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Number of Applications: How many is too many?


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When tweaking the final lists, is it better to focus more thoroughly on a few applications? Or to cast a wider net? I have my list to about 13, but I'm wondering if this will be too many.

I've spoken to friends who applied in the last cycle though, and their prime advice was to apply widely (e.g. applicant applies to twenty schools, and makes it into three of them - and not the "lowest ranked" programs, either - making it a true crapshoot)

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When tweaking the final lists, is it better to focus more thoroughly on a few applications? Or to cast a wider net? I have my list to about 13, but I'm wondering if this will be too many.

I've spoken to friends who applied in the last cycle though, and their prime advice was to apply widely (e.g. applicant applies to twenty schools, and makes it into three of them - and not the "lowest ranked" programs, either - making it a true crapshoot)

I've found asking myself these questions to be helpful in narrowing down schools. (I should note: I *didn't* listen to this advice when I first applied, and ended up turning down offers from schools that I should never have applied to in the first place)

1. Would I be excited to attend the program if I get in? Does it have the range of faculty and the sort of structure that can facilitate at least some of my interests? Can I do good work at this program?

2. Would moving to this city be plausible for my lifestyle/family? (Probably applies most to applicants with a partner/family in tow).

3. Can I put together a persuasive application for this specific program? (Am I a good fit?)

There are obviously tons of other questions (personality, placement rates, funding package, living conditions, etc, etc) that comes into play once you're accepted...but if you can honestly say yes to all three questions at this stage in the game...I think you should strongly consider applying to the school.

For what it's worth, I applied to 15 the first time, 8 the second time, and 10 my last round. I can attest to what your friends have said about the process being a "crapshoot" (but only to some extent): each time, I was rejected from lower-ranked programs only to be accepted into programs that are ranked far higher. The only consistency that I've noticed is that I was always a very good fit for the programs that accepted me (even if I didn't know it when I submitted the application!)...and generally a bad fit for the programs that had turned me down. Do your research and sort by fit, assuming that the location is at least vaguely plausible. (Though I've found that it pays to be open-minded about location. Some of the schools located in places that I didn't think I'd want to live in pleasantly surprised me).

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Thank you for the advice! It corroborates the fact that the programs about which I am most ambivalent are the departments and/or geographic locations that I simply don't know as well. It eases the anxiety a bit too, to think that there is no perfect formula or method for applying. In one sense this can be a burden (of uncertainty), but I find it liberating to think of all the different ways people I have known have been ultimately successful in this process.

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I was having an issue with this myself, hearing suggestions that ranged from "apply to as many as have your program" to "be selective." What I found works best is doing a lot of research and finding what you're most comfortable with, then applying to as many as you can afford.

For example, I made a list of all the schools who had Rhetoric and Composition as an English concentration, then looked at the required courses for each school. Because I'm more interested in writing pedagogy, I eliminated schools that were more heavily invested in literature and rhetoric, and put programs that had courses specific to composition and writing pedagogy at the top of my list. I also eliminated schools that were great for my program, but were more than 10 hours away from home, because that matters to me. I didn't want to go anywhere that I wouldn't be able to drive home in case of emergency with my family.

Once I had narrowed my list according to these criteria, I looked at each application fee, and considered how much it would cost to send my GRE scores to all of them because you only get four scores free. Once I determined the total cost, I decided whether I could afford every single school on my list, and I could. I found that this method helped me find a happy medium between "casting a wide net" and being too selective, and it also helped me realize what schools I'd really be happy going to with programs and professors I'd enjoy learning from. Hope I helped!

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I went with the "be selective" route. I applied to three schools, spent about a month on each application, and got into all three.

I spent a lot of time research schools, and was very exacting in my criteria for where I applied- somewhere I wanted to live, at least three professors I'd be happy working with, good reputation, good "supporting" departments, competitive stipends/available fellowships, etc.

The undergrad in our lab last year, however, went the complete opposite- he applied to every top 20 chemistry school (of course, he also got into all but one).

Each way has its benefits, and I'd say it also depends on how strong your application is. If you know you stand a very good chance at getting into all the schools you apply to, there's no need to choose a bunch of different ones. It also saves quite a bit of money. I didn't have to pay anything in application fees, I know others that have payed over $ 1,000 in application fees alone.

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I went with the "be selective" route. I applied to three schools, spent about a month on each application, and got into all three.

