graduate school supervisor

Getting Into Graduate School With or Without Excellent Grades

Many factors determine whether someone will be accepted into a graduate program, but most students who apply to grad school are completely in the dark about how the process of selecting applicants works. As a consequence, most applicants will make a number of missteps that hamper their success, due either to miscalculation or naivety.

A great deal of confusion surrounds the role that grades and GPA play in determining the outcome of an application, and most students overestimate that role. Meanwhile, most students underestimate the importance of how they come across as a person, along with other factors that can sometimes weigh more heavily than grades. Few students realize that their letters of recommendation will be the deal-maker or breaker in most cases, and even fewer know how to make sure their letters are actually helpful rather than a hindrance to their acceptance. How important is the personal statement? How long should it be, and what should be in it? What about standardized test scores (e.g., the GRE)? How high do they have to be?

There are a lot of issues that must be addressed along the way to a successful grad school application. Many questions must be answered, and critical decisions made. And there is no shortage of people who are happy to give advice on how to handle it. Problem is, most people give bad advice on how to prepare for graduate school and how to put together a winning application. This includes the majority of academic advisors, career counsellors, most professors, and many people who were successful themselves at navigating the application process and getting in. It’s true – even the people one would expect to give the most solid information and advice are more likely to give you vague, generic, or inaccurate information and advice. The most well-prepared students sometimes fail to realize why their applications to graduate school were successful, and those that are rejected will never be told why.

The remainder of today’s post consists of a comment left by a reader a few years ago, along with my rather long reply. I think her confusion will seem familiar to some of the students reading this blog, today. Hopefully, my reply will help clear up a few things. This is especially likely if readers take the time to read the other content to which I have provided links.

D.L. asked the following:

“Hi Prof. Mumby,
I find this whole grad school thing very confusing actually…simply because so many people give such different opinions and “scare stories.”

I used to be under the impression that getting into grad school was notoriously difficult and that it was a fight to the death.

I have since chosen to work as a full-time RA first instead of going straight to school. Besides gaining more experience, I also figured I wanted to know if I could stomach doing this for the rest of my life. Since then, I’ve visited the faculty I intend to do my grad studies in and imagine my surprise when I was almost assured I would get in, as opposed to the usual “oh you have to be outstanding and make your application stand out” kind of talk.

True, I have a 4.0 GPA (the grad chair took one look at my transcript and said: “you’ll get in and it would surprise me tremendously if you didn’t. I also suspect you would be quite a popular candidate among the faculty”), but I have always been given the impression there is more to getting admitted than grades. After all, don’t most people who apply have outstanding/stellar grades (or close to) anyway?

Now, I’m just…confused :p

Cheers!”

My reply:

“Thank-you for the comments, DL. The process of applying to and being admitted to grad school is like no other process we are familiar with, and I often hear from students who feel somewhat confused. I’ll try my best to clarify it all for you.

I’ll start by pointing out that your experiences provide good examples for some key points I made in some previous posts. The following post What if the Guru is Wrong About That? should be read along with this post Graduate School Admission and the Influence of a Stellar GPA in order to get all the related points on the role of grades in the grad-school admissions process. 

To answer your question, “Don’t most people who apply have outstanding/stellar grades (or close to) anyway?” — No, this does not describe the majority of grad school applicants. Of course, it depends on how one defines a stellar GPA. I indicate in the original post that by ‘stellar’ or ‘outstanding’ I’m referring to grades that are like yours — near or at 4.00. Many students have GPAs that are still very good or excellent, say, between 3.30 and 3.80, and they make up the majority of grad school applicants in most fields. The latter type of GPA is good enough for grad school, but not in the same league as a GPA between 3.90 and 4.00, which is highly likely to get the student some scholarship support (which is good for the graduate program and the student’s grad supervisor, not to mention a nice reward for the student’s own hard work and achievements). 

One possible reason for some of the confusion you describe is that you’re getting advice from many people, but some of them don’t know what they are talking about. You will hear a lot of people repeating the same misconceptions, and this can make those mistaken ideas seem valid. I’ve discussed the common misconceptions, before, and also the issue of getting advice from the right sources. I strongly recommend you read those previous posts.

You wonder whether it is really true that in order to get into a good graduate program “you have to be outstanding and make your application stand out”. Well, it’s not really about making your application stand out — it’s about making yourself stand out as an applicant. I would say that you are a good example of someone who is doing just that! You are doing certain things beyond having a stellar GPA that are probably contributing to a very positive impression, even though you might not realize what a large role those factors are playing.

