Month: October 2010

Conformity Has Its Place When Applying to Graduate School

I often tell students who are thinking of graduate school that they need to do some things to set themselves apart from the crowd. The idea is a general one, and it acknowledges that nearly all of the applicants who get accepted into good graduate programs are exceptional in at least one or two respects… or, at least, they are perceived as being exceptional by those who make the decisions about which applicants are to be accepted.

This is just common sense, you say? I agree. Still, I sometimes meet students who don’t quite appreciate the finer nuances behind the idea that they should stand out, or else they don’t understand the limits of this notion, or the appropriate contexts in which to apply it. As a result, they do indeed come across as being very different from the vast majority of their peers – but not in a positive way.

Clearly, there are bad ways to stand out, and no one needs me to explain the obvious ones, such as being more loud, obnoxious, or rude than others, or more immature, or more pretentious. If you’re a jerk, I can’t help you change that. You’ll just have to hope it doesn’t get in the way of your success (but, it probably will). What I’m trying to do in today’s blog is to help those of you who aren’t jerks to avoid inadvertently coming across to others in a way that leads them to miss noticing what a fine person and excellent grad-school prospect you may actually be. My aim is not so much to help you make a good impression, but to help you avoid making a bad impression.

I should clarify what I mean when stating that grad school applicants want to be perceived as “standing apart from the crowd.” The idea applies to at least a few general contexts:

The first context is that of enabling your current professors to discover your talents (especially those that are relevant to academics and research) and any positive character attributes you possess that are superior to those of most other students (let’s assume that you have a few). Many suggestions of how to stand out in these ways are discussed in previous blogs posted here, in various articles that have appeared on the website, and in the book Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In”.

I’m sure I’ll have lots more to say about this aspect of standing apart from the crowd in future blogs and articles. For now, however, the point is simply that you will eventually need letters of recommendation to support your applications, and these will probably come from professors who know you. So, you need to make sure they perceive you as being superior to most of your peers in some important respects.

Like it or not, its important to realize that comments or behaviors that are innocuous to you and people you know may still evoke some disdain in others who may have different attitudes about certain things. For example, some students underestimate the extent to which their appearance or outward behavioral tendencies affect the attitudes that certain professors have about them. Its true that the general culture of most universities is very liberal with respect to expressions of individuality through the types of clothes or hairstyles, piercings or tattoos, that some students (and some professors) sport. Some students wear outlandish clothes or garish makeup, and that’s all fine, and in most contexts it doesn’t bother anyone. But, students who stand out in this way may find it harder to earn respect based on any truly relevant strengths they possess. Perhaps this isn’t fair or rational, but it is a fairly reliable feature of human psychology. When we form an impression of someone from a few sketchy interactions, that person’s most salient traits or characteristics can often obscure other traits they possess that are more pertinent.

A second context in which a grad school applicant should stand out is in the impressions created by their actual application materials. Transcripts and standardized test scores are objective factors that are indicative of one’s academic abilities, but they don’t say anything about the person, so they give no clue as to how pleasant it would be to have the student around and how rewarding it would be to work with him or her.

I have previously commented about the importance of personal characteristics in swaying the decisions of admission committees and prospective graduate supervisors. Some of the people who make the decisions about your application may care more about your personality and character than they do about your grades or test scores. This is definitely an area in which you need to stand apart from the other applicants with whom you are competing, especially if you are trying to overcome any weakness in your grades.

So, how do those decision-makers try to formulate an idea of who you are and what it would be like to have you in the program? A typical grad school application includes a few components that can (and should) contribute in important ways to how the admission committee or prospective graduate supervisor perceives the personality of an applicant. The most important of these is the personal statement, but it may also include a cover letter that accompanies the application, or any substantial email correspondence the applicant has with a prospective graduate supervisor prior to the application date.

Although one hallmark of a good personal statement is an interesting story and some originality, it still has to be concisely written and it must provide compelling reasons why you are applying to the program. If your personal statement does not provide information the reader is looking for, it is guaranteed to make a bad impression. Good judgment is essential (don’t use disturbing or intensely emotional content in a personal statement).

It is also important to observe conventions in terms of format and general content. Believe me, someone who has to read all the materials from a few dozen applicants does not want to come across anything unexpected. Interesting, yes, unexpected and nonconventional, definitely not.

A cover letter should have a particular format that will make it look “normal” to those who read it. If you don’t know what is conventional format for a cover letter, then find out. Its not hard; in fact, most people get them often in their regular mail. Do not make the mistake of assuming that an unconventional format will make your cover letter stand out from the crowd and impress the reader. The effect would be just the opposite. Remember, cover letters help to form first impressions, and you do not want to give the impression that you are ignorant, nonconforming, or careless.

Without a doubt, there is no context in which a student’s personality is more on display than during a personal interview, which will be a situation that many good applicants face at some point. The interview might be with the admission committee, or with a prospective supervisor. Not all programs conduct interviews, but it is the norm in some disciplines, and in the most competitive programs of almost any discipline.

Most of the things you want to avoid during an interview are also things to avoid in your personal statement or other correspondence. For example, avoid bringing up controversial subjects. You don’t know who will be evaluating your statement or interviewing you, and you don’t know what attitudes they have. You do not want to risk offending anyone. Avoid politics and anything that would reveal your own political biases.

Trying to be humorous or cute is also a big mistake. You only risk offending the members of the admissions committee. They are likely to also question how serious you are about getting into their program.

Students also sometimes make the mistake of disparaging others when explaining the consequences of their own previous mistakes or shortcomings. Never, ever, blame a bad grade you received on the professor!