I spent a lot of time research schools, and was very exacting in my criteria for where I applied- somewhere I wanted to live, at least three professors I'd be happy working with, good reputation, good "supporting" departments, competitive stipends/available fellowships, etc.

The undergrad in our lab last year, however, went the complete opposite- he applied to every top 20 chemistry school (of course, he also got into all but one).

Each way has its benefits, and I'd say it also depends on how strong your application is. If you know you stand a very good chance at getting into all the schools you apply to, there's no need to choose a bunch of different ones. It also saves quite a bit of money. I didn't have to pay anything in application fees, I know others that have payed over $ 1,000 in application fees alone.

I'm going to have to go with this being the best bet, especially in this field. I have no idea how chemistry applications work but I know that there's no possible way I would have been able to convince every single top 20 English program that my research interests strongly aligned with their's without some serious manipulation of those interests. I ended up applying to 11 schools and probably (actually, definitely) could have done okay with only sending out five or six applications. Of course I'm making that judgment with the knowledge that I got in to several programs but I realized that a couple of those schools actually weren't a good fit when I did further snooping. It's those five or six schools that had more than three professors I could see myself working with. OP: apply to those places that you can tell would be a good fit for your future research on paper--only you (and I suppose your bank account) can come up with that comfortable number. Visiting weekends are when you figure out which are a good fit in practice.

edited to fix a glaring typo

Edited by diehtc0ke
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Also, schools like it when you're particularly applying to them because you really like the school/faculty, and have put the time in to research it.

It's hard convincing them in SoPs and when you visit that you're genuinely interested in them, when you're also saying the same thing about 20 other schools.

Several of my schools even asked where else I was applying on the application.

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I am, if I can afford it, applying to 16 schools. About three are on the "if i have the money" list and might not get included. I've been told by PhD students and faculty alike, repeatedly, that you should apply to as many as you like/can afford. Some of these schools are better fits than others, but they are all certainly places I would love to go, and would benefit from. My research interests are not specific yet; I only have a Bachelor's, so I'm hoping to go the MA first route and then, the next application round would only be the best fits. So it's pretty individualized I think, and mostly depends on what you can afford. I've been working on these apps ever since March when I got my rejections, so I'm hoping I'll be giving each of them the attention they need.

I'm having the problem right now of not being able to scrounge up the money to pay for the costs. I added it up, and if I applied to all the schools I want to, it would be $2,100 including all fees (I have three different school transcripts, so that makes that cost thrice as much). How much are people spending? How are you finding the money? I'm on a strict budget and looking for a second job...

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Like I said, I spent only the cost of a single GRE test + one score report.

But then, most departments in the sciences let you apply straight to the department, and you're only charged the application fee if the department accepts you, at which point you apply straight to the grad school. At least that was the case when I applied. And then, since the department wants you, they usually shave off the application fee.

Also, you mention non-specific research interests- that's something that's going vary wildly by discipline. If you don't have fairly specific research interests, getting into a PhD program in the sciences can be quite difficult. You're expected to have already narrowed it down by that point, at least to a large degree.

I have a friend that applied to 20, he took an extra job his last semester just to afford applications.

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I guess I exaggerated a bit: I do have specific research interests, but I have too many and they are fluid. I haven't been able to decide between a few areas. So I think I have more options as far as schools go, though I know enough to be very specific in my statement of purpose. I know that the PhD programs are going to be a long-shot, because of this (I'm expecting to get rejected by all of them), which is why the MA first route is probably what is going to happen.

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<br style="text-shadow: none;">I am, if I can afford it, applying to 16 schools. About three are on the "if i have the money" list and might not get included. I've been told by PhD students and faculty alike, repeatedly, that you should apply to as many as you like/can afford. Some of these schools are better fits than others, but they are all certainly places I would love to go, and would benefit from. My research interests are not specific yet; I only have a Bachelor's, so I'm hoping to go the MA first route and then, the next application round would only be the best fits. So it's pretty individualized I think, and mostly depends on what you can afford. I've been working on these apps ever since March when I got my rejections, so I'm hoping I'll be giving each of them the attention they need.<br style="text-shadow: none;"><br style="text-shadow: none;">I'm having the problem right now of not being able to scrounge up the money to pay for the costs. I added it up, and if I applied to all the schools I want to, it would be $2,100 including all fees (I have three different school transcripts, so that makes that cost thrice as much). How much are people spending? How are you finding the money? I'm on a strict budget and looking for a second job...<br style="text-shadow: none;">
<br style="text-shadow: none;"><br style="text-shadow: none;">Dude, applying to 16 schools is crazy. I applied to 6. I second diehtc0ke: If your interests are so unfocused (as you mention in a later comment) that you have to apply to 16 programs, then you need to reconsider your interests. Applying to programs is incredibly expensive and time-consuming, and there's such a thing as having too many options. I'd recommend no more than 10, though I seem to be in the minority here...<br style="text-shadow: none;">
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<br style="text-shadow: none;"><br style="text-shadow: none;">Dude, applying to 16 schools is crazy. I applied to 6. I second diehtc0ke: If your interests are so unfocused (as you mention in a later comment) that you have to apply to 16 programs, then you need to reconsider your interests. Applying to programs is incredibly expensive and time-consuming, and there's such a thing as having too many options. I'd recommend no more than 10, though I seem to be in the minority here...<br style="text-shadow: none;">

