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Dear 2015 Applicants, Here is What the 2014ers Learned This Year That Might Help You


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I saw a thread like this on another section of GradCafe and thought it was a wonderful idea. Let’s leave some advice to help out all of the candidates next year as they suffer through the PhD application process next year :) Everyone chime in with your ideas! 

 

What I’ve learned that I want to share:

  • Always submit a writing sample in your area of interest (or as close to it) as possible. While there are always exceptions to the rules, this is pretty much application suicide. Trust me--I learned the hard way.
  • Make friends with other awesome GradCafe-ers. For the most part, it’s a wonderfully supportive community who really understand what you are going through. And, for that matter, try to keep the community civil by not picking fights and taking things too personally. 
  • Know what you are getting into. Never walk into academia without your eyes open. The job market out there is atrocious (as many feeds on GradCafe will illustrate) and most of us can expect to spend the first decade of our career working as adjuncts. We’ll all be lucky if we land tenure-track positions. That being said, my personal advice (which many might disagree with) is to not let tough circumstances keep you from chasing your dreams. 
  • Most of us are squeamish in showing others our writing samples and statements of purpose. Don’t be. Have your professors, friends, colleagues, etc. edit them; double and triple check for errors; personalize your statement for each school; and, for the love of all things Harry Potter, ​make sure you mention the right school/professor names in each copy of your SoP. You’d be surprised how easy it is to look back and notice errors.
  • Apply to a wide range of schools because there really is no such thing as a “safety” school. Some folks will disagree with this, but my advice would be to not limit yourself to “top ranked” programs. Focus on schools with strong placement records that really are a great fit for you. And on that note...
  • Fit trumps everything. Remember that. This applies not only to your decisions about choosing the schools to which you want to apply, but also to the schools choices in picking their cohort. They need to be the right fit for you, but you also need to be the right fit for them. Most everyone who is applying to PhD programs has amazing scholarly credentials, a strong background in teaching/TAing, incredible letters of recommendation, etc. If someone’s area of interest is a better fit for the program. Remember that and don’t take the rejections personally. You still kick ass. 
Edited by Kamisha
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Take a list of questions with you.  There was a great thread on this back when I applied, and I took this and asked them of the DGS when meeting with her, grad students I met there, and some here with

I saw a thread like this on another section of GradCafe and thought it was a wonderful idea. Let’s leave some advice to help out all of the candidates next year as they suffer through the PhD applicat

I actually created an entirely new email address for my PhD applications so I wouldn't have to experience the stress of panicking with each new message. I highly recommend it.

Yeah, super accurate! I think the biggest thing that hurt my applications this year was my writing sample; it wasn't in my subfield. I had my advisors and several colleagues give me feedback, and granted, I felt it was the best writing sample I could give, but it was nowhere near 19th century British literature. 

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I just thought of another piece of advice: make sure you take the time to learn about the culture of a campus (i.e. how friendly it is, is it hyper competitive, what are faculty dynamics like, what extracurricular/social/professional development activities are available, etc.). Some schools have wonderful programs, but the culture just isn’t right for you. 

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Great thread idea.

 

My biggest piece of advice, for procrastinators like myself...

 

DON'T DO IT!!!!!!!

 

Do everything early. Write your SoP, send your transcripts, take and send out your GRE.  It all takes weeks longer than you think, even after it leaves your hands.  Inevitably someone not-you will lose something you sent. Someone lost my MA transcripts, which were in the *same* document as my undergrad ones, and I didn't find this out until after the deadline.  It didn't screw me over, but it made for multiple panic attacks and a lot of time spent on the phone.

 

So do stuff early, and save yourself the aneurisms that come later.

 

Otherwise, seconding the advice about getting over your insecurities and letting people read your SoP etc.  It helps.

 

Also on that note... once you submit to a school, just...don't read your SoP again.  It is rare that you can resubmit it, and there's just no point tormenting yourself with the mistakes you inevitably made.  In this case, better to live in happy ignorance.

