Excited to get to post this finally! I was going to post earlier, but figured it was better to wait until I was officially decided. Also if you count the Columbia MA acceptance I technically got the CHYMPS Infinity Gauntlet of PhD acceptance 😆
PROFILE: Type of Undergrad Institution: Large Private & Religious Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science/Africana Studies Undergrad GPA: 3.94 Type of Grad: N/A Grad GPA: N/A GRE: V169/Q164/AWA6.0 Any Special Courses: R/Stata coding courses, Quantitative Methods, Data Visualization, Game Theory, Senior Capstone course Letters of Recommendation: Undergrad professor I TA'ed for, undergrad professor who I did research with, & former manager/colleague with PhD in Politics from Princeton at my current survey research job (all of my LOR writers went to good Poli Sci programs and are pretty well respected/published from what I can tell) Research Experience: Senior capstone seminar paper, field research in Africa (original survey) w/ solo-authored publication in undergraduate journal, data analysis/visualization projects on 1) corn subsidies and 2) game theory analysis of presidential cabinet picks at undergraduate research conference, research assistant World Economic Forum survey (for my current company), MPSA presentation on gendered presentation of primary candidates (survey experiment adapted from mentor's previous work) which served as my writing sample, 2.5 years as a project manager/survey research specialist at well known company Teaching Experience: 3 semesters TA for poli sci research/writing methods course, 2 semesters TA for game theory course, 1 semester TA for quantitative methods/coding course Subfield/Research Interests: gender, surveys, experiments, voting behavior/elections, Sub-Saharan Africa, political psych Other: 2 years of Swahili in undergrad, some awards/scholarships/academic honors relating to Poli Sci RESULTS: Acceptances($$ or no $$): Harvard $$, Stanford $$, Princeton $$, Yale $$, Michigan $$, UC Berkeley $$, UCSD $$, NYU $$, UCLA $$, OSU $$, UW-Madison $$, Cornell $$, UC-Davis $$, Penn $$, WUSTL $$, UM-Twin Cities $$, Stony Brook $$, Columbia MA (no $$) Waitlists: UT-Austin Rejections: Northwestern, MIT, Columbia PhD, Vanderbilt (also for future applicants, Duke was not accepting PhD applications this year, so we were all rejected by Duke haha) Pending: None Going to: Stanford!
1. I got lucky in that I only had to take the GRE once. I think I had a Slumdog Millionaire-esque experience where I just happened to know certain words/answers from weird experiences in my life/schooling. Or I had just gone over a similar math problem the week before. That is to say, I'm not really sure I could replicate those scores again. But one bit of advice I followed is to get the GRE out of the way early. This serves two purposes: it allows you to focus on the other aspects of your application, and it gives you enough time to re-take it if you want a better score. I found taking practice GREs was really helpful!
2. One of my work colleagues who got a PhD in Political Science put it really well: "Success in grad school applications requires both a great profile and luck. Both are necessary, but neither alone is sufficient." While I hit on the right points (good GRE scores/GPA, research experience, good SOP, helpful LORs, interesting writing sample, etc.), the "crapshoot" aspect of applications worked in my favor in ways that were out of my control, just like how they can work against you in ways that are out of your control. For example, at many of the Top 10 programs I got into, they had just hired 1-2 new faculty members with interests that aligned very well with my own. At some schools, they had just had a few grad students finish up and now had more openings with advisors that fit my interests. Again, I doubt I could replicate quite this level of success any other year (though I'm sure I would have received a few good T20 offers most years?). So don't beat yourself up or hype yourself up too much; the R-squared is still pretty low ;).
3. Working for a few years after undergrad did wonders for me (and not just financially). Foremost, it allowed me to experience non-academic life (and the paycheck/lifestyle that goes with it). When it came time to apply (and subsequently give that all up), I knew that I wanted to pursue a PhD because it's what I really wanted, not just because it seemed like a good next step. I used to think that not going immediately to a grad program right out of undergrad was a weakness in my application. I actually heard the exact opposite from the adcomm members -- my 2-ish years of industry experience showed I was serious about grad school (you don't leave tech jobs for just anything haha). Additionally, I picked up some other skills during my job that would have been weaker/non-existent coming straight out of undergrad.
