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Ternwild

So, you didn't make it in this year...

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Most of us are often humbled by our shortcomings during a graduate school application cycle.  We often learn a lot about the weaknesses of our applications that we never saw when applied back in December with stars in our eyes.  So, to your future self and the future applicants, what have you learned?  What more could you have done to make yourself more competitive aside from the usual "I should have gotten a 4.0," "I should have gotten a LOR from Obama (Thanks, Obama!)," etc. etc..  What are some realistic things you could do to make your application more competitive if you apply again next year?  What things did you do that you feel helped?

I'll start:

1. I learned that my SOP spent too much time making excuses for my shortcomings than focusing on my strengths.  After rewriting my SOP, toward the end of my application cycle, the universities I applied to started interviewing me.

2. I think I need to work a bit harder on raising my Quantitative score over 160-165.  It looks like the quantitative score is seemingly much more important than I gave it credit for.  Which seems obvious now, but at the time I was more concerned about the Subject GRE, spending my whole year raising my Subject GRE score 110 pts, which didn't make a significant difference.

3. I learned that if you have spent too much time out of academic work, simply having a job in your field doesn't help you.  You need to consider jobs that can expand your research interests and searching for R&D positions is a good start.  Though, I acknowledge avoiding living out of your car is important, too. 

4. On a closer note to #3, if you feel your application is a bit weak and you aren't able find work in your field, I learned that applying to and doing a Master's program may help your application (plus they're easier to get into).  Why?  Expand your research and you are able to prove to grad committees that you can succeed in a graduate environment.

 

I'm sure I'll think of more, but I'll add them later, as I do.  😃

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Hey!

Just wanted to say that I really resonated with your post. When I applied I thought that my SOP was great, and that my writing sample was a good paper, and finally that my GRE while not terrible wouldn't really be holding me back. 

After getting through most of this cycle (I have two waitlists) I was able to look back on my profile and identify my weaknesses. My SOP really wasn't tailored to a PhD program and talked more about policy work, something that I have since been told is a major red flag. My original writing sample has been replaced, it was more of a history paper, with something that is far more within my field, and actually nicely shows my proficiency of the specific topic that I am interested in studying. And while I still think that GRE's don't make or break applications, I have resigned myself to redoing them over the summer, and am planning on paying a small fortune in tutoring to get those scores up. 

Honestly this whole thing has been very humbling and has changed my outlook on both the field, and grad schools as a whole. 

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To be clear, this doesn't just apply to not getting into any university.  If you didn't get into your "dream" school or universities you wanted to, what are some things you learned and could have done better?  Also, will you be reapplying?

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Still haven't heard for all of my applications but I am pretty certain that I won't get in, personally I think it was my GRE scores, so I will probably retake them, but the thing that I am not sure how to feel about it's the fact that I did what I could do, I have some papers, good letters of recommendation (my professors where very happy when I asked them beacuse they believe more people should do research) and a decent TOEFL score, there aren't many research labs in my country or at least many that would let you volunteer without a phd, I am not saying that I could't have done better but still it feels like even if I tried my best I still wouldn't be good enough.

Sorry if this bums out anyone but I would like to add a quote of my favorite captain that I watched in a rerun after some of my rejections.

It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.

Good Luck to everyone.

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43 minutes ago, Ternwild said:

To be clear, this doesn't just apply to not getting into any university.  If you didn't get into your "dream" school or universities you wanted to, what are some things you learned and could have done better?  Also, will you be reapplying?

Hey I just realized you got in, CONGRATULATIONS!

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17 minutes ago, mntfr said:

Hey I just realized you got in, CONGRATULATIONS!

Thanks, I should have applied to a masters program sooner, I just didn't want to have to pay for more schooling.  But, if this is what I have to do to make my F20 application more appealing, then so be it. 

As for your issue, I suggest asking the admissions committee for advice on what you can work on.  The truth is, as an international student, it is difficult because you're competing against Chinese and Indian students who often have near perfect GRE scores and are tops of their class, in most cases.  The cost of bringing on an international student is great and they are reluctant to bring anything but the best their money can buy.  What I might recommend (and I hope some other people in this forum can help with it) focus on your struggles growing up in Mexico and the challenges you had to overcome to get where you are, in your SOP.  Appeal to the more human side and reach for that diversity genre in admissions.

