It’s early in the fall semester, and undergraduate students at colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada are still getting settled into their new classes. At some point during the next few months, a new cohort of graduating seniors who plan to pursue a master’s or doctorate degree will begin dealing with grad-school applications. If past experience is a good indicator of what to expect over the next few months, I should be meeting several students who want to apply to grad school for next year, but who have waited too long to begin preparing.
For most students, there is more to applying successfully to graduate school than just submitting all the required parts of the application. It can take several months, even a year or more, to make all the necessary preparations so that when the time actually comes to put together the application, all the right elements are in place to ensure you are successful at getting into the program that’s right for you. Too often, students postpone everything related to grad-school applications until their senior year. By then, it’s often too late to prepare an effective application, so compromises are made, and the rush to meet an application deadline ends up in a flawed application package, and a rejection letter.
The remainder of this post discusses a few of the more time-consuming steps in the process of applying to graduate school. The advice is especially applicable to students who are applying to a doctorate program, or to a master’s program in which they will have a research supervisor (common in the sciences and social sciences).
Setting up effective letters of recommendation
One of the most influential components of a grad-school application is the letters of recommendation. Most graduate programs require applicants to submit three letters. Some of the people who make decisions about who gets in and who does not care more about what they can glean from an applicant’s letters of recommendation than from any other part of the application. It is essential that the letters come from people who have known the student in a relevant context. For the most part, this means professors who have been able to learn about the student’s personality and character, work ethic, communication skills, and interpersonal skills. In order to set up the most effective letters, therefore, students must provide at least a few of their professors with opportunities to discover these things about them. This cannot be accomplished in the classroom, so undergraduates need to find ways to get involved in their professors’ research or other scholarly work.
Once a student starts to get involved in a professor’s work, it is necessary to make a significant contribution, over a sufficient period of time, so the professor can actually learn about the student’s abilities and potential. This takes several months to accomplish, and if a student is going to get this type of important exposure with more than one professor, then the entire process of setting up three effective letters of recommendation may take a year or two. Ideally, a student who is thinking about applying to graduate school at some point down the road should start contacting professors for these types of opportunities by the end of the sophomore year. Of course, some students only begin to seriously consider graduate school during their junior or senior years, and for them it is essential to begin their preparations immediately.
Finding the right graduate programs
A great deal of research may be needed to find the right programs in light of your specific interests or objectives, so you need to get busy on this at least a couple of months before application deadlines. Many people will apply only to programs available at universities they select on the basis of convenience, or geographical location, such as only at universities within a particular city or state. That may be fine if there are legitimate reasons why one must live in a particular region. But, too often, students limit the geographical scope of their search for the best graduate program without fully appreciating how different two graduate programs offering the same degree may be in terms of the kinds of specialized training they offer. As a result, many students will unwittingly apply to graduate programs that are not ideal for their specific career goals. They might get into one of those programs, but they might also have overlooked other options that would have been even better for them.
As I have discussed before, students should focus on finding a potential graduate supervisor whose area of specialization is a good match with the student’s own interests and goals. The best programs for the student to apply to will tend to be those where they find these ideal potential supervisors. It can take several weeks or even a few months of researching different programs and faculty members to come up with a really good short list of programs to which to apply.
Wooing potential graduate supervisors
As discussed previously on this blog, one of the most important steps for grad-school applicants to take is to contact potential supervisors before applying. This contact should be made at least a few months before applications are due. The purpose is not simply to find out whether or not they are interested in taking a new grad student, although this is certainly important to ascertain before going through all the time, trouble, and expense, of applying.
As I just mentioned, choosing the right graduate programs typically means first finding the right potential supervisors. The best way to learn certain key things about a potential supervisor is through some kind of direct contact with that person by email, or even better, an in-person visit. It’s also the most effective way for potential supervisors to find out what they need to know about you. If all they have to go on are the usual components in your application file, it’s more likely they won’t feel they know you well enough to justify the risk of accepting you as a new graduate student.
Dealing with the actual applications
Each of the steps just discussed require a significant amount of time, over a period of at least a few months, and up to a year or more, before you begin dealing with your applications, per se. But, the applications can also be very time consuming. Do not underestimate the amount of time involved in properly filling out application forms (several hours) and writing a good personal statement (several days or a few weeks), or the typical delay between when transcripts or standardized test scores are requested and when they actually arrive at their destinations (several weeks). You also need to give professors a few weeks notice prior to when you will actually need a letter of recommendation.
If you follow my advice about deciding how many programs to apply to, you will probably choose at least a few, and you will have a lot of things to do for each application. You will find that each program has different forms for you to complete, and slightly different procedures to follow when submitting your application and ensuring that everything else that’s required is submitted on your behalf (i.e., your official transcripts, standardized exam scores, and letters of recommendation).
