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


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Id take everything in this thread, and on gradcafe for that matter, with a grain of salt. I had not even discovered this site until after I applied, and therefore did not benefit from it at all, and still got into places. In truth, though there are some marvelous people on here, and I in fact feel I have developed great friendships with people, some of which I might be meeting in person if we select the same program, there are a complete bunch of pretentious douches here. Looking back, all the stat posting and lollibragging and preaching about what one must do to make it past such and such rounds just added a whole bunch of stress that didn't need to happen. The biggest piece of advice I could offer is to browse this place if you wish, but do know that the blueprint to admission doesnt lie in this website. And furthermore, after you have applied, STAY THE FUCK OFF OF GRADCAFE!

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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.

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.

Actually, that's not at all what I said "first." What I said "first," was that for me as an applicant - and likely for most other applicants - polishing one's own writing is a more productive use of time than worrying over departmental ambiguities and unchangeable factors of one's application. You are inferring that my mention of spending several months time polishing my WS and SOP and me indicating that there may or may have not been a correlation wit my acceptances means that I think my writing was "better than other applicants'". When what I am really indicating is that by polishing my WS and SOP my writing was better than it was before and improved with each subsequent draft. There is no way of knowing which, if any, schools I would have been accepted into with my early drafts of each but I have a strong feeling that my selection pool would have been smaller or non-existent. This says nothing about how about my strength as an applicant compared to other applicants - not surprisingly, because as I mentioned before I was more concerned about the package I was bringing than what anybody else hypothetically was taking to table.

Considering the rest of your post seems to rest heavily on the assumption that I think or thought of myself as a "superior" applicant, I'll just let it go since the patronizing borders on offensive. If you had read any of my posts in the "Perspectives on Success" thread, you would have found that I was surprised by the vagueness of references to my SOP and WS, and consequently since then and since being in a grad program, my perspective on what constitutes "fit" has changed significantly. We're actually largely in agreement in that "fit" seems more geared towards the whim of individual departments than something decipherable from an applicant's point of view.

As I said in my second post:

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.

Basically an extended version of what was said in my first post:

My biggest piece of advice: Worry about what's in your control, don't waste mental energy on what you cannot.

Nowhere have I implied that applications aren't a crap shoot or that many factors outside one's control won't make all the difference. I have not implied that the 4, 10, 20 etc. applications chosen at any school represent the objective "best" applications the schools had to choose from. I'm not sure what you're looking for here, what kind of answer will satisfy you. All my posts have indicated is that for most people, writing and editing is a better use of time than fretting over unknowables.

And fwiw, both Coach and Dooney & Burke are vastly overrated  :)

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Just to add to the pile of advice: Be on top of your LOR writers. They are very busy, and while you may have all your stuff together and submitted early, be prepared to send multiple reminders to them. Don't be shy about it. I was really nervous I'd be seen as nagging, but my professors were always grateful for the reminder. Talk to them from the beginning about their timeline, and when a reminder will be most helpful. I had one professor ask me to email her a week in advance, two days in advance, AND the day of for every single app. And bless her heart, she always submitted at the exact minute of the deadline. 

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For LOR, I asked in October/early November if they would be willing, attaching a list of schools and deadlines. When they agreed, I sent a thank you email and noted that I would send a reminder email a week before the deadline, which all of them appreciated. 

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"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."

 

So many thing to say, so little time. First off, I'd take issue with the claim that faculty "interest" in one's SoP/WS is somehow distinct from its quality. Secondly, the above quote takes Jazzy's claim completely out of context. She was originally talking about where one's energy is best concentrated during the application process, and I believe (correct me if I'm wrong here, Jazzy) implying that the time and energy one could spend worrying about prestige of LOR writers, GPA, and the ever-elusive "fit" is better spent revising the s*** out of one's writing sample and SoP (thus: "My biggest piece of advice: Worry about what's in your control, don't waste mental energy on what you cannot"). This was a direct response to your assertion that a prestigious LOR was the "single most helpful" component in an application. That's not the same thing as saying that the amount of effort she spent on her written materials translated into an "objectively superior" product which was then largely responsible for her stellar record last year. Jazzy's clearly not comfortable making that claim, although as someone who by all accounts spent considerably less time on their writing sample than she did, was waitlisted at (and now very happily attends) one of the schools where she was admitted, and had nowhere near her success rate last year, I am.

