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What helped your applications the most?

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1. Research Experience. I'm 21 but have been doing research for 5 years (was lucky enough to get full-time summer research positions in high school). So it's clear I know what research is and how to do it. Plus, it's obvious that I am in love with doing research which hopefully gave adcomms confidence that I would be able to stick it out through a PhD program. Also, because of all my research experience, I'm well read in my field and that came across in my SOPs.

 

2. Letters of Recommendation. My letters were all from professors I had done a substantial amount of research with, and I would be shocked if this didn't help my application. It also helps that two of my letter writers are very well-known in my field.

 

3. Statements of Purpose. I did open with an annoying little story about how I've loved doing research ever since I got this internship in high school, but I spent two sentences on that and then I was all business after that. Do not make the statement super personal!! My SOPs were all about research; I started by describing past projects and how they have shaped my current interests. Then I discussed how my current interests fit in with faculty at that particular institution. Then I talked about my career goals. SOPs should also be different for different schools, and I don't mean just editing the "fit" paragraph. I highlighted different experiences at different schools, and framed them differently also. For example, my POI at one department studies prediction, so I framed all of my past projects in terms of prediction and also talked about a project I did in a completely different field but that relates to prediction. My POI at another department is more theoretical, so I played up the theory side of my projects in that SOP.

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I am just getting started with the entire process. I will be visiting my top 2 choices next. I will be applying for fall admission for next year. Just wanted to say that this entire thread has been extremely insightful and full of advice. can any one recommend a good way or a way to go about finding or speaking with a poi? is there a certain strategy to it all? thanks everyone.

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- Taking a year off to work on my PhD applications - what topic, which Profs, why grad school - helped tremendously. I could have assembled all documents while doing my Master's, but it would not have been as strong. Considering that this is a step that will affect your whole career, doing it to the best of your ability is essential.

- Giving LORs-writers a complete package: papers I wrote for them with their comments, SOP, CV, list of deadlines

- Strong sample of writing which engages with current scholarship, major questions in the field and cites Prof(s) with whom I applied to work

- Diverse professional background relevant to the field, major scholarships won in the past, independent project

 

Result: got into #1 school in my field

 

(I also had a 99th-percentile GRE, but it appears that nobody actually looks at that in the humanities, so I would not list that as something that helped, although who knows - this is all just my own feelings either way)

 

I am just getting started with the entire process. I will be visiting my top 2 choices next. I will be applying for fall admission for next year. Just wanted to say that this entire thread has been extremely insightful and full of advice. can any one recommend a good way or a way to go about finding or speaking with a poi? is there a certain strategy to it all? thanks everyone.

 

I wrote emails to all prospective POIs praising their work and asking if they will be accepting students (you don't wanna waste money and energy applying to a program where they won't be accepting anyone, right?). All wrote back, some offered to skype. If you can visit, sit on a public lecture and ask some smart questions - even better!

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Incredibly strong letters of recommendation from two well known professors in my field, plus a third letter from a well known professor in computer science that showed that I was very skilled in interdisciplinary work. I gave my letter writers sample essays and told them some things I'd like for them to highlight. 

I also had 5 conference presentations, a paper, an REU, and and international research internship, which showed that I was involved in the process of communicating science nationally and internationally.

I applied for the NSF-GRFP, which kept me very up-to-date with the current problems in my field which I definitely hit on in my personal statement (problems that I was interested in addressing) and interviews. 

Finally, I was very specific about which professors I wanted to work for, what types of projects I would work on, and how my skill set already fit into those niche areas. 

Be specific in your writing. Go through and eliminate any unnecessary words so that you can talk about the science in the most thorough and insightful way possible (though nobody really cares about your methods, unless you used a niche instrument that will be critical for the project you propose in your personal statement).

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Having strong LORs and acing the interview. I feel like above a certain threshold your GRE scores won't matter 

 

I dedicated my time for exam studying (piece of cake) and attending lectures to my research and got some fantastic results. This helped tremendously during interviews because at this point 1. You already know that you're in love with your research (or not, in that case you need to figure out your interest because this is the most important part) and it's really easy for POIs to tell if you're genuinely interested!  2. There's no need to panic or feel like there's nothing to say because you already know everything no matter how hard they grill you. 3. In my field of study, there're always pathways shared in different topics of research and I try to relate mine to the research of my interviewer 

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It's hard to say what exactly got me in, but if I were going to try to help someone shooting for humanities PhD programs, what seemed to work for me was:

 

- I built relationships with professors during undergrad. This is the single biggest thing that I think helped me get into grad school. When I found a professor I liked, I tried to take multiple classes with them so that they could get to know my work and style. I did a summer abroad intensive with one prof. I was a paid reader for another prof. I stayed in touch with other professors and asked questions about their subjects when it was relevant. These professors got to know me and my work pretty well, and I'm sure my letters were much stronger for it. The power of this goes beyond letters though - these professors were instrumental in setting up job opportunities for me that led to paid work in my field, which I think was huge for my applications. 