Organization is the key to dealing with multiple items for multiple applications. Most graduate programs are serious about their deadlines and will not consider an application if any of the required components is missing or late. Use a checklist to keep track of those things you have taken care of for each application, and which things remain to be done.
Consider trying to beat the application deadline by a couple of weeks, as it might pay off in unexpected ways. For instance, it may allow you enough time to respond to unexpected problems that occur close to the deadline, such as unfulfilled requests for transcripts, test scores, or letters of recommendation. Getting your application in a couple of weeks before the deadline will also indicate that you are organized and enthusiastic about the program. Your application might even receive a closer evaluation if the admissions committee or individual faculty members begin reviewing applications before the deadline, and yours is already there.
Don’t rush to get to the wrong place
Now for a bit of advice specifically for students who are considering graduate school for next year, but who think they not properly prepared to put together a winning application at this time, or else, who are still not certain that going to grad school is even the right decision. It’s probably better to wait a year to do it properly, to find the right program or supervisor, or to make certain about the career path you want to take, than it is to rush together applications to hastily chosen programs during the next few weeks or months.
If you decide to do a rush job, there is a high risk of rejection. That would mean a big waste of time and money, and perhaps a blow to your self-esteem. If you are actually accepted and decide to take up the offer of admission, you may end up with a long-term commitment to a program that is not ideal for you, when there are much better opportunities for you, elsewhere.
No doubt about it – when writing a personal statement for a grad-school application, there are a lot of choices to make when deciding what to include. Many positive elements must be there for the statement to make a good impression, and some of those elements or features were discussed in a recent posting. Here, I want to give a bit of advice on the kinds of things that one should avoid in a personal statement, at all costs.
First of all, do not try to guess what the admissions committee is looking for in a personal statement. There is no particular response that they are looking for, and it is always obvious when a student is trying to guess at what is expected. This will undoubtedly make an applicant appear naïve, uncertain, or immature – and such an impression will typically spoil an entire application.
In most cases, it is a mistake to refer to academic achievements or other accomplishments prior to college. To mention the fact that you obtained an A+ in every high school class while you were also captain of the basketball and football teams would create the impression (probably accurate) that you do not know the difference between relevant and irrelevant information. Participation in varsity sports as an undergraduate will seldom be of any relevance.
A common mistake is to be effusive about the passion one has for a particular field of study. No one other than you really cares about your intrinsic interest in the field, so long as you have enough motivation to succeed in the program. The admissions committee should be able to infer from your letters of recommendation whether or not you are motivated enough.
Do not include boring platitudes or generic statements, and discuss frankly any significant weakness that needs to be addressed, such a poor grade or test score. Do not offer weak excuses, as they usually backfire and cause damage to the impression one makes on others. Do not exaggerate your previous accomplishments.
So you don’t risk offending anyone, avoid discussing anything in your personal statement that may be considered to be controversial. Avoid politics or anything that would reveal your own political biases. The same goes for religious views; they do not belong in a personal statement.
It is often said that a good personal statement will read like a story. You should be able to cite specific past experiences that contributed to your interest in a particular career. Do not be afraid to include information that is of a very personal nature; it is a personal statement, after all. Clearly specify how your application to this particular program fits in as the next logical step in your story.
Try to answer the following questions about yourself, and keep notes of the responses you come up with. You will later use these notes to make an outline of your statement or essay.
What is special or unique about your personal history?
Are there any features of your life that would help the admissions committee understand who you are and where you are coming from?
Did you have to overcome any special hardships or obstacles to get to where you are today?
How and when did you first become interested in this field?
What has happened since then to make you even more interested in the field?
What are your goals with respect to a career in this field?
Do you possess any notable skills or abilities (such as leadership, analytical, computer, writing, public
speaking, etc.)? How did you acquire them? What evidence could you point to that you do in fact possess these skills or abilities?
Do you possess any notable character traits (such as integrity, sensitivity, creativity, industriousness, persistence, etc.)? What evidence could you point to that you do in fact possess these traits?
Your aim should not be to incorporate all of these things into your statement, but rather to make a collection of points from which you will choose to use a few. When deciding which points to include, however, keep in mind that your statement or essay should have a unifying theme – the main point you want to get across to the reader. All other points should contribute to this message.
The beginning of your essay should grab the reader’s attention. Some options here include a personal anecdote, a compelling question, or a thought-provoking quote. There are more subtle ways to be interesting, too. Try to end the statement in a way that ties it back to whatever you used to grab the reader’s attention in the beginning.
Remember, your goal is to write a personal statement that will leave the reader with a positive and memorable impression of you. Therefore, you want to refer to your strengths and any notable qualities you possess that should help you succeed in grad school, and especially in this specific program.
