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Profiles and Results, SOPs, and Advice (Fall 2013)


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Type of Undergrad Institution:
University of London
Major(s)/Minor(s):  Political Science
Undergrad GPA: N/A
Type of Grad: MPhil in Hong Kong
Grad GPA: N/A
GRE: 162/160/4.0
Any Special Courses: Mandarin Chinese
Letters of Recommendation: 3 tenured profs, 1 well-known
Research Experience: BA and MPhil theses, conference presentation, book review in a peer-reviewed journal, couple of think-tank publications unrelated to pol science
Teaching Experience: 3 semesters as TA
Subfield/Research Interests: International Relations/ IR theory, US foreign policy, Sino-American relations, non-traditional security issues

Acceptances($$ or no $$): UGA ($$)
Waitlists: ND
Rejections: Penn, USC, UMN, OSU, UVA, American, Syr, Uconn, Colorado
Going to: UGA



Admissions are extremely competitive, keep in mind that hundreds of qualified applicants compete for a handful of offers.

The entire application process is quite an experience; it takes lot of time, effort and money.

It is even more challenging for international students as we often have to overcome a lack of pedigree or mediocre GRE scores.

Take your time when researching universities and make sure to apply widely.

It's depressing to collect so many rejections, but remember, in the end you only need one offer :)

Good luck !

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  • 3 weeks later...
The following notes are based on my experiences as well as those of two of my friends who applied this cycle but who don't post on this site.  PM me if you have questions about our backgrounds or results.  Good luck to future applicants!
First and Foremost:
- Don't over-analyze the admissions process. Forums like these are meant to assist you with your applications, not distract you from them. This is a stressful time and we all want to do what we can to secure a favorable outcome, but once you've achieved a basic understanding of what is required, you're better off focusing on your statement of purpose, researching schools, etc. rather than searching for additional anecdotes about the admissions process. You'll never be able to figure everything out because department procedures and preferences vary widely, but those distinctions are not apparent to outsiders.
Making a List:
- Apply broadly. You may get into some programs you thought were a stretch. On the other hand, you'll almost certainly be rejected by a few schools that you believed were a good fit and within your reach - it all depends on whom among the faculty are on the admissions committee in a given year and what their particular interests are.
- Don't apply to a school for any reason other than because you think it is a good fit for your research interests and will help you achieve your goals as a doctoral student (and thereafter as an applicant on the job market, though that's obviously much harder to predict). Likewise, don't apply to a program unless you would happily matriculate if it was the only place to accept you.
- Seek advice from professors and friends who might have informed opinions about specific departments, but also acknowledge that programs change and the prevailing wisdom about specific schools may be out-of-date. Expect your preconceptions about specific programs to change somewhat once you have a chance to visit them.
The Application:
- The personal statement is often the most important component of the application. The applicant should signal that he or she can write clearly, has researched the department and its faculty, and has the potential to conduct interesting research.
- Letters of recommendation are also important, but as applicants we have minimal control over them. If the two options are in conflict, you should generally ask for letters from the professors who know you best rather than from those who are well-connected.
- Academic pedigree helps, but it isn't a requirement.  Getting a masters can help if your undergraduate record has question marks.  Having a few years of work experience is also useful as a signal that one is committed to returning to academia.
- As far as GRE and GPA are concerned, applicants must clear a minimum threshold that varies by program and admissions committee (given that other aspects of an application can demonstrate facility with language, minimum requirements for quantitative scores are generally more firmly established than those for verbal). Beyond the initial hurdle, there are diminishing returns to better numbers. There's probably a slight difference between earning a 700/700 versus an 800/800 or between a 3.6 and a 3.9 GPA, but those distinctions are not nearly as significant as one might initially assume. You should work to earn the best score possible, but as long as you're in the ballpark you shouldn't worry too much.
- The importance of the writing sample seems to vary widely by program, but in general it's little more than another opportunity for applicants to demonstrate that they can write clearly. It's also likely to be interpreted in the context of one's experience, so more is expected from someone with a masters than an applicant coming straight from undergrad.
- You aren't expected to be a star already and needn't pretend to be. The assumption is that you don't know very much yet, but that you have the potential to grow into a competent academic and are eager to learn.
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  • 2 weeks later...

