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I am not a psychology major.

I came across this paper that shows that using erudite vocabulary will not do one good.

What makes me want to ask here is a case study in the paper. Long story short, a bunch of admission officers, unaware of being tested, reviewed the application documents such as statements of purpose and were asked to rate them. It turned out that those documents using big, learned words instead got somewhat lower rating than those using simple, direct words.

Though this research seems convincing, my concern is: Is this phenomenon general enough to suggest one should avoid using erudite vocabulary if one does not use the erudite words in an affected way?

If you are experienced admission reviewers, would you please throw some light or insights on this issue?

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    I am a native English speaker with a 98th percentile verbal GRE score, and I had to look up the meaning of "erudite." If that's the kind of vocabulary you're thinking of using, I definitely vote "avoid." – ff524 Sep 12 '14 at 3:20
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    I see :) maybe it would help to watch lots of English-language unscripted TV? (only half kidding!) – ff524 Sep 12 '14 at 3:32
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    @ff524: Since we're throwing impressions around -- i.e., don't take anything too seriously -- I am a bit surprised by your reaction. I don't find "erudite" especially obscure or ostentatious. In fact I had a quite different reaction: in my opinion, the phrase "erudite word" is not proper usage. "Erudite" means "Having or showing knowledge that is gained by studying : possessing or displaying erudition". Thus it applies to people, not to words. I think that is the sort of thing that the OP is worried about: if you use big words even slightly improperly, it creates a bad impression. – Pete L. Clark Sep 12 '14 at 5:22
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    "Erudite vocabulary" is at least somewhat better usage: a vocabulary is the set of words possessed by a person. A person who possesses a large vocabulary therefore shows erudition. (Moreover, if I'm being totally honest, I don't find Princeton Review to be the height of erudition: "word smart genius" is certainly not an eloquently turned phrase.) It's still not great: having a large vocabulary shows erudition; the vocabulary is not itself erudite. – Pete L. Clark Sep 12 '14 at 5:30
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    Update: our sister site has a great discussion of the word "erudite" that I totally endorse: english.stackexchange.com/questions/168099/…. The answer to the title question is "yes", but such usage is metonymic. As they say, it's acceptable to describe a school as erudite because clearly what is intended is the people in the school. Similarly for a work or a lecture: the true referent is the creater. But now try this out on a "word": is the metonymy meant to extend to all those who know the word? That's a big stretch. – Pete L. Clark Sep 12 '14 at 6:14
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Erudition and eloquence are useful tools for academics to possess.

However, excessively erudite writing can become opaque. That's not what you want to achieve in scholarly writing. Scholarly writing should be lucid, informative, and as direct as possible. Thus, using "five-dollar" vocabulary when "fifty-cent" words will do probably distracts from your writing overall. On the other hand, if that five-dollar word is exactly the word you need in a given situation, don't be afraid to use it. It's better, in my opinion, to moderately challenge the reader in a concisely written text than to be long-winded.

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The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. - Mark Twain

What You Shouldn't Do

As I explain below, the article does a good job of illustrating what you should not do: do not, under any circumstances, write out a statement of purpose and then have a computer blindly replace words with longer synonyms taken from the Microsoft Word Thesaurus. A word is not better merely because it is longer - but sometimes a longer word is the better word. Your goal is to communicate, and you should seek to impress with your message and communication skill - not your ability to find really long words and use them poorly.

Problems With Interpreting the Research Article

First of all, I must say that I love the title of the article you linked: "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly". From a psychological/cognitive perspective, however, it is not sufficient - or even suitable - to use to draw a conclusion on how one might wish to write a statement of purpose.

An excerpt from Experiment 1 I think will help to understand this. Which of these following sentences is best?

1) I desire to go to Graduate School so that I can learn to recognize literature satisfactorily.

2) I want to go to Graduate School so that I can learn to recognize literature well.

3) I want to go to Graduate School so that I can learn to know literature well.

Here's the problem: these sentences, while similar, do not convey the same precise meaning and attitude!

In the first case, the sentence gives the impression that a person wants to "recognize" literature "satisfactorily". This sounds like a person aspires to be able to read something and say, "Ah, this is definitely a kind of literature."

Moreover, they want to be satisfactory at this skill? If a person wrote a letter of reference for you that read, "This student's skills in English Literature were satisfactory" you'd be damned by faint praise! Here, satisfactory sounds an awful lot like "average" or "met minimum expectations".

