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What are my chances?


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Hey all,

I need some help to assess how competitive I am as a candidate and whether or not I should retake the GRE or do anything else to increase my chances of getting into a good school. My dream would be to get into the MTS program at HDS and I want to do everything I can to increase my chances. Since HDS doesn't publish average GPAs and GRE scores of admitted student I was wondering if anyone on this forum could tell me (i.e. make an educated guess) of whether or not I have a chance of getting in. If you are able to say something about how likely it is that I will receive funding that would also be great. I wouldn't be able to attend without substantial financial aid. Here's about me:

Major in undergrad: Political Science with focus on Middle East 

GPA: 3.92 from top 50 public university

GRE: Verbal = 155, Math: 154, Writing: 5.5

Language: 3 years of Modern Standard Arabic, some German

Senior thesis

Assuming that my letters of recommendation and personal statement are good, what are my chances?


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I think your stats are phenomenal. Last I checked, Harvard admits anywhere between ~10-20% of applicants. The main way in which you distinguish yourself is your personal statement and actually visiting the campus and talking with professors. If HDS has any conferences or events that you could attend, go to those and make sure you connect with a professor or an admissions person while there. This is probably the best way to distinguish yourself among the other students who will have very similar stats to your own.

As for your GRE's, your writing score is phenomenal, but your Verbal and Math scores seem to be more so in the upper/higher-average range. This isn't necessarily a call to re-take the exam, but do know that others who apply may possess scores within the 160 range.

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If you're really aiming high, I'd try to up those V and Q scores... I mean I know they say everything is more important than GRE scores but when it comes down the wire and they have someone who have the same stats as you but with 160+ scores... it could work against you, especially the Verbal, if you're talking about Humanities programs.

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Thanks for the replies. I will try to retake the GRE. I was bummed to see the low score on the verbal section, especially as I had been scoring above 160 on practice exams. Oh well, guess I just need to hit the books and start studying again.

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I wouldn't bother with retaking it, personally.

If you improve, it's likely to be by a few points at best - by few, I mean like 3. If you retake it and score worse than you did originally...it won't hurt necessarily but 1) You'll probably beat yourself up over it, 2) Waste of money, 3) I think your application will be on the sort list anyway pending a nice writing sample and solid LORs.

If you're set on Harvard, I'd even suggest looking at their MDiv program. It gives you an extra year of courses and building connections with professors (I assume your end goal is a PhD?) and HDS has the extra benefit of allowing you to cater your entire coursework toward the religious tradition that you're there to study (once again, I presume Islam given the Arabic training and Poli Sci), so you're not required to approach it from a Christian PoV like you would at say Candler for example.

The acceptance rate for HDS's MDiv is significantly higher than their MTS and from what I've seen, their funding for MDiv students is more generous as well.

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I agree with the above post. Your GRE scores are fine, I think. The rest of your stats are obviously very impressive, and quite honestly your area of interest will likely set you apart from the bulk of applicants (who are doing, presumably, Judeo-Christian stuff). Spend the time honing your SOP and writing sample, and instead of spending the money on another GRE exam, fly to Cambridge and meet with some professors.


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does a student's interest being unique really influence the movement of one's application to the acceptance pile?

Yes and no.

It depends on the school, foremost and secondily on the program that you're applying to.

Your typical Judeo-Christian applicant is a dime a dozen, really. While that will probably be good enough to get you into your standard M* program, places like Harvard are really looking for students who are approaching the study of religion from an unusual/different viewpoint than say your middle class Episcopalian or Methodist may have access to (which isn't to say such applicants don't get accepted - they do). At Harvard in particular, since that's the school in discussion, they like applicants with an edge - say someone studying Feminist/Queer Theory in relation to Native American religion (or even Christianity infused with a Native American perspective).

I guess the best way to put it is that you need to sell yourself to the school. You're asking Harvard to date you long term (2-3 years at least) and what's the best way to get a foot in the door? Show why you're different and unique and not just a run of the mill applicant that wants to study Christianity. Show them that you want to study the intersection of Religion and Healthcare, with a particular focus on bioethics, end of life, bereavement, etc and that on top of it you spent most of your childhood homeless and want to approach it from the viewpoint of margianlized populations (using myself as an example).

