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Advice for Fall 2020 Applicants

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Hi historians! I was hoping we could get a thread going (before all the ones who got acceptances leave this forum because they're you're busy with actually getting ready for grad school!) with advice for those who are applying next year. I know I've learned a lot from applying this cycle and it'd be great to hear what others have!

I would tell past me to get started so much earlier! I decided to apply in September, but only started working on applications in November. Not only did it mean I had to choose programmes not according to fit but by their deadlines. Then I was picking programmes, studying for the GRE, writing my SoP, writing a Writing Sample from scratch, and asking for recommendations all at once (not to mention working, volunteering, and dealing with senior year stuff -- the worst I had it was driving two hours for the GRE at 8am, getting back at 7pm and writing an essay that was 100% of a module grade at 8pm, due the next morning. . .) It also meant I never got to chat with POIs, which would've been so helpful--not many got back to me when I emailed them two or three weeks before app deadlines; in retrospect, I imagine emailing them that late hurt my case more than it helped it.

Would love to hear everyone else's lessons learned--and congrats to everyone who have been admitted already!

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My top advice is to setup a timeline of application process. I started 8 months before they were due. This helped out immensely because I was really able to think about my application, research interests, and potential profs/schools. I literally sketched out a timeline with important deadlines. I found that this was really good practice for when it came to writing my honors thesis.

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Find one or two, but not more, professors to mentor you through the process. Professors nice enough to read drafts and comment thoroughly and constructively, but not those who will let your flaws slip through in order to avoid hurting you. Not more than that, because then you can get 4-5 contradicting opinions that will make your essays a hodgepodge of crap.

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1. Be honest with yourself. I chose a field that I felt like I had to be in instead of one that I was more interested in, which was my first really big mistake. I also didn't think about whether I was actually ready to do a PhD straight out of undergrad. When my thesis advisor encouraged me to apply to Masters programs, I was feeling like he just was underestimating my abilities and I was almost insulted. In the process of writing my thesis, I realized that I could benefit from more practical training. I also chose schools based on their ranking and made very loose fit judgements.

2. Don't apply to too many schools. This is advice I should've taken from people on GradCafe, but I was a lot more worried about getting than I was with making sure I only applied for the programs I fit best in. This backfired immensely, and I wasn't able to write really good, focused statements of purpose. When I apply to PhD programs next time 'round, I will definitely be tailoring my SOPs much better and make sure I only apply to about 5 schools with a good fit.

3. It's okay to be rejected. I think that one thing that has been hard for me is being willing to put it out there that I was rejected, especially when I see people getting accepted to amazing programs. It's not something to be ashamed of, though, because it's not because you're not good enough. It's because someone else had a better fit for the program than you did. 

4. Don't be afraid to apply for an MA program. Funded Masters programs exist in history, but they're harder to find. A Masters program isn't a consolation prize or a sign of failure-- a lot of people on the results page have had MAs! 

5. Use your advisors/professors. They will be willing to help you go through your writing sample and SOP. Yes, people on here will help you, and writing services can help you with your grammar, but professors will probably be the best people to go through and make sure you have everything you need. 

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I really can't stress how important having a few good mentors was for me. When I started I was on this forum a decent amount, thinking I could mostly do things on my own, but once I realized how much some professors really are willing and enthusiastic about helping out a pretty driven student, I leaned a lot more heavily on their advice and left a lot of the more conventional, undergrad application-type resources (books, school advisers, etc) more or less alone. Show your mentors multiple drafts, and when you get those commented drafts back, follow their advice, even if it means scrapping huge parts of your SoP or re-writing some of your sample. This also shows them that you actually value their input. 

Listen to your mentors when they suggest POIs, based on your interests. Every single one of my POIs at programs I was admitted to are scholars that my mentors either suggested or green-lit. Reach out to POIs as early as (reasonably) possible. You never know how the conversation will go, what they might warn you about, or what help they might offer--the programs I was admitted to were the ones where I had the most contact with my POI and I have to imagine that's what made the difference. 