I'd tend to agree with foppery and diehtc0ke that less tends to be more--both for the reasons they've stated and for the simple fact that, when acceptances start rolling in, you want to be able to meet them with unqualified excitement.

When looking at your list of places to apply to, be honest with yourself about whether or not you would really want to attend each of them were you to receive a funded acceptance. Are the faculty members you'd like to work with there approachable and available? What's the academic environment like? Is the level of competition between students collegial or cutthroat? Is the school in a location where you would not mind living for the next half decade (or more ... sigh) of your life, and would it allow you easy access to the types of libraries, resources, etc, that you anticipate needing for your work? Finding answers to these sorts of questions before you apply will save you the time, money, and stress associated with applying somewhere that you might not really want to attend should you be accepted.

I'm sure that for some there are a 10+ schools that pass muster in these areas; for me, my list ended up including 6 schools that had the type of faculty, academic environment, and, yes, location, that I was looking for. So I focused on this manageable (and financially feasible) number of applications, got into two of the schools, and can honestly say I could have seen myself happily studying at either.

Edited by BelleOfKilronen
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Dude, applying to 16 schools is crazy. I applied to 6. I second diehtc0ke: If your interests are so unfocused (as you mention in a later comment) that you have to apply to 16 programs, then you need to reconsider your interests. Applying to programs is incredibly expensive and time-consuming, and there's such a thing as having too many options. I'd recommend no more than 10, though I seem to be in the minority here...

Adding to the consensus here. I DID apply to 16 (15?) schools my first round, and (shocking, considering that I had no clue what I was doing) got into half of them. Although that was technically a "successful" season, I was so overwhelmed that I did poor job of picking a school. (How poor, you ask? I transferred out two years later). I could have/should have saved myself a lot of money, stress, and time had I sent a little (ok, a lot) more time thinking through my interests, looking for a good match, and trimming the list. I would have been better off with 3 or 4 strong offers that I can research thoroughly before accepting...then haphazardly trying to shift through 8.

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<br style="text-shadow: none;"><br style="text-shadow: none;">Dude, applying to 16 schools is crazy. I applied to 6. I second diehtc0ke: If your interests are so unfocused (as you mention in a later comment) that you have to apply to 16 programs, then you need to reconsider your interests. Applying to programs is incredibly expensive and time-consuming, and there's such a thing as having too many options. I'd recommend no more than 10, though I seem to be in the minority here...<br style="text-shadow: none;">

Well what I'm planning on doing, is applying to 7 phd programs that I really really like and I think are good fits with specific research interests. And now (down to 14 instead) I am doing 7 fully funded terminal MA programs. The MA programs are for training as generalists, for the purpose of applying to phd programs at other schools. My grades are not that great because of working full time, bad first semester, etc. I really expect to get rejected from the phd programs and I don't think I need super special interests to get a general MA degree. And also, the MA route will help me hone in on specific research interests. I guess I feel like, this being my first round of applying wherever I chose, I will regret not trying for my top choice phd programs, even though I'm feeling confident that I won't get getting in this round until I have an MA.

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Also, a professor who I respect very much told me recently to apply for as many programs that is physically and financially possible because it's such a crapshoot right now. Obviously a competitive application is required and she honestly told me mine was just that. But with so many applicants competing for so few spots, it's best to apply to more and not less programs. Just one person's opinion but I tend to agree with her.

I think that everyone is giving good advice, however my goals are focused on teaching, not research. And community college is completely an option for me. So to say that I need to reevaluate my research interests, I can see why someone would say that and might agree, but for me I think it is not exactly applicable. I do have specific research interests, but I'm banking on spending my MA training as a generalist as well. So when that is a goal, the number of school options widens considerably.

