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Sigaba

Lessons Learned: 2015 Application Season

40 posts in this topic

~~~Bumpity Bump Bump~~~

If your season is (mostly) over for 2016, feel free to post about your experiences, what you would do differently, what you would do the same, and generally offer a reflection on the process that perhaps other prospective applicants can read and evaluate as they move forward.  

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I think my statement of purpose might have been a little weak. My professors said to focus on my research and professional goals, so I never really discussed why I had poor grades early on in my undergrad or why I think I had more difficulty than the average person even getting to where I am academically. But I didn't want to sound whiny or as if I was making excuses... But I think without mentioning anything I just look like I was a lazy or unmotivated student, which is very far from the truth. So I don't really know if this was a mistake or if I did the right thing, but it bothers me regardless.

I also applied to schools thinking working hard and getting a PhD would get me a job as a professor. I didn't take into account the rank or reputation of schools, or how most people can never land this job anyway, so I guess I feel like I'm going into a program knowing I probably won't end up where I want. So that sucks. I mean, I would do it regardless because I absolutely love research, but I hope I can find a decent research job eventually.

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46 minutes ago, Danger_Zone said:

I think my statement of purpose might have been a little weak. My professors said to focus on my research and professional goals, so I never really discussed why I had poor grades early on in my undergrad or why I think I had more difficulty than the average person even getting to where I am academically. But I didn't want to sound whiny or as if I was making excuses... But I think without mentioning anything I just look like I was a lazy or unmotivated student, which is very far from the truth. So I don't really know if this was a mistake or if I did the right thing, but it bothers me regardless.

I also applied to schools thinking working hard and getting a PhD would get me a job as a professor. I didn't take into account the rank or reputation of schools, or how most people can never land this job anyway, so I guess I feel like I'm going into a program knowing I probably won't end up where I want. So that sucks. I mean, I would do it regardless because I absolutely love research, but I hope I can find a decent research job eventually.

That's an interesting thought, esp. about the poor grades. I had a colleague that was in a similar boat and I advised them not to address it (and so did a few faculty members) since it might draw more unwanted attention to the fact than if you simply let it be. But I completely understand your frustration. 

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1 minute ago, archersline said:

That's an interesting thought, esp. about the poor grades. I had a colleague that was in a similar boat and I advised them not to address it (and so did a few faculty members) since it might draw more unwanted attention to the fact than if you simply let it be. But I completely understand your frustration. 

Yeah, I completely trust my professor's judgment, but I just have that anxiety over not knowing why schools haven't wanted me. Was it something more I could have done or am I simply not a good fit? It's difficult to know whether you just needed to improve things or if you never had a chance considering how competitive things are. I guess what's done is done, though.;)

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4 minutes ago, Danger_Zone said:

Yeah, I completely trust my professor's judgment, but I just have that anxiety over not knowing why schools haven't wanted me. Was it something more I could have done or am I simply not a good fit? It's difficult to know whether you just needed to improve things or if you never had a chance considering how competitive things are. I guess what's done is done, though.;)

Completely sympathize with the frustration. I have made inquiries about my rejections and asked what I could have done better, mainly so that I can advise my colleagues who do this years from now on how to improve. When you get responses though its usually the same "too many good applicants, not enough spots" line. While convenient for them, it does nothing for us on this end...

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On ‎3‎/‎3‎/‎2016 at 4:47 PM, archersline said:

Completely sympathize with the frustration. I have made inquiries about my rejections and asked what I could have done better, mainly so that I can advise my colleagues who do this years from now on how to improve. When you get responses though its usually the same "too many good applicants, not enough spots" line. While convenient for them, it does nothing for us on this end...

I would say, while I completely agree that you should inquire about rejections, it would be best to wait until April at earliest to ask. If you were to ask now, they still are dealing with waitlistings and acceptances, so you are more likely to get a poorly thought-out, generic response.

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Statement of purpose, without a doubt, could have been better for me. They were all slightly vague, perhaps reflecting my lack of sureness in a dissertation topic, but where I was most specific, confident and well-read, I was accepted. Where I was kinda-sorta interested in maybe this, I was not.

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@Sigaba wrote in the writing samples thread, "IMO, a very well written piece based upon a foundation of solid research will get you more than a solidly written piece based upon a foundation of excellent research. My $0.02."

