PROFILE: Type of Undergrad Institution: Mid-tier private liberal arts university Major(s)/Minor(s): International relations and cultural anthropology; certificate in international studies Undergrad GPA: 4.0, Magna cum laude, honors in both departments Type of Grad: N/A but did take two graduate-level courses during UG Grad GPA: 4.0 GRE: 162V | 155Q | 5.5AW Any Special Courses: qualitative methods; research methods in political science; self-designed independent reading course Letters of Recommendation: mixture of UG tenure-track professors (always 2 IR [1 tenured] and 1 anthro) Research Experience: undergraduate thesis (for anthropology), all qualitative Teaching Experience: N/A Subfield/Research Interests: IR but interests intersect subfields | critical security; discourse; terrorism Other: The writing sample I submitted was the introduction to my senior thesis for anthropology
RESULTS: Acceptances($$ or no $$): Ohio State University (TBD), University of Maryland ($$) Waitlists: Syracuse Rejections: George Washington University, Yale, Johns Hopkins Pending: Georgetown (likely rejection) Going to: Still pending, but fairly sure I know where I'll be going [and will update here once I've made the official decision]
LESSONS LEARNED: I only had three months to research and select schools, as well as put together and submit my applications by the time I decided that I was going to apply to graduate school. I had to submit everything two months before the deadlines because of an opportunity that arose that I could not turn down, which would put me outside the country and without reliable internet access (and at times, access to the application websites even when internet was available). In the end, however, I think this likely helped me from over-thinking my applications. I had to be on point and confident in what I submitted. (I am not immune to the freak-out, however; once results started rolling in, I joined the pack of panicked applicants.)
Overall, I cannot emphasize enough what previous cycles have demonstrated: fit matters. I emphasized my interdisciplinarity and my background in anthropology and political science, which likely helped and hindered me at different schools. I excelled in both of my departments in undergraduate, but I approached political science from an anthropological lens (and focused my anthropology studies on political anthropology); I sought to demonstrate the benefits of this interdisciplinary background. I also focused on my training and interest in critical theory, even while knowing the spaces and opportunities to study and practice such in the U.S. are few and far between. I know that my less common background and my research interests helped me stand out at my top choice school to which I was admitted and will be attending. Overall, I think my strong letters of recommendation are what helped me compensate for “lower” GRE scores and my undergraduate background from a small LAC lacking in reputation. That being said, I think I could have applied to some different programs that may have been better fits than the D.C.-area schools, but hindsight is 20/20.
My general advice, in no particular order:
Start studying for the GRE early and don’t neglect verbal because you think you’re strong there or vice versa for quantitative. Invest in prep books (and maybe find friends that are also studying and split the cost); they do help, at least as refreshers.
Don’t panic over your GRE scores (or GPA for that matter). Yes, you need numbers not to set off a red flag and to make it past initial cuts, but in the end, schools are more interested in you — your research interests, your ability to think critically, what others think of your ability to think critically and succeed in graduate school. The numbers are just there as an initial check.
Be strategic about your letter writers. I came from a small LAC, so no “big” names in the sense of research and Academia (with a capital ‘A’), but I did have letter writers that were more than willing to go to bat for me, one of whom was an alumna of one of the schools to which I applied. Give yourself and them (!) plenty of time to tailor letters to each school if they so desire, and don’t stress if the deadline is approaching and they haven’t yet submitted. Gently nudge, but don’t freak out. They do get done.
For your SOP, write long versions and short versions. I started with a long version directed at my top choice school, and then tailored that to my other applications followed by creating a shorter version for when needed.
Applications are expensive. Options are good, but I do not think you should feel the need to apply to 10+ schools, especially if some are not especially great fits. I know that there are one or two schools to which I probably should not have bothered applying, but I did anyways and spent the money to do so. Be mindful of cost to apply when selecting your schools.
Rejections are not personal. Remember that you are competing with hundreds of other applicants, all of whom have similar backgrounds and aspirations. There is some luck and timing involved in getting acceptances.
Don’t be afraid to have contingency plans. Be optimistic about your chances of admission, but also be practical and be ready to move on and have other things to do and places to go. There’s always next cycle.
SOP: PM — if you’re actually interested. I actually emphasized my interest in theory and how it influences my approach to international relations.
Additional Comments: I also recommend that you take a look at the previous cycle of this same type of results threads (see the OP), as well as this great post by @VMcJ about what was done differently this cycle opposed to last cycle. Keep in mind, however, that these exist just to give you an idea of what a small number of good profiles look like. Not everybody excepted looks like a 4.0 GPA and 170/170/6.0 GRE with an ivy background and publications.