 

I'm also intrigued--but a little confused--by your earlier discussion of "sheer intelligence." Maybe Jazzy (who had a much higher success rate, though I wound up having several great options) is "smarter" (however the hell we're defining that term) than me, maybe she's not, maybe we're equal. I honestly couldn't care less. It in no way threatens me to think that someone who spent more time on their writing sample than I did would probably have an "objectively superior" product. It has nothing to do with ability or intelligence, and everything to do with the fact that writing gets better with revision and time. That's just me, though.

 

Lastly, I guess I'm struggling with the takeaway from your post. If you're right, and methodology/text selection/any other indicators of faculty "interest" as you define it are more important than "quality," to what aspects of the application would YOU suggest devoting the most attention?

 

(Oh, and and the top tier accepts many, MANY of the same students. One of the prospectives I spoke with at our open house last week had three top 10 offers in addition to ours.)

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I'm just trying to think through sleepyoldman's Google example, which seemed to invoke the idea of raw intelligence in an interesting (and confusing) way to me. Perhaps I misunderstood. Regardless, while I think there are very few of us who would deny that luck certainly plays a role in this process, it seems like, of late, there's been a tendency on the boards to over-emphasize it. I still maintain that working your ass off to polish your SoP/WS is the use of your time most likely to result in success, though it by no means guarantees it.

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To coin a phrase:  That is not what I meant at all!  That is not it at all!

 

(Just kidding, of course, about the coinage.)

 

The main point is this:  Grad schools are not interested in determining, from among several hundred applicants, which ones are the very absolute "most talented" or which ones have submitted the very "best" writing samples or SOPs.  They're not interested in determining whether an individual applicant would grade out at 98 or at 96 or at 94.  That's not a significant difference to them, and they have no interest in spending their limited time that way.

 

Rather, I think the process works like this:  

 

1.  They first make an initial cut of applicants, based on all the credentials they present and whatever general standards each department may have, into two categories:  "Are they admissible or not?"  Which means:  "Are they talented enough to do excellent work in our department?"  

 

2.  The group of admissible applicants that results from that first cut is, I would guess, in every case, significantly larger than the number of spots a school may have available.  So, how do they proceed?  Do they apply a finer grained analysis and try to rank the admissible applicants in order?  Do they try to distinguish the applicant who is a 98.6 from the applicant who is a 98.4?  

 

3.  I don't think so.  I believe the adcom instead then goes to the various subject matter and methodology specialists in the department and asks them to read SOPs and WSs of relevant applicants, and have the specialists decide whom they would most be interested in having as potential students.  Knowing that a six-year commitment is involved, it's likely that they're going to choose applicants whose interests closely align with their own.  Which makes all kinds of sense from any number of perspectives.  It's important that people in a department feel some sense of comfort and familiarity with those they're going to be spending time with.  

 

So, yes, once the first cut is made, the focus is on "Whom do I/we want to work with?" rather than "Whom do we think are the very, very, very most talented students (in some "objective" sense) in the admissible pool?"  It just doesn't make sense for a department to admit someone, no matter how talented they might be, if their interests don't make a good match with the faculty.  (Though, it might be said, it's also human nature for a faculty member in a particular specialization to think A is more talented than B because A's views more closely agree with those of said faculty member.  ---If you don't think this happens in grad school, then you probably haven't been to grad school yet.)

 

So, once you're in the admissible group, it's a question of how faculty members respond to your interests, as expressed in your writing.  Of course they want to know that you're an excellent writer, but presumably this is true of everyone in the admissible group.  My view is that the degree of polish applied to the SOP or WS matters quite a bit less than whether your writing sets off a spark of recognition in your readers.