For example, you worked as an RA before applying to grad school. This is a huge plus in your favor, for reasons I have previously discussed in this blog while writing about the importance of getting relevant experience before applying to graduate school (here is another link to a blog post on the difference between relevant and irrelevant experience). Moreover, you actually visited the program (at least one of them) that interests you the most, and spoke with faculty members there. I have previously discussed why making this kind of visit before applying is essential to improving one’s chances of getting in. Some faculty members, myself included, will never accept a new graduate student who has not made some kind of pre-application contact, and the in-person visit is the best type of contact. It shows a lot about the student’s good judgment, among other things. You might be surprised to hear this, but most grad-school applicants do not bother making that visit! Most applicants just send in their application materials and hope for the best. They have zero chance with some of those applications, but they don’t even realize it!

Visiting goes a long way to getting accepted, as long as you don’t make a flat or negative impression while you’re there. You might have said or done any number of things while visiting that made you stand out from a typical grad school applicant even more than your super-high GPA. As I have discussed on previous occasions, one’s character and personality, various social skills, and work habits tend to determine success or failure in graduate school. Someone might have already surmised some of these things about you by the time they looked at your transcript. You might be assuming they saw straight As and thought something like, “this person will ace all her graduate courses and therefore she will be a great graduate student.” But, it’s unlikely the actual thought process was anything like that.

So, I’m not at all surprised that you were basically told you would almost certainly be accepted. As I have mentioned before, this happens a lot, and a significant proportion of grad students are implicitly accepted before they even apply. This is what is happening with you.

You seem to be well on your way to being admitted to a graduate program of your choice. But, you will still need to make some important decisions. Are you applying to the best program for you? Will you need to choose a supervisor at the outset of the program, or is it a program in which you are assigned to a supervisor only after some time? In either case, you will need to know how to choose a supervisor. Other than yourself, your grad supervisor will be the most important person in determining what you get out of grad school. Are you prepared for the stark differences between undergraduate school and graduate school? Do not make the mistake of assuming that grad school is all about taking advanced courses that deal with more complicated subject matter than undergraduate courses. It’s not like that at all, in most disciplines (apart from a few sciences, like physics and mathematics).”

A person can get a lot of consistent and authoritative advice on grad school admissions by reading through the archives of this blog, and by visiting the MyGraduateSchool website. Much of this advice is also available in one place — my handbook, Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In. You can purchase it at amazon.com for a small fraction of the cost of a grad-school application, and it’s also available as an e-book or kindle. Graduate-school application fees are always non-refundable, so it’s easy to waste a few dollars on unsuccessful applications. The book will pay for itself many times over.

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Professors May Know You Better Than You Think (and That Might Not Be a Good Thing)

Posted on February 3rd 2017

When we interact with other people, we form attitudes and opinions about them based on what they say and do. Our attitudes and opinions can be challenged if we later observe a person behaving toward others in a manner that is inconsistent with our initial impressions of their character and comportment. If our first impressions of someone are negative, it can require a lot of positive observations to reverse our negative opinions. First they have to climb out of the hole they are in.

You Are Being Watched

Most students underestimate how much of their behavior is noticed by certain professors they encounter. It is important to realize that certain comments or behaviors that are innocuous to some people may still evoke disdain in others who have different attitudes about those things. For example, some students misjudge how their appearance or outward behavioral tendencies affect the attitudes that certain professors have about them. Students who stand out by dressing garishly or sporting showy make-up or hair-styles may find it harder to earn respect based on any truly relevant strengths they possess than do the conformists. This is not fair or rational, but it reflects an aspect of human nature. When we form an impression of someone from a few sketchy interactions, that person’s most salient traits or characteristics can obscure other traits that are actually more pertinent. The message here is that students who have a style or character that is a bit outrageous should consider toning it down when they are at school.

But, how much does is actually matter what your professors think of you on a personal level? It might matter quite a lot. Students who might someday need letters of recommendation from professors should understand that their behavior today, whether positive or negative, may still be reflected in the attitude that a professor has about them one or two years from now. Naturally, most professors will come to like or dislike some students more than others. Nobody is going to write a good letter of recommendation for someone they dislike, so students should be thinking about how their behavior could affect their chances of having support from professors later on.