 

Best of luck!  And if it's your second, or third, or even fourth time through, don't give up!  Good things can happen when you're least expecting it, from where you're least expecting it.  And you, whoever you are, rock.

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Also on that note... once you submit to a school, just...don't read your SoP again.  It is rare that you can resubmit it, and there's just no point tormenting yourself with the mistakes you inevitably made.  In this case, better to live in happy ignorance.

 

This isn't really true at all. Just about every place will allow for a resubmission of documents as long as it occurs fairly soon after the deadline.

 

Also, it's entirely up to you whether you want to keep fine-tuning your SOP/writing sample through the application season or not. Speaking anecdotally, I received my best responses from my later applications. I had continued working on both, making significant revisions to my sample. YMMV of course. 

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This isn't really true at all. Just about every place will allow for a resubmission of documents as long as it occurs fairly soon after the deadline.

 

Also, it's entirely up to you whether you want to keep fine-tuning your SOP/writing sample through the application season or not. Speaking anecdotally, I received my best responses from my later applications. I had continued working on both, making significant revisions to my sample. YMMV of course. 

 

Some schools are okay with it, some aren’t. My opinion is that it’s better to veer on the side of editing and perfecting ahead of time so that you don’t have to contact departments about resubmitting. 

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Ah, yes, let me amend my statement.  Mostly I meant, in like February, after you've submitted stuff and it's long past the deadlines, don't look at it again, unless you are using it for something else.

 

I can't count the number of times I've seen people post on here: "Just realized I sent in a SoP where I listed the wrong professor's name."  Once it's past the point of possible resubmission....you just don't want to know.

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I'm a 2013'er, but I'll throw in some quick tips:

  • Start early. Not just with the writing of the SoP and polishing of the writing sample, but also with the filling out the applications. Some will not send the recommendation form to your letter writers until you have submitted your application. 
  • Have a small, select support group that is informed of your plans. 
  • Make really fun plans in January, if you can. I went to Paris and Rome when the first programs started notifying, so I was physically unable to check my phone and email. Even if you can't swing a trip to Europe in January, have something fun planned to distract you: a camping trip, a conference, a project around the house. 
  • Unsubscribe from all frivolous email lists. Trust. 
  • Have folks read your SoP. Professors, friends, partners, etc. It's great to have people who really know you read it and tell you what you missed, and people who don't really know you read it and tell you what their impression of you is based solely on the SoP. 
  • Start putting aside money and vacation/personal time for application fees and travel. 
  • If you have a partner or dependent of any sort, start the conversation ASAP. Include them into your decision-making (by include, I mean include them in a way that feels natural for your relationship. It's up to you if they have any actually sway in your decision-making). Talk about priorities, compromises, acceptable sacrifices, the process, the lifestyle, and all of that as early as possible, and continue checking in throughout the whole process. 
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I agree with the starting early. EVERYTHING is going to take MUCH longer than you think it will. I started "early" and I was still scrambling for a few of the deadlines. I also support the unsub from frivolous emails suggestion. When decisions start coming out you are going to have a heart attack every time you get a new email. Do yourself a favor and take a break from the groupon/sales/advert type emails (or do a better job of filtering your email than i do). It will also make it easier for you to locate important messages coming from schools you're waiting on if your inbox is uncluttered. 

 

One thing that I didn't really think about that I wish I had was setting aside money for campus visits. I knew that if I got accepted someplace that I would visit the campus but I didn't think about logistics. Traveling to three campuses has set me back almost $1000. I'll get reimbursed for most of that but it would have been more convenient if I had planned for it.

