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If I knew then what I know now...


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#1 FingersCrossedX

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Posted 18 April 2011 - 02:48 PM

I thought this would be a good topic for people new to the boards. A little advice so those that apply next year and the years after don't have to make the same mistakes we did.
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#2 FingersCrossedX

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Posted 18 April 2011 - 02:55 PM

I'll start with this one. There is no such thing as a safety school. A school is either a good fit or not. A poorly ranked school doing research in everything you're not interested in, will reject you. Before you apply make sure the program is a good fit.


What about everyone else. What do you wish you'd known at the beginning?
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#3 jaxzwolf

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Posted 18 April 2011 - 03:05 PM

Even if you're a good candidate for admission, have good credentials and experience, know what you want to study, you still might get rejected. It's not uncommon to have to apply multiple times to secure a spot. So don't get discouraged if you're rejected your first time applying. Many have to try again a second (or sometimes third) year. If you really want to go to grad school, it will be worth waiting an additional year.
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#4 nvseal

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Posted 18 April 2011 - 05:39 PM

1) I definitely have to agree with there being no such thing as a safety school -- apply at schools matching your interests, safety or not, otherwise you probably won't get in. The two schools I was accepted at are, quite frankly, way out of my league of my undergrad university. I am convinced the primary reason I got in was because of my research match.

2) Don't put off industry experience in good companies, internships are a must if you can get them.

3) Get involved in research as soon as possible. If you don't go to a research university, start working on your own. Ask your professors for help and advice during the process as they will probably be behind you all the way and it is a good way to get recommendation letters. If your school doesn't have professors with a background in your area, look at other schools and ask professors there. This can be a great way to network. Also, along the lines of #1, do work in your area of interest if at all possible. If you tell a school that you want to work in area X and you already have some undergrad work in that direction, this will help you application a great deal by showing that you are interested enough to actually do work instead of just "it sounds cool".

4) I was lucky to not need this one, but get to know your professors and use their office hours. Doing well in class isn't enough.

5) Start writing your statement of purpose as early as possible. This will help you clarify your intent in your own mind and will probably make the process of choosing schools easier.
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"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Accepted: 2/5 Brown, UT Austin -> Going to the University of Texas at Austin.
Rejected: 3/5

#5 MoJingly

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Posted 18 April 2011 - 05:54 PM

5) Start writing your statement of purpose as early as possible. This will help you clarify your intent in your own mind and will probably make the process of choosing schools easier.


This. I'm not kidding when I say I spent 6 months on mine. And it changed MANY times. At the end, it was worth it.
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#6 Christina Brown

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Posted 18 April 2011 - 06:22 PM

I will be applying to grad school this fall and those who are also applying soon or will reapply in the near future, I would advise reading Donald Asher's "Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice". So far, it is extremely useful in how I am approaching my schools. It is not all about crafting the best graduate school essay; its about crafting the strongest graduate school application possible.

For the past 2 weeks, I have been on this site more times than I can count and I was just so bothersome to see how the best applicants with the stellar GPAs and research experience were turned down. I do not know if it was because it were not lucky or too many people applied with few spots at hand, but I also think in comes down to how WE market ourselves.

Tip: Although I have not completed a graduate school application yet, don't list all your achievements in your SOP. Treat the graduate school process as your next potential job opportunity.

Asher goes into detail about what happens to when admission committees reviews your application and what ways you can beat more qualified applicants. I'm heard stories of people who brought this book getting accepted to all their graduate school programs so I had to loan it from the library! :P

I'm going to read the SOP part this week so I can start working on my SOP early. Thanks to the people above with the SOP advice. I will take that into consideration. Appreciate it. Good luck!

Edited by Christina Brown, 18 April 2011 - 06:27 PM.

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#7 latte thunder

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Posted 18 April 2011 - 07:49 PM

I've felt kind behind as I waited 3 years after I graduated from undergrad to apply to grad schools. However, I used these three years to find out for certain what I want to do and how to get there so I'm glad I did. I've learned a lot about where I want to work, how I work best, what truly motivates me (not doing something just because I'm supposed to) and what mark I want to leave on the world. I don't think I would have been sucessful had I gone to grad school after undergrad because I needed to see some of the end result of school (jobs and real life) before I could plan for it.