Also, when possible, I would say you should try to think strategically about who's writing your recommendations in terms of the programs you apply to. Two of my recommendations were written by professors who had strong connections with my top two schools and I know for a fact that this helped me a lot at at least one school. It feels a little like cheating, but academia is an insular place and potential advisers will be more likely to take a chance on you if their friend from back in the day tells them you're a good bet. That said, the first priority with recommendations is still that they actually know you and are willing to write positive things about you. 

Basically: applications are a lot more about interpersonal and academic relationships than you might think. Use the contacts you have. 

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I agree about setting up a timeline, I made one for myself with a rough estimate of what i should accomplish each week in terms of applications, and spreading the tasks out over several weeks really helped! I also alternated between heavy-duty things like working on the SoP or writing sample and smaller tasks like dealing with the administrative side of things, filling in application forms etc, which require less brain power (and which can be done while listening to music for instance, and thus make it feel a lot less like work!). That way you can feel like you're giving yourself a little break while still doing something that needs to be done.

A few things I've learned from my own mistakes: I'll echo what @historygeek said above, be really honest with yourself about where your interests lie. In my case, it wasn't so much that I wasn't being honest with myself, but I was immensely intimidated by the field I really wanted to engage with (which I had engaged with before but never in the context of History; in the end, I went back to what was essentially my "first love" in academia and I'm so, so glad I didn't let my fear stop me). Bear in mind that I had been a history student for barely a year  when I started working on my applications last summer, so my interests were a little bit all over the place, you may have a much better grasp of what you want to engage with, so take what I say with a grain of salt!

My point being, try to flesh out your interests as early as you possibly can, and contact POIs early. If you're lucky, they will prompt you to think about your proposed project and will be honest with you if they think that it's not particularly original (it's a little brutal to hear but very helpful in the end!). Also, try to allow for the fact that your interests may naturally evolve as you go through the process of applying, whether it be through conversations with POIs, or the research you're doing in a Master's program, or anything, really. This happened to me very late into the process (mid-November) and while the changes I made to my project weren't so significant that it would automatically rule out the schools I had decided to apply to, it did make my fitting into many of these programs a bit more of a stretch. I'm very lucky that it worked out for me and that I got admitted into my top choice program (which I added to my list very late in light of the shift in my interests; it was all very fortuitous really, I instantly fell in love with the program and made the very spur of the moment decision to apply despite the deadline being fast approaching), but I wish I had had more time to put together a more coherent list of schools. In a nutshell: time is your friend, give yourself as much of it as you possibly can.

And as a side note, I can't predict how active I will be on this forum in the future, but my PMs are redirected to my inbox, so I will get those and I am always happy to help! I can't promise groundbreaking advice (I'm hoping at some point I'll feel like I know what I'm doing, but for now the imposter syndrome is still strong!), but I can at least promise a sympathetic ear and insider info about my own program. :) Also this cycle isn't over yet, don't lose hope!

 

 

Edited by Karou

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15 hours ago, hbhowe said:

Also, when possible, I would say you should try to think strategically about who's writing your recommendations in terms of the programs you apply to. Two of my recommendations were written by professors who had strong connections with my top two schools and I know for a fact that this helped me a lot at at least one school. It feels a little like cheating, but academia is an insular place and potential advisers will be more likely to take a chance on you if their friend from back in the day tells them you're a good bet. That said, the first priority with recommendations is still that they actually know you and are willing to write positive things about you. 

Basically: applications are a lot more about interpersonal and academic relationships than you might think. Use the contacts you have. 

Although this is true, it's also terrible. I'm sure many people with no connections are offered admission (right?) but for all of us who come from unknown universities or foreign countries this puts us in considerable disadvantage. 

