Getting into graduate school

Why Is There So Much Conflicting Advice About Applying to Graduate School?

The process of applying to graduate school is unlike any other application process, and the factors that determine the fate of a grad-school application are not always what one would expect. Common-sense assumptions about how admission decisions are reached are often wrong, and certain miscalculations can doom an application to the rejection pile. For many students, the application process is steeped in uncertainty and confusion about how it all really works. Everyone understands it’s a competition, but not all the rules are clear. This makes it stressful, and also quite perilous. You can easily ruin your chances of getting in just by making just one or two avoidable mistakes, or by failing to take one or two important steps.

Understandably, many students search far and wide for advice and tips on how to best handle certain aspects of their graduate-school applications. But, while it may seem wise to seek advice from as many people and other relevant sources as possible, this quickly leads to a new problem: Among all the clearly valuable insights, there is also a considerable amount of conflicting advice.

​One professor might tell you it’s a good idea to contact faculty members you want to work with before applying, while another professor advises against it. One academic advisor tells you that GPA is the most important factor in determining who is admitted, but another advisor says your statement of purpose makes has a big impact and grades aren’t always the most important factor. A Ph.D. student advises that potential graduate supervisors should be chosen on the basis of research and the techniques you will learn; a second grad student says that interpersonal compatibility should be your top criterion. One career counsellor tells you the reputation of the program or the university you attended for grad school will make a big difference when you eventually join the workforce; but, someone who already has the master’s or doctoral degree you seek says that the reputation of the school is irrelevant, and the specific knowledge and skills you acquire is all that matters. After spending hours on the Internet trying to answer the question of whether it’s important to contact potential supervisors before applying, all you have determined is that it is either, a) important, b) unimportant, c) essential, d) unwise, e) a waste of time, or f) none of the above. It all depends where you look and whose advice you read. It’s all so frustrating!

​Why is there so much widely varying and even contradictory advice about how to deal with certain aspects of the grad-school or professional-school application process? And how can one make the best decisions despite receiving contradictory advice from ostensibly sound sources? Answering the second question requires first understanding the answer to the first question, because understanding why opinions vary makes it easier to avoid certain pitfalls.

The origins of conflicting advice

​There is a high probability of encountering conflicting advice when attempting to integrate all the insights and suggestions that come up when searching widely on the Internet for general advice. Part of the reason is that aspects of the grad-school application process simply cannot be reduced to one-size-fits-all-situations. For example, there are countless websites, blogs, and online forums where past, present, and prospective graduate students share their experiences. If the site does not cater to students within an academic domain, such as the social sciences, or the STEM disciplines, or fine arts, or business, etc., then visitors are likely to read about experiences from students in all those domains. But some good advice that would apply to a student going for a master’s program in Biochemistry, Engineering, or Exercise Science, will not be such good advice for a student in English, Philosophy, or History.

​It’s not always easy for a student to know when specific advice is really not meant for them. Often, whether or not a particular line of advice is relevant depends on how grad-school applicants are selected in the student’s discipline. For example, in most graduate programs in the humanities or fine arts, students are selected by a small committee of faculty members, and this is also the case in a minority of social sciences departments. But, in most STEM and social science graduate programs the prospective graduate supervisor (a.k.a. graduate advisor) is essentially the only person involved in making decisions about a particular applicant. Due to differences in the selection process among different program domains, there are some differences in how best to deal with certain parts of the application process.

​Even when seeking advice from within your own discipline, you are still likely to come across varying opinions. Professors can be the best source of advice, especially professors who supervise their own graduate students. These are true insiders to the selection process, and they often have special insights that non-professors do not have. But it is important to understand that professors do not receive a guidebook or any kind of training on how to supervise graduate students, or how to go about selecting them. Professors are left to figure it out themselves, so naturally there are a lot of individual differences in terms of how professors perceive different situations. This explains why a student seeking advice about grad-school applications from two professors in the same department can get different opinions from them. For example, one professor might care a lot about applicants’ grades when they choose their own grad students; whereas, another professor might not care much about the grades as long as they are good enough and might focus more on the statement of purpose and the letters of recommendation. Most professors are unaware of how their colleagues evaluate applicants and make their decisions about who to accept, so when they give advice, it will tend to be biased toward what they assume matters to other professors. For instance, while some professors do not care to hear from potential applicants before they apply, the majority does prefer to hear from potential applicants (at least within the STEM and social sciences). The individual professor who doesn’t like it will tell you not to send an email to a potential supervisor, but the one who prefers it will urge you to send the email. The point is that most professors will be able to give you some good insights and advice about most aspects of the grad-school application process, but there may be certain areas where a particular professor cannot properly represent the opinions and views of the majority of other professors in their discipline. Professors simply do not tend to share notes on how they choose their graduate students.

