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Accepted grad students: Could you share a piece of advice, a website, an advice article, or other piece of information that helped you the most when completing your applications?

 

I'll start: https://sites.google.com/site/gradappadvice/

This website, especially the application timeline page, helped me immensely

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Haha. No. They accept less than 40 people each cohort. You have no idea what you are talking about. Go back and crawl in your hole, no one needs your opinion.

Accepted grad students: Could you share a piece of advice, a website, an advice article, or other piece of information that helped you the most when completing your applications?   I'll start: https

Sometimes I think it is best to avoid outside sources for some application help. For basics things such as sending tests scores and deadlines you can look it up but when it comes to the fuzzy part of

This book on graduate admissions essays.  I'm an excellent writer, but writing an admissions essay (especially within 500-1000 words) was really difficult for me.  This book really helped break down what admissions committees wanted, and gave some pretty good sample essays.

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I've plugged this book recently, but it's a good one! The first couple of chapters deal with the application process and the author poses questions to think on thoroughly and deeply before and while pursuing grad school applications. I think that allotting time for such thinking exercises is worth doing, as it helps to develop a self-reflexive awareness/maturity that will come through in your apps:

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/93455

Know thyself! (And know what you're getting into...)

 

I found this blog to be helpful: http://science-professor.blogspot.ca/

She has whole sections on things like reference letters and grad school apps. Even though it's got a STEM bent, much of the advice is transferable. The most useful components, for me, highlight issues of etiquette. There is great insight here regarding how prospective students can be effective and considerate in their communication and requests (which, of course, bolsters one's rep and increases the likelihood that you will get responses/support/info from POIs)

This post, in particular, is a great example: http://science-professor.blogspot.ca/2011/10/writing-to-me-reprise.html

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This book on graduate admissions essays.  I'm an excellent writer, but writing an admissions essay (especially within 500-1000 words) was really difficult for me.  This book really helped break down what admissions committees wanted, and gave some pretty good sample essays.

 

I second that and also https://sites.google.com/site/gradappadvice/. Though as for the Asher book, I found that I liked everything about it except the essay samples, because I felt that most of them did not apply to how my field is structured and it pushed too hard to have a "hook" and personal story. It took me quite a while to realize it was ok to move away from that format and have the personal touches be in my research interests and the way I presented my scholarly work.

 

I also think this article, though geared specifically towards psychology applicants, is very helpful and many of the points it raises are relevant for everyone.

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Sometimes I think it is best to avoid outside sources for some application help. For basics things such as sending tests scores and deadlines you can look it up but when it comes to the fuzzy part of the application process I think you should do it your own way. When I was writing my personal statement I had looked at some writing samples from online sources and for the most part, I thought they were horrendous. I decided to write my personal statement exactly how I think a personal statement should look and added my own touches. I know many  of us think that people in the application process do not read or read in-depth personal statements but as soon as I got to the campus of the university I was admitted to the program coordinator told me how impressive part of my essay was and remembered almost exactly what I wrote. I think it helped me a lot to get in. Being that I am a social sciences field, I think it helped to think outside the box and be different. It helped leave an impression. 

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I haven't been accepted. But in my recent phone interview with my top choice POI, I was told that having the experience for independent research is what he finds to be the most important aspect of the application. He said that students who have done work specifically related to their graduate level research stand out, because they can jump right into their own research and don't need as much training.

 

He also made a very big point to talk about how I should start my SOP early on, and that I should make it very clear how my previous experience will benefit the program. He also talked about having a clear goal in mind for what kind of research I want to do, even if it's not a specific project.

 

I think for STEM fields that are very field-work centric, having a strong background stands out. It shows a previous focus in that area, as well as an ability to learn the required processes. He also noted that a demonstrated ability to work on independent projects in the field showed a lot of potential.

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The schools that I got accepted to thought I had a pretty compelling personal story where I explained why I wanted to do what I do, and also a good spirit of perseverance. My grades before my MA were...on sub-par...and test scores...well, I cirnge whenever I hear people complain about their "low" scores....

 

The Asher book helped me a lot though! I looked at it more for style and tips on how to start writing. Also, when writing to schools (they have an uncanny ability to weed out students that don't "fit) if you can't figure out something awesome to say about the school or the professors you want to work with (where they might REALLY be exceptional but not relatable to you and you KNOW it) then that is not a good fit for you. If only I had written my "fit" paragraph earlier, then that would spared me lots of grief over spending money on sending my GRE scores lol

 

I also wrote my SOP first, in my own style of writing, before sharpening it out to be sent to peers for review, and professors for recommendation letters, and then the schools I applied.