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The other posts here cover the more rudimentary, yet also most fundamental mechanics here, like having specific research interests and potential project ideas, and the importance of discussing these questions in detail with your mentors--I cannot endorse these posts more strongly. My undergraduate mentors were instrumental to me developing my research ideas and formulating them into solid proposal. Since that stuff was covered and is also laid out in similar threads, I'm going in a different direction in my post using personal experience as my vantage point. The following (mostly) assumes you have your ideas of what you would like to research in order. I'll add at the outset that, like a few others I've seen here, I have a perhaps unconventional background and only very recently did I begin to believe I had a chance at getting into the top programs. I almost flunked out of high school, went to community college and then to a low-ranked national university because I was offered a tuition scholarship while working a full-time job, and was, quite frankly, scared shitless the first time I applied to a graduate program. So then,

Start as early as possible: My preliminary preparation for this season's applications began way back in the winter break of 2016/2017, as I thought I would be applying to programs that fall. This was my second time applying for graduate programs after being admitted to Syracuse University with the hopes that my experience there would make me competitive for admission into a more elite program by 1) proving that my GPA was a reflection of me and not my less than glamorous undergraduate institutions, and 2) improving my less than adequate research language skills to a level as close to fluency as possible. 

Be realistic and honest with yourself, but don't count yourself out: Elite programs are very difficult to get into even for people with elite undergrads, perfect language skills, solid research interests, and high GRE scores, but this doesn't mean that you shouldn't at least entertain the idea of applying if you don't quite check all of the boxes. That said, you've gotta be honest with yourself and identify your deficiencies. Once identified, you can work toward improving them. This is a great advantage of going the MA route before making the leap toward your dream program: it gives you time to resolve your deficiencies. In my case, I got lucky and was awarded a Fulbright right before the end of my second semester in grad school. I'll say something on this point I wish I had realized a few years ago: you don't need to apply only to terminal MA programs for this purpose! I'm sure this might be an unpopular idea for some here, but it's ok to transfer out of a PhD program and into another. You shouldn't be duplicitous or deceitful if you're applying to lower-ranked programs with the intent of applying elsewhere after a couple of years--that is exactly what you don't want to do, as you do need letters of recommendation from people from your program. But I do think it's ok to apply to a PhD program you can realistically be admitted to and see how it is. I know some who did this, realized they were quite happy there, and stayed. Applying to PhD programs is after all expensive and there's no guarantee of admittance. At the same time, if you're excelling in the program and have a shot at the elite programs, talk about it with your adviser. Our profs know the job market and they ultimately want for us to succeed. Sometimes that means going elsewhere. 

Do your research and consolidate/organize your findings: For me this meant looking through the US News rankings, making word document list of all of the programs in geographical locations I would be interested in living in (and maybe some where I wouldn't, but the program itself outweighed my geographical preference), visiting the websites of all of these programs, and recording basic information for each of the programs (faculty with relevant research interests, terms of fellowship, service requirements, stipend amounts, extras like travel allowances, etc.) into the word document list. For me, this first list with basic program information--most importantly noting whether or not there was a faculty member with relevant research interests--was about 40-50 programs. I then consolidated it to a second document which only included programs with relevant profs, and then further to a third which included only programs I would be interested in applying to. For me, this was about 9 programs. The document was initially a page, but ended up totaling thirty from the collection of further research into the programs and from the recording of correspondence with points of contact.

Contact your potential adviser with a brief message that addresses your research interests and that asks if they're accepting grad students: The reasoning is simple here. If they happen to not be accepting students to advise in your application season, you're throwing your money away by applying. If they don't think your topic is compatible with your research interests, you're also throwing your money away by applying. You can also ask whether or not they'd be willing to Skype with you, or, if you live near them, if they might be interested in meeting in person. I met with three in person this last summer, one of which a month later reached out to me and advised me not to apply because due to a rule change he was eligible for sabbatical, and Skyped/telephoned with the others. At the very least, doing this footwork shows you're serious about your interests and path in pursuing them. A phone call or Skype might not always be possible, but reaching out sends the message. Before one of these conversations, prepare questions about both research interests and details of the program itself. During these conversations, it's a good idea to take notes, which can then be used to supplement information not available online and to include in your SOP. Try to be yourself and be comfortable. It turned out that one of my potential advisers played guitar and we ended up spending half the conversation talking and joking around about that. While I would not recommend mentioning career interests outside of academia in your SOP,  mentioning it to your potential adviser might not be a bad idea. I did so during my interview at Georgetown, and it turned out my potential adviser was also heavily involved with the School of Foreign Service and she told me about the University's dual MA in German and European Studies at the School of Foreign Service and PhD in History, in which the PhD fellowship covers tuition fees for the MA. Oh, and I've noticed in other threads here that this is controversial, but if you're meeting a professor in person to discuss prospects of applying and research interests, dress nice. While not all, or even most profs will think it's necessary to do so, some will, and those who don't think it's necessary aren't going to think less of you for dressing up.