4. Grad students are a better resource than faculty for deciding between programs. This largely has to do with incentives. You're potential cheap labor to faculty, so they have an incentive to put the program's best foot forward, whereas grad students can just tell it like it is and won't be affected by your decision. When it came to deciding between Harvard and Stanford, for instance, grad student perspectives led me to decide Stanford was a better fit. This isn't to say faculty "vibes" don't matter -- they do. And in fact, faculty can help you decide between programs -- I talked to a lot of faculty teaching at School X who went to School Y and did a post-doc at School Z who gave me insights into each school that were very helpful in my decision making process.
5. Echoing point #1, start EARLY. I made a comprehensive spreadsheet about a year before applying to determine fit, cost of living, etc. I contacted faculty early to get research written and presented, confirm they could write me letters, go over my application, etc. That way, when applications open, you're focused mainly on the actual steps of applying (and paying) for applications rather than scrambling to get materials together ON TOP of actually applying. This will both reduce stress and likely improve the quality of your SOP, writing sample, etc. Also keep in mind this all takes time and diligence. I made myself spent at least a few hours each week filling out the spreadsheet (parsing through CVs and websites takes awhile).
6. My writing sample was something that seemed to impress the adcomm/faculty of interest. Doing original research, especially the kind where you do your own data collection (where applicable of course), seems to be the cherry on top that can take a great application to an "irresistible" one. It's a strong signaling device to indicate your readiness for and likelihood to succeed in grad school. That being said, don't let other aspects of your application suffer just to make your writing sample better. We're all constrained in different ways.
7. In re to the SOP: Fit matters. Everyone who has gone through this process will tell you that, so I won't go into it too much here. I do want to discuss how you signal fit in your SOP (which I'll talk more about below). The point of the SOP is not to show a super narrow research interest or to show how you'll change the world or how passionate you are about political science. The first point will likely make you an ill fit everywhere but 1-2 institutions (a numbers game you likely don't want to play!), and the latter two points are something you can show in how you craft the SOP (e.g. talking about how/why you were compelled by a certain topic, your academic trajectory, etc.), but they aren't the main point and aren't something original compared to the typical applicant. Rather, the main point of the SOP is to 1) show that you know what political science is about and 2) show you can come up with good research questions. You should show that you have an interest in certain political phenomena plus a method/region as applicable (for me that was experiments/Sub-Saharan Africa) and talk about your work generally as well as what you envision it to (again, generally) be in the future.
A huge help to me was thinking of a Venn Diagram i.e. I am interested in gender, voting behavior/elections, Sub-Saharan Africa, and experiments, so I am interested in exploring questions like X, Y, and Z by employing a field experiment/survey experiment/whatever. Think of it as a "map" that both explains your past (how you got interested in XYZ, how you've explored questions in political science in the past) and your future (a roadmap showing how your research will likely look re XYZ). Because most programs require or optionally allow you to add a CV/resume, listing out what's already on the resume won't do you many favors. Mention accomplishments/background when it's relevant to what you're writing. Feel free to add in some things in your concluding paragraph that show grad school readiness (e.g. Through my background in X, training in Y, and research experience in Z, I am well positioned to contribute to questions regarding yada yada and well prepared for rigorous training at the graduate level). Another good thing to signal is that you know a PhD is about becoming an academic/why you're compelled to be an academic (hint: it's to do research regarding XYZ).
8. Have people look over your materials. Ask for critiques. Keep in mind what critiques are qualified and which are not (e.g. my husband doesn't do Political Science, so he isn't well qualified to go over research methods in my writing sample, but he can critique my grammar/wording in my SOP).
9. I applied to a lot of schools. This is in part to do with my family circumstances (when applying, I had a 3 year old and was pregnant with another) and is in part to do with imposter syndrome. I really went into this thinking my "yield" would be a lot lower than it was in reality (e.g. 3-4 acceptances with MAYBE 1 T10 versus the 17-18 with 7 T10 I got). While having this many great offers was a good problem to have, it was still a problem (20 emails a day at some points, a lot of "wasted" money of applications, some hate on this forum for "being greedy" even though I, a single human, can only fill one spot and programs know how to manage waitlists, etc.). That being said, applying broadly is a good idea because while the crapshoot worked in my favor this go around, it could have done the opposite another year. I usually hear 8-10 programs is a common number to apply to, especially for childless folks.
