letters of recommendation

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…)

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Guest Post: 6 Reasons Why Summer Research Experience Will Give You More Than Just Research Experience

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This guest blog was written by Sophie Duranceau, a graduate from Concordia University (B.A. Psychology, Honours).  Sophie worked diligently on grad-school applications, and  received multiple acceptance letters from excellent Clinical Psychology programs! 

I know about many of the things that Sophie did to prepare for grad school, and I watched her deal with the application process. I don’t want to make this sound too much like I’m writing a letter of recommendation here, so let me just say that I have seldom before met a student who worked so carefully and methodically on every important step. Its no wonder her applications were so successful!

 Sophie did a lot of things right, from choosing the appropriate graduate programs and potential supervisors (given her career goals), to preparing a persuasive personal statement, to contacting potential supervisors before applying. Sophie began some of the most important steps long before she started dealing with the application process — namely, getting involved in the research being conducted by some of her professors, and enabling them to learn about her strong personal qualities and abilities. Here, she shares some excellent advice about getting that much needed experience.

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Let’s face it, as undergraduate students, we are often faced with the challenges of finding time to; do research, work for a living, keep up with our classes (and get straight As), volunteer, AND live a ‘’balanced lifestyle’’.  I can already hear some of you say ‘’that is simply not possible, there are not enough hours in a day’’! Folks, I was an undergraduate student in Psychology less than a year ago and I promise you that it can be done. I can certainly offer you some advice based on my own experiences juggling undergraduate studies and getting into graduate school. Lesson number one, the secret to succeeding is careful planning. Now that you know this, I’m going to give you my second advice; if you want to go to graduate school, there is no way of getting around research experience. Dr. Mumby has repeated it multiple times on this blog and in his book: research experience will provide you with assets that, ultimately, will make the difference as to whether or not you will get admitted into a graduate program. For the purpose of optimal planning, I would strongly advise you to not only work on research during the school year but to also plan at least one summer around getting research experience. Why? Here is a list of 6 reasons why summer research experience will be beneficial to you, above and beyond the fact that you will be doing research.

1- You will get to spend a lot of time with graduate students. The school year is busy for everyone, even more so for graduate students. As a result, they may not be as available to answer your questions, teach you new skills or get you involved on their projects. The summer is very different though. There is usually at least one graduate student in each research laboratory that is collecting data for his/her thesis. Being there while it is happening is a great way to learn what designing an experiment and making it happen is all about. Spending time with graduate students will also allow you to better assess whether or not graduate school is really what you want to do.

2- The professor you will be working for is more likely to have time to actually get to know you personally. Dr. Mumby has mentioned this before but it cannot be emphasized enough. A big reason why getting research experience is so crucial is because it’s the best way to get strong reference letters. Professors, like graduate students, are very busy during the school year. As a result, they may not have many opportunities to see you at work in a laboratory setting and get to know you. During the summer, things are not as rushed and professors typically have more time to physically work in the laboratory and check on their students. This is a great time to show them what you can do! Not convinced yet? A hoard of undergraduate students typically makes itself available to professors every September. That same hoard typically disappears in May, when the school year is over. If you are one of the few ones who decide to stay, you are setting yourself apart from the crowd just by being there.

3- This brings me to my third reason; summer is a great time to do some networking with your professors. Networking does not come naturally to most of us but here’s the great news, it requires very little effort during the summer. Your presence will speak for itself. Believe it or not, professors talk to each other. If you come into school regularly enough and interact with professors down the hall, you will quickly go from being the student who sits in the back row to Student W in Dr. X’s lab who is working on Project Y and hopes to go to graduate school to do Z. This will become very handy when you need reference letters. Your presence in the school will also allow you to more casually ask professors that have gotten to know you if they would be willing to write you a strong reference letter during the fall. Chances are, at that point, they will. Another way this can be beneficial is if you plan on taking a year off to do research-related work after your undergraduate studies. Professors that you have not worked with in the past might be more likely to hire you as a year-long research coordinator if they feel like they already know you and your supervisor can attest that you are a good worker.