Email program directors and professors with relevant interests: For program directors, give a brief message about yourself and then ask some questions that might not be answered on the website. You can also ask for advice on the SOP. This is a good idea because different programs sometimes like to see different things emphasized. Sometimes they'll tell you they don't give advice on that--that's ok. Give a polite reply and say you're excited about replying. For professors with relevant interests, tell them who you're hoping to work with, what you're interested in, and what you find interesting about their research. Maybe ask some other things, like what they think about an aspect of your research interests that is relevant to there. You might not get a reply. Again, that's ok. The important part is that your name is being put out there to people who might be on the graduate committees who will play a role in making a decision about your admission. For this reason, avoid sending out a bunch of stock emails. Personalize them. Add any correspondence you have to your word document list of programs, as it saves you from having to retrieve it from your email when working on your SOPs. It can be a little disorienting, so make sure if you do this, you keep a list of everyone you've reached out to and whether or not you've received responses. I'll admit that this is rather time-consuming and perhaps a little overkill, but it's not a bad idea if you have the time.

Tailor your SOPs: Your SOP should address your research interests, your academic background as it relates to your research interests, why you're applying specifically to that school, who you want to work with and why. Some programs give you four to five pages for it. Others only one and a half. Some parts of all of them will be very similar/the same, others should be totally different. This is where I'll go back to one of the first things I mentioned: the document where you have all the details of every program you're applying to, the research interests of relevant professors there, and any correspondence you've shared with them. The key word here is efficiency. It will take you much longer to tailor your SOPs for each program if you're continually needing to go back the program's website, to the professors profile, to email correspondence, to the notes you wrote down during your conversation with them, etc. 

This contradicts a previous post, but Don't apply to too few schools: @historygeek mentioned five would be a good idea. That depends a few factors, including how many elite schools you're applying to, how strong of a candidate you are, how capable you are (time and comfort in your field are the big factors here) at being able to tailor your applications for each university, and how compatible you are with the program. As I mentioned above, even "perfect" candidates get rejected from the elite programs, so there's a big game of chance when you apply to them. For this reason, if you're trying to get into the most competitive programs, you need to make sure 1) every one you apply to fits, and 2) apply to more than just a couple because you could get turned down even if you're a perfect match. I applied to six, five of which had at least one professor with direct corresponding research interests, plus two programs I considered safe. 

 

This is a bit more than I intended to write when I first started, but here's to Sundays. Everybody's experience with graduate applications are different, so I don't expect for everybody to subscribe to what I have written here. And, to be honest, I didn't do anything on this list the first time I applied to graduate school and was still able to get into most of the programs I applied to, but then I also didn't apply to any PhD programs that round because I did what I recommended not to do here and counted myself out. Hope this is helpful.

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I just wanted to add, I absolutely agree that mentors are so, so important! The reason why speaking with POIs was more helpful in my case was because none of my current professors are experts in the field I hope to contribute to as a doctoral student. That being said, their help and support throughout this process was still very valuable and cannot be underestimated.

On a similar note, if you're an international applicant, I think it's important to have someone that is familiar with the system in the US on your side (this is assuming of course that you're applying to PhD programs in the US. Adapt it to your own situation, if you're applying to a school in Australia, same thing, try and find someone who is familiar with that particular system). For instance, my professors here in Europe only had very minimal comments on my statement of purpose, which left me feeling pretty confident about it. However, when I sent it to a US professor (after they had offered to read and review it), I ended up *significantly* revising it. Now I don't know if my current professors were trying to spare my feelings, or if it comes down to cultural differences about what a statement of purpose should or should not say but, just to be on the safe side, I would recommend having people who are familiar with the educational system from wherever it is you want to apply look through your application materials.

