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What would you do differently?


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What did you do wrong this season? What do you wish you did better? What would you do different if you were going to apply again? If you didn't get in anywhere, what do you plan to change for next season?

 

Admittedly, I had a really successful application season -- that said, I still think there are things that I would have done differently. In fact, there are quite a few things. I'm super happy with where I'm going, but I also see all of the errors, hiccups, etc. that happened along the way. I thought it might be good to talk about those for future applicants.

 

  1. I wouldn't have applied to interdisciplinary programs (Berkeley Rhetoric, Stanford MLT, Chicago Committee on Social Thought, Brown MCM, Ohio State Comparative Studies, etc.) - while I love these programs, I honestly think my SOP was too poetry heavy to make an argument for many of these; and the programs that are open to poetry-stuff are a bit conservative in their aesthetic preferences for my taste. These are all awesome places fo study theory and continental philosophy - so, on that level, I was very attracted to them. One of my advisors said something like, "yeah, your SOP wasn't that great of a fit for programs like those" before I'd even heard back from any of them. I did get into OSU, but a member of the english department emailed me.
  2. I wish I'd had the funding information from the "Funding Packages" document - there are literally 5 programs that I would have replaced with others. Also, I would have applied to Rutgers and Columbia; I literally didn't apply to those programs because I was being lazy on the particular days that they were due - both are stellar programs with amazing funding, I'm sure knowing the funding packages would have motivated me to push myself past my laziness in order to get those applications in.
  3. I should have taken the subject test. I didn't take it, and when I decided that I should take it because I found a couple of programs that I really wanted to apply to that required it, it was too late. I also only studied for 3 days for the GRE - my score was fine, but I wish I'd looked over the AW section a bit more.
  4. I kind of rushed my SOP and writing sample. I wrote both of these two weeks before the first application was due. I think the SOP was especially solid, but I definitely was skeptical of my writing sample given that my advisor said that my writing is usually "more dynamic" after I showed it to her. I was really worried about that before the acceptances started arriving, I wish I'd applied with a writing sample I'd sat on longer and felt more confident about -- that said, I'd been working with the texts and ideas in the sample for a while, so the theoretical stuff in the sample was well milled. The production of the essay itself was rushed, which left me feeling uneasy about it. It worked out, but I felt really uneasy about the thing I wrote until acceptances started arriving.
  5. I'm sure there's other stuff - if only we could all have perfect application seasons!
Edited by bluecheese
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I think I would've been more realistic about my odds of getting into a PhD program. I have two degrees in history and very little coursework in literature, so this application season (0/5 on PhDs, 3/5 on MAs) has really made it clear that I should've focused on MAs. If I had, I might have more options available to me now.

 

Next round, I'm going to cast a wider net and take the Subject Test to try to make up for my non-literary background.

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Mine are pretty similar to yours, bluecheese. I would have not applied to some programs that I did apply to and would have applied to some other programs if I had known more about their funding packages and taken even more time to find programs that fit my interests really well. I think I'm ending up at the perfect place for me, but I wish every school I had applied to had been a near-perfect fit, and that definitely wasn't the case. I also would have worked harder on the fit paragraphs for my statement of purpose. With some schools, I felt like I was looking for a connection to talk about there, a good indication that some of the programs weren't right for me. If I had made sure I didn't apply to any program for which I couldn't give a really strong explanation of fit in my SOP, I may have made better application decisions in general, as well as had stronger, more detailed school-specific paragraphs in my SOP.

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Next round, I'm going to cast a wider net and take the Subject Test to try to make up for my non-literary background.

This is my second time, and I took the subject test this time but not the first time. I have a masters degree in another discipline, and I think a good score (just above 600, so not amazing) on the Lit test showed that I do know lit. I sent my score to all the programs (even though only 2/5 required it) and I went 4/5. Obviously I don't know if that really made a difference, but the lit test is something I'm glad I did the second time around.

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I think I would have focused more on fit.  I was well aware how competitive admission was and I applied to 15 programs!  If I had applied to only the 3 I thought were the best fit, I would have had the same 3 acceptances.  I wasn't accepted to any of my "safer" schools or to any of the schools I applied to because they are generally great, not because they are a great fit for what I do. I could have saved a lot of time and money.  Don't get me wrong I am thrilled to have been accepted, but I think part of me knew all along where I had the best chances of getting in and where I'd ultimately want to go.