 

- Write a thesis. At my undergrad, a thesis was not required, but could be arranged as an independent honors project. If I hadn't done one of these, I'd have been stuck without any writing samples. Granted, I don't think my thesis was great and it required a ton of reworking and editing before I used it as a writing sample. But it was hugely helpful that I had formulated an idea for it and done a lot of research for it as an undergrad student, and I think the fact that I did one when it wasn't required showed some commitment.

 

- Be succinct in your writing sample. I'm sure there are many schools of thought on this, but I kept mine straightforward and to the point. I talked about my area of interest, explained my prior experience and why it prepared me well for doctoral study, and discussed why the schools I was applying to (and the POI at each school) made sense for my goals. I figured committees don't have much time for each app, so I tried to keep my statement on point and free of superfluous info (no irrelevant stuff about my path, why I like my field, blah, blah, blah - I tried to frame my interests within the current trends of scholarship in my field).  

 

- GRE wise, I found the (free) Magoosh GRE vocab app to be good for memorizing dictionary definitions and giving me extra confidence on the verbal section. I did not do well on the math, but I think having a strong verbal score (96th percentile) at least kept me in the running. Obviously this advice is specific to humanities programs, which don't put much weight on math. I just knew I needed to do well on verbal, and I found that having a large arsenal of definitions memorized help me be confident on the test. 

 

- Avoid over-saturated topics/have slightly unusual interests. Obviously you can't really choose this if you just happen to love something popular... but if you're trying to decide to apply to study one topic versus another, and you don't feel strongly either way, you're probably more likely to get in studying the less popular one and be more likely to have something interesting and new to say about it. You're also probably more likely to get into a better program or work with a more senior scholar in the field if the field you choose is a little less popular. In my field, this means that you will probably have better luck getting into a top program if you're studying 13th century Japanese scroll paintings than Andy Warhol. Not saying you should choose your field based on this, but you might have an opportunity to stand out more if your interests tend toward a less trendy topic. 

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Are POIs a much more important thing for applicants to STEM programs? I was actually advised not to reach out to any professors in the programs I'm applying to in political science by a professor at Yale. That said, I still plan to name 2-3 professors that I'd like to work with at each program I apply to.

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On 10/31/2015, 10:03:25, noumenope said:

Are POIs a much more important thing for applicants to STEM programs? I was actually advised not to reach out to any professors in the programs I'm applying to in political science by a professor at Yale. That said, I still plan to name 2-3 professors that I'd like to work with at each program I apply to.

Having several relevant POIs is important in every field. Whether it's important to reach out to them before applying varies by field, so you'd need to ask about what's done in yours. It's generally less important in fields where you're admitted to the department as a whole, as opposed to directly into someone's lab where you're paid out of their grant. But I'm sure there are also Humanities/Social Science programs where you need to have faculty's support before applying, or at least where it would be much harder to get into the program without it. So, short answer is, it depends.

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For myself personally, I knew I wanted to work with a specific PI and I was also a fan of the of school I am attending now. When applying to graduate school, you should always convey that you are passionate about the field in which you have chosen. It really gives the admissions committee a much better view of you!

 

Ph.D. student in Theoretical and Computational Biophysics/Chemistry

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On 6/3/2013 at 10:56 PM, dat_nerd said:

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

Mostly, just spending a lot of time in my professors office during office hours getting help with my personal statement/statement of purpose and securing those LORs

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Having done a lot of community work is what helped me the most throughout my studies. Also, I've built good relationships with my professors during my undergrad.

