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.

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