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I would have worried less.

I like this. And I am going to steal it.

I am still waiting to hear from one program that I am very interested in. But I am done worrying. Thanks, Porridge, for the reminder that I can't control the outcome, but I can control how much I worry about it.

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I'm pretty happy with my application season. I applied to five programs I deemed good fits, got into one with great funding, am waitlisted at two others, and was rejected by two (one of which was a reach school because it was a top 20). After being out of academia for three years and applying to so few schools, I would be thrilled to have 2/5 or 3/5 acceptances to schools in locations I would love living and in programs I would love studying.

 

Sure, I could have studied more for the GRE, taken the subject test again, rewritten my SOP another dozen times, corresponded with (groveled at the feet of...?) more POIs, etc. But I'm not in the game of second guessing. I will at the very least be working towards my PhD this fall at one of several programs I deemed perfect for my interests and my life situation.

 

I would, however, have worried less and smiled more :) 

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I actually got into my top choice in the entire country, so I honestly can't complain (and I got into 9 places total) - I'm not trying to second guess. I do think it is useful to think about what might have been done better in terms of both future applicants (so they can see how things might go), and in terms of myself (I'll be applying for fellowships, grants, jobs, etc. in the upcoming years). In retrospect, like 5-10 of my applications were throw aways from the start (either because of fit, or because the funding package wasn't worth my time)--that's wasted energy that I could have put elsewhere. I don't regret it given that I got in someplace that's wonderful, but I do think it is worth reflecting on.

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Last year I applied to 18 schools, only the top programs, and no acceptances. This year, slightly humbled, I applied to 4 mid teir schools and 1 top, and was accepted by 3. Given that my application was much better this year, I would have applied to more top schools. I'm thrilled to have good options, but will always wonder if I might have gotten into some schools I didn't even try for this year. It's hard to gauge how strong one's application is apart from the process, but since I've had schools court me this year, I wonder if maybe I'd have been accepted to more had I tried. Part of the game I guess. Still, having only been rejected, I didn't know that my application this year was substantially better, and perhaps competitive in 'dream' schools... Guess I'll never know

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for me personally, my outcome this season was perfect so i wouldn't change a thing, subjectively speaking.

that being said, here's what I've realized objectively & in hindsight that could be helpful for future applicants:

Don't submit the same writing sample with all of your apps. I submitted what I felt (knew) was my strongest, most polished, most interesting, most enjoyable to read, & sexiest piece of writing, which also happens to be the most closely related to what I'd like my dissertation to be (I basically see it as a working chapter at this point). Yet when I compiled my list of programs where I planned to apply, I knew damned good & well that this particular piece of writing was only likely to appeal to one program in particular. So in hindsight, I more or less shot myself in the foot (had I failed to get in to the program I had my heart set on), which is something I have a proclivity for doing. Case in point: I only applied to two undergrad programs—the one I wanted, & the one that promised me a full ride if I applied by a set deadline... which I missed. Coincidence? Of course not. Do not follow my example. Pick your writing sample based on EACH program to which you apply.

Piggybacking on that: tailor each SOP to fit the writing sample you picked for each target; don't just adjust your fit paragraph.

Don't procrastinate. Have your SOP & CV nailed down at least a month before your first app deadlines so that you can provide your recommenders with copies to help them help you. This also will give you an ample cushion to incorporate any feedback they may have.

Last but certainly not least: Don't limit yourself geographically. I'm 30, getting hitched in the fall, & both my partner & I are well established in California. All of my family & the vast majority of his live here. I've lived outside of the state as well as outside of the country, & I'm confident that this is the place for me. My partner & I discussed the application process at length before I even commited to applying, & we mutually decided I should stick with California programs this round, & expand my reach to programs out of state if I were shut out (obviously only fully funded programs were under consideration regardless of location). My partner is incredibly supportive & realizes we may well have to move out of state once I hit the job market, but until then, he needs to be in a location where his industry (video games) have an established presence, which considerably limits us in terms of metro areas. I got in to my top choice, but I also realize that if I had extended my reach to include great fits out of state, I would have saved myself considerable stress. So yeah: cast a wider net than I did, & your sanity will thank you for it.

