Over the past ten years, I’ve been rejected by graduate schools no less than twenty times. This year, however, I was accepted by three of them. This proves at least two things: 1) Persistence does indeed pay off, and 2) I know a little bit about applying to colleges. A lot of the following might seem like common-sense advice, but once deep in the fray of applying, I find periodic reminders quite helpful.
Now that I’ve succeeded in getting into a Ph.D. program (For the record, I didn’t spend the last decade trying to get into Ph.D. programs. Ten years ago I was applying to get my master’s), I have accumulated some tips for would-be graduate students. Though my experience is with applications at the graduate level, most of this advice is applicable to prospective undergraduates as well. I also asked three of my academic mentors, friends, and the writers of my letters of recommendation for their advice.
Here are a few bullet points on which I will expound below:
- Round up all of your documents as early as possible
- Do well on the GRE
- Research schools in depth
- Tailor your statements of purpose to each school
- Order an extra copy of your transcripts
- Be professional, respectful, and courteous
Round up all of your documents as early as possible: Most applications deadlines are around the first of the year. This is inconvenient because the semester immediately preceding this deadline is the most hectic of the school year — for you if you’re in school, and — more importantly — for the professors from whom you’ll be requesting letters of recommendation. Dr. Steven Shaviro of Wayne State University told me, “I am not sure there is a proper time so much as that it is better to allow for a reasonable amount of time or leeway. Too often I get requests from students which say, ‘sorry, but I need this by Monday.’” Dr. Valerie Renegar of San Diego State University adds, “Well, in general, I would say a month’s notice from when you need the letters is good. But you also have to think about when that is and what is going on in professor’s life. For example, if your letters are due on December 15th then you will need more than a month since both Thanksgiving and final exams and maybe Winter Commencement would be during that time. In that case, I would ask for letters no later than November 1st. Be sure to let your recommenders know how it is going, what happened in your search, and thank them profusely when all is said and done.”
Do well on the GRE: I know that sounds silly, but it’s more important than I ever would’ve thought. As controversial and as big of a pain in the ass as it is, the GRE (or GMAT or LSAT or, for prospective undergrads, SAT) is the one quantitative metric by which all prospective students are measured. It is typically the first thing used to thin the massive pile of applications come admissions time. The program you’re applying to is competitive (if it isn’t, you probably shouldn’t be applying there), and they get a ton of applications. You should assume that all of these applicants have good letters of recommendation, great writing samples, and solid statements of purpose. The GRE is what will determine which of those are actually read. Dr. Brian Spitzberg of San Diego State puts it thusly, “Like most programs with a surfeit of applicants, we first tend to look for obvious markers that help us reduce the pool to a manageable number. In our case, we tend to look at the GREs and GPAs to see that they meet our minimums.”
Having taken the GRE three times in the past decade, I have only one piece of advice: Give yourself plenty of time to study and do it everyday. I’ve given myself more time for review each time I’ve taken it and subsequently I’ve done better each time. As you know by now, the GRE has three sections: Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical — the latter of which now entails writing two essays. There are very few effective tricks (in spite of what the Kaplan guides will have you believe). My favorite book on it is the Princeton Review one, but most of them cover similar ground.
Research schools in depth: Finding out everything you can about the school to which you’re applying will not only help you determine if it’s the place for your further study, but it will also make your application that much stronger. University websites are the obvious place to start, and they typically have catalogs, guidelines, and such you can either download or order. Make note of deadlines and other specific application requirements (e.g., do they want letters to come directly from your recommenders, or do they want everything in one package?).
Don’t hesitate to contact as many people in your respective departments as possible. There’s usually a point person (i.e., a coordinator or adviser of some sort) listed on the site, but dig deeper and contact professors with whom you’d like to work, as well as students. “Talk to graduate students who are already enrolled in the program you are thinking of entering,” advises Dr. Shaviro. “They are the ones who can best tell you about the culture of the department, how well they are treated, what opportunities (both financially and in terms of access to professors, participation in conferences etc) are made available to students, and so on.” Knowing the school will also help you present yourself as a likely candidate via your CV, your letters of recommendation, and your statements of purpose, which brings us to…
Tailor your statements of purpose to each school: If you’re applying to similar departments at a lot of different schools, the temptation will be to just send the same statement of purpose to all of them. This makes things a lot easier (for you and them), but it also won’t get you admitted to school. As Dr. Renegar says, “I can’t even tell you how often we get applications that are addressed to some other University or other program accidentally. It pretty much guarantees that your application won’t be taken seriously.”
“Good fit” is one of the qualitative aspects that committees look at. It’s not so much whether you’re the best applicant on the planet, but whether you’re the best applicant on the planet for their program. A professor at one of the schools to which I applied several times but never got in expressed this idea in a way that stuck with me. She said, “We look at whether or not we can teach you what it is that you want to learn.” Think about that while you’re shaping your statements to fit your chosen programs.