However, do NOT fake it. Places like Harvard get hundreds/thousands of applicants a year and they know a bullshitter when they see one. They'll spot you a mile away either lying about your intentions or stretching them (telling a tall tale). It's the quickest path to the rejection pile. I've seen applicants with subpar scores get in solely b/c of their experiences and what they want to study, and I've seen wonderful applicants (on paper) who the Adcoms could tell were only saying what they thought they needed to in order to get in and then had every intention of jumping ship and switching to another focus/professor.

So, to answer it more directly....Yes, I think having a unique interest helps a lot but it needs to be backed up. If you're a white, middle class, mainstream Protestant that wants to study say comparative religion (Christianity and Buddhism) and you have nothing in a writing sample, PS, or LORs that backs up the interest and shows you've already started down that road of intellectual discussion...you're file is probably already in the trashcan.

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Guest appearance for this topic [i used to be Lib(eration) Theologian until I was harassed with down-votes, and I had about a positive 100 score at one point].

I wouldn't worry about it - here's the down low. Apply to the Mdiv for the reasons mentioned above [better funding, longer time at the university], and know that the admit rate for Mdiv applicants hovers close to 40-50%. Not exactly a stretch. I'm a current Mdiv student here, by the way.

If you have any other questions, feel free to ask. I like to help, but I don't like being harassed.

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Sorry, I (HDS MTS '12) have to contradict some of the stuff in this thread:

  • Your GRE score matters very little, I would say least of all the application components, don't bother retaking it.
  • You don't need to visit HDS, it probably wouldn't help your chances that much, if any. With the PhD I'd say it's pretty crucial, but for the Master's, an introductory (short) email to a professor or two you'd like to work with would be fine.
  • The MDiv and the MTS don't differ in funding for most people. Before Dean Graham finished his tenure he told me they were at full funding for about 90% of the students now.

Being unique does matter, but what unique is for divinity schools in general, what is unique for HDS and what HDS thinks is unique are all different things. Like someone mentioned above, applying to study the New Testament is about as vanilla as it gets in divinity schools generally, but far less so at HDS, while applying to study queer feminist ecology would get you laughed out of most seminaries but wouldn't surprise anyone at HDS. Similarly, I'm fairly certain that the Women, Gender, Sexuality, etc concentration is the most heavily saturated at HDS, so it might be harder to get into that area than New Testament.

What do you want to study?

If it's ministry, apply to the MDiv, if its not, apply to the MTS. If your application reads like an MTS app and you apply to the MDiv, the ad com is going to think "why is this person applying to the MDiv?" Actually, they probably won't even have that question since HDS is privy to MDiv imposters, people who only apply as MDivs for the extra year, and that would probably be a count against you. On the other hand, if you're interested in studying Islam, which is my educated guest, your chances are good. It's one of the concentrations HDS is struggling to build so an applicant will probably get a longer look. If you're looking for a trick for a leg up, that would be it. Apply to a concentration HDS is trying to strengthen.

If your recs and statement are strong, I'd say your chances are good to very good.

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Thanks everyone for the responses! I've decided that retaking the GRE probably isn't worth it. Instead, I'll focus on my PS and the other parts of my app. Any general advice for the PS? I've written a draft and I am trying my very best to avoid the trap of just restating facts that can be found on my resume.

Someone suggested that I should apply for the MDiv program due to the higher admission rate. While I am, still, a little confused as to the exact differences between MDiv, M.T.S. and M.A.R., I don't think MDiv is an option for me. I am interested in the academic study of religion and have no interest in going into ministry. After talking to professors and reading about the different programs I think that HDS would be a perfect fit. I greatly admire the research done by some of the professors of Islamic Studies and would love to have one of them as my supervisor. I also like the flexibility of the MTS program. Someone said that up to half of the coursework can be done outside HDS. Is this correct? I would love to take Arabic classes and/or to find relevant courses on the religious and political implications of the Arab Spring at the KSG. Can anyone confirm that this is possible?

Btw, what other schools have strong programs in Islamic Studies? Preferably schools that offer funding.

Thank you guys!

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  • 4 weeks later...

Everyone that I've become friends with at HDS has asked the same question: how the HELL did we all get in with such poor GRE scores? I have yet to talk to anyone that did any better than you and I on the GRE, hahaha.

Your political science perspective and knowledge of Arabic will put you far ahead than most applying to the Islamic Studies program at HDS.

As for funding, almost everyone I know has at least 50%.

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