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How strong is my application really?

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As my junior year winds down, I've started to look into graduate schools. I've reached out to people of interest who I think I would work well with and have gotten very positive responses so far, and I am applying only to schools where I could work well with two or more members of the faculty. My field is the transnational history of Italian women in the United States and Italy. 

I'm a history and Italian studies double major at a decent, private, Jesuit university (Saint Louis University). Last year, I studied abroad through another private Jesuit school (Loyola Chicago) for a year in Italy. There, I was an intern at the Pontifico Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, a Vatican higher education institute, and took Italian culture classes. Back home in Saint Louis, I served this semester as an intern at a local neighborhood center in Saint Louis' Italian neighborhood, where I did research about Italian-American history. This is the foundational work for the honors thesis I'll be working on next year, which is centered on the history of the Italian ethnic identity in Saint Louis. I also have different extracurricular activities and leadership position (historian in my sorority, president of Phi Alpha Theta, and treasurer of the Italian Club). I've also received awards, been on the Dean's List twice, and had a piece published. In addition to being fluent in Italian, I can also speak and read Spanish and Latin. I don't think I'll have trouble with letters of recommendation; I'm asking one of my thesis advisors who I've taken two classes with, my faculty mentor (who's another thesis advisor), and my internship supervisor for my current internship. 

My GPA is something that I'm worried about. I had an awful freshman year, so my GPA at the end of this semester will probably be about a 3.45. My history GPA is a 3.85 (the lowest grade I've gotten was a B freshman year), and my Italian GPA is a 3.71. I haven't taken the GRE yet. 

Knowing myself, I wouldn't be able to take a year off and then still have the motivation to try to go to graduate school. I'm applying to top programs, as well as some lower tier and MA programs. 

Edited by historygeek

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Worry less about your GPA and more about your writing sample, which is the single most important part of the application and largely determines its strength, together with the statement of purpose. The fact you've gotten encouraging responses from potential advisors bodes well for your SOP, which needs to exploit/maximize the things that make your research appealing to them. Grades in your major(s), rec letters and language skills are also important and you seem to be in a good spot there. Your ECs don't matter.

Edited by L13

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2 hours ago, L13 said:

Worry less about your GPA and more about your writing sample, which is the single most important part of the application and largely determines its strength, together with the statement of purpose.

Counterpoint: one POI at a top school I was accepted to told he he hadn't read my writing sample. I suspected that was also true of another program I was accepted to. Sometimes it's just the SoP that matters. Although I agree that of course it's more important than GPA and in some (most?) cases it's critically important.

Edited by AfricanusCrowther

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4 hours ago, L13 said:

Worry less about your GPA and more about your writing sample, which is the single most important part of the application and largely determines its strength, together with the statement of purpose. The fact you've gotten encouraging responses from potential advisors bodes well for your SOP, which needs to exploit/maximize the things that make your research appealing to them. Grades in your major(s), rec letters and language skills are also important and you seem to be in a good spot there. Your ECs don't matter.

Thank you for your response! I have a writing sample that I'm thinking of using (it's pretty polished and uses a variety of primary sources), but it's not in my field of interest so I might rework a less polished piece to fit it in better. 

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With your insistence on not taking a year off and fear of not being able to get back in the swing of things, I am quite curious. 

Most people, if not everyone, struggle to get back in the swing of things and adjust to graduate-level work in their first year, not matter what.  Most people find that their classes and passion for history and learning are enough of motivation.  Everyone has to re-adjust their study habits because graduate-level courses are so different. If anything, most people who know they'd like to go to graduate school already come pretty motivated and excited to learn, no matter how long they take time off.  You will be taking classes in your first year that you will be excited about and want to do the work. Yes, there will be the pre-req historiography and a professionalization class but there will usually be other courses that will be right up your alley.  I honestly cannot think of a first  year struggling because of lack of motivation unless s/he was dealing with depression (like I was). 

