tips on grad school applications

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This post is adapted from a Twitter thread originally posted at @NBedera.

It’s that application time of year again and my inbox is flooded with emails from prospective students asking for advice about how to apply. To benefit everyone who didn’t have the courage to hit send (which we know can be raced, classed, and gendered), I offer you the advice I give out the most regularly.

GREs. Prospective students ask me all the time about whether or not their GRE scores are high enough to attend Michigan. Everyone worries about the GRE scores and sometimes more than any other part of their applications. Don’t. In many departments, GRE scores are used entirely as a minimum threshold for admission and that minimum is lower than you think. Take the test seriously, but move on to other concerns once it’s over. Literally everything else in your application matters more than your GRE score.

Letters of rec. It’s tempting to choose the most prestigious person who will write you a letter (i.e., the university president or a dean), but it’s actually better to get your letters from whoever knows you best and can speak to your academic work. Prioritize professors from whatever you majored in during college and other academics on campus who got to know you as a person and a scholar. If you’re switching departments for grad school, the advice is the same unless a grad program demands otherwise.

My best letter of rec advice? Ask for letters of rec at least a month in advance. And make them easy to write. Give your letter writers a packet with a list of your application due dates, your unofficial transcript, your CV/resumé, the reasons you’re interesting in applying to each school, and a blurb on what you think they can speak to about you as a scholar. (A shout out to Richard Badenhausen who made all of the Westminster College Honors students do this to get a letter from him. It’s some of the best advice I ever received.)

Choosing a program. The short version? Apply anywhere you’re applying for a reason. And “It’s #1” is a bad, bad, BAD reason to apply anywhere.

To figure out if you’re interested in a certain program, poke around the website. If it starts to look good, email a graduate student. We’re more likely to respond than professors and we’ll be real with you about whatever questions you ask. If you’re nervous about being an inconvenience, pick a grad student whose last name is toward the end of the alphabet. Those of us with names like Bedera get a ton of emails. The people toward the tail end get far fewer. Most programs give doctoral students a place to write a blurb about ourselves. Contact someone who has similar interests to you. (If you can’t find someone, that’s a sign that this program might not be right for you after all.)

If you do reach out, make the most of that email. Don’t ask us stuff that you could Google. Ask us about our experiences, department culture, and what we think about the communities we live in. Feel free to tell us which professors you want to work with and ask if we have intel on them or recommendations for others you should consider. We can also point you toward other grad students you might want to talk to.

But do not–I repeat, do NOT–just send us a watered down version of your application and ask, “Am I a good fit?” We have no idea. We’re not on the admissions committee. And emails like that completely undervalue the time and worth of the grad student you’re contacting. Engage us in a conversation instead.

It’s not a bad idea to email professors who are potential advisors as well. When I applied to grad school the first time, this made me really nervous, but it shouldn’t have. Anyone who is a jerk to you probably wouldn’t be a great advisor anyway. It’s a decent litmus test for finding a faculty member who cares.

Following folks of interest on Twitter is also a great idea. It’s a first glimpse into the personality of students and faculty.

The statement of purpose. This actually is the most important part of your application. In a good one, you have two jobs: (1) to convey why you want to go where you’re applying and (2) to convey why you are qualified to go there. The second part gets overlooked a lot, but it’s important. Wanting something is not the same as being prepared for it.

A statement of purpose should read like the more colorful version of your CV. Walk through your accomplishments and explain how each of those things made you more sure that graduate study in whatever discipline is right for you. Include things that don’t fit into your CV, but that are important to you or changed your academic perspective. As an example, my undergraduate senior thesis was turned into a play and used as the reason my alma mater adopted an anonymous reporting form for sexual assault. Those things got a prominent spot in my statement of purpose.

For the “why here” part of your statement, focus on the stuff that is special to your academic interests. Go beyond the department and dig into the school culture. Mentioning campus-wide research institutes or lecture series is a good way to convey that you know what you would be getting into. This is also the part where you list professor you would want to work with within your department of interest. In sociology, there are usually three faculty on a dissertation committee, so mentioning three professors is a good rule of thumb.

Small stuff matters. Double check the spelling of any name you have in your application. Make sure you remembered to insert the right university’s name in your form-ish statement of purpose.

Don’t be too literary. This is a common mistake first gens make (including me–I did this in my undergrad applications). Your gorgeous writing matters less than your message here. Drop the fancy, descriptive introduction and get to the point.

And finally, if you’re serious about a school, take the time to customize your statement of purpose. All of the schools I got into are the ones that I rewrote sections of my statement of purpose for.

Biggest piece of advice? Don’t try to game the system. Be yourself. It’s the only way you will end up at a program that is actually a good fit for you.

Good luck with your applications! I look forward to having many of you as colleagues!

Author: nbedera

Nicole Bedera is a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @NBedera.

2 thoughts on “tips on grad school applications”

  1. “Make sure you remembered to insert the right university’s name in your form-ish statement of purpose.” Oh my, yes! Little turns readers off more than having the wrong name in the essay!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with this post in terms of how I evaluate files, but I’d add three qualifiers. (1) Many evaluators DO put heavy weight on GREs and I think it is worth while to do what you can to raise them (i.e. studying for the test), especially if other parts of your profile (especially grades) are shaky. Fabio Rojas made this point over in orgtheory (2) If you have weak GREs AND weak grades [below a 3.5 is a weak GPA from most schools] AND have not written a good meaty research paper that you can use as a writing sample, you will have a hard time getting into a top graduate program and should get some good advice about choosing an appropriate program or figuring out how to remediate your record. (3) Just pulling names off a web site is rather pointless if you don’t know what the people actually do. Researching grad programs to find an appropriate one would involve at least reading the individual faculty members’ web sites to see how they describe their current research. You can also reach out to people to express interest in what they wrote on the web site and ask what they are working on now.

    I really like the advice to try to connect with the grad students in a program. Most programs list their grad students, sometimes just with names (not all that helpful) and other times with short blurbs about what kind of research they are doing or even links to web sites (more helpful for picking whom to email). These sites may or may not list the students’ emails. You can also ask the program to forward your inquiry to their grades; my program will not give the contact information about a current student to an inquiring student, but will forward a message so our students can respond if they wish.

    Liked by 1 person

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