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I guess we don't have a lot of people who feel comfortable talking about their shortcomings for the sake of helping themselves or others from making the same mistake, I see. xD

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58 minutes ago, Ternwild said:

I guess we don't have a lot of people who feel comfortable talking about their shortcomings for the sake of helping themselves or others from making the same mistake, I see. xD 

Give them some time after my fifth rejection I did nothing but watch friends and how i met your mother for the next week.

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Posted (edited)

So I did make it in, but I also learned a lot about the process. I was (likely) rejected from every school I applied to before January, which was before I revamped my SOP, but then I had a lot of success after changing a few things. Here are some things I learned:

1. Like @Ternwild said, try not to make excuses for your short comings, ESPECIALLY if it requires you to go into detail about your personal life (unless the school specifically requests this). I had a graduate admissions committee member at a school look at my SOP and say the she was horrified by the personal information I had included. 

2. Remember that "safety" school is not a real concept when applying to Ph.D programs. I was convinced I was out of the game after being rejected from the lowest ranked school I applied to in early January. You can easily get into a top 20 and be rejected from a bottom 10 in the same cycle. This happens because each school has a very specific criteria, and because admission is also a lot of luck. This criteria can be based on what subfields they are looking to recruit in a given cycle, how many students in a given subfield they already have, personality, nepotism, and much more.

3. Write your SOP in a positive tone of voice. The last thing the admissions committee wants is a negative nelly who will likely flounder under the stress of a PhD program. Also, be sure to highlight your strengths without coming off conceited (I know this is difficult as I struggled with this). It can be difficult to be humble without underselling yourself. As hypocritical as it is, Arrogant professors don't want arrogant students. They want bench slaves who will be at their beck and call. 

4. CONTACT your POIs early in the process. This was one of my biggest shortcomings. It does not matter if they don't respond because at least it shows initiative. I have friends who were accepted at schools that I was rejected from simply because they became buddy buddy with their POI throughout the admissions process. It doesn't even have to be about their research necessarily. Any foot in the door is better than a cold application. Big schools get more than 800 applications, so they are more likely to keep applications from individuals who they have had personal contact with. Don't be afraid to use your connections to get into a school either if you have a coworker, boss, or PI that knows a PI at a given school. 

5. Graduate education and work experience matter more than undergraduate record in many cases. Almost every school overlooked my 2.5 undergraduate GPA because of my Masters and work experience. It doesn't necessarily even matter where you get your masters as long as you perform well and aren't applying to Harvard. 

6. TAILOR your SOP to each school even if that means slightly changing your interests and goals to a more attractive angle for the school. This alone got me into the best program I was accepted to. You can even go as far as proposing a prospective project with a specific professor. 

Hope this helps people for next cycle. There's a lot more I could say but then I'd need a TL;DR

Edited by crackademik

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I’d also: 

1. Work on my GRE. It’s stupid, I hate it, I thought my AW score would show that it’s just the multiple-choice formatting of the test that got me down, but I’m guessing not. I shouldn’t be listening to people who told me GRE doesn’t matter...it does. 

2. Contacting POIs ahead of time. This one was huge for me. I should’ve done it but I got so anxious about bothering them or them not wanting to talk to me. I had some great and poor interactions with faculty once I was admitted to universities so I now know that if a professor is annoyed by a prospective student contacting them, that’s a bad sign. 

3. Not completing applications last minute, and not feeling lazy about putting work into them. I fell into a depressive funk my senior year and just didn’t want to do anything at all. Getting out of bed was so hard. But I shouldn’t have let that get in the way of my applications. 

4. Finding a job related to my field. All my jobs are not specifically related to my career field and while they have certainly helped me gain skills that carry over, I need a title on my CV that stands out and catches their eye 

5. Applying to less prestigious programs 

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First of all I would never apply to only one school again. I applied to only one school that I thought I had a pretty good shot at since my stats are far above their min requirements. But I guess I'm just not what they wanted. 

I am going to apply to another school whose deadline is in April and I am going to try to change my LORs. I used my boss and a teacher I worked with. This time I am going to try professors. If anyone has opinions on this please let me know. 