 

Other things that come to mind:

  • limit who you tell about your phd apps. when decision time comes around you will get multiple questions, multiple times a day, from everyone you told. even though it's meant well it will drive you crazy.
  • do your best to prep and study for the gre but know that in some respects, you just can't study for it. do what you can and then let it be.
  • don't underestimate yourself. don't let anyone tell you not to apply somewhere that you want to. if you think you can present a compelling application then go for it.
  • be very meticulous with knowing the application requirements and deadlines for each school and program. I've seen a posts from people who got the deadline wrong, or didn't realize a program required the subject test. I made myself a cheat sheet and it helped me get everything in on time.
  • find people who have done this before. i made friends with the cohort before mine and they were INVALUABLE in terms of advice, encouragement, and anxiety suppression. they were able to give me current insight into several programs that i had interest in.
  • find people who are doing this right now. when we began the MA, everyone in my cohort planned to apply but when application time came around no one I spoke with frequently ended up applying. Thankfully I had all of the lovely gradcafe peoples but having some IRL compatriots would have been nice too.
  • contact current students. we talk a lot about contacting potential POIs on the forum but after a few campus visits I feel like the current PhD students are a better resource for all of the nitty gritty questions you'll have about the culture of the department and the flavor of the town. By all means, email a POI but also contact a current student, if you can.

that's all i can think of at the moment. Thanks Kamisha for starting this convo, I hope it helps everyone applying next season! :)

Edited by Nyctophile
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I actually created an entirely new email address for my PhD applications so I wouldn't have to experience the stress of panicking with each new message. I highly recommend it.

 

That's pretty genius.

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I'll probably repeat some things that have already been said, but here goes...

  • Be thorough in researching schools. You never know what hidden gems you might find. I think I looked at nearly every PhD granting English program in the US at some point or another as I researched schools. A couple of the ones that I ended up applying to are not really at the top of most lists, but they were pretty great fits for me.
  • To that end, I would say don't be constrained by the rankings. I know some people disagree about this, but I really do think there are great programs beyond the top 50 or 80 or whatever that can lead to amazing learning experiences and great opportunities in the future. My MA program is unranked, but it has been amazingly beneficial to me, and it has given me the tools I need to proceed in my studies.
  • Don't spend thousands of dollars prepping for the GRE. I know some people will disagree with this as well, but I really just don't think it's worth it, especially when there are SO many free materials available. I downloaded apps, podcasts, free materials from ETS and so on in my preparation. While my math score was still fairly abysmal, my english score was just about where I wanted to be, so I can't complain very much :P
  • To that end, there are so many examples of nearly everything you'll need from the SOP to the CV and so on available on the interwebs that can be useful. I kept stuff like that bookmarked so I could refer to it as I put my materials together.
  • Be honest with yourself about why you're applying to the schools you're applying to. And really think about whether the schools you're applying to will really fit your needs in the long run before you pay that application fee. When I took my GRE in September, there were some schools that I listed that I ultimately didn't end up applying to because I determined that though the particular programs were well ranked and full of talented scholars, they didn't ultimately have the interests that I needed. This isn't the worst thing ever, but it did cost me a little extra cash that I could've used later.
  • I will second or third (or whatever number it is by now) the point about using a sample that ties into your into your interests if at all possible. The two programs that I've been accepted to thus far both mentioned their interest in the subject matter of my sample.
  • I would also suggest strongly emphasizing whatever you're interested in via your SOP. I had a few different versions of my SOP, depending on the needs of the program, but I always tried to make sure my interests were clear and connected. My introductory paragraph included a quote related to my interested, I had a section that discussed some of the scholarly work I've done thus far in my area of interest, I had a section about a course idea in my area of interest, I had a section about a dissertation idea in my area of interest, and I talked about how I saw myself fitting into the department as it related to my area of interest. Basically, I tried to make it clear that I have a good idea of what I want to study and that I've put in the work to make sure that I'll have a mutually beneficial relationship with the program.
  • Read your SOP out loud. I didn't let anybody else read my SOP because I'm not especially into that sort of thing, but I did read it out loud to make sure it made sense and to check for errors.
  • If you're in a relationship/you have a family, be realistic about what you can do. Early on in the research process, I considered schools all over the country. While it would be great to move out to the west coast as I eventually want to do, it's just not really a feasible option for my fiance and myself right now. We'll get there eventually :)
  • Do something to make yourself feel good. I don't care if it's eating a fancy meal or buying yourself something nice or doing shots of Jack or whatever. Just find a way to keep your spirits up
  • You probably won't have enough money for all the things, but try to save what you can. This is especially important if you plan to apply to like 10+ schools. I only applied to six and the fees were plenty high. Being independently wealthy would be useful though...
  • Make sure you consider other things besides just the academics. I think it's important to not go to a place where you'll be miserable for half a decade. I know some people believe that you won't have time to worry about the other stuff because you should be so focused on the school work, but I don't think that's especially realistic. 
  • Even if you give your recommenders a list with due dates and such, sending them reminders is still a good life choice. Inevitably, somebody will lose the list and/or simply forget about an upcoming deadline.
  • Use GradCafe as a source of info and support, but try not to let it weigh you down (which may or may not be possible).
  • Trust yourself. You know what you're capable of and you know what's right for you.
  • Similarly, remember that what works for me, might not work for you and vice versa. So take everything with a grain of salt :D