 

Which is why I believe that investing time in trying to understand what will cause that spark of recognition is likely to be the most productive thing one can do to achieve a greater percentage of acceptances.  You are not going to be accepted because your SOP or WS is especially "strong," because nearly everyone's is.  You're going to be accepted because, from among the large group of very strong applicants, something in what you say catches the eye and fancy of a decision-maker.  And if you can develop a clear idea of what is likely to matter most to Professors A and B at School C, and are able to tailor your writing in that direction, that will increase your chances of admissions success more than merely improving the quality of a non-tailored writing sample.  

 

---Of course, it's natural for someone with a fantastic record of prior academic achievement, someone whose grades were always at the very top, to think that how well they do in the admissions process will be a direct reflection of how "well" they write their SOP and WS, how "strong" they are.  Natural, yes, but IMO it's just not true.  It really does come down to fit, where "fit" means, from the perspective of a relevant faculty member in your potential field:  "Does this person's project interest me?"

 

So, to conclude:  Jazzy:  I agree we're in agreement as to the main part of it.  I would say, though, that some people are probably more perceptive than others at figuring out in advance what might or might not be attractive to a particular department, and that's why people are often surprised at what departments say when they tell them why they were accepted.  The process can often appear as "whim," but once we get to know more about the people making the decisions, they usually end up making a lot of sense.

 

I hope this is more clearly stated than in my previous post, and also that no one will feel there is anything patronizing about it.  It's my best attempt to make sense of the process, of what I have learned over the past months.  If you disagree, let's talk about it.

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I'm just trying to think through sleepyoldman's Google example, which seemed to invoke the idea of raw intelligence in an interesting (and confusing) way to me. Perhaps I misunderstood. Regardless, while I think there are very few of us who would deny that luck certainly plays a role in this process, it seems like, of late, there's been a tendency on the boards to over-emphasize it. I still maintain that working your ass off to polish your SoP/WS is the use of your time most likely to result in success, though it by no means guarantees it.

 

gwarner13:  The point of this example was to suggest that people who are successful at something can often be mistaken or self-deceived as to the reasons for their own success.

 

Due, perhaps, to their own self-image (or ego), the google founders had a certain idea of why they were so successful:  They were really, really smart.  (The unspoken assumption:  Not only smart, but in fact smarter than everyone else.)  And they therefore believed that they could apply this formula to hiring employees for their own company, and also that they could apply this formula and be as successful in other businesses as they were in web search.

 

Both beliefs turned out to be inaccurate.  The employees they hired in their own mold often turned out not to be very good employees.  And despite enormous investments, they have not figured out a way to make money in any other field besides web search.

 

Which naturally gives rise to the question:  How do we explain this seeming contradiction?  ---I would humbly suggest that they did not fully diagnose all the reasons for their success in the web search business.  Yes, they are very smart people, and without that they never would have figured out their web search algorithm.  But IMO there were also, quite probably, other, material, nonduplicable environmental factors that contributed materially to their success.  In other words, it wasn't "just" because they were so smart that they succeeded.

 

This was intended as an analogy to the grad school admissions situation.  Those posters who were accepted to the first schools that announced their decisions seemed to credit their "strong SOP and WS" as the reason for their admissions success.

 

Later on, of course, they found themselves with a material number of non-acceptances.  How do we explain this seeming contradiction?  Did the later schools simply not recognize how strong their submissions were?  Was school B's admissions pool far deeper and stronger than school A's?  Did their own applications somehow become weaker over time, evidencing some heretofore unknown law of decay in the verbal universe, akin to the half-life of elements in the periodic table?  (I'm being facetious, of course.)

 

By this point, it probably comes as no surprise to hear me say:  There must have been other, nonduplicable, environmental factors, specific to each school, quite apart from the "strength" of any applicant's submissions, that resulted in each acceptance or non-acceptance decision.  Some might call this "luck."  I would rather say:  "context."

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This is an interesting discussion. Though I have no clue how adcomms function at most schools, I can share how it worked at my undergrad institution, according to my adviser. It's a USWNR "top 10" English program, FWIW, and regularly gets ~300 applications.