So my advice,

1. DONT apply to school just because you don't feel like your ready for the real world yet. I've seen people go this route, and it doesnt really get them the answers they think it will. If you're in this boat, join the peace corp or teach for america. You will certainly learn something new about yourself and will probably look at the world from a new prespective (also, after a few years out its hard to go back and have these experiences). Apply to school because you really truly want to learn more and you need the extra degree for a specific job.

2. Don't underestimate what schools you'll get into. Even if you have under a 3.0. The really do take the human element into account so take the time to visit and get to know professors.

3. Make sure that you get advice from everywhere you can. Especially if you aren't going into academia. The work world puts stock into name recognition (not just harvard, but also that school down the street) more than rankings, and nobody in HR reads US news and world report (Here, they just pass around avon catalogs :D ) . I'm definitely not saying that Harvard is never a good decision, but it's truly overkill if you want to say... work in a local school district.

4. Student loans are serious things; much more so for grad school than Undergrad. Undergrad is more of a life experience, and its worth the debt. However, Grad school is about a job (whether academic or not). For example, if you want to be a librarian and it pays 50,000 a year, then don't take out 100,000 in debt for an MLS. I don't care if it is harvard (look at advice #3).

5. If you don't have a specific job or industry in mind, then you should probably take a couple years off to determine that first. Too much education can hurt you as much as too little. For example, you find out that you really want to be an accountant...but you have a master's in Psychology. You probably aren't getting hired. It'll be hard to convince an employer than you're more serious about this career change then you were about the years of school you just went through to do something else.

6. There's more than one way to skin a cat. Meaning there's more than one field you can study to get to the same end result (job). Do some informational interviewing and see what other people studied. You'll probably be suprised and this may lead you to find other programs you can apply to.
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#8 Bumblebee

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Posted 18 April 2011 - 08:12 PM

I agree with @latte thunder. Grad school is vocational, not an easy way to avoid facing reality.
I would also like to add that I waited 8 years since I graduated from college to go to Grad School and I think it was my best decision ever. During these 8 years I've worked in 4 different countries, I've matured, I've found out what my real passion in life was, etc. In other words: I've enjoyed life! When I graduated from college one of my professors advised me to pursue a PhD. At that time, I saw it as a really scary thing to do, something I couldn't handle. When I finally applied to grad school, I was very excited knowing that I had finally found what I really wanted to do in life and knowing that these 8 years had helped me be ready for an MA and a PhD. After enjoying traveling and meeting people all around the world, I'm finally ready to focus on my studies for the next 7 years.
So, after this lengthy paragraph, this is my advice: graduate from college, travel, work, enjoy life, and think about what you really want to do in life. And then, if you feel you're ready, apply to Grad School.
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#9 FingersCrossedX

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Posted 18 April 2011 - 08:40 PM

I would have given myself enough time to take the GRE a second time. I ended up not needing it, but I really wanted to take it again but couldn't. Take the GRE early.
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#10 jetty016

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Posted 19 April 2011 - 12:42 AM

1. Don't stress out about the GRE. It doesn't hold very much weight when compared with the rest of the application, and many people actually consider it to be a poor measure of graduate school success.

2. Don't stress out about the interview visit. The programs are trying to recruit you just as much as you are trying to impress them, so take it easy and focus on getting to know what they have to offer.

3. Apply early. Your name will more likely stick out from the crowd if your application is one of the first to arrive for the application season.

4. Only apply to schools you would actually attend. To reiterate what others have said..."there is no such thing as a safety school". Imagine each school you apply to as your only acceptance, that should help you narrow down a solid, concise list of prospective programs.

5. Have clear (as possible) research interests. Faculty seem to think very highly of students who already know what they want to study.
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#11 fuzzylogician

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Posted 19 April 2011 - 02:38 AM

1. Start the process as early as possible. Seriously. It's never too early to start.

2. Spend time researching the programs you are considering applying to - read their website, as well as potential advisors' websites. Read about the location, the weather, the current funding situation. Ask your professors about each school.

3. Don't apply to "safety schools", there is no such thing. Also don't apply to schools in locations you absolutely don't see yourself living in. Don't make choices that will make you unhappy before you even start.

4. Write an early SOP draft and put it aside for at least a few weeks. You may find while writing the draft that you struggle to define your interests. Spend some time thinking about that; it can be a real soul-searching process and you should not apply before you've gone through it and are confident in your chosen field(s).