Why do you want to do the PhD?  Why do you want to be part of academia?  And, please, tell me that you have ideas other than being a professor.

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1 hour ago, TMP said:

With your insistence on not taking a year off and fear of not being able to get back in the swing of things, I am quite curious. 

Most people, if not everyone, struggle to get back in the swing of things and adjust to graduate-level work in their first year, not matter what.  Most people find that their classes and passion for history and learning are enough of motivation.  Everyone has to re-adjust their study habits because graduate-level courses are so different. If anything, most people who know they'd like to go to graduate school already come pretty motivated and excited to learn, no matter how long they take time off.  You will be taking classes in your first year that you will be excited about and want to do the work. Yes, there will be the pre-req historiography and a professionalization class but there will usually be other courses that will be right up your alley.  I honestly cannot think of a first  year struggling because of lack of motivation unless s/he was dealing with depression (like I was). 

Why do you want to do the PhD?  Why do you want to be part of academia?  And, please, tell me that you have ideas other than being a professor.

I want to be an academic because I want to complicate the popular narratives of what it means to be an Italian woman and to highlight (and attempt to explain) how Italian and Italian-American culture became so fundamentally different. Of course, I do want to be a professor and help aspiring history students, but for me, it's primarily the research aspect that I find the most attractive. In my internships, the curatorial and more archivist duties were never something I loved as much as the research and higher education related aspects. 

ETA: I would also really prefer to go straight into grad school if possible for the fact that I feel like I'll be a lot more "in the swing" of history, more so than I would if I took a year off. My faculty mentor also recommended that I not take a year off.

Edited by historygeek

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19 hours ago, AfricanusCrowther said:

Counterpoint: one POI at a top school I was accepted to told he he hadn't read my writing sample. I suspected that was also true of another program I was accepted to. Sometimes it's just the SoP that matters. Although I agree that of course it's more important than GPA and in some (most?) cases it's critically important.

I think it's about 50-50. My PoI at Hopkins (Principe) asked me to resubmit my writing sample, as some Greek I'd discussed was illegible. At the time, I was discussing textual and source criticism of one passage in the New Testament. 

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17 hours ago, historygeek said:

Of course, I do want to be a professor and help aspiring history students, but for me, it's primarily the research aspect that I find the most attractive. In my internships, the curatorial and more archivist duties were never something I loved as much as the research and higher education related aspects. 

Oooooh, come to the dark side--go the public history route 😊

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On 5/11/2018 at 4:21 PM, historygeek said:

As my junior year winds down, I've started to look into graduate schools. I've reached out to people of interest who I think I would work well with and have gotten very positive responses so far, and I am applying only to schools where I could work well with two or more members of the faculty. My field is the transnational history of Italian women in the United States and Italy. 

I'm a history and Italian studies double major at a decent, private, Jesuit university (Saint Louis University). Last year, I studied abroad through another private Jesuit school (Loyola Chicago) for a year in Italy. There, I was an intern at the Pontifico Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, a Vatican higher education institute, and took Italian culture classes. Back home in Saint Louis, I served this semester as an intern at a local neighborhood center in Saint Louis' Italian neighborhood, where I did research about Italian-American history. This is the foundational work for the honors thesis I'll be working on next year, which is centered on around the history of the Italian ethnic identity in Saint Louis. I also have different extracurricular activities and leadership position (historian in my sorority, president of Phi Alpha Theta, and treasurer of the Italian Club). I've also received awards, been on the Dean's List twice, and had a piece published. In addition to being fluent in Italian, I can also speak and read Spanish and Latin. I don't think I'll have trouble with letters of recommendation; I'm asking one of my thesis advisors who I've taken two classes with, my faculty mentor (who's another thesis advisor), and my internship supervisor for my current internship. 

My GPA is something that I'm worried about. I had an awful freshman year, so my GPA at the end of this semester will probably be about a 3.45. My history GPA is a 3.85 (the lowest grade I've gotten was a B freshman year), and my Italian GPA is a 3.71. I haven't taken the GRE yet. 