Type of Undergrad Institution: Top private university 
Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Theory
Undergrad GPA: 3.57
Type of Grad: MA in the social sciences
Grad GPA: 3.82
GRE: Q710/V670/5.5
Any Special Courses: mostly advanced theory courses with some qualitative methods coursework
Letters of Recommendation: three tenured profs (although I really don't think the rank of the profs matters as much as the degree to which they can speak to your interests and skills). 
Research Experience: aside from working as an RA for a prof in an unrelated field, none
Teaching Experience: none
Subfield/Research Interests: theory (contemporary)

Acceptances($$ or no $$): Michigan, Penn, Toronto, UChicago (all funded)
Waitlists: none
Rejections: Northwestern, Cornell, Yale, Brown, JHU
Going to: UChicago


Lessons learned:


  1. In my case, fit definitely mattered. In looking at the schools to which I was admitted, all of them make sense based on my interests. In other words, none of my rejections were much of a surprise. Granted, my intended focus is a bit unique, so this might not be the case for applicants who have more "traditional" (or typical) research interests. This doesn't mean you shouldn't apply to schools that aren't the perfect fit. A lot of times, it may not be evident from websites or word-of-mouth what resources are available or what professors are focusing on at a given time. In these cases, it's best to talk to your advisors or recommenders, who may be able to provide you with more information about a program, who might be moving or retiring, and what particular profs are like to work with.
  2. This dovetails with the above, but go over your list of schools with your advisor/recommenders (if possible). They may be able to suggest options that you might not have thought of (or nix options you shouldn't be thinking of). 
  3. While the personal statement/statement of purpose is important, try not to overthink it. You need to sell your research to an admissions committee that may or may not include members from your subdiscipline, so make sure it's intelligible (and interesting) to individuals who aren't necessarily familiar with your area of research. Finally, keep it simple. Most of the profs i talked to said to avoid personal narratives ("I've wanted to be a political scientist since I was 2," etc.) and stick to your research interests and relevant qualifications. 
  4. While I don't think emailing profs can hurt you, I don't think it necessarily helps, either. And if you do send an email, I wouldn't read too much into whether or not you get a response (ie, getting a reply doesn't mean you'll get in, and not getting a reply doesn't mean you'll be rejected). In other words, don't stress about it. 
  5. This isn't necessarily a suggestion about the application, but I found creating an excel checklist of all the programs I was applying to (including their deadlines, GRE codes, transcript requirements etc.) to be really helpful for keeping track of everything. I also recommend interfolio for sending recommendations. Yes, it costs money, but it was so much easier to deal with, and once your recommenders upload their letters, you're in control of when and where they get sent) 
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  • 1 month later...

Type of Undergrad Institution: R1 state school, but likely not highly regarded outside of the region
Major(s)/Minor(s): International Relations
Undergrad GPA: 3.9ish
Type of Grad: Public Policy (combined program with undergrad)
Grad GPA: 3.7ish
GRE: 166V, 161Q, 5W
Any Special Courses: One grad intel studies course, 2 course Phd stat sequence audited, relevant methodology courses from graduate degree, relevant study abroad
Letters of Recommendation: Assistant prof/mentor I RA'd for during undergrad with similar research focus, two non-academics in research-oriented careers I've worked with during my job, fourth letter for a few schools from an associate prof I audited; knew all very well and main three know my research work
Research Experience: 3 years as a career, 3-4 as RA during school
Teaching Experience: Intern supervisor, no teaching
Subfield/Research Interests: IR/CP and Methods
Other: Major conference presentations, work on major grants, co-authored publications - academic and otherwise

Penn State, Texas-Austin, UNC-Chapel Hill, UCSD, Yale, UMD
Rejections!: Harvard, Princeton, NYU, Columbia, Chicago, Stanford, Michigan, Duke



I got a bit of advice before going through this process, so some of this is lessons learned from current grad students at top-10s.


-Applications are stressful and require a decent amount of time. Put as much into it as you can and if possible have someone glance over everything for typos. Know my first SOP submitted had one.


-GREs matter. I considered using my scores from sophomore year of college instead of retaking, but was advised (over and over) that you need to have the best scores down you can. It's a cutoff at many places, whether or not it should be. Get your score down before you're already worrying about SOPs and writing samples.


-Work your applications to highlight what makes you unique. Don't try to fold into a box you don't fit in.


-Don't apply places you'd never want to live. I stress-applied to Chicago but based on personal preferences can't imagine wanting to be that cold and windy.


-If you can financially, even if it's difficult, apply to more schools than you think necessary. It's better to do this process once rather than a redo if at all possible, so go big. Furthermore, visiting schools told me far more about universities than pouring over their websites. I applied to UCSD last minute on advice from a professor and it turned out to be a great potential option. Also, if I had cut my list as I'd intended to 8, I would have cut out Yale and UCSD likely.