All you can do is keep trying until someone sees potential in you right? 🤷🏼‍♀️

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14 minutes ago, Sigmund's Mom said:

All you can do is keep trying until someone sees potential in you right?

That's what the motto that keeps me going. 😃  Never give up, never surrender.  (5 internet points if you get that reference)

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1 minute ago, Ternwild said:

That's what the motto that keeps me going. 😃  Never give up, never surrender.  (5 internet points if you get that reference)

Star trek?

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5 hours ago, literalturtle said:

Not completing applications last minute, and not feeling lazy about putting work into them.

100% this.  Submitting applications earlier when the application season opens, I have found, is a key way to have the graduate committee give your application a much closer look.  I'm guilty of this, too.  Far too often I look at the deadline and go "oh!  So I don't have to do anything under Feb 15th.  Great news!"  This is the wrong idea, I've noticed and when I apply in F20, I'll be doing so very early.

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4 hours ago, Ternwild said:

That's what the motto that keeps me going. 😃  Never give up, never surrender.  (5 internet points if you get that reference)

Galaxy Quest

4 hours ago, Sigmund's Mom said:

Star trek?

Im sorry but we cant be friends

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I would have focused much less on my desire to teach and much more on my passion for research and projected course of research in my phd. I wouldn’t have tried to inject some earnest personality...I don’t think schools cared an ounce about it, haha. I would have approached researching programs differently, mostly looking at recent publications of recent grads and where’d they’d just graduated from. I would have gotten on the boards sooner and asked highly successful applicants from prior years to look over my samples.

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1. Do not ignore early rounds, especially for rolling admissions (international students, take note!). They are your best shot at getting admission and desired funding. I applied on the last day of the last deadline, which left very few spots and minimal, almost non-existent funding. For international students, visa timing issues may also arise. 

2. Only apply to schools you'll actually attend if you get in. No need to donate all those $$$. I applied to my safety school and it was the first one to respond. Made me realize I'd take a drop year over going there. 

3. Be more selective in your selection of schools. Apply to reach, sure (you miss all the shots you don't take etc.) but apart from that, only apply to schools you know you have a very good chance of getting in. Again, no need to spend so many $$$.

4. Talk to alumni before applying or accepting. Stalk them on LinkedIn. It will give you a good idea of your life at the end of grad school. Some such interactions were very eye-opening in terms of the career prospects I could expect. 

5. Keep all your application material ready and proofread in advance! At least by a week or two. I fell sick during one of the final deadlines and had to write my SOP through 2 hours of brain mush. 

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Posted (edited)
21 hours ago, Ternwild said:

100% this.  Submitting applications earlier when the application season opens, I have found, is a key way to have the graduate committee give your application a much closer look. 

Not sure that I agree with this, unless we're talking about program with rolling acceptances and limited spots.  My impression was that (at least in the history programs to which I applied, so this may be program or discipline-specific) adcoms sat down at one time and went over all applications at that point.  I'm not even sure committee members have access to (or interest in/time to go through) applications before that point.  The point you and the poster above you made about not procrastinating and waiting until the last minute and polishing your application materials as much as possible is well-taken, though.

In terms of my contribution to this thread, I'm not sure what all I could've done differently.  I do know that I should've reached out to POIs; might've mentioned this in a different thread a week or two back, but I found out after rejections rolled out that my POI at my top school was retiring.  Why didn't I email her this year so that I would have known that and picked a different POI at that school and thus had a better shot at acceptance?  I didn't know which advice to listen to since I've heard "make sure you contact POIs before applying and introduce yourself/see if they're taking students" and "for the love of God don't bother them and risk alienating them."  Well lesson learned, and next year I'm reaching out to absolutely everyone; if they're annoyed by a polite introductory email then they'd be a shitty person to work with anyway.

I very much agree with @GradAppl5's point about not applying to schools you'd have trouble making yourself attend were you accepted.  I had one school that I didn't apply to this year (for a variety of reasons), and one of the primary reasons for my hesitance was that even though there were some good POI matches there I couldn't get excited about the school or location.  Maybe that's kind of a dumb reason to pass on applying (and to be fair, I've never been to the city where the school is located), but I feel like if you're going to spend 5+ years at a location for a PhD the location is kind of important.