In general, over-exuberance should be avoided. Someone who behaves effusively is often perceived as insincere, or even manipulative. (No one will be convinced to accept you into their graduate programs because you say that you’re “really, really, really, passionate” about your field of interest). The point is not to avoid appearing cheerful, because cheerfulness is a good thing, and people generally like others who are cheerful. Just be careful not to overdo it, or else others may assume that you are being fake.

Advice on Getting Into Graduate School: Do Your Sources Know What They’re Talking About?

This morning I met a student who had some routine questions about her graduate-school applications. Just a few questions that her “sister didn’t know all the answers to.” That’s nice, I thought – sounds like she has a sister with some insight who can help her craft a successful application. Turns out that her sister has a Master’s degree in History, and this means, according to the student, that her sister knows what it takes to get into graduate school.

This is a common version of a situation I often see, in which students are inadvertently misled about the relative importance of certain factors when choosing graduate programs or trying to get accepted into one. Friends or relatives with good intentions may want to help the student by offering advice they believe to be sound. Often, however, the advice is either off the mark or significantly incomplete, although neither the person offering the advice or the one receiving it is aware.

The greatest problem is often that the students in need of guidance decide they are getting all that is needed, and thus they fail to seek insight and advice from people who are qualified to give it, such as, an academic advisor, a university professor, career counselor or a graduate program director. As a result, the students are armed with incomplete or misleading advice, which is then an impediment to finding the right program or to putting together a successful application.

But, can someone who has been to graduate school themselves really be in the dark about how to choose a program, or how to write a good personal statement, how to solicit letters of recommendation and from whom, or about any of the other key aspects of the grad school application process? After all, didn’t they need to do all those things properly in order to get into graduate school?

On the surface, it seems logical to assume that a current or former graduate student must have some valuable insights. The truth is that graduate students seldom know the real reasons why they themselves were successful while other applicants failed to get into the same program.

Once, for the purpose of demonstrating this point, I informally surveyed a group of second-year master’s students in Psychology, to find out what they believed to be the main reasons they were successful in getting accepted into their current graduate program. Then, I asked their graduate advisors (a.k.a. graduate supervisors) why the students were actually accepted. Okay, it was a really small group – only five students and their graduate advisors participated in my informal survey – but it was clear that, for this group at least, there was not much correspondence between the graduate students’ beliefs about why they were accepted and the actual reasons they were accepted.

I asked my own graduate students why they thought I agreed to take them on, and they, too, were wrong about much of it. For instance, most tended to overestimate the importance of their undergraduate GPA and the degree of interest they showed in my previous work. They all grossly underestimated the importance of their letters of recommendation, and they were also clueless as to just how those letters helped me make my decisions. None of them realized that the most useful comments one can make in a letter of recommendation for a graduate-school applicant often pertain more to the applicant’s character than to his or her abilities or accomplishments (most indicators of ability and accomplishment can be discerned from other parts of the application).

It isn’t really that surprising that these graduate students were more-or-less clueless about why they were accepted. After all, at no point is this ever explained to a graduate student. The wonderful letter that informs the student that the application was successful does not say why (just as a reject-letter usually will not say why the student was rejected). After getting in, successful applicants don’t inquire why they were successful, either. It’s the furthest thing from their mind as they are typically excited about having gotten in and focused on what lies ahead.

So, don’t assume that a graduate student can give you expert advice about what matters most when it comes to your graduate school applications. Talk to expert in your field of interest. They should be able to set you straight.

Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Will Yours Be As Good As You Think?

Last week, a student came into my office for some academic advising. She is in the last year of her B.A. program, and getting ready to deal with grad-school applications. She had a few straightforward questions, and at one point, I asked if she knew who would be providing letters of recommendation for her. She replied that her Honor’s thesis supervisor had already agreed to write one, and that there were a few other professors she could ask.


It turns out that she had taken some advice I gave her a couple of years back and had been volunteering her time to help some of her professors with their research. This is something I often advise students to do. They get valuable experience, and importantly, they make themselves known to people who can provide useful mentoring, and a letter of recommendation for graduate school and scholarship applications.


But, the more this student told me about her “volunteer research experience”, the more I realized that she had failed to understand at least one essential point, and as a result, probably also failed to set up any good letters recommendation from her “efforts.”


Her mistake? She actually repeated it each time she was given one of these opportunities from a professor. She would never commit enough time over a sufficiently long period to make herself useful to any of those professors, and it never really occurred to her that a professor might be expecting something in return for helping her out and giving her a chance. If none of them felt like they gained from having her around, they are not likely to write an effective letter of recommendation. One of more of those individuals would probably agree to write a letter if she came to them and explained that she had no one else to ask. So, she would almost certainly end up with ineffective letters if she persisted with those professors. The worse thing about it is that those were the people she had been hoping to impress when she originally showed interest in their work.


Volunteering as an assistant to someone’s research may fail to produce a helpful letter of recommendation for other reasons, too. One particular situation can occur when for some reason or another a professor feels that he or she is too important to spend time with undergraduate research volunteers, so instead of providing any useful guidance or feedback to the student, the professor hands these students off to their graduate students to deal with. Typically, the volunteer will end up working for the graduate student, often on those tasks or duties that the grad student doesn’t like to do (such as data entry or other clerical-like work).


After several months, the professor doesn’t even know him or her, other than to recognize his or her name and face. Again, this professor may be unable to provide an effective letter of recommendation, but that does not mean that they will not agree to write a letter for the student. Many letters of recommendation are ineffective, even though they only say positive things about the student. For more information on obtaining good letters of recommendation, check out this article in wrote for

The point is simple, and it should also be kind of obvious: It’s not enough to volunteer! You also have to make yourself useful and memorable in positive ways, in the process. A good letter of recommendation is only possible if the professor you are trying to help actually learns good things about you through your interactions. It’s just as easy – in fact, easier – to set up a lousy letter of recommendation from a professor whom you volunteer to help.