This is all for an essay to try to get into Stanford - by any measure a competitive school. You don't need to go to Stanford to be satisfactory at a minor skill. Next applicant!

The next sentence is a little better, as a person wants to be able to do something "well". This is a conservative, but still potentially ambitious, way to say that you want to be actually good at something - superior to the average. "Well" and "satisfactory" may be synonyms (and thus how the word was chosen), but they don't have the same precise meanings or connotations in every context.

The final example sentence says that they want to "know literature well." Knowledge is a higher goal than mere recognition. Compare the phrases "I recognize her" with "I know her" and you get the idea - similar meaning, but not at all the same.

The funny thing is, sentence 1 is marked as "highly complex", 2 is "medium-complexity", and 3 is "original" because word length was used as a proxy for complexity. The originals tended to be marked higher than their "more complex" counterparts, but in every case included in the appendix I found the originals were superior to their algorithmically-derived versions.

At least in Experiment 1, the research shows that replacing words blindly with their longer synonyms results in a poorer quality product than that produced by an intelligent human writing a statement of purpose to try to gain admittance to a competitive University.

Before I go on, I wish to point out that this article is good research and interesting, and helps to build the field, and I do not criticize the authors for trying something and reporting their findings; these findings are a step on the road to greater understanding. But this paper alone is not suitable for drawing conclusions.

How You Should Actually Write

In most fields the goal is actual, genuine communication. Most professors and admittance personnel aren't looking to recruit low-quality bullshitters - they surely think they work with enough of such people as it is! So you need to decide what you are: a brilliant bullshitter with an extraordinarily artful grasp of the language and rhetoric, or a genuine communicator. There is a demand for both sets of people (in some fields more than others -cough-), but you need to decide: which extreme are you closer to fitting?

If you choose to showcase your genuine communication skill and interests in your statement of purpose, write it out from the heart first, and then you can go in and agonize a bit more on word choice. Some things will inevitably need to be made simpler, while sometimes a few big-money words will suit just perfectly.

What always dominates an appraisal of writing is the appropriate words. If I say "I'm going to peruse your missive and aggrandize some terminal verbiage" ... those are big words, but they are also supercilious, awkward, and downright poor choices. It would convey the meaning that I am trying to compensate for a lack of actual intelligence and understanding by trying to baffle you with more obscure parts of the lexicon. [Great, now I can't stop doing it...] Or I'm trying to be funny. Or I'm a bit of an ass... thanks in part to the fundamental attribution error, such inappropriate word choices can doom an application.

Get Advice and Feedback

Statistically, only 1 out of 10 people are in the top 10% of ability in written communication skills. Even for those in the top 10, advice and feedback from others on their actual written work is invaluable and there is no perfect substitute. This applies equally to native and non-native speakers - don't stumble in the dark when you can just turn the light on!

Asking someone to review specific word-choice and phrasing is great, and some people have greater editing skills than others so you'll likely need more than one or two pairs of eyes. A good rule of thumb is if someone is willing to spend the time to write a letter of recommendation for you, they are probably willing to spend a little time going over a letter of purpose with you. After all, they wouldn't want their own words to fall on deaf ears, would they?

Career centers, student-employment departments, English tutors/clubs/Professors, and college application workshops are all potentially great sources of help and review, and if you can bring a written draft of your statement with you then the time might prove extremely productive.

As a parting word of advice, I find that busy people who only spend a few minutes with your writing can be very good sources of help on matters like this, because if they can't understand something or don't like the wording in such a quick read the people who actually read your application probably won't either!