4- Summer is typically the time when graduate students (at least MA students) defend their thesis. Thesis defenses are usually open to other students and professors. Working on research during the summer will allow you to find out when these things are happening and to attend! This is a great way of getting to know what you would be expected to do in graduate school and, again, to set yourself apart from the crowd. Professors that see you there will take it as a sign that you are serious about what you want to do.

5- If you are planning on starting your Honours Thesis with Dr. X in the fall, working in Dr. X’s laboratory during the summer will provide you with a head start. You will have the opportunity to get acquainted with the literature in your field, you might learn how to run a specific task during the summer which will make it easy to collect your data in the fall, it will be easy to meet with your supervisor to discuss a project (before he/she becomes too busy), etc.

6- Last, but not the least, authorships! If you are reading this you are probably still an undergraduate student and publications are far from your mind. That is completely normal but here’s the thing; one morning you will wake up, you won’t know how it happened, and publications will have become one of the first things on your mind. Even if that day hasn’t come yet, it doesn’t mean you can’t start getting ready for it! Research laboratories are typically buzzing with projects that you could get involved in during the summer. It could be a professor wanting to try out a new task or a graduate student who needs help with an experiment. If you provide them with some significant help above and beyond more typical tasks such as data entry, there’s a good possibility that they will acknowledge your work by putting your name on a poster for example. An authorship on a poster is not a pre-requisite to get into graduate school but it is a nice extra to have on your CV that will, again, set you apart from the crowd.

If you have read this far I must be convincing you that summer research is a good idea after all. If you are like most undergraduate students and typically work during the summer months, your next question probably is; how can I get such research experience and fulfill my financial needs at the same time? There is no miracle answer to this question but I can provide you with a few ideas in my this post about how to get summer research experience while keeping a roof over your head.

Most letters of recommendation are never read! 

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A strategy I sometimes use to get students’ attention during a lecture, so they are ready to learn a key concept, is to surprise them with something unexpected and provocative, just before I explain the ‘big picture’ key concept. The goal is to arouse their intuition and allow them to prepare for some important analytical thinking. An “eyebrow-raiser” can help get a point across in such a way that helps it sink in.

I do the same thing when I’m speaking to a group of students about preparing for graduate-school applications. One of my favorites comes up when discussing how letters of recommendation are used in the evaluation of grad-school applicants. I like to point out that these letters are often the most influential part of a successful application. No controversy there. But, then, I tell them that most letters of recommendation are never actually read!

I have to admit to getting a bit of pleasure out of those four or five seconds of stunned silence from a crowd of avidly attentive and fixated people. They stare, with perplexed expressions, waiting for me to explain what I really meant to say. But, instead of clarifying or correcting my comment, I repeat it: “Seriously, most letters, or at least a large proportion of them, are never read by anyone, other than being proofread by the letter writers before they seal them in an envelope.”

I might play a bit more by saying something like, “Oh, the envelopes with the letters in them are all opened — that’s necessary to confirm that the required documents are inside. But, it would take too long to read all the letters, and the people deciding who gets in might not even find it helpful to do so.”

This is usually when the low-level murmur among the audience picks up, and I notice some of the puzzled looks are changing to expressions of annoyance. The time has now arrived to make my point — and everyone is ready and paying full attention.

Exactly what I proceed to talk about may be different on separate occasions, because there are a number of reasons why most letters are never actually read. I will usually go on to explain how the process of selecting applicants actually works, and how not all applications get the same amount of attention, partly because different people may be responsible for evaluating different applications to the same program. Alternatively, I could describe the student evaluation form that the person writing a letter of recommendation is normally required to fill out and submit along with the letter. Understanding how this evaluation form is used in the selection process can go a long way to explaining why many of the letters attached to them are never read.

Here are some other provocative statements I use to garner attention and interest when talking to students about grad-school applications:

“Decisions about who gets in have nothing to do with who deserves it the most.”

“Helping a professor with his or her research is the best way to set up an effective letter of recommendation. This strategy backfires, more often than not.”

“Many students are accepted into a graduate program before they even apply.”

“I’m dedicated to helping students prepare for graduate school, and to helping them get into the right program. But, I won’t encourage my own children to go to graduate school after college.”