Edit: This is way longer than I thought it would be...*shrugs*...

Edited by toasterazzi
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You guys are great! You're teachers who cannot stop finding opportunities to teach. I hope you find yourselves standing in the positions where you deserve to be. I am older and not necessarily wiser, but I respect you so much. Thank you for starting this thread and being who you are. Good luck to all of you!

Edited by pure titanium
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Regarding perspective: Contrary to what one might think, grad schools are NOT making admissions decisions primarily in terms of "Who are the very most talented students in the applicant pool?"

Rather, they ask themselves: "Which among these many highly-qualified applicants do we want to spend the next six years with?"

Ie, they need a specific reason to pick you, and that reason will usually look something like: "Professor X needs another PhD student, and of all the applicants in her area this year, this one sounds most interesting to her."

Or, to put it another way: The "objective strength" of your application (whatever that might mean) means relatively little in comparison to how interesting one or two professors view your application from the very subjective perspective of their own research interests.

And when you're accepted and you ask them why, don't be surprised if their reasons surprise you.

And lastly: IMO the single most helpful thing you can have in your application is a strong LOR from someone very famous and influential. Not to say you need this, of course. But it is the equivalent of a diplomatic passport.

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And lastly: IMO the single most helpful thing you can have in your application is a strong LOR from someone very famous and influential. Not to say you need this, of course. But it is the equivalent of a diplomatic passport.

 

I guess I won't disagree outright, since I am sure such a LOR could open doors and be incredibly influential, but to call it the "single most helpful thing" is a bit of an exaggeration imo. It's also not incredibly helpful except to those who are already in a position to obtain such a letter.

 

My biggest piece of advice: Worry about what's in your control, don't waste mental energy on what you cannot. Your SOP and WS are the two pieces of your application that you as an individual applicant have the biggest control over; they are also the two pieces of your application that will without a doubt make or break you as an applicant. Work on them like mad. Get as many people - professors you know and trust preferably - to look over them as possible. Be open to feedback without bending over to fit one person's standard. I'm a big procrastinator, but I had "finished" (but far from polished) versions of my writing sample and statement of purpose by the end of summer. I spent Sept - early Dec. revising those bad boys and it still didn't feel like enough time. I continued revising between applications, but unlike Swagato, there wasn't any noticeable correlation there, so yes YMMV does apply.

 

(Btw, during application season I made a separate folder for each and every school I applied to that included that school's SOP as well as my writing sample if that school required a certain formatting. The SOP would also be saved as [Firstname][Lastname].BrownSOP.pdf or something like that. Keep everything separate and double check the document after you've uploaded it to make sure it's the correct one. Bit of a PITA, but better than calling your dream school by the wrong name!)