Some of the student behaviors that professors dislike are obvious: The worst include talking with classmates or rolling eyes or smirking while the professor is speaking, or frequently arriving late for class or leaving early without any apparent good reason. One of the most frequent displays of disrespect in the classroom these days is to be looking at your smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer while the professor is talking. Students who think they will not be noticed or remembered because there are several other students doing the same thing are wrong about that. Of course, it depends on the professor, too. The important point is that some are very observant, and they are watching you, even if they aren’t doing so purposefully.

Some students fail to realize that they are insulting a professor when they complain about the way an exam, paper, or project was graded. Students perceived as arrogant or pretentious, or as loud, childish, silly or immature, will find it difficult to reverse those perceptions, even if they begin to behave more appropriately.

Be Mindful of How You Come Across

Some students engage in certain behaviors that they think will make a good impression on their professors, but with the opposite result. For instance, some professors encourage students to ask questions and voice their opinions in lectures, but dislike it when a student does too much of this and ends up monopolizing class discussions. Most professors don’t mind if a student occasionally drops by the office to talk about academic matters, but some students do this far too frequently, or even worse, they take up their professors’ time with their personal problems.

Among the behaviors commonly disliked are some that students would not expect professors to even notice or care about. One example is when students put in little effort and, as a result, do poorly on a midterm exam and later expect extra help outside of class to help them prepare for the final exam. Some professors may feel negatively about students who seem to be always anxious about minor things, or always stern-faced and much too serious, or chronically depressed. Everyone appreciates a compliment, but some students frequently compliment their professors in a manner that is perceived as manipulative. Teaching assistants, most of whom are graduate students, also observe undergraduate student behavior and they may pass on their own stories to their professors.

Some professors have more disdain for certain negative behaviors than other professors do, but naturally, all have some limit to what they can tolerate before they begin to dislike a student. Most professors are reasonable and will overlook an irritating behavior if the student otherwise shows very good promise. Most realize that students occasionally encounter personal problems or circumstances that legitimately take precedence over their studies. Even the most dedicated students may understandably become preoccupied for several days following a serious fight with a spouse, or the death of someone close to them, or some other tragic circumstance. Although most professors are sympathetic enough to occasionally grant an extension on an assignment, or to reschedule an exam for a student with personal problems, repeated requests for this kind of special consideration may indicate that the student is unable to cope with adult life and responsibilities. The same student is not likely to be able to cope with the demands of graduate school.

Students 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! Over-exuberance can also make a negative impression, although the people who display this tendency may not realize the extent to which it weighs negatively on how they come across to some people. People who behave effusively may be perceived as insincere, or even manipulative. No one will be convinced that you belong in graduate school because you say that you’re “really, really, really passionate” about the field of study. The point is not to avoid being enthusiastic, because enthusiasm and motivation are essential. Most people like others who have a cheerful demeanor. Just be careful not to overdo it, or else others may assume that you are insincere. Students who are too nonchalant or casual may come across as being not sufficiently interested or motivated.

Students who will later need positive letters of recommendation must do more than avoid behaviors that professors dislike. They should also give their professors some reason to have good opinions about them. It is not enough to “blend into the woodwork,” as this will not give the professor anything positive to say in a letter.

So, what are examples of admired student behavior that contribute to professors’ attitudes of students they like? As with disliked behaviors or characteristics, some of the admired ones are obvious: students who seldom or never miss a class, are attentive and ask insightful questions, and who occasionally participate in class discussions. I personally like to see students turn their attention directly to me and immediately close their phones, tablets, or laptops as soon as I begin a lecture. These behaviors give the impression that the student is interested in the course, and that he or she respects me and is mindful of why we are there in the first place.

Among the student behaviors that professors like are some that students would not expect professors to even notice or care about. For instance, professors like to see students help each other. Sharing your notes with a student who missed a class might save the professor from having to spend extra time going over the material with that student. Some professors like it when students smile and say “hello” when they pass by outside of class, and most prefer when a student is willing to make eye contact rather than blatantly trying to avoid it. Some professors respect students who have the courage to disagree with them in class from time-to-time, as long as it is done in a respectful manner.

For the most part, the relations that exist between a student’s behavior and a professor’s attitudes about the student are nothing more than common sense. The most important point to be taken from all of this is that your behavior is on display much of the time, and professors who come into contact with you on a regular basis are likely to use their observations of your behaviors to develop opinions about your character. Those opinions will be reflected in any letter of recommendation they might eventually write for you.

