and unnecessary) structural changes, I concentrated on refining your language, highlighting your most interesting ideas, and streamlining the logic of your arguments. Many of these changes are quite subtle, but they have a powerful impact on the overall flow of the text.
I rephrased passages that contained awkward English, eliminated words that seemed extraneous or repetitive, and varied vocabulary and sentence length in several places throughout the essay. Finally, some of your paragraphs were unnecessarily long, so I broke them up into separate discussions.
Here are my specific comments on each individual paragraph of your essay, along with suggestions for further improvement:
“He argued that, when a civilization adopts reading and writing as the chief form of social communication, it truly frees itself to forget its own values, because those values no longer have to be part of a lived reality in order to have significance.”
You might want to consider rewriting this sentence to make its meaning a little clearer–I found it rather confusing, perhaps because you are trying to convey an epiphany involving a rather complicated concept in a single sentence. This might not, of course, be much of a problem for an academic well versed in such theories, but, in general, it is a good idea to set layman’s comprehension as your standard for clear writing.
Are you sure that you do not need to identify p’Bitek? Is it safe to assume that your readers will all know who he is?
I added a paragraph to your essay. As I mentioned earlier, your take on your work experience was missing from your discussion, and you need to bridge the gap between your highly academic explanation of your research interests and the more prosaic discussion of why you left academia and why you now wish to return. I tried to smooth this transition by connecting the two ideas, especially at the beginning of this paragraph. Since I have no idea what you have done since you graduated, or for how long, I simply plugged in randomly made-up details. Be sure to replace this information with accurate details about your experience.
“…methods of inquiry can be formulated that allow for the interpretation of works that are both technically sound and sociologically insightful.”
This part of your sentence was very confusing. Do you mean that the interpretation itself would be technically sound and sociologically insightful, or that those methods of inquiry would allow for the interpretation of sound, insightful works? If you mean the latter, why do you need to characterize the works as sound and insightful? Should not the emphasis be on the quality of the interpretation?
Sorry if I sound like a broken record, but hopefully you see how badly this phrase needs to be clarified.
“I also seek to increase my knowledge of African languages, which will allow me to study the lingering cultural impact of colonialism in modern day African literatures written in European languages.”
This sentence was also confusing. If you are going to study literature written in European languages, why do you want to learn African languages? I have no doubt that you need both, but this sentence seems to contain a logical fallacy.
“My faith in the tangible power of the written word that led me into the study of literature as a young student is my driving force today and will be for the foreseeable future. My ultimate goal is to gain the knowledge and tools necessary to illuminate that power to others.”
These sentences are far too vague. Since you have already made this point, I suggest leaving these sentences out.
“His complicating of the traditionally drawn local, national and foreign realms through the discussion of post-colonial displacement and mixed identifications first led me to believe that comparative literature’s focus on national and linguistic borders was fairly arbitrary in the modern world.”
This is a prime example of an overly complicated sentence. Some of the phrasing is also a bit awkward. What do you mean, for instance, by Gupta’s complicating? Is there a better way to phrase this?
I am also unsure what you mean by the phrase, “the traditionally drawn.” Here is the interpretation of this sentence that I have ventured in the text:
“Professor Gupta’s analysis of the local, national, and foreign realms, achieved through a discussion of post-colonial displacement and mixed identities, has led me to believe that–given the complexity of modern societies–comparative literature’s focus on borders (both national and linguistic) has been excessively arbitrary.”
Please make sure to revise this sentence if my interpretation is completely off-target.
With all the changes I have proposed, you will have to use your judgment and accept only those which you think are best.
In the revised essay, the logic of your text is clearer, the narrative is more complete, and your arguments are better structured–all without sacrificing the persuasive tone and efficient analysis of your writing. I wish you the best of luck in the admissions process.
Your EssayEdge Editor