5. Think ahead. One of the papers you write for a class this year will likely turn into your writing sample next year; get good feedback and revise accordingly. One or more of the professors you are taking classes with this year will be recommenders next year. Go to office hours, make yourself known to them. Seek feedback from them on your work, maybe even on papers for other classes if they are interested.

6. Use the summer wisely. A small RAship or an independent study could go a long way towards getting you some much needed research experience, maybe also a LOR and/or a writing sample. Not to mention how much it'll help you to better define your interests for your SOP.

7. Find out if it's customary to contact potential advisors ahead of time in your field. If so, do it a few weeks before or a few weeks after the new term starts. Don't wait, this can affect your choice where to apply.

8. Don't stress overmuch about grades. For one, there's little you can do to change the ones you already have. Further, the "intangible" parts of the application are so much more important.

9. Revise, revise, and revise some more. Let professors and friends read your SOP for content and for style. Let someone read your writing sample as well. Go through multiple versions, take your time. These things are hard to write.

10. Be on top of things, part 1. I suggest a chart with the following info for each school: (a) deadline, (b ) app fee, (c ) link to app website, (d) username, password for website, (e) requirements (how many transcripts, GRE/subject GRE score, TOEFL score, LORs, SOP prompt, writing sample length, other - diversity statement, personal statement, letter of intent, etc.), (f) potential advisors, links to websites

11. Be on top of things, part 2. Have a time line: deadlines for each school, when to order transcripts (how many), when to send out application packets, when to contact recommenders, when to send reminders. If you're international, look up American holidays around when you expect to send your app so you're not surprised by the (lack of) operating times of the post office and the schools.

12. Be on top of things, part 3. Get in touch with your recommenders early. Prepare a packet for each of them with your transcript, a paper you wrote for their class, a draft of your SOP, a list of the schools you're applying to with their deadline. Ask them if/when they would like you to send them reminders. Consider having a backup plan for flaky recommenders - in particular ones that will be away and will be hard to track down if they disappear.

Edited by fuzzylogician, 19 April 2011 - 02:41 AM.

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The advice in this post is based on my own personal experience. YMMV.
Pardon my typos..

#12 beanbagchairs

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Posted 19 April 2011 - 04:27 AM

Whoa, I think previous posters have covered almost all aspects in preparing your applications. I'll just try to add some more in deciding where to go in the case of multiple acceptances:

(1) Wait until you know all of your options (i.e., you have heard back from all of your schools) before making any decision. I realize sometimes it is not possible. Do not decide hastily! This is a big decision of your life. I ended up making my decision towards the end of April 15th.

(2) Visit the schools, talk to current students, talk to professors in each school to get the vibe.

(3) Figure out their placement records. Where do their graduates go. Are the current grads happy with their program? Current grads are usually honest about the current condition.

(4) Try to talk to the current advisees of your PoIs. I did this and it revealed some "disturbing" facts about some of PoIs. In other cases, it confirmed my intention to work with said PoIs.

(5) Follow the money! Go for funded offers, especially for PhDs! You'll work better if you dont have to worry about money.

(6) Seek advices from your current recommenders about which offers to choose.

(7) Figure out the research productivity of current advisees of your PoIs.

(8) Only talk about your applications to those who understands the competitiveness/stress involved in graduate applications. This saves you a lot from feeling stupid for getting rejected or wanting to go mental towards everyone around you :-)

Edited by beanbagchairs, 19 April 2011 - 04:28 AM.

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#13 Zouzax

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Posted 19 April 2011 - 11:40 AM

I agree with everyone that said revise, revise, revise. Then wait a few weeks and revise some more. I did total revisions on my SOP and CV at least 7 times. Finally a week or two ago I let myself look them over again and there was SO MUCH MORE I could have changed/ fixed.


Research every aspect of the programs you're interested in. Learn everything you can about what's available in your field. If you want to go to a school just for the name and you know deep down inside that you're not compatible with the program/ research, don't waste your time and money. Name isn't everything. Through some links posted here I was able to find 3 more schools that I think I would be really interested in. I didn't do enough research on what's out there.