That retrospectively explained a lot about my attitude toward my applications, with whose results I was pleased. I wanted to save it here for the next round.

Edited by knp

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Posted (edited)

LONG POST, sorry!

Since the application season is nearly over and I’ve heard from mostly all programs (aside from NYU, waitlist or rejection at this point), I thought I’d debrief. I am usually not one for these type of posts, or even forums, I frequent only when needed, to relieve anxiety or boredom, and never visit again. But having read many posts, and followed some people's successes and failures, even rooted for some, I wanted to leave whatever words of wisdom I could, to help out whoever may end up coming across my post.

First off, I am a ‘unique’ case, well not unique but different than the traditional history student, I’ve flunked out of my undergrad, changed my major 3/4 times, before finally settling on history. I retook all the courses I failed (7), as well as any course I got less than a B, about (3-4). It took me, with a mandatory gap year, 7 years to finish. BUT because my university did this funny transcript thing, it ended up being that it took me 5 years to finish my BA, instead of 7. Nevertheless, once I decided on history, I took primarily history courses, and graduated Cum Laude, gpa 3.6-3.7. But I will list my exact scores and gpa below. 

Anyway, I have been immensely privileged to have received close mentorship from a very dear MA advisor, who was my confidant, editor, and guide. He is an extremely well respected senior academic, friends with many Ivy professors, and through his connections I received a lot of advice and kind words from them, in turn. He told me which schools to apply to, read over each and every one of my SOPs to each school, told me how to approach his friends (for me they were POIs), and told me which ones to avoid. And really, most importantly, he never stopped believing in me, and that helped me believe in myself. The reason I am harping on about my supervisor, is because I truly believe having a strong support network is crucial. You need someone to believe in you, especially when you stop believing in yourself, and you will. I am pretty confidant/arrogant and I had moments of intense doubt.

I was extremely reluctant to embark upon the academic path because of the job market, so when I did my MA, I promised myself my academic aspirations would continue no further than my MA thesis. I needed to prove to myself that if I wanted to do academia I could do it and I did. However, when I got to writing my MA thesis, I worked closely with my supervisor, and he made me fall in love with my field, and academia, and I simply couldn’t resist the pull. Nevertheless, my supervisor is a very sober man, and he told me that the job market is tough, and if I want it, I needed to take the ivy route. (Sorry guys, I don’t mean to offend, but that’s the advice I got). He did warn me of the difficulty, but as months went by he was more confident I’d get in than I was initially. I am not sure what changed.

Next, while I am a history student/scholar pure and simple, I did my MA thesis on a history of science topic, and just fell in love with the field. I wanted to pursue my degree in history of science BUT with a strong emphasis on history and less science. Here is the thing, I am and I remain a student of history proper. That’s just a fact that I had to finally admit to myself and to my interviewees, at an unsuccessful interview at UPenn HSS, which is the reason I didn’t get in.  This is important, you need to be clear about your identity as a scholar. I have no science, anthro, or STS background to speak of. I took one psych course, and one history of astronomy course both 101, and did well, but that’s pretty much it. My complete lack of any ‘science’ background played against me at Penn, but also my interests are very history centered rather than science. My supervisor however disagreed with my thinking and said that I could style myself as a history of science student regardless of my lack of background because of my MA thesis. Perhaps, or not.

This is my second year applying. First year, I applied to Harvard and Princeton, I visited both schools, and interviewed at Harvard (unofficially), with a POI that is a close friend of my supervisor. Very encouraging and positive interview. Now for the History of Science at Harvard, it is not housed within the history program, and the interview was unofficial. HOWEVER, you absolutely must contact professors before applying to the History of Science department, in fact, in the application they ask you if you contacted anyone, and they expect you to do so. So if you get advised against this, don’t listen, contact! The same goes for Princeton! AND DO NOT JUST CONTACT ONE, CONTACT AS MANY FACULTY MEMBERS AS YOU CAN. But do so prudently, and don’t forget to read their works and speak about them in the email!

Anyway, with Princeton I visited the campus, sat in on their Monday seminar, which I really liked. My POI was out of town, so I just met with the DGS, it was a formal meeting, nothing special. I loved Princeton, the atmosphere, the campus.