​This is one of the reasons why I interviewed dozens of faculty members and graduate program directors in different disciplines and at universities across U.S. and Canada when I was preparing to write the first edition of my guidebook back in the 1990s, and then again for the second edition in 2012. It is why I continue to survey the opinions of faculty members in different disciplines so I can represent both the majority views and also give a sense of some of the differences, across disciplines and among professors and other decision-makers.

​This next reason for why advice can sometimes vary so much might seem a bit harsh or unfair to the many well-intentioned people who serve as academic advisors to undergraduate students at colleges and universities across the land. Of course, many students seek advice about the grad-school application process from an academic advisor within their department or faculty. Many academic advisors give terrible advice on this topic, simply because they do not have the necessary experience to be able to give reliable or valuable insight. In short, they do not know what they are talking about. This is often the case when the academic advisor has no personal experience supervising graduate students or participating in the selection process. You really have to be an insider to appreciate how it works. But, even though your academic advisor may have gone to graduate school at some point in the past, this does not make that person an insider to the graduate admissions process. Nowadays, it is rare to find an academic advisor who is also a seasoned professor who has personal and direct experience with the grad-school selection process. In many academic departments, the role of academic advisor tends to be given to the most junior faculty members, and in many schools and departments, the academic advisors aren’t even faculty members. Their main responsibilities tend to involve helping students select the right courses in order to complete their degree requirements. An academic advisor might not understand the subtleties of how certain things tend to work when it comes to grad-school admissions, but he or she is not going to plead ignorance, and instead will probably just tell you what they assume to be good advice. Most students will in turn assume that the academic advisor knows what she or he is talking about. That can be a mistake.

​What about advice from current or former graduate students? It seems like they would be a great source of advice about how to tackle various aspects of the grad-school application process. After all, they went through it themselves and succeeded. Some will indeed have a good understanding of how things generally work. But, most graduate students are also in the dark about certain things, just like the majority of academic advisors — and for similar reasons. Grad students do not have first-hand experience with the peculiarities of the selection process, or how the decision-makers actually reach their decisions. Good-intentions are usually behind all the advice, but some of it may still be off the mark.

​Finally, I want to say one more thing about professors who are experienced insiders to the grad-school application and selection process: The vast majority have seldom, if ever, given any deep thought to the finer details of the process from the perspective of the students, so they don’t always appreciate what information or insight will benefit students the most. It’s simply not a topic on the radar of most professors. This is not intended to disparage other professors for their opinions or advice. It’s just not a topic that most tend to spend time thinking about. On the other hand, there are some professors who have dedicated a great deal of time and effort throughout their careers to researching the topic through interviews with others and extensive personal experience. Some of them end up writing guidebooks, or blogs, and some even end up being academic advisors!

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Want Help With Your Applications to Grad School? I Wish You Had Come Sooner

An old Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

I love the wisdom of these words, in both a literal sense and as a metaphor for many situations encountered in life. In a literal sense, the proverb has personal relevance for me, as my wife and I have been growing vegetables in our backyard garden for many years, and I have often yearned to also have a small orchard of apple and cherry trees that would provide a bounty of fruit. I have had this longing for many years, but did nothing about it until I finally planted several apple and cherry trees, two years ago. Pondering this Chinese proverb – especially the second part — helped motivate me to stop delaying and finally plant those trees. We don’t expect significant amounts of fruit for another few years, because trees do not tend to produce very much until they are several years old. But the time will come when our trees are mature and we will have lots of cherries and apples to eat.