There were a couple of applications that I kind of half-assed, which is particularly stupid since they could have been good fits and I certainly didn't get application fee waivers for them.  The early-mid December deadlines were tough for me because it was a hectic time (as opposed to Jan 1st/15th which was much calmer), but I should've had all my ducks in a row at that point by working during the summer/fall to polish everything.  Application season comes but once a year and there's no excuse for my lack of preparedness.  I won't make that mistake again.  Several people in the history forum also pointed out that I probably didn't cast my net widely enough this past year and looked for too perfect a fit, and that's a really good point.  I still don't feel like I 100% grasp what makes a "good enough" fit with a POI in history I guess.

I'm not sure what to do about the GRE.  I killed it on verbal (167) but didn't do well on quant (150) or aw (4.5).  I put literally zero prep time into aw (the first time I had seen the format at all was when I took the test) and that was dumb.  Some people say GRE scores don't matter in the humanities (particularly quant), but that's something I'm really starting to question.  I don't think I'll take it again since I'm going to study for and take the LSAT this summer and I have a lot of editing work to do on my writing sample since I'm trying to get it published, but it's been on my mind.

I don't know what else to do to strengthen the written elements of my application for next year, honestly.  Publication is a long shot and I don't really have anything lined up to show programs that I'm more awesome this year than last, other than possibly adjuncting a course in the fall which most top-tier schools aren't going to care about.  I really have no idea what to do to stand out more this time around.

tl:dr: this coming year I'll prepare early, pick my target schools more carefully, and reach out to POIs.

 

EDIT:  Gratz on the acceptance, @Ternwild!  Hadn't been on the site for a few days (week?) so I just noticed.

Edited by fortsibut

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1 hour ago, fortsibut said:

"for the love of God don't bother them and risk alienating them." 

Anyone who told you this, is an idiot.  Plain and simple. 

Also, thanks for the gratz. 😃

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5. Another thing I learned about the process was the power of networking with potential professors.  Research synopses on websites are great, but they are often out of date and can not cover the topic specifically.  The worst thing you can do is write your SOP around the research of a professor, only to find out they have switched projects or, worst yet, is retiring and not taking any new grad students.  This all can be solved with emails to potential PIs.  It is also a good opportunity to shine by asking them for specific details of their research.  Professors love talking about themselves (they've made a career of it).  You never know, this POI might be on the grad committee. 

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1. American schools care a lot more about the GRE than I thought they would. I made the naive assumption that my actual research experience would be worth more than a stupid test, so I didn't study at all. Did well on verbal and analytical. Ended up flunking the quantitative because what is that section even trying to be? Is it math? Is it logic? I don't even think ETS knows. Do I plan on retaking it? Probably not. It's a stupid expensive test and I likely won't apply to the same schools again which leads me to my second point.

2. Apply to programs that are actually a good fit for me with professors who are actively doing research related to what I want to research instead of tangentially related research. Just because our research is in the same field, doesn't mean there will be much similarity in our research interests. Also, I'm in a cross-disciplinary field, Computer Science - Linguistics. I assumed that CompSci programs wouldn't consider me because my degrees are in Linguistics, even though my research interests are more consistent with CompSci. I ended up getting rejected by the Linguistics programs I applied for because my research interests weren't 'Linguistic' enough.

3. Actually make connections with professors before applying. If anything, they can give you more information about how your application is going.

4. Actually submit those papers you're sitting on instead of keeping them in a constant state of 'in progress'. That might work for road maintenance crews, but it doesn't mean anything in academia.

5. Get richer parents.

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On 3/17/2019 at 3:43 AM, Kishikaisei said:

2. Apply to programs that are actually a good fit for me with professors who are actively doing research related to what I want to research instead of tangentially related research. Just because our research is in the same field, doesn't mean there will be much similarity in our research interests.

I think this is a lot of the reason why so many people get rejected.  Not knowing your research focus and not tailoring it to the specific school fails to answer one major question that should be addressed in every SOP: "Why this school?"  A good SOP clearly defines this.

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