I got rejected from both, and because my supervisor is good friends with both POIs at Princeton and Harvard, he got a lengthy explanation of why I got rejected. The problem was my SOP for both, and letters for Princeton. My supervisor asked the Harvard prof if I was a strong candidate for the Ivies and heard a resounding YES, and with this he urged me to reapply. 

For Harvard my SOP was too narrow, the project I presented was too thought out, and I seemed rigid and inflexible, because unlike the regular history program, in HOS you take 2 years of courses, in which the department actually encourages students to explore different fields, even to change your initial topic. I seemed like I was ready to hit the ground running and I would not be receptive to other avenues of thought.

Now for Princeton, the problem was entirely different. I had initially pitched to them a different topic, but then decided to ditch it, and run with the same proposal as I sent to Harvard, and Princeton was blindsided. And felt I’d reject them for Harvard that they were sure I would get in. I thought so too, so I understand completely. L And I would have rejected them for Harvard, so no hard feelings. They also felt I needed more focused letters of reference, mine were from history professors, I needed history of science. I wasn’t science enough on paper. I agree, and I am still not!

Before applying the first time around, I had finished my MA, so I could have lots of time to apply to schools. When I got rejected, in the gap year, actually immediately after handing in my MA thesis, I decided to turn some of my thesis into a journal article, with my supervisor’s blessing. The paper has since received ‘Major Revisions’ to a respect well ranked journal, so I knew my paper was solid, and this paper I submitted as my writing sample for my second round of applications.

The first time applying, I submitted more or less the same paper but it didn’t yet undergo rigorous peer review at 3 journals. Anyway, Harvard prof said they liked my writing sample, very strong, and after the peer review it was even stronger and better. So I knew I had a great writing sample. THAT IS IMPORTANT! As a history applicant, the writing sample, together with the SOP, is one of the single most important pieces of your application. WORK ON IT!

I had also volunteered for an international history of science project, so this made it seem like I was busy during my gap year. Also I only had 1 history of science recommendation, and 2 from history, so I needed another history of science recommendation, which I got from a coordinator of the project.  The letters were important, I didn’t really think so, but they are. Princeton told me this.

So my profile was as follows:

BA GPA: 3.6-3.7 Cum Laude (history)

MA GPA: 4.0 Summa Cum Laude (history) – in the results page I erroneously listed 3.8 that’s a mistake (pls ignore)

Volunteer for a history of science project for over a year

1 paper to by published in a well ranked academic journal in my field, ‘major revisions’

2 letters from history of science professors, 1 history

GRE: 163 (V), 153 (Q), 5 (AW).

And I speak/read/write 2 foreign European languages, aside from English.

As you can see I didn’t do well on Quantitative, but I was told by both Harvard and Princeton it was good enough, so long as I am not studying history of math. I didn’t retake it because of that. Harvard was my gold standard and what was good for them will be good for everyone. They don’t focus on GREs, only if they are really terrible, mine weren’t.

Now reapplying! I applied to in earnest, and with a lot of effort, to Princeton (HOS), Penn (HSS), Columbia (history), and Yale (HSHM), and I’ll include Brown (history) but the statement was not my best work by any stretch of the imagination (the deadline was Dec 1, first one, and I waffled, it was my own fault). For NYU, I threw in the app on the last day it was due, my statement was written in 15 min. Because I didn’t yet hear for Penn (HSS) interview and I got really nervous. I made contact with an NYU professor back in August but ultimately felt it wasn’t for me. Radio silence from Penn made me rethink only Ivy rule or that NYU made zero sense, so I just threw 127$ down the drain to allay my anxieties. I got contacted to interview at Penn the next day. L I should’ve just withdrawn my app but having paid already I felt I should just stick with it. So for NYU’s sake, I hope they reject me and use the 127$ to buy themselves something pretty.

The reason Harvard is patently absent from my list is because my POI is retiring and will not be taking anymore students, and I would have no one to work with. That was important for me, to have at least one person I could conceivably work with, BECAUSE, when I wrote up my new SOP, I tailored it to schools, and to the faculty. I got in touch with people at every school, they told me their interests and I wrote up an SOP to reflect their interests and mine, to an extent of course. The strategy was TO GET IN! But also, have someone I could work with, potentially, but be open to possibilities, be flexible. That’s what I wished to convey, flexibility and passion.