How to Dig a Hole and Jump In

Context matters. Something a professor just happens to notice you do or hears you say in the hallway one day might leave no significant impression. It might not enter the observer’s stream of consciousness for more than a moment, and it might be forgotten just as quickly. But in a different context, the same observation might have much greater impact and lasting consequences.

Many students appreciate that it is essential to get some relevant experience before applying to graduate school. One of the most common ways of accomplishing this is to volunteer to help professors with their research. This is the best way to set up the most relevant and effective letters of recommendation that will be helpful down the road when applying to graduate school, or to a professional degree program, or for a postgraduate scholarship, or for a job. Some students fail to realize that one of the most important benefits that can come from volunteering as a research assistant is that it puts them in situations that allow the supervising professor to see how they work, how they interact with others, their independence, motivation, communication skills, maturity, emotional stability, and the list goes on. These are the kinds of things professors tend to write about in a letter of recommendation. In fact, most graduate programs explicitly request that individuals providing recommendation letters evaluate the applicant on at least some of these dimensions.

Some students make the mistake of seeking out opportunities as volunteer research assistants without knowing all the reasons why it is important to do so, especially if they plan to apply to graduate school, someday. Many students mistakenly believe it’s all about getting the relevant experience, and they don’t consider how the impression they leave on the supervising professor can come back to either help or harm them several months or a couple of years down the road. There are ways to make the most of a volunteer research position, and there are ways to inadvertently make it a huge waste of your time and effort. This general topic is discussed in a previous post, “How to Make the Least of a Volunteer Research Position“. Anyone planning to volunteer as a research assistant with a professor should read that article. It might help avoid disadvantages thar are difficult to overcome.

How Joining a Students Association Can Help You Get the Most Out of Your Bachelor’s Degree (Part 2)

My last post appraised some of the benefits that come from being in a students association. It included the perspective of someone who has actually been there, done that — Samantha Briand has been president of her undergraduate psychology students association for the past two years. She shared with us some reasons why she was willing to devote hundreds of hours to volunteer for the benefit of complete strangers, and she described a few benefits that have come out of her experience, including pride in knowing that her personal sacrifices made a positive contribution to the student experience for so many people. She ended with a challenge to others to get involved with their students association, because the gains in terms of personal growth and satisfaction that come from the experience justify the costs in terms of time and effort.

I believe her. I believe most people would feel positively about the experience. It’s one of those things you may find it hard to imagine doing, which is why most people never do. But once you take that first step and things start rolling, you are so glad you took a chance and stepped outside your comfort zone.

Still, I know that very few people who read this, or who read Samantha’s message in my previous post, will consider for more than a few moments getting involved with their students association. Only a handful of the 5000-6000 people who will view this post over the next week or so, will ever be involved in their students association. That handful will reap the benefits Samantha mentioned, and the rest of them will miss out.

It Gets Better Yet for the Handful

Some of those people who are actively involved in their students association will reap benefits that go far beyond those we already discussed. Possibly very far, in some cases.

We all know that when it comes to applying to graduate school, or to professional school, or for a job within the workforce, the fate of an application will depend to a great extent on the quality and impact of the letters of recommendation. As I have discussed at length in previous posts, in order to have really effective letters of recommendation when the need arises, students must put themselves in situations that allow the right people to discover their relevant talents and important character attributes. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to volunteer to help professors with their research (which, by the way, is only effective if it’s done properly). But, there are other ways to put your abilities and character on display, too.

Any context that allows you stand apart from the crowd of students in such a way that makes your activities visible and your strengths apparent to professors can provide the basis for an effective letter of recommendation. Joining your students association provides a context in which you can show who you are and what you have to offer a prospective employer or graduate supervisor, as long as you and your group are doing the right kinds of things; such as, organizing seminars or workshops on career paths, or on study skills, or preparing for graduate school, or applying to graduate school, or any other serious and worthwhile topic.

The most effective letters will provide anecdotal evidence of important general abilities and character traits. The following is just a brief list of some important abilities and personal qualities that might be noticed about students who are actively involved with their students association:

1. They are likely to be perceived as having excellent organizational and management skills. For example, I believe this is true about Samantha Briand. I suspect she must have these assets because she was able to organize and coordinate a few workshops and other events that were widely attended and generally effective in accomplishing what she and her colleagues set out to accomplish. Professors want their graduate students to have strong organizational skills, and many potential employers look for evidence of it in job applicants. There are a lot of jobs in management, in general. Many professors need their graduate students to be good at management, too.