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Start early and give yourself time to remedy errors should they arise.

 

This is elementary advice, but do follow-up and check your application's status to make sure all your materials have been received because schools make mistakes, too. I sent my GREs to Florida early, but they were never attached to my application. I had to get in touch with the department and ended up having to send the scores again and it's only because I left myself such a large window of time before the deadline that I was able to do so. Luckily, it ended up being worth the extra fuss.

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I guess I won't disagree outright, since I am sure such a LOR could open doors and be incredibly influential, but to call it the "single most helpful thing" is a bit of an exaggeration imo. It's also not incredibly helpful except to those who are already in a position to obtain such a letter.

 

My biggest piece of advice: Worry about what's in your control, don't waste mental energy on what you cannot. Your SOP and WS are the two pieces of your application that you as an individual applicant have the biggest control over; they are also the two pieces of your application that will without a doubt make or break you as an applicant. Work on them like mad. Get as many people - professors you know and trust preferably - to look over them as possible. Be open to feedback without bending over to fit one person's standard. I'm a big procrastinator, but I had "finished" (but far from polished) versions of my writing sample and statement of purpose by the end of summer. I spent Sept - early Dec. revising those bad boys and it still didn't feel like enough time. I continued revising between applications, but unlike Swagato, there wasn't any noticeable correlation there, so yes YMMV does apply.

 

(Btw, during application season I made a separate folder for each and every school I applied to that included that school's SOP as well as my writing sample if that school required a certain formatting. The SOP would also be saved as [Firstname][Lastname].BrownSOP.pdf or something like that. Keep everything separate and double check the document after you've uploaded it to make sure it's the correct one. Bit of a PITA, but better than calling your dream school by the wrong name!)

 

To be sure, if you don't have that kind of LOR, there's nothing you can do about it.  But I think you will find that those applicants who have the very highest percentage of acceptances to the most selective schools do have it, and IMO it's the single most advantageous thing you can have.  ---Again, it doesn't mean that you can't get into a very selective school without it, or that you should worry about it if you don't, since it's out of your control.  Just that those applicants with the very highest "batting average" by and large will.  It's a profession of networks and prestige.

 

As regards SOP and WS:  I think there's a temptation to overestimate the extent of one's control over them, which I'm sure sounds a bit odd.  Yes, only you have control over the words you put down.  But you don't have control over the reviewers who read them.  And a truly superior WS will not mean much to someone who is not interested in taking on a student whose subject matter or methodology is not of interest to them.  ---This is just speculation, of course, but if there were a way of measuring the "objective strength" of applications (whatever that might mean), I think we would find that most if not all schools accept "lesser" applicants they want to work with over the very strongest applicants whose work they don't feel the right affinity with.

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One more guess:  I imagine that the way the process works is something like this:  A small group of faculty do a first read of the applications, (i) filtering out some whose academic qualifications (by some measure, which no doubt varies from school to school) don't seem quite as strong as those of the best group of applicants and (ii) dividing the remainder into piles by subject matter.

 

After this "first cut," they send each pile to the faculty member(s) who specialize in that field, who, presumably on the basis of SOP and WS, then pick which ones they want to work with.

 

If there are more "want to work withs" than available slots in the program, the final phase will involve horse trading, bartering, & etc among the faculty to see who gets their favored applicants in.

 

Again, just a guess.

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If this is right, it suggests that there's a certain "popularity" element that perhaps cuts against the more or less strictly meritocratic grain that I think most of us initially approach the process with.  Ie, that grad school admissions may bear a certain unexpected similarity to fraternity and sorority "rush."

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To be sure, if you don't have that kind of LOR, there's nothing you can do about it.  But I think you will find that those applicants who have the very highest percentage of acceptances to the most selective schools do have it, and IMO it's the single most advantageous thing you can have.  ---Again, it doesn't mean that you can't get into a very selective school without it, or that you should worry about it if you don't, since it's out of your control.  Just that those applicants with the very highest "batting average" by and large will.  It's a profession of networks and prestige.