Now for the SOP, I didn’t, and urge the rest of you, please please do not write about your bad grades or about your bad gre scores, do not get defensive, do not explain, otherwise you will draw unwanted attention in one of THE deciding documents of your admissions, your SOP! Instead, I suggest, and it’s what I did, when attaching your BA grades, copy paste the images into a WORD file, on the last page include a little short blurb about your grades, to explain them, then convert the file to PDF. The shorter the better, have it read by others (brutally honest people), to check if your explanation is suggestive of something. You don’t want to be suggestive, and invite further scrutiny. Don’t give a life story, they don’t care. In fact, they don’t want to hear it. The first thing the Harvard prof told me at my interview, ‘do not mention anything personal in your statement, we aren’t psychologists, we aren’t your friends, we may feel bad for you, but you won’t get in this way’. Stay professional. This is a phd application, not grief counseling.  (Again, I am sorry this offends, but that’s the advice I got, and I kind of understand it, you need to demonstrate your ability to withstand 5-7 years of intense and protracted research and writing). Any weaknesses in health, mental or physical, will make the committee think you’ll drop out. Remember, they are investing in you, and you need to be a solid investment.

If anyone wants to see my SOP, I’ll happily share it, if someone can learn from it, all the better! Someone did it for me, granted I struck out at Princeton, but I got into Columbia and I was interviewed for UPenn. That’s to me a success.

I struck out at Brown, Yale, Princeton, and eventually UPenn. BUT UPenn was after interview, and it was apparent that I wasn’t a good fit, however, on paper I was a very strong candidate, and they told me this at every interview. Some faculty members liked me a lot, others did not at all. They did not like my purely history background. The interview was intense, I had a horror stricken look on my face. To the point that other Penn students came up to me to ask what went wrong. I was grilled. Actually grilled by at least 3-4 professors. I met with about 9, intense is an understatement. But then also, I already had an offer from Columbia which I was going to accept, and I came in relaxed, even though I prepared hard, I didn’t prepare enough for the questions they asked. And I wouldn’t have needed to prepare as hard, had I had a history of science background, rather than history. Or STS or any science background.

I don’t mean to brag (who am I kidding? Obviously I want to brag! I got into bloody Columbia!!!) but for Columbia, I got elected a Richard Hofstadter fellow, with a stipend of 31,925$ per year for 5 years. That’s more than Princeton and Penn. So I know I got a competitive offer. I also know that Columbia has around 600 (probably closer to 400-500) applications per year to 25 spots. That’s intensely competitive. I got in. It is and will remain the greatest achievement of my history career thus far.

Also, I hate to admit it, the reason I applied to the history of science programs, even though I am clearly a history student all the way with a sub-field interest in history of science, is because statistically it is easier to get into history of science programs. I know you’ll all scream that it’s just as competitive, IT IS NOT! With the definite exception of Harvard (acceptance rate 10-13%), History of science programs are not as competitive as history programs. And maybe with the exception of MIT and Johns Hopkins. There! I said it. Statistically, the acceptance rate is 20-30 percent across the board, I am not exaggerating, I have actual numbers from my POIs, with the exception of MIT and Hopkins, I don’t know those but I heard their acceptance rate is brutal. For goodness sake, I was good enough for Harvard and Princeton, I was encouraged to apply, AFTER they saw my profile, my grades, my writing sample. Princeton POI encouraged to reapply. You may bulk, but again look at my profile, is it competitive? That’s up to you to decide.

I will say this to everyone, believe in yourself! You can do it! I got into Columbia, if I did it, you can too! I am not special by any stretch of the imagination.

I can tell you the specifics of every rejection, Yale, Princeton, and Brown. Well, Brown I mucked up pretty bad. But I won’t bore you further. If you would like to hear what advice I got from Princeton and Harvard, PM me. I didn’t get in, but I could certainly pass on the advice. But then I didn’t reapply to Harvard. So who knows. For Princeton, I shouldn’t have applied at all, not with my topic, I was a bad bad bad fit.

My first choice were Penn, Columbia, and Princeton. My back ups (as ridiculous as they are for phd apps) were Yale, Brown, and NYU.

I read somewhere, and was also advised by my supervisor to apply to 5, and will likely get 1 acceptance. Also, my supervisor actively discouraged me from applying to Yale and NYU. But at the end relented, clearly to assuage my anxieties.