Knowing myself, I wouldn't be able to take a year off and then still have the motivation to try to go to graduate school. I'm applying to top programs, as well as some lower tier and MA programs. 

What can you do about changing the balance between the passages above and below in bold and your self descriptive comments? IMO, there's a competitive advantage to being able to define one's interests as a historian and talk about how one's scholarship is going to impact relevant historiographical debates.

Defining even more clearly your analytic focus may also work to your advantage. That is, how do you prioritize your fields of interest and analytical methods? (Imagine you've finished your honors thesis and its exceptionally good -- to which journals would you submit it for publication and to which ones would you not?) 

On 5/12/2018 at 4:06 PM, historygeek said:

Thank you for your response! I have a writing sample that I'm thinking of using (it's pretty polished and uses a variety of primary sources), but it's not in my field of interest so I might rework a less polished piece to fit it in better. 

Which path will be the most efficient use of your time, especially since you still need to prepare for the GRE, and plan on writing a honors thesis while also applying to graduate school?

Would you be better served by spending another 40 hours on the existing writing sample, or 100 hours on reworking the "less polished" piece? The choice may be crucial given the chance that committee members may not read your writing sample until after you start attending, if at all.

On 5/12/2018 at 5:42 PM, historygeek said:

I want to be an academic because I want to complicate the popular narratives of what it means to be an Italian woman and to highlight (and attempt to explain) how Italian and Italian-American culture became so fundamentally different. Of course, I do want to be a professor and help aspiring history students, but for me, it's primarily the research aspect that I find the most attractive. In my internships, the curatorial and more archivist duties were never something I loved as much as the research and higher education related aspects. 

ETA: I would also really prefer to go straight into grad school if possible for the fact that I feel like I'll be a lot more "in the swing" of history, more so than I would if I took a year off. My faculty mentor also recommended that I not take a year off.

Many, if not most, professional academic historians labor in obscurity and never enter the popular consciousness. Members of this cohort may take exception to those who want to climb into the ring with popular narratives. Other historians won't care. Some will be right there with you. Unless you're going to do very good research on admissions committees, you're not going to know who is who. Are there ways that you can rephrase your interests so that you both remain true to yourself but also provide a bit more cover?

Similarly, the way you phrase your interests between teaching and researching leaves open the interpretation that you specifically want to teach undergraduates ("aspiring history students"). As worthy as this objective may be to some (IMO, it should be the primary mission of the profession), to those established academics who dislike teaching and don't care for undergraduates, you're providing an opening for them to argue that you're not really committed to Klio. Would you be willing to consider ways to rephrase your vision of yourself as a professor so that you make your priorities clearer?

One last comment. Without knowing which programs you're considering, I recommend that you think about casting a wider net to include departments that have multiple faculty members with overlapping fields of interest. I strongly caution you about putting the majority of emphasis on people with whom you can work. Yes, chemistry is important. But relationships change over time. There are many threads on this BB about relationships going sideways at the drop of a blue book for this reason and that one, or for some other reason, and graduate students wondering what to do next. 

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3 hours ago, Sigaba said:

What can you do about changing the balance between the passages above and below in bold and your self descriptive comments? IMO, there's a competitive advantage to being able to define one's interests as a historian and talk about how one's scholarship is going to impact relevant historiographical debates.

Defining even more clearly your analytic focus may also work to your advantage. That is, how do you prioritize your fields of interest and analytical methods? (Imagine you've finished your honors thesis and its exceptionally good -- to which journals would you submit it for publication and to which ones would you not?) 

Which path will be the most efficient use of your time, especially since you still need to prepare for the GRE, and plan on writing a honors thesis while also applying to graduate school?

Would you be better served by spending another 40 hours on the existing writing sample, or 100 hours on reworking the "less polished" piece? The choice may be crucial given the chance that committee members may not read your writing sample until after you start attending, if at all.