Next part of the series addresses the things to avoid in a personal statement
[ If grad school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives, as well as my most recent posts. I realize that students face a huge information gap that makes it difficult to know what’s really involved, and that’s why I strive to provide the best information and advice about preparing for, and applying successfully to, graduate school.
I have been a professor for the past 18 years. I have been an undergraduate academic advisor, I have served on graduate admissions committees, supervised several graduate students and dozens of undergraduate students, and over the years I have had countless discussions about graduate admissions with Graduate Program Directors and other faculty members, in a wide range of disciplines and domains (sciences, social sciences, fine arts, humanities), and at universities in the U.S. and Canada. I have the perspective of a real insider into what students need to do to stand apart from the crowd, and how to avoid the mistakes that prevent most grad-school applicants from getting in.
You can spend a lot of time collecting bits of advice from all over Internet about dealing with different components of an application, or various steps in the process, but most of it is very basic information that everyone can get (thus, no one gets an advantage from knowing about it), and most of it is just recycled on different websites so that someone can sell advertising space.
The only thing you’ll ever see advertised here is my book and e-book. My main objective with the blog is to provide most accurate and actionable information and advice. I don’t get paid to do it, although if someone buys a copy of my book, or an e-book, I do make a few bucks. So far, however, that hasn’t exactly been happening a lot. So, rest assured, I’m not doing this for the money! ]
Many programs actually specify a limit, which typically is two or three pages. But, even if exact limits are not specified, it is essential that your statement does not ramble about irrelevant things. Remember, your letter will be read by busy people — people who have many other applications to look at, and who will get annoyed if they have to spend more time than they want to reading any individual personal statement. A few short paragraphs covering one-and-a-half to two pages is almost always enough, unless the instructions in your application package specifies that you need to provide particular details that require more space than this.
Do not try to say everything you think might be relevant. Highlight two or three or maybe four important points and keep it at that. Before you start writing, plan the order in which you want to make your points. The people reading it will appreciate a concise and well-organized personal statement.
For most people who need to do it, writing a personal statement for a graduate-school application is an unpleasant experience. There can be tremendous stress and self-doubt involved in the process. All the anxiety surrounding the personal statement is understandable, and it’s even somewhat justified. Sadly, despite someone’s investment of time, effort, and anguish, the personal statement is also the part of the application that ultimately does in a lot of the unsuccessful applications.
There are a lot of different reasons why a personal statement can make a bad impression, but generally speaking, a personal statement that makes a good impression will have at least three key features: selectivity, originality, and clarity.
The general idea behind selectivity is that you must include the right kinds of information, and also that you must refrain from including irrelevant information. Your choices will show whether or not you have good judgment. For example, it would normally be a mistake to describe the details of your academic history, unless it is to highlight something that is especially unique. The people reading your personal statement can look at your transcripts if they want to know details about your academic record.
Originality is important, because a run-of-the-mill personal statement will not help you stand out from the crowd. You need to grab the readers’ attention at the outset and hold their interest to the end. One of the most difficult things you are likely to face when preparing your personal statement is just getting started. Remember, it takes time to be creative, so be patient. Ideas will come, eventually. Do not be afraid to start over if a plan you had no longer seems good, or if you think of something better.
Clarity refers to how well you express your ideas in writing. Your statement should be logical, and it must be written with proper syntax and grammar, and free of spelling mistakes and typos. This is not just because a spelling mistake will make the reader think you cannot spell; a statement that contains these types of errors will make you appear unprofessional and careless.
Proofread, edit, and work on every sentence and passage until you are confident that you are expressing yourself in the most unambiguous and concise manner. People looking at your application want know about your writing abilities. Even just a single grammatical error, spelling mistake, or poorly worded sentence can leave a bad impression. If there is a word limit, be sure not to go beyond it. Do not try to impress the reader with your vocabulary. Importantly, you must not rely only on the spell-checking function on your computer.
Have a friend read your personal statement and ask for feedback and advice. If possible, ask this same favor of one of your professors, one who knows you well and whom you feel comfortable asking for the extra favor. Ideally, this should be a professor who is also writing a letter of recommendation for you, because he or she may then refer to your personal statement when preparing the letter.
Wondering how long your personal statement should be? Check out the next part of the series.
Most of those who have been through the process of applying to graduate school will agree — writing the personal statement was the most difficult and stressful part. Part of the problem for many is that they set out to write their personal statement without a clear set of guidelines for what to include, and with some uncertainty about exactly how it will be used in evaluating their application.
This is the first of a series of 5 articles related to preparing a personal statement. We try to give the reader a perspective on how the personal statement is used by members of a selection committee, or by a prospective graduate supervisor. Understanding the perspective of these important decision makers is essential to making good decisions about what to include and exclude from the statement, and appropriate and inappropriate ways to say certain things. (These latter aspects of preparing the personal statement will be dealt with in the remaining articles of the series).