Edited by Adelaide9216

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On 4/21/2015 at 1:39 AM, brown_eyed_girl said:

- I built relationships with professors during undergrad. This is the single biggest thing that I think helped me get into grad school. When I found a professor I liked, I tried to take multiple classes with them so that they could get to know my work and style. I did a summer abroad intensive with one prof. I was a paid reader for another prof. I stayed in touch with other professors and asked questions about their subjects when it was relevant. These professors got to know me and my work pretty well, and I'm sure my letters were much stronger for it. The power of this goes beyond letters though - these professors were instrumental in setting up job opportunities for me that led to paid work in my field, which I think was huge for my applications. 

 

- Write a thesis. At my undergrad, a thesis was not required, but could be arranged as an independent honors project. If I hadn't done one of these, I'd have been stuck without any writing samples. Granted, I don't think my thesis was great and it required a ton of reworking and editing before I used it as a writing sample. But it was hugely helpful that I had formulated an idea for it and done a lot of research for it as an undergrad student, and I think the fact that I did one when it wasn't required showed some commitment.

These two things were huge for me, too. Building relationships with professors is essential. I knew exactly who I was going to ask for letters as soon as I made the decision to apply because there were a handful of professors I'd spent a lot of time with and who knew me and my work well. It also helped open some doors for me. I was able to intern at a museum for a few months because a professor notified me of the opportunity. I was able to work with another professor on a large project and TA a handful of classes for him. I think those experiences helped my application stand out a bit. It definitely helps to get to know professors, both because their letters will be stronger if they know you and your work well, and because they might be able to direct you towards opportunities you wouldn't have otherwise.

Writing a thesis was also incredibly helpful. I was in the same boat where my undergrad didn't require it, but it could be done through a departmental honors program. Mine ended up being longer than what was permissible for a writing sample, but having a document that required extensive use of primary sources and that had been read and critiqued by different people multiple times was great. Instead of having to start from scratch, I just had to condense and fine tune my thesis. It also helped in that it was another opportunity to work closely with specific professors. Both my primary advisor and second reader were able to get to know my work better through helping me develop my thesis and I'm sure my letters were stronger because of it.

I also think taking a year off was a good decision. My second reader for my thesis strongly advised me to not apply to start a PhD straight out of undergrad and told me she'd be a little bit upset if I did end up going straight through. At first, I wasn't thrilled about that. I took a long time getting through undergrad. I had it in my head that I was already behind and I didn't want to waste another year and fall even further behind where I thought I should be. However, other professors also said they thought taking a year off was a good idea, and I ended up taking their advice. I'm really glad I did. I'm grateful to have been able to work on applications without having to worry about classes. I also think I was a bit more burned out than I realized by the time I finished undergrad and taking a year off means I'll be a bit fresher when I do start grad school. It's also a lot to think about. It's also really nice to be able to visit schools without having to worry about missing class and trying to stay on top of work while traveling. Visits are going to take up eight week days in March. I really don't think I would have been able to swing missing eight days of class and I probably would have had to make a decision without getting the chance to see at least one school I'm considering. It also gave me more flexibility when a professor wanted to arrange a phone conversation. If you think you're going to have to interview or even just arrange conversations with professors as part of the application process, it's great not to have to work around a class schedule. In general, just having more free time during the day has been really helpful.

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Statement of Purpose: It goes without saying that this should be authentic and personal. I decided not to use any outside sources for help (besides friends for slight edits) and I believe that was greatly to my advantage. My advice is to focus on tying in as many experiences as possible, even if they don't seem entirely applicable to your program at first. Your diversity is your greatest strength, so if you spent months or years working, volunteering, doing research, etc., I think there is a place for it in your statement.

The experiences that I mentioned came from a wide variety of backgrounds--physics research, volunteering on an organic farm, an environmental fellowship in Japan, a neurology internship at MGH, teaching English for a year--yet they came together as a very cohesive public health statement that helped me get admitted to all my top choices. Ask yourself what it was that motivated you to take those sort of positions, and you will probably find that it is the same motivation you have for your field of choice.

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POI happened to know one of the professor who wrote my recommendation. I think that made all the difference. (Email your POIs !!!)

Edited by cmykrgb

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Most applicants jumped through the same hoops you did when you were in undergrad. They want to get in too, so they did research, they got in good with their letter-writers, they studied for their GRE. Every applicant will appear as a list of accomplishments to the committee.

