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!