What I would do differently?

I would have applied only to Penn, Columbia and Brown. I would still keep Penn, because it is a first-rate program, by all standards, even if it is an STS/HOS program, and not too aligned with my interests. But it is an excellent program, with outstanding faculty. To prepare, I would have tried to develop and further my interests in STS/HOS, and style myself less of a regional/temporal historian (which is how we are taught in History) and more of a historian of biology or chemistry. Also, I would have worked harder on the Brown application. Brown has some great faculty, and I should not have made it a back up, and I did that against my supervisor’s advice. He thought Brown should have been one of my top choices.

I am extremely happy with the outcome, and I wish everyone the best!

Good luck and Excelsior!

 

Edited by jazzman
typo

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@jazzman, that's the kind of advice I wish I'd gotten before I applied. I'm probably going to Wisconsin, as I'm an excellent fit and they've focused heavily on Jesuit science. I was in the final 5 at Hopkins, but didn't get in.

If I could do it again, I wouldn't apply to either Princeton or Harvard. Anthony Grafton (my PoI) is about to retire and isn't taking graduate students, so there's no good reason for me to apply. Rampling's work doesn't interest me. Harvard simply doesn't have anyone who does early modern (they just hired Hannah Marcus, but she's very junior). Another thing you did (that I should've): writing separate SoPs for each department. I feel pretty confident that I could've gotten into Indiana or Chicago with a better tailored SoP.

 

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Grafton is legendary, indeed. Although, I am pretty sure he's not on the admissions committee for Princeton HOS. I was told to target committee members specifically, at least three.  

Bottom line, I think having the right advice, or running into the right people giving you advice, can be a game changer. This is specific to my case, because I had a few weaknesses in my application package. Others, who are brilliant, knew not to screw up their undergrad, probably got no advice and still got into an Ivy on the first go.

Hopkins is quite competitive, from what I've heard. I also wonder if interviewing on the last few days, or the last day, puts you in a slightly worse position - but also better (if you are an excellent fit/interviewer). Recency effect is stronger, and any blunder you make, is remembered that more vividly. But on the flip side, you also have a stronger chance at dazzling and having that remembered. The latter scenario isn't applicable to me, I cave under pressure.

Wisconsin's history program is a top program. I heard they've got funding woes. But more acute for International students, such as myself. Americans aren't really affected.  

You got interviewed by Hopkins, accepted into Wisconsin. I don't think that Indiana and/or Chicago were really out of your reach. Tailoring the SOP could have done the trick. Who knows.   

All I know is, I no longer buy into the whole 'special' nonsense. It's all about knowing how to present your application the 'right way'. Obviously, you still need to be good on paper, gpa/gre/lors. But you don't have to be a special cookie to get in, or need to have a stellar profile.

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Posted (edited)

Mine is a bit of a different situation (except for having underperformed in undergrad), but advice almost on the inside for my research proposals was helpful for me, as well.  My master's supervisor was great about helping me with his shop's admissions committee, and a potential advisor at another university was happy to give lots of advice about getting past the dragons at his place.  His suggestions were differently slanted, but not conflicting, on the whole.  I tend to be self-effacing and too willing to point out qualifications and limits-- perhaps stemming from a background with securities regulations.  So having an experienced reader tell me it was not emphatic, enthusiastic about the big picture, or general enough to be interesting to non-specialists, was useful.  

Also, I had two people argue opposite sides of whether I was too focused, or too broad in my proposed venue-- my project started from interest in a situation in Boston, but one guy asked why anyone [on his committee] would care about the significance of that one example.  Another seemed leery about the practicality of moving to New York, Philadelphia, Virginia, et al., and repeating everything.  So I ended up finding a way to say that it would be easy to transport my approach to different regions and situations if/when I found time, but that I could also tailor my research if I found more than I could cover in this one project.  [Unlike Jazzman, I won't have two years to change my outlook completely, so some precision was necessary even if I also needed to communicate flexibility and humility.]

