Type of Undergrad Institution: Top 5 school, particularly known for STEM/engineering. It's top 10 in polisci.
Major(s)/Minor(s): Unrelated social science field
Undergrad GPA: 3.7 (alma mater is also known for grade deflation)
Type of Grad: none, but in a 2-year polisci program at another school in the top 5 (both for undergrad and for poli sci)
GRE: 170, 163, 5.5
Any Special Courses: STEM requirements from going to an engineering school. No undergrad polisci courses at all (a few econ courses is as close as I come), though I've taken a bit of polisci in my current program.
Letters of Recommendation: I went crazy with these and submitted 5 at all schools that would allow it. One top 5 only allows 3, and I was accepted there, so maybe it doesn't make a difference. But anyway, they were from an undergrad professor in my unrelated field for whom I did research, two polisci professors at my current program, my former manager at work who has an econ PhD from a top 15 program, and an econ professor who I worked with while in that job. I've heard the one from my undergrad prof is strong, though of course no one in polisci would know the name, and they no longer teach at my alma mater. The more senior of the two polisci profs I had a letter from is pretty well known and really supportive so I think the letter would have been strong. The more junior of the two told me that letter was very strong. The econ professor is well-known, but we didn't work super closely together, so the letter was probably medium. The letter from my manager was there to give some more context for the relationship with the econ professor, and was strong, but not from someone in academia.
Research Experience: RA work in my undergrad field throughout college, including two summer internships abroad. RA work in polisci in my current program.
Teaching Experience: Zero
Subfield/Research Interests: CP
Pretty decent, if a bit rusty, speaking/listening/reading skills (but cruddy writing) in a major foreign language from working abroad in undergrad. 2 years of study in two other languages, one of which is rare. I brought all three up in my SOP.
3 years of unrelated work, including one year in a very junior role at a super well-known company; nearly two years at a small but still well-regarded firm where the work could be super-tangentially related to polisci. Over 1 year of RA work at a top poli sci department (this will be nearly 2yrs at enrollment).
Since eggsalad mentioned it, I am a URM (and privileged, if that's not clear already). None of my diversity statements actually mentioned my own background at all, but were about an experience I had meeting people less advantaged than myself. (Also, @eggsalad14, 20 hrs of work a week in undergrad sounds huge to me! I think we were limited to 10hrs max at my alma mater, not that anyone tracked it if you worked off campus.)
RESULTS: (Using current USNWR rankings, duplicates refer to ties)
Acceptances($$ or no $$) -- all $$: #1, #1, #3, #4, #7, #9, #9, #12, #12, #12, #19. Funded at all.
Rejections: #4, #19
Pending: none (whew!)
Going to: Some ideas and I've already declined a few, but I'm waiting on visits. But I do have strong location preferences.
1. I applied to a massive number of schools because I'm still pretty fresh to polsci and had no idea how this process would go. I was encouraged by profs and others in my program to do around 10-12. I had a main list of 10 with 3 additionals that I was hesitating on but ended up applying to as well. If I had had any idea I would get into most, I would have pared the list wayyyy down. Having a lot of acceptances makes deciding where to go much harder! While I'm really, really happy to have each acceptance, saying no is tough, particularly once you've been in contact with profs. Many reach out right when you're accepted, they're all incredibly interesting, and if you could replicate yourself, you'd probably work with all of them. But you can't, so you need to be very diplomatic. To avoid this, see if you can talk to your advisor or others about a good number to apply to based on your file.
2. TBH, I didn't spend that much time on the SOP. I know it's sacrilege to say so, but I knew what I wanted to say so it came together quite easily. Two profs (including a DGS) at a top 5 school looked at it and had no suggestions. Some friends and family also looked at it. I hadn't seen any SOPs before writing it and later got a few examples of successful SOPs from the DGS, but I had already submitted it to a few schools at that point. It's absurd, but I was too nervous to look at the examples to see if mine was way off until application season was over.
3. Also on the SOP, I didn't personalize that much. I usually just wrote the final paragraph to be targeted to the school and changed nothing else. For some schools, because of length requirements, I wrote only 1-2 sentences targeted to the school. A prof at a top 10 school actually mentioned this when we spoke, which was a bit embarrassing! I would have written more about the school if it weren't for the length cut off, but oh well. And, I was still accepted, so I'm not sure how much schools need to see you saying about their specific department. They seem to be able to get fit mostly from your research interests. Also, once I did take a look at the sample SOPs the DGS had shared with me, I found that most of those letters also have just one final paragraph about the specific department.
4. I think my writing sample was a big factor. It's been mentioned by several profs I've spoken with since being admitted to various schools. This is where I spent a ton of time and where feedback from a professor was incredibly helpful. I didn't have one already laying around, so I pulled it together over the fall, starting with something very rough I had written the previous spring. One of my rejections limited the sample to 10 pages, so I submitted just an excerpt. It's impossible to say, but I feel that played a role in the rejection. I was sure to make a point of building my quantitative research abilities into the sample.
5. I have a personal connection to three top 5 programs and one top 10. i.e., I went there, took classes/did a program there, or have a recommender from there. I was accepted to all of those, so I really do think it matters.
6. If you're applying to UCs, apply for the extra scholarships the apps mention! They're not huge, but they make a difference. Also, more generally on funding, a lot of schools will add scholarships to the funding package, and you might be notified of the scholarship after receiving the initial funding info. So don't just cross anything off until you're sure you know everything from them.
7. Trust yourself. I freaked out a lot during app season—over developing my materials obviously, but also over not having a background in the field since I studied something else in undergrad, and then worked in the private sector for several years. I probably should have just straightforwardly asked some of my professors in my current program about this, because it was a really silly reason to be anxious. If you're seriously considering PhD programs like these, you're probably pretty qualified.