The SOP is where you show that it is not just a list of hoops you jumped through. Talk about every notable experience in your SOP in a way that ties it into the program of study. I went to a rural small liberal arts college, I wasn't going to be able to go toe-to-toe with most other applicants in published papers, research opportunities, etc. And so I took my small and subjectively less impressive experiences but talked about them with such enthusiasm that I made it clear that they were important and they did make me a better someday-dietitian. I went through my resume and the mission statement of the program and found ways to talk about every extracurricular, job, shadowing experience, etc. that I had in a way that related to the goals of the program.

Use your SOP to force them to see how amazing your experiences were, because they may look ho-hum among the competition if you do not.

Runner-up tip: When asking for LORs I provided each writer with a 1.5 page letter outlining my accomplishments and my goals. I received feedback from all of them that knowing more about what drove me personally and what I'd been doing at the school outside of their view helped them write stronger letters for me. Help your LORs, it will probably result in stronger (and hopefully more punctual) letters.

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My undergraduate major.  It's the only thing that made me stand out.  I applied for a graduate program that has a different focus than my undergrad major/research.  The PI that I was interested in was specifically interested in what I was.  Most of the other applicants fit the program description well, and so I stood out as an applicant.  I'm convinced that's the only reason I got accepted.  So don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone/previous research fields!

But other than that, a strong SOP as most have stated before me!  And experience such as research/internships!

Edited by shikkui

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For Cognitive Psychology programs:

This is what helped me gain acceptance despite a relatively empty application. Others may have had differing experiences - read what is most relevant to your application profile.

What worked for me was demonstrating enthusiasm and a definite plan in line with the research that I would be potentially conducting at a school (In my statement of purpose and interviews). What was also vital was the stellar recommendation the professor of my current lab gave me when my PoI inquired further into me. I cannot stress how important your letters of recommendation will be, as they will be what sets you apart from other applicants if the rest of your application does not do so already.
So:

1. Show enthusiasm and fit for the type of research done by the professor/department you look to get into. This requires you to read into the literature they publish, and understand how to demonstrate that your experience fits, or has otherwise helped you develop a basis for interest in that field. Demonstrate in your statement of purpose by showing your fit instead of telling it, and demonstrating your strong desire to be a part of the program and school.

2. Develop strong relationships with your professors, especially one with the professor of your lab if you are in one. Do NOT let this be the intimidating and difficult part of your application. Personally I am an incredibly anti-social and awkward person. My friends could describe me as a hermit. Compensate for whatever you lack in by gaining a passion/drive/determination in what you potentially don't lack in. I lack in good social skills, and wouldn't know where to start in talking to a professor; what I did instead was focus on the areas of research or topics in class that I found myself interested in. I found my awkwardness and anxiety tended to disappear when I focused on my own interests instead of worrying about what to say next. Do what works for you, but either demonstrate your enthusiasm, talent, or willingness to participate to your professors. For example, if you have a course with a professor you are seeking a recommendation from, raise your hand, participate, ask about things you are genuinely interested in. I should also note that if you are a particularly nervous person (and awful at public speaking and interviewing like I am), you should practice what you want to say in an interview or to a professor. This sounds disingenuous, and robotic, but what I do not mean is to memorize a script. A conversation will never flow like a script. I recommend preparing for the types of questions and possible directions your conversation will go in. Create large, blanket questions that a professor could ask (What are your research interests?), and then use your potential answers to these questions as a basis to answer more specific questions (What do you hope to achieve in my lab? Why are you interested in working in my lab/department/program?). For me, being nervous causes me to blank out on my initial discussion points. Memorizing these basic starting points for answers helped me to demonstrate that I was well-versed in my prior areas of research and my career aspirations.

Sorry that was so long, I just wanted to try and share with people who may be in a position like me what worked for me! 

My qualifications were very much lacking. I do not have a thesis done, any papers published, and only one experience with only one year including this semester.

Here's how my application looked:
GPA: 3.24
GRE: 165 (95%), 155 (59%), 5 (93%)
1 year of relevant experience in a lab (no papers published).
Relevant course experience.

What set my application apart was my fit for the programs and the recommendations I managed to secure.

Please, if you have further questions, ask me! I am by no means an expert, but I will try and help people with what limited experience I have.

Edited by OpenMindKim

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The biggest advantage I had was the guidance and support of academics in my intended field. In addition to writing what were apparently very strong letters of rec (I was told by two professors in one program that they expected me to "walk on water" based on the strengths of my letters), professors in my old master's program provided me with as much assistance as I needed during all stages of the application process. It helps a lot to demystify the application process when you can ask someone who actually sits on an admissions committee in your intended field about your application questions. My field is fairly small, so it's not super easy to find application advice that actually applies. Having the support of faculty in my old master's program made all the difference. 