Many, if not most, professional academic historians labor in obscurity and never enter the popular consciousness. Members of this cohort may take exception to those who want to climb into the ring with popular narratives. Other historians won't care. Some will be right there with you. Unless you're going to do very good research on admissions committees, you're not going to know who is who. Are there ways that you can rephrase your interests so that you both remain true to yourself but also provide a bit more cover?

Similarly, the way you phrase your interests between teaching and researching leaves open the interpretation that you specifically want to teach undergraduates ("aspiring history students"). As worthy as this objective may be to some (IMO, it should be the primary mission of the profession), to those established academics who dislike teaching and don't care for undergraduates, you're providing an opening for them to argue that you're not really committed to Klio. Would you be willing to consider ways to rephrase your vision of yourself as a professor so that you make your priorities clearer?

One last comment. Without knowing which programs you're considering, I recommend that you think about casting a wider net to include departments that have multiple faculty members with overlapping fields of interest. I strongly caution you about putting the majority of emphasis on people with whom you can work. Yes, chemistry is important. But relationships change over time. There are many threads on this BB about relationships going sideways at the drop of a blue book for this reason and that one, or for some other reason, and graduate students wondering what to do next. 

Thank you so much for this comment— it was really insightful and helpful to me.

In my statements of purpose, I plan to be much more specific in my interests. I do plan to connect my honors thesis to my research interests by discussing how heavily I relied on Italian sources to draw parallels between life for Italian-Americans in Saint Louis and their countrymen abroad. While doing my research, I became primarily fascinated with women, especially beauty, fashion, sex (et al), just because I’ve always had an interest in what my life as a woman would have been like in different historical settings, and I want to explore how female recreation and agency existed within the context of patriarchal societal and ethnic constraints.

I definitely will take into consideration how to rephrase these interests and my ultimate career interests; this isn’t something that I hadn’t really considered, so I appreciate the fact that you brought it up!

As for your last point, I’ve planned to only apply to programs that have multiple faculty members that I could work with. I plan on applying to about 10-12 programs.  

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6 hours ago, historygeek said:

As for your last point, I’ve planned to only apply to programs that have multiple faculty members that I could work with. I plan on applying to about 10-12 programs.  

Don't do this. Take it from someone who applied to 9, which was way too many. You, your sanity, and your bank account will be far better off with 4-6 really well written, explicitly tailored applications vs. 10-12 applications.Applications are very time consuming. Identifying and applying to grad programs is about equivalent to the time commitment of a 3 credit course.

Do 4-6 outstanding applications, rather than 10-12 good, but not great ones. It's your senior year of college. Do the apps, go out, do stupid things with your friends, and make memories that last you the rest of your life. I can't count the number of nights I was up until 3 am doing grad apps, which, after awhile, really wears you down.

On a really serious note, your PhD institution will determine what doors open and which ones close. If you want an academic career, there may not be 10-12 programs worth attending. As I've said before, a PhD from Harvard is allowed to make mistakes that would kill a FSU PhD's career.

Also, given your interests, you may benefit from a program with a close relationship to a Gender/Women's Studies department.

Edited by psstein

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10 hours ago, psstein said:

Don't do this. Take it from someone who applied to 9, which was way too many. You, your sanity, and your bank account will be far better off with 4-6 really well written, explicitly tailored applications vs. 10-12 applications.Applications are very time consuming. Identifying and applying to grad programs is about equivalent to the time commitment of a 3 credit course.

Do 4-6 outstanding applications, rather than 10-12 good, but not great ones. It's your senior year of college. Do the apps, go out, do stupid things with your friends, and make memories that last you the rest of your life. I can't count the number of nights I was up until 3 am doing grad apps, which, after awhile, really wears you down.

On a really serious note, your PhD institution will determine what doors open and which ones close. If you want an academic career, there may not be 10-12 programs worth attending. As I've said before, a PhD from Harvard is allowed to make mistakes that would kill a FSU PhD's career.