The proverb is also a good metaphor for an issue that many college and university students run into when they start preparing to apply to graduate school. Most wait until a few months before applications deadlines before thinking about how they might gain some advantage in the competition for admission, and although it might seem like 4 to 6 months is ample time to put together a winning application, certain essential extracurricular elements can take more like a year or two to put in place.

The best time to begin preparing for graduate school applications is last year

One of the main reasons why certain grad-school applicants are accepted while most are rejected is because the successful ones have effective letters of recommendation from the right people. Most unsuccessful applicants are rejected in part because their letters of recommendation were ineffective. As I have explained in another article, letters of recommendation are highly influential in determining the fate of most graduate school applications – even more so than the applicants’ grades. A professor who only knows a student from the classroom and exam performance will not be able to provide an effective letter recommendation for graduate school. A professor may very well be willing to provide a letter of recommendation for a student who earned an A+ grade in a course, but if the professor knows only about the student’s academic strengths, then there will be very little relevant substance to the letter.

The best time to start taking steps to prepare for grad school is when you still have at least 2 years before you will be applying to programs. This time should be used to acquire relevant experience and set the groundwork for letters of recommendation that will eventually help you get in.

As I have discussed many times before on this blog, the benefits that come from getting relevant experience for grad school preparation usually go far beyond any skills or knowledge that are gained from the experience. Even more valuable is the opportunity to be seen in action and evaluated – to have your best qualities discovered by someone who will later be able to endorse your graduate school application with an effective letter of recommendation.

Everyone knows you need some relevant experience to have a competitive grad-school application, but too many people mistakenly assume the important thing is simply to be able to show evidence of having relevant experience in a CV, in a cover letter, or on an application form. This is a mistake. Just having some amount of seemingly relevant experience does not put anyone ahead in the competition to get into a graduate program, because every applicant will have some.

The most significant benefit that potentially comes from getting the right type of experience is that it’s the best way to set up the influential letters of recommendation. Those recommendation letters should describe how the applicant has demonstrated skills, abilities, and character attributes that are essential for success in graduate school. (Read more about the importance of applicant-evaluation forms (more…)

GPA Has Little Influence on the Outcome of Most Applications to Graduate School in Psychology

One of the recurring themes on this blog is that getting into graduate school requires more than just a good GPA. We have previously explored reasons why grades are only a minor determinant of what happens with most applications to grad school, and we have discussed other key aspects of preparing a successful application.

Today, I will use actual data to show just how little influence the GPA had on the outcome for one large sample of applicants to a particular graduate school in Psychology. In the process of analyzing the data, I will attempt to dispel two widely cited myths about what is needed to get into grad school in Psychology:

Myth #1:  Someone with a GPA around 3.8 has a substantially better chance of being admitted than someone with a GPA that is closer to 3.5. This seems like it must be true, but as you will see in the data, it is not necessarily so. The particular GPA values being contrasted here (3.80 and 3.50) are rather arbitrary, as the point will simply be to show how little influence the GPA has, unless it is an exceptionally high GPA and the student is awarded a scholarship.

Myth #2: Higher grades are needed to get into a clinical psychology program than to get into a non-clinical or experimental psychology program. Most psychology students and many professors hold this common misconception. I used to believe it, too. So, for many years, I was just another misguided psychology professor when it came to this issue. That changed one day when I tried to confirm the rhetoric with some real data.

The table below shows three columns of GPAs. The first thing I want to point out is that some are higher than 4.0, which might seem strange if you are used to seeing GPAs only on the familiar and widely-used grading scale that ranges from 0.0 – 4.0. A variety of grading systems are used in North American colleges and universities, including percentages, A – F letter grades, the familiar 0.0 4.0 scale, and others. The data in this table are from Concordia University, in Montreal, where the grading scale ranges from 0.0 – 4.3. No matter where grad-school applicants did their undergraduate studies, their transcript grades will be converted to this scale when they apply to any graduate program at Concordia. Details of how the conversion is done are beyond the scope of this blog post. But, a GPA on the standard 0.0 – 4.0 scale is not much different when converted to the 0.0 – 4.3 scale, so you can just think of those GPAs that are higher than 4.0 as being roughly equivalent to a GPA near 4.0.