 

1. A grad student (or department administrator) goes through the applications and takes out everyone who doesn't come close to the GPA/GRE cut-offs required for funding, or has submitted an incomplete application, or has totally disregarded the rules and submitted a work of self-published poetry as the writing sample. Sometimes this can cull up to 1/3 of the files.

2. Remaining apps are distributed among the members of the admissions committee. Adcomm members "grade" the files with a numerical value.

3. The bottom third are slashed.

4. Remaining applications are discussed in an in-person meeting. "Short list" of candidates (ranked by subfield) is produced.

 

At least in my undergrad department, the applications were NOT passed around to specialists in the department (ain't nobody got time for that); decisions were made almost exclusively by adcomm members. Furthermore, as I understood it, students were rarely admitted in order to work exclusively with one faculty member. Professors understand that interests change and evolve. In some ways, it's almost more useless to try to cater to that "spark of interest" because you have no idea (1) who will be on the adcomm this year and (2) who will evaluate your particular file.

 

Likely, the best use of your time is to ask a trusted adviser for recommendations for programs that fit your interests, rather than fitting your interests to programs.

 

I'd also disagree that nearly all the SoPs and writing samples are good. My adviser told me that some of them are comically bad (even those accompanied by glowing LoRs), and among the "good" ones, there are varieties of sophistication -- particularly for the writing sample. I don't think it's coincidence that the schools I was accepted to are more or less on the same level, while I was shut-out from Ivy-type places. My work probably didn't display the kind of sophistication necessary to achieve admission to one of the tippy-top departments. (Warning about this: I applied to mostly interdisciplinary programs, NOT English departments.)

 

That said, much of what you said also rings true. "Fit" is important. Departments want people who they can help succeed, and they seek out students who have interests that can be cultivated. However, among the top candidates -- "the short list" -- I would imagine that all the students have good applications AND topics that intrigue/pique the interest of an adcomm member. Just as you find it silly that adcomm members might be looking at miniscule differences in "quality" -- between a 97 and a 98, say -- I find it equally ridiculous that a department would rank applicants based on miniscule differences in "fit" in order to determine which applicant "aligns" the most perfectly with their ethos, especially since departments also expect to be able to shape their students in one way or the other.

 

Anyway, the formula is probably some combination of quality and fit (with a sprinkling of luck). That's probably about as precise as it's possible to get. :D

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I'd also disagree that nearly all the SoPs and writing samples are good. My adviser told me that some of them are comically bad (even those accompanied by glowing LoRs), and among the "good" ones, there are varieties of sophistication -- particularly for the writing sample. I don't think it's coincidence that the schools I was accepted to are more or less on the same level, while I was shut-out from Ivy-type places. My work probably didn't display the kind of sophistication necessary to achieve admission to one of the tippy-top departments. (Warning about this: I applied to mostly interdisciplinary programs, NOT English departments.)

 

That said, much of what you said also rings true. "Fit" is important. Departments want people who they can help succeed, and they seek out students who have interests that can be cultivated. However, among the top candidates -- "the short list" -- I would imagine that all the students have good applications AND topics that intrigue/pique the interest of an adcomm member. Just as you find it silly that adcomm members might be looking at miniscule differences in "quality" -- between a 97 and a 98, say -- I find it equally ridiculous that a department would rank applicants based on miniscule differences in "fit" in order to determine which applicant "aligns" the most perfectly with their ethos, especially since departments also expect to be able to shape their students in one way or the other.

 

 

My experience with writing samples comes from my direct contact with the universities that rejected me, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a universal truth, but it could be helpful for people to understand. I emailed the/was contacted by Adcomms and asked what I could do to become a more competitive applicant in the future. Every school but one (who didn’t like my SoP) told me that I made it to the final round of deliberations, but ultimately was rejected because, though my writing sample was high quality, it wasn’t in my area of interest and thus they couldn’t assess my readiness to work in that area. Many of these schools were first-tier in the rankings (Berkeley, Duke, etc.). 

 

In that vein, another piece of advice: if you are rejected, email and ask what you can do to become a more competitive applicant in the future. Most adcomms are absolutely wonderful and will give you very detailed feedback about your personal file. 