 

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On 28 janvier 2017 at 11:49 PM, Adelaide9216 said:

Having done a lot of community work is what helped me the most throughout my studies. Also, I've built good relationships with my professors during my undergrad.

Also, I would say having a clear idea of what I wanted to do as a research project. I began working on my research proposal in June when the deadline for admission was in mid-December. I got a lot of feedback from upper year graduate students in social sciences and from my professor. It even secured me funding to have been able to do this so early and to really have time to think about it. 

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Demonstrating language aptitude for my research area; I was near enough flat-out told this was a key strength of my application. Not relevant for everyone, but certainly essential for many folks in humanities or area studies.

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This is very specific to creative writing, but I'll mention it anyway since I didn't see anyone else online doing this.

I can't say for sure, but I think my approach to my SOP helped. I've never been published don't have much relevant work experience, so I was nervous about having an SOP that was two paragraphs long. Instead of going the "way too personal" route, I spent more time on my creative goals and discussed how my portfolio reflected them. I wrote a short analysis of one of the stories I submitted, explaining what I felt the "moral" of my story was. I think this demonstrated that I was a thoughtful writer capable of providing decent feedback.

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i have not submitted but my SoP has become my baby for the past month or two. 

I think what helped me most is taking the time to write it over a month or so rather than try to write it in a week. 

My process was that I spent the beginning of summer drafting it. This is back in May or so of this year. I drafted it re-read it and thought it was good. I let it sit for a month before returning to it. Then mid-summer I spent more time on it, every morning at work I would read and tweak things. I looked at helpful tips on this forum and on the internet which helped me add things and remove things. I spent a deal of time re-reading and tackling one paragraph at a time. Afterwards when I had my draft finalized by myself, I then sent it to 4 friends who were in PhD programs and they helped tweak the flow. I then sent to my master's program director (already graduated from that school) to have him look it over and by that time it was tweaked to what I thought best possible. He then added a few minor changes and said it was really good. I created a final draft and sent it to a final person I thought would be most helpful and they read it over and said it was pretty solid with only 2 comments. 

I think its best if you have people read over your SoP, but choose and time it wisely! you don't want your previous professor to read your very first draft! I had my PhD friends do that to untangle most of the mess. Choose 2 or 3 people to read your final draft. When I say final I'm talking this is the draft you are ready to send to admissions. Spending time on your SoP I think for me was most important because in the short time frame (summer) I had, there was little I could do to further strengthen my profile. Now I have a final draft, and I only need to tweak minor things as I send to different schools. 

Oh and i left out all personal information, no story telling, none of that. just cut right into the experience. I had a paragraph on my first draft with some storytelling but then cut it down to 2 sentences then just cut it out altogether. 

Edited by Bak3rm3
last sentence

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Generally speaking, having any evidence of being able to conduct research is always a positive thing (lab experience, publication, thesis, etc)

But what really helped me is reading POI papers, his/her colleagues and knowing the top papers and scholars in their sub-field will get you a long way. 

I was fortunate to get three interviews scheduled and I did a literature review for all three and being able to articulate and point to specific papers, the problems they are trying to solve and possibly consider future direction (even on surface level) got me accepted.

 

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(Math PhD): I think two things helped me the most:

  1. Three strong recommenders (all in my target subfields) including senior thesis advisor. 
  2. 13 grad courses (12 math, 1 CS) + 1 grad-level reading course in 3 years, both in and around my desired subfields and in breadth.

Other notes:

  1. I wrote a relatively standard and boring SOP, but it clearly stated what I did before, what I want to do, who I want to do it with, and why I want to do it at [institution]
  2. The resource/opportunity/having smarter peers advantage of the elite schools is significant, but nowhere near insurmountable (undergrad outside top 50 -> admitted to top 5)

Advice:

  1. take as many grad courses as humanly possible
  2. Do research if possible, but don't sweat not having publications (none of the 4 people admitted to a top 5 department from my school have had one)
  3. don't bomb the subject GRE 
  4. build relationships with faculty early
  5. I don't believe emailing faculty is necessary

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On 6/8/2013 at 12:12 AM, juilletmercredi said:

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.

Fully agree with this! The book is priceless in helping to write a concise and impactful admissions essay

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