 

As regards SOP and WS:  I think there's a temptation to overestimate the extent of one's control over them, which I'm sure sounds a bit odd.  Yes, only you have control over the words you put down.  But you don't have control over the reviewers who read them.  And a truly superior WS will not mean much to someone who is not interested in taking on a student whose subject matter or methodology is not of interest to them.  ---This is just speculation, of course, but if there were a way of measuring the "objective strength" of applications (whatever that might mean), I think we would find that most if not all schools accept "lesser" applicants they want to work with over the very strongest applicants whose work they don't feel the right affinity with.

 

The point is that you'll get no returns on investing worry into whether your letter writers are "famous" enough or who your application reviewers will be. Whereas, channelling worry into one's SOP and WS can be and is - albeit to a limited to degree, sure - productive. But hey, I could be biased speaking as someone who had 0 famous faculty who wrote for me (only one of my letter writers was even tenured at the time), but worked like a dog on my SOP and WS and didn't do too badly during app season if I can say so myself (5 acceptances from Top 20 programs).

 

By "Worry about what's in your control," I mean exactly that. No, you don't have control over what happens to your writing after submission or what committees will think of it. But you do have control over what goes on the page while it's in your possession. There's no guarantee that extra investment in one's WS or SOP in and of itself will yield acceptances, but I can surely say that worrying over departmental rumors, prestige of letter writers*, and other applicants' metaphorical batting averages won't.

 

 

*Assuming one has already done all they can do to obtain a balance of solid faculty who can write you a good letter.

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If this is right, it suggests that there's a certain "popularity" element that perhaps cuts against the more or less strictly meritocratic grain that I think most of us initially approach the process with.  Ie, that grad school admissions may bear a certain unexpected similarity to fraternity and sorority "rush."

 

I just don't think this – that it's a popularity contest – or what you have said about the LORs are all that true, from what professors tell me about the process and from what I have been told by professors from the schools where I have been accepted. No one mentioned my recommenders to me, and I didn't have big names writing for me (I thought about it – I have a good enough relationship with two professors who are much bigger names at my MFA program – but in the end it was more important to have professors who could speak about my class role and my writing). 

 

I've posted this before: the only thing I heard from each school I was accepted to (3 of 4 English PhDs, 1 French PhD) is that they liked my writing sample and that it was evident that I had a project in mind (so the WS and the SOP). My GPA is fine but nothing special, and I never took the English GRE. 

 

To weave this into advice: know what you want to do (at least on a broad scale!) and use your SOP to show that you know the discourse. And submit a writing sample clearly in your interest area. 

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Well, it is interesting how many successful applicants are surprised when they learn why they were accepted, and how this differs from their own estimation of why they "should" have been.  ---There's a tendency on the part of successful people in all walks of life to extrapolate from the way they view the causes of their own success and suggest that the same will work for others, but it rarely works out this way for others, and may not even be a very good explanation for why they themselves were successful.

 

(Consider, for example, the case of google.  The founders are, of course, very successful people, and they viewed their success as primarily a function of how smart they are, i.e. smarter than just about everybody else.  Based on this self-analysis, they initially instructed their HR department to hire people just like them, to the extent possible:  People with high SAT scores, high IQ scores, high grades from brand name schools, etc.  Later, to their great surprise, they found out that this sort of person generally turned out not to be a particularly good employee, and they eventually they changed their hiring model to one based on more traditional predictors of employment success.  ---What this anecdote further suggests is that the reasons for the google founders' own success may also have been something other than their own sheer intelligence, though they may well not have come to this final conclusion quite yet.)

 

Depending on what sorority one may be rushing, it may be advisable to invest in a Coach bag rather than a Dooney & Burke, and a little research will disclose this.  And I'm suggesting something similar may apply in the grad school application context.