I did a little revision and tailoring to re-shape for each application; some places wanted a maximum of 1,000 words, and another had no word limit but wasn't getting a writing sample.  For that one, I inserted a pithy summary of one of the high points on my thesis.  [FWIW, this committee figured that if your referees wouldn't spew enthusiastically about your writing in their letters, then they didn't need to waste their own time on it.  I dropped a hint to my referees that quoting from the more flattering parts of my readers' feedback on the master's dissertation would be useful to me, as well as time-saving for them.  My readers were anonymous, so I couldn't ask them for recommendations.  :D]  But once I digested the POIs' feedback, it wound up being the same basic essay.

Edited by Concordia

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On 3/1/2017 at 1:00 PM, jazzman said:

Also, I hate to admit it, the reason I applied to the history of science programs, even though I am clearly a history student all the way with a sub-field interest in history of science, is because statistically it is easier to get into history of science programs. I know you’ll all scream that it’s just as competitive, IT IS NOT! With the definite exception of Harvard (acceptance rate 10-13%), History of science programs are not as competitive as history programs. And maybe with the exception of MIT and Johns Hopkins. There! I said it. Statistically, the acceptance rate is 20-30 percent across the board, I am not exaggerating, I have actual numbers from my POIs, with the exception of MIT and Hopkins, I don’t know those but I heard their acceptance rate is brutal. For goodness sake, I was good enough for Harvard and Princeton, I was encouraged to apply, AFTER they saw my profile, my grades, my writing sample. Princeton POI encouraged to reapply. You may bulk, but again look at my profile, is it competitive? That’s up to you to decide.

 

I thought I'd clarify for the sake of future readers that while the acceptance rate is relatively high, the funded rate is much lower.

I have a hard time believing that the acceptance rate for JHU, Yale, et al. rests solidly at 20-30%. I've known quite a few people who have applied to those programs, and most were not accepted. In contrast, the acceptance rate to Harvard seems, anecdotally, higher than 10-13%. For one, the program is probably the largest history of science program in the United States, so they can more readily take on students (although this is somewhat an assumption on my behalf). They currently list 49 graduate students on their website in the program. Assuming that it takes around 6-7 years for completion, that's an average of 7-8 students a year. That means that Harvard would have to receive roughly 60-70ish applicants per year? Sure, that's possible, but the history of science world isn't exactly a huge world.

Heck, if Peterson's may be trusted (and I'm not sure that I'd say that it should be), Harvard has a 38% acceptance rate. If memory serves, any numbers reported on Petersons are published by Harvard, not collection independently. 

Just some two cents. 

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Posted (edited)

 
Things I Wish I'd Known Before Applying
  • If a particular school is your top choice (or even in your top three), make it known on your application somehow, especially for schools that do not have waitlists (*cough* University of Chicago). I made that mistake, and was told later that the admissions committee feared I wouldn't come, and didn't want to take the risk of admitting me. 
  • The response you get from POIs after writing to them to express interest in their programs is indicative of the relationship you will have with them later, and can be indicative of the department's culture. I don't buy the argument: "Professors are busy and find emails from prospective students annoying." Everyone is busy and everyone finds emails annoying. Professors who care about mentoring grad students will respond, maybe not within 24 hours, but they will do it at some point. I am very happy to report that I continue to correspond with amazing people, both faculty and current students, even though I won't be attending their schools. Those are the people who will become both colleagues and (with luck!) friends.
  • Once you're in the pool with people whose CVs resemble yours, acceptances and rejections are extremely difficult to predict. At visiting day events, I met people who were rejected where I'd been accepted and vice versa. So much of admissions comes down to department politics, which is annoyingly hard to figure out before you're in the thick of it. Which brings me to the next point...
  • Students who are further along, feel free to correct me on this, but: I kinda wished I'd asked POIs whether their departments were accepting people in my subfield. Before I applied, I thought such a question was gauche and shouldn't be asked. But I ended up applying to one school that wasn't taking anyone in my area of interest, because the school had promised its two spots to people already enrolled in a masters program there. I didn't find this out till after I applied. 
  • Do deep Google searches on your POIs, and update those search results as the deadline nears. I had compiled a long Google doc of POIs long before applications were due, and did not update the doc much as I was writing my statements of purpose. It turns out that the main person I wanted to work with at one school was going to be moving elsewhere in the fall -- but the school of origin didn't update their website till the end of November. By that time, I had already written my statements, and ended up sending off an SoP full of specifics about that person's work, not realizing that they weren't going to be around in the fall. 
That's all I can think of for the moment. Hope it's of some help.
Edited by laleph

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