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hj2012:  Many thanks for your reply.  The adcom procedure you outline makes a lot of sense as to how a (presumably) small committee cuts through a large number of applications to reach a small number of acceptances.  The initial weeding process is  more refined than my guess, but the principles are similar.  I'm surprised the number of below-grade applications is so high (I can be quite naive), but I'd also guess that the number of remaining admissible applications is also quite high.

 

It may be, as you suggest, that it is rare for subject matter specialists to become involved, as I thought, but I'm pretty sure this is the way it's done at the school I will be attending.  Perhaps this is equally myopic on my part, but I have to imagine that adcom members are, at least to some degree, aware of what their colleagues' subject matters and methodologies are, and sensitive to what they are looking for in students.  (Just a matter of basic professional respect for one's colleagues:  They're not going to admit someone whose methodology is deconstruction to work in a field where one of the faculty members has made a career of burying deconstructionists.)  I don't know how many members an adcom generally has, but I would guess there's a some representation among specializations.

 

I agree that it's impossible to tailor your application essay as closely and specifically as you would a term paper for a professor whose class you are taking, but I would still argue that knowing as much as possible about the methodologies and subjects the faculty in your field write about, and weaving this into your essay, will better your chances.  

 

When I refer to "spark of recognition," I have in mind something that clearly and sharply differentiates one essay from many others, rather than some series of miniscule differences, that makes the reader take special notice:  It's more of a Yes/No kind of thing, "I know it when I see it," rather than a numerical scale.  And I sense you would agree that when assigning numerical scores to applications, the professional biases of each reader cannot help but enter in, to some degree.

 

Regarding your comment about the "sophistication" of writing samples:  I can't help but think that when faculty members speak of "sophistication," it has a lot to do with one's ability to "talk the talk" of one or more in-vogue methodologies.  Ie, not so much what you know, but how good you are at sounding like the pro's do.  I can't prove this, of course, but I do believe that attempting to mimic the sound of one or more faculty members in the schools we apply to can't help but raise our "sophistication" score.  (Tongue a bit in cheek, there.)

 

Again, I appreciate your taking the time to write.  That's a lot of very useful factual information.

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@Sleepyoldman

 

No problem! Also, I do want to caution that my undergrad institution is just one school out of many, and different schools operate differently (surprise!). I also agree that the "I know it when I see it" rule applies, and it's not quite as cut-and-dry as assigning a numerical number once the adcomm has created  the "short list." That said, perhaps the main takeaway from this discussion is that it's a worthwhile investment, if one has the time and resources, to really tailor the SoP to each school one is applying to.

 

I was also surprised when I heard how many files were cut from the get-go. My suspicion is that a number of files go unconsidered because of the GPA/GRE rule; the graduate division at my undergrad school has pretty draconian rules when it comes to GRE scores and funding. (The median verbal score of admitted students is at the 99 percentile, and while one could argue that most "smart" applicants will score very high on the GRE, I also suspect they are placing more emphasis on the scores than they ought to.) My adviser also told me there were a number of very frustrating files from international applicants who just didn't know what they were doing. I'm currently working abroad and doing some work as an admissions consultant, and seeing some of the things my clients send me to edit -- well, I can believe it. :wacko:  As one might expect, there's just a real lack of information over here about what American grad schools want.

 

@Kamisha

 

That's great advice. Perhaps a takeaway note is for applicants to think of their application in terms of the "total package": what is the narrative you are telling? Are there any bits (writing sample topic, for example) that don't quite fit?

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@Sleepyoldman

 

No problem! Also, I do want to caution that my undergrad institution is just one school out of many, and different schools operate differently (surprise!). I also agree that the "I know it when I see it" rule applies, and it's not quite as cut-and-dry as assigning a numerical number once the adcomm has created  the "short list." That said, perhaps the main takeaway from this discussion is that it's a worthwhile investment, if one has the time and resources, to really tailor the SoP to each school one is applying to.