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Also, a professor who I respect very much told me recently to apply for as many programs that is physically and financially possible because it's such a crapshoot right now. Obviously a competitive application is required and she honestly told me mine was just that. But with so many applicants competing for so few spots, it's best to apply to more and not less programs. Just one person's opinion but I tend to agree with her.

I think that everyone is giving good advice, however my goals are focused on teaching, not research. And community college is completely an option for me. So to say that I need to reevaluate my research interests, I can see why someone would say that and might agree, but for me I think it is not exactly applicable. I do have specific research interests, but I'm banking on spending my MA training as a generalist as well. So when that is a goal, the number of school options widens considerably.

It sounds as though you have a very solid game plan, and a good sense of what you're doing. That's certainly very different from my situation (I applied to PhD programs only...well, one MA-to-PhD, but they guaranteed PhD level funding, and is essentially a PhD program packaged directly than most).

From my experience, grades (and GRE scores) tend to matter far less than what applicants (and to be frank, even their advisers) tend to believe. My peers' GPAs vary from "insanely outstanding" to...wow, "you've had a few rough years." (And many of my peers with the most competitive offers fall in the latter category). This isn't to say that applying to MA programs isn't a good idea (given your situation, it seems like a very smart move), but only that any lurkers who are reading this probably shouldn't make their application decisions based largely on their transcripts.

It might also be worth noting: it seems that more and more of the top programs are enrolling applicants with MA's. Half or more of the incoming class at my program--and that of at least one unnamed Ivy which is traditionally viewed to be un-MA-friendly--already hold an MA (or equivalent degree). This is absolutely NOT to say that you need an MA to be competitive, but it should give some pause to those who argue that MA's somehow make an applicant less attractive to top schools.

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It sounds as though you have a very solid game plan, and a good sense of what you're doing. That's certainly very different from my situation (I applied to PhD programs only...well, one MA-to-PhD, but they guaranteed PhD level funding, and is essentially a PhD program packaged directly than most).

From my experience, grades (and GRE scores) tend to matter far less than what applicants (and to be frank, even their advisers) tend to believe. My peers' GPAs vary from "insanely outstanding" to...wow, "you've had a few rough years." (And many of my peers with the most competitive offers fall in the latter category). This isn't to say that applying to MA programs isn't a good idea (given your situation, it seems like a very smart move), but only that any lurkers who are reading this probably shouldn't make their application decisions based largely on their transcripts.

It might also be worth noting: it seems that more and more of the top programs are enrolling applicants with MA's. Half or more of the incoming class at my program--and that of at least one unnamed Ivy which is traditionally viewed to be un-MA-friendly--already hold an MA (or equivalent degree). This is absolutely NOT to say that you need an MA to be competitive, but it should give some pause to those who argue that MA's somehow make an applicant less attractive to top schools.

I know I'm only one person but I can't help but feel like my experience confirms this. Perhaps the schools that rejected me did so because of my lit GRE score in the 53rd percentile; I don't know but I do know there were some discrepancies for those applications that would have overshadowed even the best of scores (like sending the wrong statement of purpose to an Ivy that shall not be named). I would also point out that 50% of my cohort is also coming in with an MA in hand and I attend another top 10 program.

edit: I forgot to also draw attention to the fact that though I've said somewhere else that stated research interests from a BA applicant can be somewhat messier than those from an MA aplicant, there's also an element of having more to prove for certain schools. As an applicant with only a bachelor's, you are a riskier investment and the writing sample is critical in showing the kind and level of work you're capable of (which is why a lot of us here always advocate for paying more attention to samples and statements than to standardized tests). So, woolfie, I would definitely try not to bank on being rejected from all of the PhD programs you're applying to because: 1) I haven't gotten any indication that you're not ready for them at this point and, 2) you don't want to subconsciously psych yourself out before the applications even get into the mailbox.

Edited by diehtc0ke
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  • 3 weeks later...

The way I'm organizing is a little bit of both methods (I know this is kind of a paradox).

My list is almost finished (I'm just waiting to hear back from one of my professors about one school), and I have about 11 schools. Every single one has a program that I fit with, is a place I could move, and somewhere I'd be happy to go. That being said, there are 6 in particular that are superb fits for me and are the hubs of the most interesting research in my field. Those six schools are the most important to me, and I'll spending the longest amount of time on them.

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