Edited by Karou

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22 minutes ago, dsbanis said:

you could get turned down even if you're a perfect match

Mhm...I don't know about this. I feel what happens is that if the committee/professors at that specific school don't see us as a perfect match, we get rejected. This surely is more or less subjective, but does not necessarily mean that those professors are wrong. After all, it's more about what they think of us, not what we think of them. This might be sub-field specific, but my POIs from Harvard and Columbia both mentioned that they reviewed all the applications to my sub-field carefully. So, I no longer think the decision making in my sub-field is that random and arbitrary. Also, at least one of my POIs mentioned (figuratively) that someone whose style matches that of Harvard may not match the style of Columbia. 

So, I second historygeek, 5 is about right. After all, it's about getting in the program you want to get into, and then get a job after you are out of it....it's not really about getting into any school. And like what others have said for so many times, it's rather unlikely that there could be as many as 10 elite programs given our supposed-to-be flexible but somewhat refined research interests.

*elite= good funding and resources + good placement records + good advising + many other factors 

1 hour ago, cyborg213 said:

I'm sure many people with no connections are offered admission

Yes. I wouldn't worry about this "lack of connections". :) 

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1. Make sure your writing sample reflects all your skills. I study medieval history, so knowledge of Latin is very important in my field. I made sure to translate ALL the passages I quote on my own, and to add the original Latin in the footnotes. Also, I did my best to show that I can read in German (even if it takes me forever). Moreover, try to send a paper that is not only well written, but also somewhat original. I've heard from a current grad student that, as far as he knows, many applicants submit rather technical writing samples. By that I mean papers that show great proficiency in the historiography of a given field, but lack the ability to articulate original questions and to offer provocative assessments. So do your best to show that you have a unique perspective and that you can translate it to excellent research projects. Schools don't need grad students that can only say what hundreds of scholars have already said.

2. I agree with @Karou about the importance of figuring out your research interests. Coming up with a project to which you'll be devoting so many years of your life is not an easy task. I got really confused about it, and offered a project that I didn't really like. From my experience, the most important question you should ask yourself is what are the types of sources (narrative sources, legal documents, charters, epistolography, etc.) you see yourself working with.

3. Don't apply to universities you don't want to go to. Don't waist time on safety schools. I don't think it's worth writing an application for a school that can't fund you properly, or to a professor whose work makes you sleepy.

Edited by MARTINt

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I want to reiterate what someone said above which was definitely apply to MA programs. My first cycle I got rejected from all the PhDs I applied to but am now finishing my MA and have been accepted to all the programs I've heard back from so far. I expect some rejections, of course, but this has been a very different experience. I know many people on this forum have applied multiple times, so if the first round doesn't turn out as you hope it will then don't let that stop you. Having an MA or two as a backup plan is a good idea. If you don't end up needing it, great! 

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14 hours ago, luz.colorada said:

I want to reiterate what someone said above which was definitely apply to MA programs. My first cycle I got rejected from all the PhDs I applied to but am now finishing my MA and have been accepted to all the programs I've heard back from so far. I expect some rejections, of course, but this has been a very different experience. I know many people on this forum have applied multiple times, so if the first round doesn't turn out as you hope it will then don't let that stop you. Having an MA or two as a backup plan is a good idea. If you don't end up needing it, great! 

I've found it discouraging that I've been rejected, and I found it even more discouraging that my thesis advisor told me that I should "expect disappointment" (his words, verbatim). It can be so frustrating to see people get accepted to Ivy Leagues when you get rejected and are projecting rejections from other places. You'll end up where you're supposed to end up, even if it isn't the straight-from-undergrad-to-an-Ivy that you're dreaming of. 