Start thinking about your writing sample as early as possible. Any paper can be a potential writing sample. Stay on top of what you write, and if you think it could potentially be a sample, edit it according to your prof's suggestions right away. Dont wait until a week before you send in applications and quickly try to revise a random paper (like I did).

On that note, something I wish I had done and something I will DEFINITELY do next time --- take your time applying. don't rush. make sure every detail is included, every piece of information you wanted to say, that every "i" is dotted. If you're unsure about whether or not you want to add/ delete something, sleep on it. I just wanted to get my apps over with so I sent everything in almost 2 months before the deadline and it was silly. Unfortunately that application packet is the only thing that represents you to the adcoms, the only thing that stands between getting an interview or getting thrown into the reject pile. Make sure your 100% happy with it before pressing 'SEND'.
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not even counting anymore

#14 Scottielass

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Posted 19 April 2011 - 02:03 PM

1. Get cracking on the SOP. For me, it was a work-in-progress for months. Have 2 or 3 trusted people periodically review your drafts. This helped me tremendously in my writing process. The quality of my SOP from first draft to final submission was night and day.
2. Visit your schools before you apply, if it's an option. I did this for my first choice school. I had the opportunity to meet half of the admissions committee members one-on-one. I think this really gave me an edge in the decision process. It showed I was very serious about the program. It also gave an opportunity to evaluate fit-- for me and the faculty. Quite frankly, I don't know if I would have been selected if I hadn't made a visit.
3. Don't stress about the GRE. If you make the cutoff, you're fine. In my program, it didn't seem the GRE would make or break an application if you met the minimum. That will probably change with PhD, so I may take it again after it switches format. I completely stressed out the first time I took it, and I think that negatively impacted my score.
4. As other posters have said...there is no such thing as a safety school. Don't apply to a school if it's not a right fit for you. That's a lot of money to spend for an education if it isn't your ideal fit. Take a year off, get more experience, and re-apply. I've seen a lot of people rejected the first time, and are accepted with their second application.
5. Don't take things too personally. I know that's tough to swallow. It really is about fit. Some years the applicant pool is extremely concentrated in certain areas. That makes it all the harder to stand out because so many people are qualified.
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Applied to: Ohio University E.W. Scripps School of Journalism
Accepted: Yes!!

#15 Golden Monkey

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Posted 19 April 2011 - 02:29 PM

I agree with @latte thunder. Grad school is vocational, not an easy way to avoid facing reality.
I would also like to add that I waited 8 years since I graduated from college to go to Grad School and I think it was my best decision ever. During these 8 years I've worked in 4 different countries, I've matured, I've found out what my real passion in life was, etc. In other words: I've enjoyed life! When I graduated from college one of my professors advised me to pursue a PhD. At that time, I saw it as a really scary thing to do, something I couldn't handle. When I finally applied to grad school, I was very excited knowing that I had finally found what I really wanted to do in life and knowing that these 8 years had helped me be ready for an MA and a PhD. After enjoying traveling and meeting people all around the world, I'm finally ready to focus on my studies for the next 7 years.
So, after this lengthy paragraph, this is my advice: graduate from college, travel, work, enjoy life, and think about what you really want to do in life. And then, if you feel you're ready, apply to Grad School.


Heh, I waited 15 years after undergrad to start grad school. If I were doing everything over and reapplying to PhD programs, the one thing I'd do is apply to more of them. Of course, funded PhD programs are much harder to get accepted into than unfunded master's but I didn't anticipate just how much harder. So the one thing I'd do differently is apply to more programs. I didn't apply to a few because they were overseas (should have applied anyway just to see what they said,) didn't apply to one because I thought the web site description seemed vague (but maybe their program is a lot better than their site,) didn't apply to another because it seemed like there was no funding (in truth, you'll never find out what the funding situation is until you apply,) and... just plain forgot about the last one (that was just dumb.)


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#16 ep1181

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Posted 19 April 2011 - 07:15 PM

I totally agree with everyone that said not to stress about the GRE. I didn't have the best scores in the world, but I still got into programs. I actually performed better the 2nd time I took the test because I had a "whatever let's just get this over with" attitude vs. the first time when I was overly stressed about scoring high. .

Edited by ep1181, 19 April 2011 - 07:16 PM.