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This is my second time, and I took the subject test this time but not the first time. I have a masters degree in another discipline, and I think a good score (just above 600, so not amazing) on the Lit test showed that I do know lit. I sent my score to all the programs (even though only 2/5 required it) and I went 4/5. Obviously I don't know if that really made a difference, but the lit test is something I'm glad I did the second time around.

Do you feel that only the subject test that needed to be taken? I mean, is it the only thing that you made in the 2nd round to improve your application?

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Do you feel that only the subject test that needed to be taken? I mean, is it the only thing that you made in the 2nd round to improve your application?

 

Well, I had my master's degree the second time, so that in itself was a difference. It was in a different discipline, but I took 5/16 of my master's-level classes in the university's English department because my degree has a pretty liberal cross-registration policy.

 

I think another major difference between the first and the second time was having a very focused sense of my research interests and being able to articulate them much more clearly than I could straight out of undergrad. Also, the master's degree gave me a chance to further develop my language skills, and to get a couple publications.

 

Okay, so there were a lot of differences between the two application cycles, but I do think it was pretty important that I took several graduate-level English courses and did well on the subject test, at least to show that I'm serious about English as a discipline.

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Since this was my second time applying (my first was in 2008), I am going to focus on what I did right this time. 

  • I started writing my SoP in April. It went through hundreds of iterations. Since I allowed myself the time to revise, revise, revise, I was never stressed by deadlines. I was able to work on my SoP until I felt 100% confident. (Well, I was pretty confident about my statement. No PhD applicant can ever be 100% confident!)
  • I also started communicating with my former professors and letter writers early in the process. This didn't just help me get my materials in time, but it also allowed me to reconnect with my advisors and receive great feedback throughout the process. They read through my SoP drafts, helped me revise my application list, and calmed me down during the more stressful moments.
  • I contacted POI's beforehand. Now, I want to stress, I don't believe emailing professors necessarily helped me get accepted anywhere. BUT, communicating with them helped give me an idea about the culture of the program. Also, I found out early on who was retiring and who was staying. All of this helped me with my "fit paragraphs." 

And now, for the most important thing...

  • I selected only a handful of close friends, colleagues, and family members to notify about my plans to apply. That way, I felt supported, but I also didn't feel immense pressure to succeed. If I didn't get in, I wouldn't have to tell all the people-- just the people who I knew would love and support me regardless.
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  • I contacted POI's beforehand. Now, I want to stress, I don't believe emailing professors necessarily helped me get accepted anywhere. BUT, communicating with them helped give me an idea about the culture of the program. Also, I found out early on who was retiring and who was staying. All of this helped me with my "fit paragraphs." 

And now, for the most important thing...

  • I selected only a handful of close friends, colleagues, and family members to notify about my plans to apply. That way, I felt supported, but I also didn't feel immense pressure to succeed. If I didn't get in, I wouldn't have to tell all the people-- just the people who I knew would love and support me regardless.

 

I also contacted POIs, and I think it gave me a good sense of who I might enjoy working with. I wouldn't put too much stock in an email conversation, but if it's a positive experience then that's a good sign that they would be a supportive advisor.

 

Also, proflorax, I totally second that it's better to only tell your closest friends. Much less stressful to not have every random person in your class asking you about your application success!

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I'll be spending more time with my writing sample this year. There were a couple of really rough pages (a whole section of my paper was a new idea I started to develop in late November, NO GOOD) and I'll be glad to take the time to smooth them out. It also seems likely that I'll need to come up with a shorter sample for a couple of schools too. That should be fun.

My SOP is going to take a slightly different turn but I don't think it will be a radically different document. I have a better sense now of how I think I fit into this whole thing and I should be able to say it better. I think that's the important piece that was missing in a lot of cases.

I'm going to apply to some different schools, probably even actually fewer this time around. Of the ten, there are only four to which I am definitely reapplying. Given the amount of time I spent figuring out my List, I still don't feel like I quite nailed that aspect of it (and that's very much connected to the issues with my SOP).

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Honestly, I wouldn't worry too much about the sample length stuff. I sent 18 pages to NYU and was accepted (I think they have some absurdly low page count they ask for).

 

Also, I keep harping on this - but apply to MORE schools. You have three waitlists from awesome schools - if you'd applied slightly wider I'm SURE that you would have gotten an acceptance from a great school.