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  • Thank you so much for your detailed answer. :) You gave a comprehensive remark on the s.o.p. stuff. But I regret to have to say that the answer does not scratch where it itches. Incidentally, I am not the kids that you think and that try to impress others by big words. I think you should see this point if you browsed all those comments. – Megadeth Sep 12 '14 at 15:27
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    @Comeseeconquer My apologies if I conveyed that I thought you were - indeed, I figured you weren't at all! I just wished to convey that trying to impress others with big words won't, in and of itself, suffice - but that big words alone are not a problem. An excellent use of idiom, by the way, and I hope it will be of some help even if it didn't precisely hit the spot. – BrianH Sep 12 '14 at 15:42
  • Much appreciated. The answer is helpful in any sense. – Megadeth Sep 13 '14 at 3:18
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Your question reminds me of the days when I was a young schoolkid and had barely started composing articles, essays etc. I had a habit of picking up the dictionary and learning a new word every day, writing it down somewhere, and (embarrassingly) also revising my notes every weekend or so. Invariably, it got to a stage where these fancy words started entering the articles and I started getting appreciated for it. Since I wasn't the only one in my class doing it, soon it got to a competition of sorts - who can use more fancy language and impress the teacher and ''awe'' the (misguided) audience. In the process, we got to a stage where we were bending sentences to accommodate our sweat-and-blood, or worse still, writing sentences according to the new word. I'm sure this isn't too uncommon.

But now we look back at this and think that we were stupid (of-course we were schoolkids). Why would anybody do that? The purpose of having a good vocabulary is to have at your disposal the most-appropriate word for the intended purpose. And nothing more.

So, coming back to your question, the purpose of a statement-of-purpose is to convey certain information to the people on the other side of the table. They want you to convey this information using minimum clutter, and be as to-the-point as possible. Use the most appropriate words for the intended purpose - think over it and take your time in composing the SoP. It is extremely unlikely that any sensible person sitting on the other side would be so impressed on reading exotic, but inappropriate-as-per-the-context, words in the SoP that he will count that as an advantage over the others. However, it is more likely that if he will have the same impression of you as you get by reading my first paragraph. I don't think that's an advantage at all.

Hope that helps :)

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  • I appreciate your sharing experiences and answer, thank you very much. However: 1) As a non-native English speaker, I don't even have the sense of "fancy". My use of those words that are considered fancy or whatsoever by native speakers is simply because I DON'T KNOW THOSE WORDS THAT ARE CONSIDERED NATURAL OR NOT AFFECTED TO NATIVE SPEAKERS. 2) I do not know the impression that my writing would give to its readers. 3) Therefore, your answer may not be applicable for me, it is more applicable for undergraduate native English speakers... – Megadeth Sep 12 '14 at 5:54
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    @Comeseeconquer - So, does my post above give you the impression that I AM a native English speaker? Nativity isn't important. Exposure is. :) – 299792458 Sep 12 '14 at 5:59
  • Well, I would say that nativity is unessential here; for your argument is based upon the ability to distinguish the connotation of words. Though it is not necessary that having such ability implies being a native English speaker, it is more probable. This is why I implicitly assumed nativity. :) Thank you for your time! – Megadeth Sep 12 '14 at 6:03
  • @Comeseeconquer - Right. But since you say that you don't get the meaning of ''fancy words'', I'll give you an example. (I was in the middle of composing it when you posted, so why delete?) A ''non-native'' speaker may think that win and conquer are synonymous. However, as you probably know, with the second word, there is an undertone of ruthlessness, while the former may also be softer (as in win someone over). So, if somewhere the right word is ''win'' and if I use ''conquer'', perhaps because it looks more difficult, I will end up spoiling the intended meaning. (contd.) – 299792458 Sep 12 '14 at 6:10
  • (contd.) That's what I'm advising you to avoid. Of course, that was a very primitive example (which immediately struck me on reading your username). I mean in a more generalized sense. :) – 299792458 Sep 12 '14 at 6:11
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To quote NN Taleb in The Bed of Procrustes:

An erudite is someone who displays less than he knows; a journalist or consultant, the opposite.

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Two things are important here: 1) having control of vocabulary, however plain-spoken or erudite it is, and 2) writing in such a way that your meaning is clear and your statement effective.

If you have control of your vocabulary, you will not use "erudite vocabulary" in an affected way. If you understand the connotations and denotations and idiomatic uses of a word, you will use it correctly. Don't use a word because it sounds impressive; use it because you know it's the right word in the right place. If you have questions about vocabulary in your statement, run it by your academic advisor or a faculty member you work well with.

More important: Make your writing as powerful as it can be. Whatever vocabulary you use, choose strong subjects and active verbs. Seems elementary, but it's essential. Examples:

  • One reason I would be a good fit for your program is my background in biophysics.
  • My background in biophysics makes me an excellent fit for your program.

I must offer a correction to the previous poster's quote from Mark Twain -- the difference between that quote and this is like the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning:

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

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