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Firstly, I want to echo the discussion of considering an MA program. Honestly, for all this talk of elite schools, my goal was always to teach community college (for a variety of personal reasons). With that goal in mind, I set my sights on a terminal MA and NEVER considered applying to any PhD program out of undergrad. That goal has evolved as I have grown and gotten further into my research, and I am still shocked that I will be entering a PhD program in the fall, simply because it was not the plan until about a year ago.

Secondly, an advisor or two is a key element to this process. I had my MA thesis advisor working with me on my writing sample (as it is a chapter from my thesis), but my department chair helped me extensively with my SOP. Those types of instructors and mentors can also help you determine schools that are best for you to apply for. So many historians know each other, they will likely know someone who could be a potential POI.

Thirdly, contact potential POIs EARLY. I was in e-mail contact as early as March of 2018. Honestly, I started discussing my research interests with them and trying to work out if we would be a good fit because many of us live life on a budget, why waste time/application fees/stress on programs that are certainly not going to accept you because your POI is not interested. That's not a surefire way to be accepted, but it helps to know if the program is worth your effort and cost. I still ended up rejected from a program after speaking to a POI on the basis of "your intended advisor did not think he could properly advise your project." You never know, but networking and feeling people out never hurts, as long as you are polite and respectful about how you approach it.

Ok, for some reason this has turned into a much longer response than I planned, but I'll keep going. Visit schools that you are interested in (if you are able). Set meetings with the DGS and POI. It doesn't have to be a formal interview, but if you show up with questions prepared about the program and demonstrate that you are serious, it can go a long way. Dress nicely, make a good impression, and admission committees will be able to put a face with the name on paper. This also helps you because you can see if your personality fits with your POI. I can't imagine anything worse than entering a long term program and having to work closely with someone I could not stand! The program I will be attending in the fall is one that I went to meet with. Honestly, my verbal GRE score is not fantastic. My written was fairly high, as well as my letters, GPA, and presumably the rest of my application. I think that visiting helped to offset the fact that standardized tests are not my friend.

Lastly, I know the job market is hard. The goal of entering these programs is to find work after you graduate. That said, yes, the big elite schools look great to potential employers, but check out the placement records of some of the smaller state schools. ESPECIALLY if there is a POI who you mesh well with. Great historians do work outside of the well known programs, and if the school has a good reputation, a good placement record, and a good POI, there's no reason to not consider them. I am glad that I looked, because my research interests are relatively uncommon and I got very lucky with the school that I found. Do lots of research into different types of programs, sometimes what's best in a name is not necessarily best for your personal interests or goals.

**EDIT: Many state schools also offer funding packages, especially because they realize our job market is incredibly tough. Always look at the funding, but keep in mind that it is often offered. I am about to complete a partially funded MA at a regional school, and I had scholarships to cover what my Grad Assistant position did not. There's always ways to find funding, but you have to look!

I hope some of my rant helped. I'm clearly no authority figure, I just speak from experience.

Edited by DanaJ

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I'll parrot most of what has been said above. 

The keys to a strong application lie in the SOP and the writing sample.  The SOP is your opportunity to elucidate not only what you want to study, but also how you want to study it.  Absolutely tailor your SOP to each school (and probably more than tossing in an obligatory "I want to work with ..." sentence at the end).

In the writing sample, clearly demonstrate your use of primary sources, but don't slough on analysis.  

Finally, don't leave anything on the table when you're applying -- proofread, write confidently and honestly, and secure strong rec letters.  But, for the love of god, once you've submitted, STOP.  Do NOT reread anything until you have a response in hand because you will inevitably find a typo and spend all your time obsessing over it.

 

This process is capricious.  There are things you can do to make yourself stand out, but it is not an exact science.  Who knows which way the wind will blow from one year to the next?  Be kind to yourself and remind yourself that your worth has nothing to do with any school's admissions decision.