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#17 natsteel

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Posted 19 April 2011 - 10:59 PM

I am currently serving as a "mentor" in my history department. Being a senior, and having done pretty well during the application process, I am constantly being asked by students about the whole process. So, rather than spend an hour or more explaining to each individually, I am working on a sort-of rough guide structured around a timeline of the process. But, I am just one person, and I would really appreciate it if anyone was inclined to take a look and maybe suggest edits or additions. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated and I am, of course, more than happy to share the document with fellow forum members.

NOTE: Because it is a direct link, clicking it will begin downloading the document. So, if you are wary of that for whatever reason, do not click the link below.

A direct link to the guide in .docx format here.
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***All statements above pertaining to the application process are specific to the field of History and my own experience.


#18 starmaker

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Posted 20 April 2011 - 06:48 PM

I will be applying to grad school this fall and those who are also applying soon or will reapply in the near future, I would advise reading Donald Asher's "Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice". So far, it is extremely useful in how I am approaching my schools. It is not all about crafting the best graduate school essay; its about crafting the strongest graduate school application possible.


You should be aware that while Asher's book has lots of good tips about good writing, and lots of fantastic sample SOPs, some of the advice isn't great for PhD programs because he's trying to address academic master's and PhD programs, MD programs, law schools, and MBA programs all in the same book. And guess what? Those all have really different admissions criteria, and want different things in their essays! For example, he stresses certain kinds of leadership and character-reference activities a lot that are basically worthless for PhD admissions (though they might be useful for certain fellowships). Nobody in PhD admissions cares that you founded some random club, or that you were a resident assistant in your dorm. They care about your research potential and ability to complete the program (as demonstrated by research experience, recommendations, grades, and GRE), your focus, and to some extent your professionalism and professional involvement (which can be demonstrated by involvement, service, and leadership in the professional societies of your field, the student clubs in your field, the honors societies of your field, etc).

I felt that of all that was in the book, I got the most out of reading the sample SOPs in areas of study similar to mine.

I don't recommend against the Asher book, but I suggest that you combine it with other sources that are tailored to PhD applicants. Here are two very good ones (science-oriented):

Katherine Sledge Moore's site
http://sites.google....dappadvice/home

Philip Guo's pages on PhD applications advice and fellowship application advice, respectively
http://www.stanford....ol-app-tips.htm
http://www.stanford....owship-tips.htm
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#19 Christina Brown

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Posted 20 April 2011 - 09:05 PM

You should be aware that while Asher's book has lots of good tips about good writing, and lots of fantastic sample SOPs, some of the advice isn't great for PhD programs because he's trying to address academic master's and PhD programs, MD programs, law schools, and MBA programs all in the same book. And guess what? Those all have really different admissions criteria, and want different things in their essays! For example, he stresses certain kinds of leadership and character-reference activities a lot that are basically worthless for PhD admissions (though they might be useful for certain fellowships). Nobody in PhD admissions cares that you founded some random club, or that you were a resident assistant in your dorm. They care about your research potential and ability to complete the program (as demonstrated by research experience, recommendations, grades, and GRE), your focus, and to some extent your professionalism and professional involvement (which can be demonstrated by involvement, service, and leadership in the professional societies of your field, the student clubs in your field, the honors societies of your field, etc).

I felt that of all that was in the book, I got the most out of reading the sample SOPs in areas of study similar to mine.

I don't recommend against the Asher book, but I suggest that you combine it with other sources that are tailored to PhD applicants. Here are two very good ones (science-oriented):

Katherine Sledge Moore's site
http://sites.google....dappadvice/home

Philip Guo's pages on PhD applications advice and fellowship application advice, respectively
http://www.stanford....ol-app-tips.htm
http://www.stanford....owship-tips.htm



I'm planning on pursuing a M.S. degree in Computer Science, not a Ph.D program. But I will check out your links. Thanks.


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#20 Tall Chai Latte

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 12:27 AM

1. If you have a low UG GPA, it might not matter so much if you have good research experience and decent GRE. LORs are very important.

2. Make sure you have backup LOR!! That screwed me over when I applied, some schools don't look at your app at all unless everything is in... Including LORs.

3. When it comes to decision time, regardless how many people suggest/advise you about choices, always make sure you are okay with what you decided on. We all get cold feet moments with major decision times, but which school to attend a very personal choice. Trust your instinct!
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