Also, given your interests, you may benefit from a program with a close relationship to a Gender/Women's Studies department.

I'll second this. I also applied to nine schools - I had a list of seven and added two more at the last minute, which were the two that I got rejected from, most likely because I hadn't had the time to do the research and tailor the application. (And had I taken the time to do the research, I might have realized I wasn't a great fit for those places, and then saved myself the application fees and the sting of the inevitable rejection letter!)

I do think that taking classes in other departments is sometimes more trouble than it's worth, unless you really do want to go hardcore on feminist theory (in your case) - but I would make sure that you're only applying to history programs with a robust contingent of women's & gender historians. Trying to do transnational women's history at a department that doesn't care that much about gender history will be very difficult. 

 

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Sort of a tangent, but you may want to look at UC Davis. We have a robust Cross-Cultural Women's and gender History group (with a minor in CCWgH and a designated emphasis in Feminist Theory). Edward Dickinson may be of interest--he doesn't do work on Italy specifically, but on Europe, and his work has covered sexuality and sexual mores, social and cultural history, etc. Lisa Materson looks at gender and women in the US who participate in social/political movements for justice. I think you could do some interesting things with either Cecilia Tsu or Lorena Oropeza, even though they study Asian immigrants and Chicanos, respectively. 

I don't know how robust the field of transnational history of women in the US and Italy is, but you may have to get creative with your committee. It's always a good idea to look for one major adviser who fits you fairly well (doesn't have to be perfect, and indeed probably shouldn't be--you want someone who can challenge you, not your twin) and 1-2 other scholars who cross you temporally or are methodologically/comparatively/thematically interesting, then explain how this methodological/comparative/thematic approach will support your research. I do transnational history, and no one in my department looks at one of the countries that is central to my project, but I found people who could support me in other ways.

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14 minutes ago, ashiepoo72 said:

Sort of a tangent, but you may want to look at UC Davis. We have a robust Cross-Cultural Women's and gender History group (with a minor in CCWgH and a designated emphasis in Feminist Theory). Edward Dickinson may be of interest--he doesn't do work on Italy specifically, but on Europe, and his work has covered sexuality and sexual mores, social and cultural history, etc. Lisa Materson looks at gender and women in the US who participate in social/political movements for justice. I think you could do some interesting things with either Cecilia Tsu or Lorena Oropeza, even though they study Asian immigrants and Chicanos, respectively. 

I don't know how robust the field of transnational history of women in the US and Italy is, but you may have to get creative with your committee. It's always a good idea to look for one major adviser who fits you fairly well (doesn't have to be perfect, and indeed probably shouldn't be--you want someone who can challenge you, not your twin) and 1-2 other scholars who cross you temporally or are methodologically/comparatively/thematically interesting, then explain how this methodological/comparative/thematic approach will support your research. I do transnational history, and no one in my department looks at one of the countries that is central to my project, but I found people who could support me in other ways.

Thanks for the suggestion— my faculty mentor has suggested looking into different UCs; it’s good to know Davis might be of interest!

Yeah, a lot of possible mentors are in my specific field (the closest is Dr. Diner at NYU, who does Jewish immigration history), but I’ve tried my best to find people who are in similar fields, so far with a decent amount of success. 

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22 hours ago, historygeek said:

Thanks for the suggestion— my faculty mentor has suggested looking into different UCs; it’s good to know Davis might be of interest!

Yeah, a lot of possible mentors are in my specific field (the closest is Dr. Diner at NYU, who does Jewish immigration history), but I’ve tried my best to find people who are in similar fields, so far with a decent amount of success. 

Professor Diner has in the past written about other ethnic immigrations--e.g. Irish.