-Funding is key, going into a lot of debt in their field is not wise unless you have a financially-stable significant other or parental funding. Of course, this is your choice to make, but be wary going into mounds of debt in a non-lucrative career field. This debt could end up limiting where you can even take a job in the future. Also be wary of going into masters programs to get into a phd program - I understand the logic but again is can lead to epic debt without any guarantees. The working world is not horrible and getting a couple of years of experience (esp if you're right out of school) may be a wonderful option rather than jumping into a masters program you don't really want to be in.


-Use this as a chance to build your network. If your letter writers or professors you know well enough are willing, get them to connect you with professors from other universities you might want to work with - this can turn into a real relationship. Otherwise, while talking to profs can help you decide where to apply at some level, from what I've been told talking/emailing with professors rarely if ever helps candidates towards acceptances. Maybe in different programs than I was applying to? But I was told outright by two students in the HPS bracket that cold emails are not helpful based on conversations with professors at top schools. I only chatted with two professors that I had connections to and this was very helpful. I sent two cold emails to professors I didn't have a strong connection to - one responded with a harsh email and the other was quite nice - but neither helped me with acceptances at those places. After that, and advice from several current students and professors, I stopped doing cold emails and focused on a good app.


-If you already have an offer and funding, use recruitment visits to learn more about the institution rather than to posture for future colleagues and advisers. You'll have the opportunity to have sit-downs and get advice from brilliant people that even grad students have trouble talking with later. Take advantage of it. Don't act like you're 100% sure on your life research agenda if you're not - this is a time to get feedback and learn from (often brilliant) potential advisers or co-authors down the line. I had some of my ideas critiqued and expanded upon in ways that could one day play into work I want to do. Also - many people will tell you, you're their future colleague. Most professors gave me very honest advice about my options. If you have the opportunity to do visits, go. These require a lot of time which is hard with a career (or a senior year) but worth it for figuring out your next 5-7 years.


-It's not always your fault - If you don't get into a particular school, don't blame it on your scores or ideas or even just "fit." I was told directly that a particular school rejected me (only or mainly?) since the faculty member they saw as the best fit wasn't taking on anyone this year or next - I only knew that based on a connection reaching out on my behalf. At another school I was accepted to, I was told directly by a professor (outside of my area of interest) that she'd happened to pull me out of the pile and thought I was a fantastic candidate and she didn't know how I was missed - but without her second look, I could have easily gotten a rejection there. There are things you don't know and often can't know - be okay with that. Also - I don't think 'fit' should be something to focus on as much as people seem to and if it is, there are too many factors for you to know ahead of time. I was told straight out by a professor I respect that I had the numbers and file to get into a top program, period; however, he warned me that there are never any guarantees based on on the supply and demand of spots so not to be let down if I didn't get in to the top places. It's not an equation - it's holistic and not necessarily fair - but you can't change the system so do you best to work with it.


-Be satisfied with your acceptances. Stanford was my biggest letdown (let's be honest, that's not a place you can plan to be accepted) esp for the combo of an amazing school in a great location. But in the long run, it's one school out of many great options. And rejections will sting no matter where you do and don't get in. In the end, regardless of what happens, this is not life or death.


-It's okay (and expected) to negotiate your funding if you have other offers. Yes you feel awkward - do it anyway. Also, put in an application to NSF if you can or any other grad fellowships - these can be hugely helpful for admits and guarantee better funding than many places offer.



Themes of my research interests evolve throughout the SOP. This is generally the layout, though obviously portions concise or lengthier based on word limits.

Paragraph 1 - Explicitly stated where I'm applying, exactly for what, and why it's ideal

Paragraph 2 - This is the experience that makes me useful (education) and how it left me with questions

Paragraph 3 - This is the experience that makes me useful and slightly unique (career)

Paragraph 4- Even with a career, this is how I've enhanced skills (esp methods) (sometimes this paragraph included methodologists I was interested in)

Paragraph 5- How my current research relates to what I want to do in the future (discussion of the immediate field and gaps, includes footnotes)

Paragraph 6- How I want to expand my research (discussion of related gaps in the field and how I want to address, includes footnotes)

Paragraph 7- Who I want to work with and what interests they fit with, what workshops/centers/etc the university offers that I'd fit with, and how their preparation would make me a great future TT prof and what I would do in the field at that stage

No anecdotes. If you have a perfect one, use it. Otherwise, make this about why you're qualified and why they're the best fit. I used footnotes because I've been immersed in the niche I'm interested in - I was told only do this if you can hold your own because pointing out gaps/interests this directly in reference to specific articles/authors is risky if you're not absolutely sure on what you're writing. It's okay to write out an SOP and then cut it down by 2/3 length to get what you need concisely.

Happy to provide more explicit advice on this in a PM.

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