Also, think of your statement of purpose as a cover letter that will actually get read (assuming you make it past the GRE/GPA litmus test), and write it that way. Admission committees are just looking for a reason to ignore your application and to thin the pile. If you can help it, don’t give them a reason. In other words, do all you can to stay in the running. Dr. Spitzberg, who’s been on admission committees adds, “Once the pool is thinned, I tend to look at the quality of the program they are from, and who wrote them letters (how credible the letter writers are). Third, I look for the applicant’s argument for ‘fit’ with our program (e.g., have they done their homework on what our program is about, who is here, and why specifically they think they belong in our program (as opposed to any generic program). Fourth, I look for evidence that they are capable of a ‘scholarly voice’ (i.e., do they write in a professional way, have they presented papers or some equivalent, do they evidence a joy of ideas and research?). Finally, I look for intangibles that indicate a mature person who is eager for study (e.g., international experience, writing projects, evidence of leadership activities, etc.). As for deal-breakers, disorganized writing, misspellings, generic ‘form’ like letters, students who clearly are seeking [some other] degree who are seeking to enter our program as a back-door to that program, and students who seem to be applying because they don’t know what else to do with their life.”
This last thought was expressed by two of the professors I polled. It seems kind of silly, but do make sure that furthering your education is where your heart is before you go through this lengthy and tedious process. You’ll be saving yourself — and many others — a lot of time, money, and sustained effort.
Order an extra copy of your transcripts: You’ll have access to almost everything else you’re collecting from and sending to schools, but official transcripts have to be sent sealed by the school. You can get past this by ordering an extra copy for yourself, which I highly recommend. I made the mistake of assuming my transcripts were correct. Don’t trust them. Order a copy of each of your transcripts for yourself (which you should order early in the process), open them up, and check them out before you send the others off to your prospective schools. I’d taken some classes at a school after I graduated, and I assumed that the transcripts I’d ordered had my degree on them, but they only included those courses I’d taken after graduating. I was able to correct the error, but it was a fluke that I opened a copy (one of my applications required my filling out a GPA worksheet). Don’t make the same mistake. Check them out.
Be professional, respectful, and courteous: Professors are busy people — especially professors who’ve picked up administrative duties like dealing with prospective students. Keep this in mind when contacting them, requesting letters, or just asking questions. Sure, they’re interested in bringing in new students (and in helping past students progress), but don’t expect them to drop everything just because you’ve decided to apply to school.
Again, the professors who comprise the admission committees at the schools to which you’re applying are just looking for a reason to ignore your application. Keep that in mind as you assemble it and as you approach them with questions.
Oh, and if you have any questions that you think I can help with, leave them in the comments below. Also, if you have any tips for other prospective students, leave those too.
Further tips from Dr. Valerie Renegar:
Be organized. Make a file for each school you are applying for and include all of the relevant info from their website. Make a list of everything that goes into the application file and list it on the front of the folder and check it off as you accumulate your materials. Mark the deadline in bold marker both on the file and on a big calendar.
Make sure to project your most professional face in assembling your materials. Neatness counts, as does spelling and overall appearance of your materials. Send everything the school needs together in the same envelope so they don’t have to contact you and ask for additional things or, worse, not consider your applications.
Make sure that your cover letter and Statement of Purpose are tailored to the school and program you are applying to. I can’t even tell you how often we get applications that are addressed to some other University or other program accidentally. It pretty much guarantees that your application won’t be taken seriously. After all, why would we want to include someone in our incoming class who didn’t even take the time to proofread their application materials?
Highlight the things about you that would make you an interesting addition to a class. PhD programs only admit 10 or 15 people a year so they are really selecting specific individuals. You need to make an argument about why they should choose you. What do you bring to the table that Johnny grad student doesn’t?
Finally, try to be patient and calm through the process. In my experience people get in some places, and they don’t get into others. It has very little to do with the person and more to do with what is going on at the school, who is graduating, what the grad student body looks like, etc. There is no way to tell and it will do no good to try to second guess the process. You just have to see how it goes and then decide between the places that want you. Try not to get your heart set on a school until they have accepted you. Odds are you are going to be happy and flourish wherever you might end up so you just need to trust the process. Don’t say yes to the first school that lets you in. Just wait until you know everything and then start making comparison and decisions. Visit if you can. Ask for funding for a visit, too. I think most people end up in place that is good for them, but that is hard to remember when you are being gripped by insecurity and wonder what will happen! It’s a difficult time, but it is only a couple of months so just settle back and stay distracted with other things.
Special thanks to Brian Spitzberg, Valerie Renegar, and Steven Shaviro for their input on this piece, as well as writing my many letters of recommendation. Thanks also to letter-writers past: Douglas Rushkoff, Andrew Feenberg, and Howard Bloom.