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On 5/16/2018 at 12:49 AM, historygeek said:

In my statements of purpose, I plan to be much more specific in my interests. I do plan to connect my honors thesis to my research interests by discussing how heavily I relied on Italian sources to draw parallels between life for Italian-Americans in Saint Louis and their countrymen abroad. While doing my research, I became primarily fascinated with women, especially beauty, fashion, sex (et al), just because I’ve always had an interest in what my life as a woman would have been like in different historical settings, and I want to explore how female recreation and agency existed within the context of patriarchal societal and ethnic constraints.

I'll support that it's not a bad idea to look at places with a strong WGS department.  Not necessarily for coursework but for campus speakers whom you might be able to interact with and meet students from other disciplines whom you might be able to get together and talk and discuss disciplinary methodologies (and perhaps exchange dissertation chapters).  Remember, the coursework part is just a small part of the PhD education.

I'd think a bit more carefully about which generation you are looking at (the immigrant generation? Second generation? Third?) and the role of acculturation into the American society shaped the outlook of American women of Italian origins.  I especially would think about the differences in the American and Italian political systems and the role of religion (Catholicism for Italy, Protestantism for the US).

As for careers, keep to one sentence: "With the PhD, I plan to be a professor."  That's all you need to put in unless the PhD program has a strong, strong public history component. What is important is to showcase your interest in what the department has to offer and how those offerings will enrich your scholarship.  I suspect this would definitely be the case in the top programs, which really tend to produce researchers, not teachers.  Researchers as in becoming part of research faculty at R1s and elite SLACs with a courseload of 3-5 courses per year.  Teaching institutions attract teachers with a course load of 6-10 courses per year.

 

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Top three important factors in application: 

Writing sample displays your ability to thinking historically, establish a framework for a research project, analytically examine primary documents, synthesize secondary sources into your argument, and most importantly, show that you are capable of being a historian. Take your best paper, have you and your adviser go over it, and polish it multiple times. Rewrite and get everything that is "sketchy" fixed. It won't be perfect, but it is a representation of the culmination of your research and writing abilities. To me, it is the most important part of the application.

Statement of purpose is essentially the introduction to who you are, what you are interested in, who you want to work with, and why you are picking that school. I really have to stress the importance of the SOP because for grad students, it is essentially your cover letter to a job. You want to put a lot of work into it, and get multiple people's advice; ideally your adviser, a current phd student at your university (or on here!), and someone that you think is a very proficient writer (a friend or another professor). Don't create the problem of too many chefs in the kitchen, i.e. too many people looking at your SOP and you going crazy. Think deeply about this, organize it very well, edit like crazy, and be genuine. Your passion, commitment, and ability will shine through if you write a good one.

Letters of recommendation aren't as important as the latter two, but they go a long way in arguing for you. The entire process is essentially a big argument as to why you should be accepted, and hopefully funded, into a program. You are an investment that the university is giving into. The poorly paid positions, stress, and bad treatment may not sound like it, but a stipend and tuition remission for 5-7 year degree is truly the best benefit of doing a PhD. The department wants people who will live up to the amount of time and money invested in them, and your letters of recommendation show the personal nature of your application. It will describe how well a professor enjoyed working with you, how your research has developed, what you are like in courses, etc. Needless to say, talk to the people that know you the best, ideally a main adviser who knows your work, and two others who are familiar with you. This doesn't have to be people you've known for a long time- even just for a semester- it is all about the relationship you have with the person, and someone you admire.

There is a lot more that go into it, but these three are things that should be nearly perfected. Also, I am in the process f applying this year, so if you wanna chat about anything, let me know!

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On 2/14/2018 at 2:05 PM, urbanhistorynerd said:

Oh no, I'm still in undergrad. I'm applying next year.

FWIW, a number of graduate students who have gone through the process, some multiple times, have provided guidance in this thread and others that differ from the information quoted below.