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On 2/10/2019 at 9:12 AM, AnUglyBoringNerd said:

Mhm...I don't know about this. I feel what happens is that if the committee/professors at that specific school don't see us as a perfect match, we get rejected. This surely is more or less subjective, but does not necessarily mean that those professors are wrong. After all, it's more about what they think of us, not what we think of them. This might be sub-field specific, but my POIs from Harvard and Columbia both mentioned that they reviewed all the applications to my sub-field carefully. So, I no longer think the decision making in my sub-field is that random and arbitrary. Also, at least one of my POIs mentioned (figuratively) that someone whose style matches that of Harvard may not match the style of Columbia. 

You can DEFINITELY get rejected from a program even if you’re a ‘perfect match’ for a number of reasons. That doesn’t mean professors assess applications randomly or without care; it just means it’s a complicated process with many factors determining the outcome.

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1 hour ago, L13 said:

You can DEFINITELY get rejected from a program even if you’re a ‘perfect match’ for a number of reasons. That doesn’t mean professors assess applications randomly or without care; it just means it’s a complicated process with many factors determining the outcome.

That's definitely true. Sometimes POIs will let you know about these factors in advance (i.e., "we're not taking early modernists this year"), but unfortunately that's not always the case.

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6 hours ago, e_randolph said:

I'll parrot most of what has been said above. 

The keys to a strong application lie in the SOP and the writing sample.  The SOP is your opportunity to elucidate not only what you want to study, but also how you want to study it.  Absolutely tailor your SOP to each school (and probably more than tossing in an obligatory "I want to work with ..." sentence at the end).

In the writing sample, clearly demonstrate your use of primary sources, but don't slough on analysis.  

Finally, don't leave anything on the table when you're applying -- proofread, write confidently and honestly, and secure strong rec letters.  But, for the love of god, once you've submitted, STOP.  Do NOT reread anything until you have a response in hand because you will inevitably find a typo and spend all your time obsessing over it.

 

This process is capricious.  There are things you can do to make yourself stand out, but it is not an exact science.  Who knows which way the wind will blow from one year to the next?  Be kind to yourself and remind yourself that your worth has nothing to do with any school's admissions decision.

ohhhh, Stop would have been vital to my application process!!! I used a sample thesis chapter, but the thesis is still in progress. I have been back over these pages more times than I would like to count, and I did find a MAJOR typo! Luckily I fixed it after two applications, I staggered mine due to fees. The program that accepted me did not read the same sample as some of my earlier applications.

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26 minutes ago, DanaJ said:

ohhhh, Stop would have been vital to my application process!!! I used a sample thesis chapter, but the thesis is still in progress. I have been back over these pages more times than I would like to count, and I did find a MAJOR typo! Luckily I fixed it after two applications, I staggered mine due to fees. The program that accepted me did not read the same sample as some of my earlier applications.

I'm having a hard time determining what you're trying to say.  But I think my advice stands. As I said, once you've submitted, STOP reading your submitted materials.  If you haven't submitted, keep proofreading and sharpening your work.  It's destructive to stew over materials you no longer have any control over, particularly during the month(s)-long waiting period.

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1 hour ago, e_randolph said:

I'm having a hard time determining what you're trying to say.  But I think my advice stands. As I said, once you've submitted, STOP reading your submitted materials.  If you haven't submitted, keep proofreading and sharpening your work.  It's destructive to stew over materials you no longer have any control over, particularly during the month(s)-long waiting period.

I submitted a sample that I felt good about, but it was a chapter from my MA thesis, which is a larger work that is still in progress. As my thesis has evolved over time, I would go back and re-work aspects of the chapter I had submitted as a writing sample. I would probably have felt great if I never had to look at that section of my thesis again, but since I had to go back to it as part of a larger project, I discovered typos in the sample that I had submitted to programs!

I agree with your advice not to look at materials once you have submitted them, but I would add that if you are continuing to apply to other programs, an extra look does not hurt. Application fees can be hard for students, I staggered my applications over 2 week periods so that all of the fees did not hit me all at once. As I was spreading applications out over time, I was also continuing to work on my thesis so I was revisiting the sample I had submitted. I was happy to fix the error that I found before sending my writing sample to the program I was ultimately accepted into, but at the same time I doubt that one typo would have been enough to justify rejecting me! It can create unnecessary stress but using a writing sample that best demonstrates your interests can also work to your benefit because it emphasizes what you are saying in your SOP. If it's part of a larger work in progress, it is harder to walk away from.