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I guess I'll have to ask for a little more specificity in what you're referring to as far as responses about people surprised about what was a key factor of their admission.

 

My only "surprise" - if you could call it that - was how immaterial parts of my application other than my SOP and WS were when it came to online and face-to-face discussion with faculty. Many faculty mentioned my WS topic or a particular area of interested mentioned in my SOP; nobody said anything about my alma mater, GRE scores, GPA, classes on my transcript, or even my letter writers. 

 

While I totally think a degree of cynicism is necessary in discussion of grad school applications and academia as a whole, likening it all to Greek rush is more than a little unfair and inaccurate. But considering the time of year, it's understandable. 

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To the contrary: It's not meant cynically at all. Let me explain.

Let's look at what you've said: First, you said that you worked really hard on your WS, polishing and polishing, implying that you thought it was particuarly good, and at least suggesting that it was better than other applicants', and that it was on this basis, its goodness, its being superior, that you believe you were accepted.

Second, you referenced the fact that professors you spoke with *mentioned* the SOP and WS when you spoke with them. Now, let me ask: Is this really the same as what you said first? Does it imply what you said first?

The question is: Did they say, "Gee, the quality of your work was clearly *superior* to those of other applicants, and that's why we accepted you"?

Or was it more along the lines of "We thought these things you wrote about (subject matter, methodology, etc) were really *interesting* and that's why we accepted you"? (The implication being, of course, that we found it interesting because the very same things are interesting *to us*.)

I would suggest it's more likely to be more like the latter. Ie, we're willing to spend the next six years with you because you're interested in the same things we are. ---Which is exactly the tribal sort of consideration on which fraternity and sorority admissions decisions are based. Not without reason, I might add.

So, it might well be more the subject matter and methodology you or anyone chooses to write about, rather than whether your WS would have graded out as a 93 or 95 or 97 or 99, that determined why you were accepted. ---Although, to be sure, if another candidate's subject matter and methodolog were nearly the same as yours, then the goodness of the essay would be more likely to factor into the decision,

There is, of course, a very strong inclination for a successful applicant to think that he/she was chosen ahead of others because the school thought he/she was "better" than other applicants, perhaps smarter, perhaps a harder worker. This is the basis of the way in which we are normally graded in school. And, in fact, we saw this among posters who were the first to report acceptances: They all said: "I had a really strong SOP and WS."

My point is that this is likely a delusion: At this level, the pool of applicants is just too strong; many many people have SOPs and WSs that, objectively (if that even means anything) are just as strong; and it strains credulity to suggest that an admissions committee would even be interested in spending its time trying to make fine gradations among a pool of exceptionally strong applicants to see which were the "very, very best" in some objective terms. They just have no interest in that. Rather, they first come up with a large group of potentially admissible candidates, and then ask the relevant faculty to pick which ones they would want to work with. And this usually means picking applicants whose work resonates most closely with their own.

And this explains why people are accepted to some schools rather than others. The group of applicants to Yale, Princeton, Berkeley and Duke assuredly contains a good deal of overlap, and yet, for the very most part, it is not true that they admit the same students. How do we explain this difference? Since the applications people submit to each school are by and large the same, it can only be that each school is looking for different things.

And, moreover, in a significant number of cases, what the schools tell successful applicants were the reasons for their acceptance, is different from what the applicants themselves thought it would be. ---See the "Perspectives on Success" thread, and also my recent question to mikers86 on the 2014 applicants thread. Which suggests that in many cases applicants are not particularly good at figuring out what adcoms are looking for.

If one had the time, funds and inclination, I think the best way to gain admission to a particular graduate program would be to visit and talk with the students who are already there, and figure out what sorts of subject matters and methodologies they represent, and then incorporate these into one's own SOP and WS. Because it is likely that the next class they admit will resemble the recent classes in these respects.

Coach? Or Dooney Burke?

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