gpa-data-for-clinical-and-non-clinical-applcants-to-psychology-programs

GPAs of applicants to the Master’s Psychology program (clinical and non-clinical) and rejected applicants  

The data are from a single season of graduate program admissions to the master’s and PhD programs in clinical psychology or non-clinical psychology (ie., research). The size of the total pool of applicants that year was somewhere between 120 and 150. The first column shows GPAs of the 12 students who were accepted into the master’s program in clinical psychology that year. The second column of GPAs belong to 12 students who were accepted into the non-clinical master’s program in the same year. The third set of GPAs is from 12 randomly-selected applicants from the same year who were not accepted to either program.

What do you see in these numbers? One thing you should see is that although the average GPA for those who got into the clinical program is nominally higher than the average for those accepted into the non-clinical program, the difference is small and non-significant. But what about the limited sample size? After all, there are only 12 individuals in each group. What if much larger samples collected over several years of graduate admissions continued to have a mean GPA of 3.85 for applicants admitted to the clinical program and 3.75 for applicants admitted to the non-clinical program. Would it not confirm that you really do need higher grades to get into the clinical program? No, it wouldn’t mean that at all. The average GPA is just that – it’s an average.

If we are interested in what sort of GPA was required, it makes more sense to look at the range of the GPAs for those admitted to the two programs. Both ranges are similar. Applicants didn’t need higher grades to get into the clinical psychology program at Concordia University than to get into the non-clinical program, at least not in this particular year. A GPA around 3.30 was sufficient for either program.

Myth #2 is in fact a myth.

Now, look at that third column of GPAs. They represent applicants who applied to either the clinical or non-clinical psychology programs, but were not accepted. The average is slightly lower than for the other two columns, and the lowest end of the range is a bit lower, as well. But the differences are marginal. We can’t reliably distinguish between successful and unsuccessful applicants on the basis of their GPAs! Whether a GPA is 3.5 or 3.8, it is well within the range of GPAs for either the successful or unsuccessful applicants. Several applicants were admitted with a GPA lower than 3.5, and several failed to get in with GPAs much higher than 3.8. By itself, GPA seems to poorly predict the outcome of applications to graduate school in Psychology.

Look again at that third column. Some rejected applicants had very high GPAs. This just goes to show that truly outstanding grades do not guarantee a successful application to grad school. For some readers this means another myth is busted.

Finally, you might be wondering why there are no really low GPAs in the sample of rejected applications; by that I mean no GPAs below 3.0. This is simply because very few people with grades below that level end up applying to graduate school. Most wouldn’t even consider it, as they correctly assume that their grades are too low. Of course, a GPA below some level is likely to correctly indicate that someone should not be in graduate school and they probably wouldn’t make it through certain programs. That level is much lower than 3.5, and it’s probably a little below 3.0 for most graduate programs in psychology.

Students who thought they were unqualified for grad school because their grades are not outstanding should be encouraged by the data. You don’t need an outstanding GPA that’s almost at the top of the scale – you can get into a top-rated graduate program with grades that are very good, which tends to mean equivalent to an average letter-grade of around A- or B+. Importantly, your chances will only be realistic if you have all the other essential elements the admissions committees and prospective graduate supervisors are looking for. It happens all the time. If you haven’t already seen it, check out this previous post about a guy who got into Cambridge University with a GPA of 3.27 (on the 0 – 4.3 scale).

Meanwhile, many students with stellar GPAs mistakenly believe that’s all they need to get in. But, check that assumption against the data shown here; notice the high GPAs among the sample of rejected applicants. Some individuals were passed over in favor of others who had considerably lower grades. Most likely most of the rejected applicants were missing key elements, so despite their outstanding grades, they were not among those applicants deemed most likely to succeed in the program. Just as likely, some of them might have requested the wrong professors to have as their supervisor, without realizing that in almost any graduate program the professor who an applicant requests to have as supervisor will be the one to decide who to accept or reject. There are many reasons why a professor might not be interested in an applicant, and any one of them is sufficient to thwart an application.