 

Also, are you totally counting your waitlists off as rejections? It seems a bit early to do that.

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On 3/20/2013 at 10:28 AM, bluecheese said:

Honestly, I wouldn't worry too much about the sample length stuff. I sent 18 pages to NYU and was accepted (I think they have some absurdly low page count they ask for).

 

Also, I keep harping on this - but apply to MORE schools. You have three waitlists from awesome schools - if you'd applied slightly wider I'm SURE that you would have gotten an acceptance from a great school.

 

Also, are you totally counting your waitlists off as rejections? It seems a bit early to do that.

I know you keep harping on that but I STILL don't think it's the right strategy for me. I did well enough this cycle to have some sense of what kind of schools I'm more likely to appeal to -- and which schools are more appealing to me. I would've picked Brandeis over Harvard if I'd gotten into both but the fact is, I was never going to get into Harvard because my work just doesn't make sense there. So I won't be applying to Harvard next time (or Brown, Cornell, and Berkeley for similar reasons.) Honestly, I'd almost be satisfied just applying to Brandeis, WashU, Vanderbilt, and Rutgers (the only rejection that actually hurt) but there're a couple I didn't apply to that, when the results started coming in, I felt a little pang of jealousy. It's incredibly likely though that there'll be more schools coming off the list than going on it.

I am. If something good happens, that's great! I'd go to any of the three! (I've also worked out an order of preference in the extremely unlikely event that I end up getting into more than one.) But I'm not getting my hopes up. I'm not taking reapplication seriously until at least the 15th but I have already started to strategize, yes, since we all seem to know what we would've done differently and, for me, that might just have real applications.

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That's understandable, for sure.

 

I would still look through everything in the top 50 (and especially the top 25 programs) to see if there are any other schools that you can make a reasonable argument for. It couldn't hurt.

 

And good luck with your waitlists - I hope you get one of them!

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I support bluecheese's suggestion, for what it is worth. There aren't that many film studies programs in the country at which I feel I'd have a really excellent fit (and, importantly, that are powerful enough to be a viable springboard to the kind of career I am aiming for). Yet, I applied to 13 programs this year, up from last year's 8. Now, of course my SOP and essay last year were quite bad, so that certainly didn't help my chances. This time, I've had a much better round, and one of the waitlist programs is one I did not apply to last year. 

 

I think it's a good idea to maximize spread and apply as widely as possible, while ensuring a reasonably good--if not amazing--fit. Ultimately, the adcom judges fit, not us. I'm not sure I'm a good fit at all, at one of my waitlist programs, but apparently they beg to differ!

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That's understandable, for sure.

 

I would still look through everything in the top 50 (and especially the top 25 programs) to see if there are any other schools that you can make a reasonable argument for. It couldn't hurt.

 

And good luck with your waitlists - I hope you get one of them!

Oh, of course I will still do that (again, yikes) and (to swagato) I also am one of the first to say that the adcomms judge fit better (they're working with better information after all) but I do think I can take some cues based on whether or not there are even faculty working on similar types of texts, whether or not there's someone doing political theory in the department at all, and whether or not it's the kind of place that would be open to me working closely with, say, a Shakespeare scholar or whoever.

I'm not disagreeing with either of you AT ALL and I have had full intentions at looking at all of the programs again but I'll be a lot bit more discriminating this time since I have a clearer idea of myself as an applicant. My mistake was NOT in applying to too few programs, but in applying to mostly the wrong ones with a sloppy writing sample. My original post, though, was in no means meant to be prescriptive (and neither is this one, my mistakes are almost certainly not everyone else's).

ETA; thanks for the advice and good wishes

Edited by girl who wears glasses
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Whenever I think about this, it drives me nuts, because I have no idea.  I have zero acceptances, but I still feel good about my application.

 

I was just coming off an MA program that I completely pwned, and had presented at several conferences and published a paper (with another in the pipeline). I had solid undergrad grades, my subject test went great, and while the regular GRE scores weren't stellar, they were fine (710/math/6.0). My writing sample was adapted from my MA dissertation, which won a prize against 100+ others. I researched schools ahead of time, picked the ones that seemed like good matches, and contacted professors with similar research interests.

 

I just chalk it up to a numbers game so that I don't tear my hair out.

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