 

I was very straightforward in my SOP also. That is, one of my peers who read my SOP thought it translated well into who I was as a person and seemed "real". I am mentioning that because I heard it a couple of times from my peer reviewers and professors.

Edited by iampheng
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What was most helpful for me was having a supportive MA cohort and adviser, but each was supportive in a different way. My fellow students could commiserate (three others were applying with me), while my adviser had a firm hand. I could freak out with my classmates, and then it wasn't so bad when my adviser was doling out the tough love.

 

So I think my advice would be to foster strong relationships with your cohort. I was relieved that my relationships with them never got competitive or adversarial. We all had different focuses, so that helped. We weren't best friends, but we all agreed early on that we would get more out of our classes if we supported each other, helped each other out and pushed each other in a positive way to be better. They were a great sounding board. We ran our SOP's past each other, checked CVs for typos, and did general application troubleshooting together. When the application process got absolutely insane, we dragged each other out to dinner, or a movie, or a round of drinks and talked some sense back into each other. It was great to have someone who understood the process. Family and friends are great, but unless they've been there, they can be somewhat unhelpful (hearing "don't worry, you'll get in somewhere" just got maddening). My cohort knew what I was going through. Instead of saying, "don't worry" they would just pour you another drink and say "yep, this process sucks." I needed that. 

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Two slightly unconventional resources that I used:

 

1) The Princeton Review Vocab Minute podcast.  When I was studying for the GRE, I downloaded all of the senior level podcasts, and played them on a loop at work, in the car, etc.  They're totally silly, but I found them helpful!

 

2) Nanowrimo. I was behind on my SOP and other application materials, and so I treated Nanowrimo as my own personal application writing challenge last year.  I joined the forums, tracked my word count (as best I could), and most importantly, I adopted the Nanowrimo philosophy of "just write."  Now, I obviously spent a lot of time editing and revising as the month went on and before I submitted the apps, but in the beginning it was really helpful for me to shut off my internal editor and just write.  This let me be productive and actually get several different ideas and potential tactics for my SOP down on paper, and it encouraged me to get over the hump of "but where do I start?"  Instead of fretting over the exact right words, I just wrote down everything that came into my head.  Then, once I had some material written, I went back and started thinking about what worked and what didn't, and how to shape it all into a cohesive SOP (actually, several cohesive SOPs -- one advantage of this system was that I had extra ideas and material for SOPs that had different requirements).  I did the same thing with "diversity essays" and other application materials.  The best Nanowrimo advice I got was: don't fall into the trap of believing that you can produce a perfect first draft if you just work slowly enough.  Just write -- edit later.

Edited by Angua
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The GRE study guide. I had to learn how to take the test. There is a method. William Zinnser's On Writing Well. Not SOP oriented, but it has good advice for writing samples, and writing, period. The articles that the faculty at the schools I was interested had published. I was able to eliminate schools based on those articles, and then focus my SOP and tune my writing sample. I wasn't looking for a single professor of interest, but at least five who had interests and experience relevant to my interests and plans. It helped me tailor the SOP for the department, rather than a single person. I did not contact the departments I applied to, aside from the application process. I applied to two programs (low on funds) and got into one of them, the one I preferred. I didn't read books or guides and didn't find this place until after the application deadlines had passed and I was looking for general info on when I could expect to hear from them. I didn't use any application guidebooks. I used my MA faculty.

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Accepted grad students: Could you share a piece of advice, a website, an advice article, or other piece of information that helped you the most when completing your applications?

 

I'll start: https://sites.google.com/site/gradappadvice/

This website, especially the application timeline page, helped me immensely

 

I had participated in a summer research program between my third and fourth years as an undergraduate. Participants in this program got to hear a lot of comments from graduate students. I also got to work for the professor who probably would have been on my dissertation committee had I stayed at the same institution for graduate school. The latter experience taught me that going somewhere else was probably a good idea. The chalk talk provided an incredible amount of useful information about the application process as well as being a graduate student. (Many of the teaching points did not sink until much later.)

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SOP is the deal maker for me. Along with Letters of Recommendation.

A SOP is a personal piece of writing. I wrote mine based on what people said worked for them and in the end the morale is that the SOP should be the fairest reflection on what you are, how you came to be interested in your field and why a particular is the perfect one for you.

Last winter I had a sort of trial application season. I was roundly rejected and made all the possible mistakes I could make. For the Spring 2014 season, I put a lot more effort in my SOP and LORs. My qualifications were otherwise unchanged and I got an offer of admission this time. So I can tell that this is what made a real difference.

My best advice is to really spend time on your SOP and make it clear for the admission committee that your decision to pursue graduate studies was informed and the result of mature thinking.