2. In order for any student association to work effectively, members  must be able to work together. It certainly helps if everyone gets along, too. Same thing is true in many workplace settings. Being an active member of a students association provides an opportunity to demonstrate an ability to work with others, and to work co-operatively. Again, these are things that will appeal to almost any potential employer, because their employees are likely to work together in offices, or on team projects. Likewise, graduate supervisors need their students to be able to work together and share space and resources. Efficiency and general morale are high when people get along, so all professors strive to avoid taking on a graduate student who are unable to work harmoniously with others.

3. Having superior communication skills. Effective communication, both in writing and orally, are abilities that most employers value highly in their employees. Being able to write and speak effectively is absolutely essential to success in graduate school.

4. Students who choose to become actively involved with their students association tend to demonstrate strong leadership abilities. Anyone looking to hire someone into a management position will be looking for leadership abilities.

5. Most observers will assume that active members of a students association are highly motivated toward having a successful and productive career, as long as they are organizing the right kinds of activities and events. For example, the fact that Samantha and the other executive members of the students association in our department focused so much on career-related activities over the past two years says a lot about the priorities for this particular cohort. A high priority seems to be choosing and navigating career paths. That looks good on them. But why might this matter to a potential graduate supervisor? Because no one wants to take on a student who is anything less than 100% committed to following through to the completion of the degree program. It can be highly disruptive to a professor’s research program when a graduate student suddenly decides to quit the program partway through. Similarly, saavy employers hire people who are motivated to do well and make progress, because that so often translates into excellent work habits.

If I spent more time thinking about it, I could come up with other examples of important abilities and aptitudes that students are able to display through active participation in their students association. The most important point, however, is that whether applying to graduate school, or for some type of scholarship or award, or applying for a job either within or outside of academic circles, students need eventually the endorsement of others who have discovered such things about them. Being a college or university undergrad provides ample opportunities to set oneself apart from the crowd in positive ways. Noticing these opportunities requires going beyond the lectures and textbooks, beyond earning academic credits and completing degree requirements.

Consider this. When you apply to graduate school in almost any STEM discipline or within the social sciences, nearly everyone else with whom you are competing will have letters from professors who supervised their undergraduate research. Most likely, you will to, so in this sense you all have a similar kind of relevant letters. Students who also make strong positive impressions on one or more professors in an alternative but still relevant context will stand to have somewhat unique and therefore more likely to be effective, letters of recommendation; that is, if the students take advantage of the likelihood that at least some professors are probably watching and noticing. In order to stand out and be noticed as a grad school applicant, it helps to have something that the majority of other applicants don’t have.

If you’re doubtful about whether the five observations I listed above are actually important when it comes to determining the effectiveness of a recommendation letter or the fate of an application to graduate school, I strongly recommend you read my previous post on the student evaluation form that invariably accompanies any letter of recommendation for graduate or professional school. You will see that the five specific abilities and aptitudes I listed above are among the ones graduate and professional schools explicitly ask people providing letters to include in their evaluation of an applicant.

Before ending my commentary for today, I want to emphasize that it will be up to Samantha to ensure that at least one of the people furnishing letters on her behalf actually benefits her cause by referring to the evidence of ability and character that came from her involvement with the students association. Should she talk about the experience and what it shows about her abilities in her personal statement? No, probably not. It would be too awkward, and it’s likely to come across as pretentious to try doing this in a personal statement, where it is not good to sound boastful. She really needs someone else to point all this out on her behalf. Even though her c.v. will list extracurricular activities including her work for the students association, it is unlikely to get noticed or have any impact as a line item in her c.v..

Benefiting in the ways in which I’ve been discussing will depend on whom she asks for letters, in at least two ways: First, there are good letter-writers and there are bad letter-writers, and it’s not always easy to know which professors write truly impactful recommendations and which ones put in little effort and end up creating flat, generic recommendation letters. Second, whether it’s a good, bad, or mediocre letter writer, she has to request a recommendation from a professor who has actually thought about her extracurricular activities in the way I have discussed them here. Even the best letter-writers will overlook this revealing evidence of her underlying personal qualities if its relevance has not occurred to them.