2 hours ago, urbanhistorynerd said:

Top three important factors in application: 

Writing sample displays your ability to thinking historically, establish a framework for a research project, analytically examine primary documents, synthesize secondary sources into your argument, and most importantly, show that you are capable of being a historian. Take your best paper, have you and your adviser go over it, and polish it multiple times. Rewrite and get everything that is "sketchy" fixed. It won't be perfect, but it is a representation of the culmination of your research and writing abilities. To me, it is the most important part of the application.

Statement of purpose is essentially the introduction to who you are, what you are interested in, who you want to work with, and why you are picking that school. I really have to stress the importance of the SOP because for grad students, it is essentially your cover letter to a job. You want to put a lot of work into it, and get multiple people's advice; ideally your adviser, a current phd student at your university (or on here!), and someone that you think is a very proficient writer (a friend or another professor). Don't create the problem of too many chefs in the kitchen, i.e. too many people looking at your SOP and you going crazy. Think deeply about this, organize it very well, edit like crazy, and be genuine. Your passion, commitment, and ability will shine through if you write a good one.

Letters of recommendation aren't as important as the latter two, but they go a long way in arguing for you. The entire process is essentially a big argument as to why you should be accepted, and hopefully funded, into a program. You are an investment that the university is giving into. The poorly paid positions, stress, and bad treatment may not sound like it, but a stipend and tuition remission for 5-7 year degree is truly the best benefit of doing a PhD. The department wants people who will live up to the amount of time and money invested in them, and your letters of recommendation show the personal nature of your application. It will describe how well a professor enjoyed working with you, how your research has developed, what you are like in courses, etc. Needless to say, talk to the people that know you the best, ideally a main adviser who knows your work, and two others who are familiar with you. This doesn't have to be people you've known for a long time- even just for a semester- it is all about the relationship you have with the person, and someone you admire.

There is a lot more that go into it, but these three are things that should be nearly perfected. Also, I am in the process f applying this year, so if you wanna chat about anything, let me know!

The writing sample. There are a variety of opinions on using one's best work versus using one that best reflects one's likely research interests as a graduate student.There are posts on this BB in which graduate students find that writing samples proved less critical to the decision than other factors, not the least because some members of admissions committees don't have time to read the samples carefully. If you only have yourself and one adviser to scrub your sample, you may be in for some tough sledding. Advisers are busy and after a while, it's ever harder to find glitches in one's own work.

The statement of purpose. A cover letter and a SOP are entirely different documents. A number of established members have provided guidance about displays of passion in SOPs. Not a few recommend professionalism as a superior trait for SOPs. YMMV.

Letters of recommendation "aren't as important as the latter two"  If you don't think LORs are as important as other components of your application, you're imposing on yourself a considerable disadvantage. You need to establish genuine relationships with professional academic historians or advanced graduate students in your department who respect your work and believe that you will be able to contribute to the profession. You will be competing for admission against undergraduates and graduates who have taken multiple courses with POIs.

The best "benefit" of being a graduate student in history is that you will have the opportunity to be trained to be a professional academic historian. If you're doing it for a "free ride," you may get eaten alive by true believers in your cohort.

LANGUAGE SKILLS If you're not an Americanist, how far along are you in your mastery of multiple languages? Are you on track to pass language exams so you can do archival research abroad for your dissertation? Or will you need to bust hump to catch up your first two years in a program?

Test scores, GPA. Some programs have minimum thresholds for GRE scores and GPA. If you're applying to such a program, what is more important, your writing sample or keeping your grades up? If your practice test scores put you on a bubble, what's your priority going to be?

Academic pedigree  Bottom line, bias exists in the House of Klio. If you majored in history and your high school is Happyland Preparatory Academy, and your UGI is Happyland University, your pedigree gives you a competitive advantage when applying to Happyland College of the Canyon. If you have this ace to play, play it with a little swagger, an appropriate amount of humility, and without shame. (What ever you do, don't go Kanye. It's a small world.)

All components of your applications are important. The challenge aspiring graduate students in history face is deciding which components are most important for a particular application, how to change what can be changed the most in a limited amount of time and being at peace with the choices they make. 

 

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