Edited by DanaJ

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On 2/9/2019 at 12:19 PM, historygeek said:

1. Be honest with yourself. I chose a field that I felt like I had to be in instead of one that I was more interested in, which was my first really big mistake. I also didn't think about whether I was actually ready to do a PhD straight out of undergrad. When my thesis advisor encouraged me to apply to Masters programs, I was feeling like he just was underestimating my abilities and I was almost insulted. In the process of writing my thesis, I realized that I could benefit from more practical training. I also chose schools based on their ranking and made very loose fit judgements.

5. Use your advisors/professors. They will be willing to help you go through your writing sample and SOP. Yes, people on here will help you, and writing services can help you with your grammar, but professors will probably be the best people to go through and make sure you have everything you need. 

2

I would recommend that one not under any circumstances "use" advisors, professors. Accept their support, follow their guidance, make use of their experience and expertise, but don't "use" them. They will see through it right away and adjust accordingly.

On 2/11/2019 at 9:24 AM, historygeek said:

[M]y thesis advisor told me that I should "expect disappointment" (his words, verbatim).

 

Do you understand why he may have suggested that you manage your expectations?

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5 minutes ago, Sigaba said:

I would recommend that one not under any circumstances "use" advisors, professors. Accept their support, follow their guidance, make use of their experience and expertise, but don't "use" them. They will see through it right away and adjust accordingly.

Do you understand why he may have suggested that you manage your expectations?

"Use" in my post wasn't intended to mean to use your advisors just as a tool, but to get their guidance and their wisdom, if that makes sense! I meant "use" in the sense that you mean: to accept support and make use of their expertise, as well as asking them for guidance on SOPs, etc.

Yes, in retrospect I completely understand. At the time, it was disheartening, but ultimately necessary.

Edited by historygeek

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I was admitted after three cycles of rejections and wait lists. I would say the most important thing is to not get discouraged if you are not admitted on your first or even second attempt. Use the experiences of your rejections and wait lists to hone your SOPs, writing sample, and school selection. Before you begin editing and preparing for the next cycle, I encourage you to take a break and relax a bit. Most of our brains are exhausted and emotionally drained. A break will help you gather yourself and think critically on your own work.

Besides gradcafe, another helpful source are the subreddits for SOPs, graduate school, and history. There are a million threads with applicants and current students talking about applications in general, as well as history. I personally used the subreddits to find readers of my SOPs who I never met. It was a great way to get some advice and tips for improving my SOPs which I used alongside the tips I received from professors and friends.

Like always, if you have any questions, feel free to PM me and I'll do my best to give you advice. Best of luck to all new and experienced applicants!

Edited by Tigla

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I'd say that my biggest pieces of advice, which have also been mentioned above, are:

  1. Apply to MA programs as well if you can. Or have some sort of plan B. Before I received acceptances I was very stressed because I didn't have any other plans.
  2. Get started early! I did this and it made the process much less overwhelming.
  3. Having a professor read over my SOP and answer my questions about grad school in general was such a great help. Definitely try to find a mentor.
  4. Reach out to POIs before you apply. It's nice to know if they are accepting grad students, and to see what they're really like. This saved me from sending in a few applications that probably would've been tossed since my POI was about to retire.

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I echo the advice on interpersonal relationships. The problem is not everyone has those great mentors just around the corner but something I have learned is that even during the application cycle you can forge new relationships. There are professor out there willing to mentor you through an application process if they see you are serious. Start early, take it seriously even if there is still a lot of time till the application is due, this is a marathon don't exhaust yourself on one part of the process. Ultimately what helped me tremendously has been the visualization that I already was working on my PhD rather than just applying. I could take myself very seriously when I considered it a job and didn't loose confidence if one thing didn't go as planned at fist. It's really simple actually, don't complicate it.

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