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Definitely talk to your lab head (granted you trust his/her opinion). Also, graduate students and postdocs in your lab can be very helpful since they probably went through it recently. For my application essays (which some schools do actually consider an important component of the application), I had a lot of help from people from a college writing center, which actually helped immensely.

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Sometimes I think it is best to avoid outside sources for some application help. For basics things such as sending tests scores and deadlines you can look it up but when it comes to the fuzzy part of the application process I think you should do it your own way. When I was writing my personal statement I had looked at some writing samples from online sources and for the most part, I thought they were horrendous. I decided to write my personal statement exactly how I think a personal statement should look and added my own touches. I know many  of us think that people in the application process do not read or read in-depth personal statements but as soon as I got to the campus of the university I was admitted to the program coordinator told me how impressive part of my essay was and remembered almost exactly what I wrote. I think it helped me a lot to get in. Being that I am a social sciences field, I think it helped to think outside the box and be different. It helped leave an impression. 

This has been my dilemma so far. I don't want to sound like a lunatic but I don't want to sound canned either.

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I've been saying this in a few other places here, but it helped me immensely to free-write the SOP and the personal statement without trying to edit or perfect it as I wrote it. It was literally like this (just as an example): "I really want to talk about apples. So...I'm going to write about apples and see where that takes me." (Silly hypo but you get the idea of how simple the approach was, which I think is the beauty of it.)

 

Also, I'm someone who almost never requests peer review of my writing, but I decided to have both essays edited by others. Thank goodness because their eyes caught things I wouldn't have and I think the end results were much better for it.

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For me...

  • Independent research experience, and being able to speak about it/answer questions in detail
  • A strong personal statement that tells a compelling story
  • LOR writers who can speak about you as an individual, not just you as an applicant
  • Enthusiasm. They want people who are excited about the field, and most applicants are too busy worrying about being professional, and forget this

And I couldn't agree more with the previous poster about getting others to edit your SOP.

 

Best of luck to everyone!

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For the GRE, Magoosh was an invaluable resource.  I studied vocabulary intently by writing short stories using new words daily. I used Magoosh for everything else and was able to bring my GRE from shit in practice tests to less-shit (165/160).  

 

For the SOP, just reading, mostly non-fiction.  I thought really thought deeply about what the evaluators might see on the other side.  For example, they have my resume, so there's really no point in re-living my life in the SOP (especially if its only 500-600 words).  As a more unconventional applicant, I didn't want to bore the admissions panel with the same tired format.  

 

Some observations over the course of writing the various SOPs and then reading lots online:

1. Write drunk, edit sober

2. If you have an incredible stroke of genius, write it down immediately (I have Evernote on my phone).

3. Don't fall too hard for your first concept.  I don't think a single sentence of my first draft made it into the final, even though I thought it was perfect at the time. 

4. Write a new SOP for each school based on the program.  After reading a lot of others' work, its becomes pretty obvious where they just plugged in classes, professors, and school names. 

5. Wait until the final week to submit, even if you are done early.  I submitted my first choice school (because the dead-line was earlier), had a stroke of genius, and completely re-wrote the concept for other schools.  

6.  If you hate your SOP the more you read it, its time for a re-write.  

7. Make your voice both confident and humble.  

8. If you did something notable, don't self-suck about it all the way through your essays.  Imagine your friends rolling their eyes hearing the same stories again and again.  

9. Don't try to make people feel sorry for you when they probably shouldn't.  If you fought through serious adversity to make it, good on you.  Having to take adderall is not adversity.  I'd like to be prescribed amphetamines too.    

10. Get people that know you to proofread and some who don't.  Be weary about over-edits, as they have the tendency to strip out uniqueness.

11. Don't be afraid to go unconventional, especially for fellowships with boring topics (Why do you want to get money from us?)

12. Let your freak flag fly, politely. 

13. Have a purpose in your statement of purpose.  

 

All things considered, I've only been notified for acceptance by one school so far (that had rolling admission).  Take this advice with a grain of salt.

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My letter writers are really moving mountains for me. I've gotten a lot of good advice throughout the application process for things on my end (SOP, communicating with POI, narrowing down schools, etc.) I feel my SOP is very strong, so I'm pulling my weight to load the bases (excuse the baseball references), with my references batting clean-up. I think it's essential that the people you choose to submit letters for you are people with whom you have a really good relationship. A great reference goes a long way, and if a POI who knows your letter writers happens to reach out and inquire further (probably not as uncommon as you might think), the ones with whom you have that relationship can really knock it out of the park. 

 

edit- 

My one piece of advice for SOP. Have your audience in mind when you're writing it. The best SOP is not the one with the best grammar, or even the one with the best story to tell. It's the one that tells it the best. 

Edited by Geologizer
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