10. Play your cards in whatever way sits right with you. I've heard conflicting advice on what to reveal in SOPs, diversity statements, talks with faculty after admission offers, etc. As a mother, this was something I agonized over regarding my family situation. I personally decided to give my letter writers the go ahead to include some aspects if they wanted but did not expect them to. I didn't mention it in my SOP or diversity statement, though I did mention some aspects of my background in my diversity statements (e.g. first gen, grew up in less than ideal physical/emotional circumstances, etc.). Also, some applications ask where else you're applying. They often only allow you to say a certain number (e.g. 5-7 other schools), so I usually just put the ones I was a little more interested in/thought I had a decent chance of getting an offer in terms of fit. I'm not sure how much this disclosure affected my admissions, if at all. But don't feel pressured to say anything you aren't comfortable with. What you decide to reveal about your personal life is up to you, and you shouldn't feel ashamed either way you decide to go.
11. This forum has a lot of knowledge -- I'd suggest spending some time looking over the posts from the last 4-6 years. It really helped me out in understanding the nature of grad school applications. I hope I'm adding something useful to it!
You can DM me, and I'll consider sending the full thing. But below is basically how I structured it (my SOP seemed pretty darn important to the adcomm FWIW). I'll try to keep it generic enough it could act as something of a template/example for the average applicant. I think this format works well, though I've seen great SOPs that follow a more timeline approach as well. (Also my SOP was pretty polished by the time it was done; the below paragraphs are not. 😆)
Paragraph 1 (Introduction) :
Statement about what I find interesting. Statement about a few projects that show I am interested in Poli Sci research regarding ABC that now has morphed into an interest in XYZ, which I want to study professionally. Statement about how I've prepared in methods, research experiences, jobs, etc. to train for an academic career. Sentence that outlines the 3 key areas (XYZ) of interest to me and how these interests and my preparation underlie my decision to pursue a PhD at UNIVERSITY NAME.
Paragraph 2 (Interest in X) : Where this interest comes from. Background on work I've done regarding interest X. Accomplishments in association with research regarding interest X (keep in mind to weave in accomplishments as fits, not just list them -- that's what your resume/CV in for!). How previous work on interest X led to more work on interest X. Info on specific aspects of new project on interest X and presenting at MPSA on interest X. How I would like to study interest X in grad school (give some examples of general questions, e.g. I want to study how A affects B as well as how C affects A, etc.).
Paragraph 3 (Interest in Y) : Experience regarding interest Y and courses. How this training/knowledge lays the groundwork for further inquiry and why this kind of work is important to political science. Specific interests in Y with some specifically in relation to interest X and a few questions I have that I would like to answer and contribute to the literature.
Paragraph 4 (Interest in Z) : Statement saying how I'd like to employ method Z to study questions relating to X and Y. How current job and training and exposure have refined my skills and interest regarding Z. Example of how I did some stuff regarding Z. Examples of areas of method Z that I would like to keep working on in the future (show eagerness to gain new skills, even if harder, in order to better answer questions). Statement showing I recognize that other methods are great and useful and that I've had experience employing them but that I really like using method Z because it provides benefits A & B and is well positioned to answer the questions I have about interests X & Y. In some of these, I would point out a few faculty who are super good at method Z and how I'd love to learn from them (with my fingers crossed they were on the adcomm and were flattered haha). Statement regarding how I want to keep learning new methods so that I'm even better at answering questions re X & Y.
Paragraph 5 (Conclusion) : Statement saying that through the intersection of X, Y, and Z, I'm well positioned to answer questions like A & B. Sentence outlining how my undergrad training and current job have given me good skills to succeed in PhD training. How my job gave me skills to manage research projects and to do research well and learn new methods. Some aspects of my resume (e.g. being Managing Editor of an undergrad social science journal for 2 years, publishing in another undergrad journal, presenting at conferences, etc.) and how these prepared me to do work and have helped me understand that research is difficult. Statement about how I enjoy research both solo and with others and how I want a PhD program that allows for these opportunities but also is rigorous. Closing statement saying how my drive and abilities make me excited to train at UNIVERSITY and a good fit at UNIVERSITY.
Note: I may not be on the forum as much after this, but I'll try to check periodically. I'm happy to discuss applications, especially if you have a spouse and/or kids tagging along like I do (as that can really affect decisions). Thank you to my fellow applicants this cycle; it was great to have the support! Shoutout to @Dwar for spearheading a lot of discussion and contributing a ton!