* * *
The personal statement is also sometimes called the statement of purpose, letter of intent,or admission essay. Its main purposes are to introduce yourself explain your educational, training, and career goals, and to present those qualities that make you an excellent candidate for graduate school in general, and for the program you are applying to in particular.
Admissions committees and prospective supervisors look at personal statements to see how you think, and how well you express yourself. It provides them with an opportunity to learn who you are through your eyes. It is the component of the application that shows whether you have maturity, good judgment, and a clear plan to get from where you are today, to where you want to be ten years from now.
If you are applying to a professional school in medicine, business, or law, or to a highly competitive graduate program in another field, there might be interviews later, but for most graduate programs you should think of your personal statement as a substitute for a brief personal interview with the admissions committee or prospective supervisor.
If you think this is a good time to figure out what you want to do, then think again… you should have figured this out already. If your main reason for setting out to decide exactly what you want to do for a career is just so that you can prepare a good personal statement, then you probably need to get more serious about your reasons for wanting to go to graduate school at this time.
The most common mistake that students make is to leave too little time for preparing the personal statement. It requires a great deal of thought and planning to write a good one. You should expect to spend several days or maybe even weeks writing drafts before coming up with a good final product. If you spend only a few hours preparing and writing it, then it is almost certain to be an application-killer. And none of the other components of your application will make up for a personal statement that leaves any kind of bad impression. When applying to a graduate program that receives a large number of applicants, success depends not so much on writing an essay that gets you accepted, as on avoiding writing a personal statement that gets you rejected. Keep in mind that your statement will be read by people who are trying to form an impression of who you are and what you are like. If there are a lot of applicants to consider, it may not take a lot of imperfection to get placed into the reject pile.
A generic statement or essay can ruin your application
Do not write a generic statement for several different applications. You will probably be applying to several programs, and it is important that each personal statement you send reflects that you have done your homework and understand what the program has to offer. Although there will be a great deal of overlap in terms of the content of the statements you send to different programs, the point here is that you should not simply send the same statement to each program.
Some applicants underestimate the number of important differences there are between the various graduate programs to which they apply. Admissions officers know this, and when they detect a generic statement that the applicant probably sent to at least a few different programs, then it suggests that the applicant is ignorant of the unique aspects of their program.
Remember, people do not automatically gain admission to a Masters or Ph.D. program just because they have a bachelor’s degree and excellent undergraduate grades. It may be helpful to think of the personal statement as a sales job — one where you are both the salesperson and the merchandise being marketed. As the salesperson, you should think of your personal statement from the point of view of the potential “buyer” — the prospective supervisor or members of an admissions committee. You need to take this approach, because the process of getting into most graduate programs is a very competitive one, and you are not likely to get in if you are outdone by other applicants.
You want to present a logical rationale for wanting a particular career. This will require that you can explain your future objectives in light of your past. Accordingly, much of the content of your personal statement will be a recounting of select and relevant aspects of your past.
If you are in a discipline in which graduate students spend a lot of time engaged in research activities (a majority of disciplines fit this description), then you must strive to make a convincing case that you are not only interested in more general field of study, but also more specifically in the area in which your prospective supervisor does research. Even if it is a program in which you would be assigned to a specific supervisor only after some time in the program, or if you will receive periodic supervision by multiple faculty members on a rotational basis, it should be apparent from your statement where you are expecting to fit in with the research interests of the faculty members who are there.
One of the added benefits preparing your personal statement is that, by the time you are done, you will know how to respond to questions about what you are looking for in a career, how you intend to get there, and how you got to this point in the first place. This is excellent preparation for a pre-selection interview with an admissions committee, or for a face-to-face meeting or telephone interview with a prospective graduate supervisor.
Obvious considerations, but still worth mentioning
You need to be extremely meticulous in proofreading and editing what you write. The people looking at your application will be keenly interested to know about your writing abilities. Even just a few grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, or poorly-worded sentences can leave a very bad impression. Write concisely, and if there is a word limit, be sure not to go beyond it.
If you are required to answer specific questions, make sure you understand what is being asked of you. Think of how it makes you look if you don’t — it raises the question of whether or not you are capable of understanding simple instructions.
In the second article of this series we deal with some of the things to consider when deciding what to include, and exclude, from the personal statement.
[ If graduate school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives for this blog, as well as the most recent posts. I strive give you all the best information and advice about what it takes to get into the program that’s right for you. There are other sites out there, but they all provide the same generic information and advice about applying to grad school, and therefore, none of them offer anything that is uniquely helpful. In fact, following the advice of those other so-called grad-school experts can sometimes hurt your chances of getting in! If you want to see an example of what I mean by that, please check out my blog post from August, 2012 — What if the Guru is Wrong About That? ]