 

I was also surprised when I heard how many files were cut from the get-go. My suspicion is that a number of files go unconsidered because of the GPA/GRE rule; the graduate division at my undergrad school has pretty draconian rules when it comes to GRE scores and funding. (The median verbal score of admitted students is at the 99 percentile, and while one could argue that most "smart" applicants will score very high on the GRE, I also suspect they are placing more emphasis on the scores than they ought to.) My adviser also told me there were a number of very frustrating files from international applicants who just didn't know what they were doing. I'm currently working abroad and doing some work as an admissions consultant, and seeing some of the things my clients send me to edit -- well, I can believe it. :wacko:  As one might expect, there's just a real lack of information over here about what American grad schools want.

 

@Kamisha

 

That's great advice. Perhaps a takeaway note is for applicants to think of their application in terms of the "total package": what is the narrative you are telling? Are there any bits (writing sample topic, for example) that don't quite fit?

 

 

Yes, I definitely think it can vary depending on institution. My current program is ranked 63rd and accepts students with abysmal GRE scores all the time. I know for certain that Harvard is very strict about GRE scores, but some other top 20 schools are not (I know someone with a bad subject test score who got into UNC). I'm wait listed at a program ranked in the high 20s and my verbal score is just eh (89th percentile) and I submitted some of my materials late. I also got accepted to a program that didn't receive one of my LOR until mid-January (nearly a month after the deadline). I think the best way to find out is to really pick the brain of the adcomm at your own school, who should know something about what other schools expect (that's how I found out). I've also seen other forums on gradcafe culling as much information as they can. As you can see, a lot of people don't put their GPA/GRE scores because it doesn't seem to have made a difference. Perhaps we should also perhaps try to put together a master list of where everyone applied, their scores/GPA, etc., and try to figure out where it matters and where it doesn't? I don't know if that would be at all useful, but it's a thought.

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Sorry to change the subject away from WS/SOP vs. test scores, but here's something I learned about grad school in general (and I'm not a 2014er but more like a 2011er):

 

Just because you don't get into your top-choice program with a huge fellowship, doesn't mean you're doomed.

 

I was rejected from ten programs the year I applied. I got into one program that wasn't at the top of my list, but pretty good. However, I barely got in, and I was made to feel like I barely got in. At a school that capitalizes on distinguishing between the sought-after candidates and those that are just so-so, I was not a top "draft pick."

 

Four years later, I hold my school's top competitive fellowship (as well as a national one). I've published and presented and done all the stuff you're supposed to do. I don't have a TT job yet, so my story's not really over (and maybe I'll be a huge failure, who knows). But I don't feel that my admissions track record hindered my performance in grad school in any way. In other words, I don't think that getting turned away from so many programs was the final verdict on my potential or my ambition.

 

The take-away: don't be discouraged if you don't have amazing success in the admissions process. It's just one aspect of this game. The work you do in grad school is much more important.

Edited by hashslinger
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My only pieces of advice I can give for undergrad students who are looking to applying to grad school (all from my personal experience for this application cycle)-

  • Start kissing ass. NOW. If you haven't already, which you should've been doing a long time ago. Whatever you do, just keep hovering over professor's offices during their appointment hours. Go in even just to talk about something you discussed during lecture earlier that day. Maintain relationships. I cannot stress this enough. Go before submitting papers, after submitting papers, whatever. Some may say this comes off as annoying but it actually worked SO much in my favor, I can't even begin to describe to you. I was literally one of those kids who damn near lived at a teacher's office hours before a midterm, after a midterm, before a final, and after a final. I did whatever I could to get whatever extra help I needed, and to let teachers know what a great job they're doing and the positive effect they have on me. I have absolutely no regrets maintaining great relationships with professors. They are literally there to help you, that's part of their job. Some may be too busy but most not too much, at least they'll be there to help you with grad school questions. And furthermore, it's a great way for you to stand out in all the upper div courses they're teaching. I imagine it's hard to keep track of a lecture hall bustling with students, and it's up to you to decide how you want to stand out. You want a LOR writer who's going to showcase your performance the best way they know YOU. My past professors who were also my LOR writers for this season's applications were all too happy to help me out, to talk to me, to go over my SOP's, writing samples, the works, in addition to writing my letters. I was also really great buddies with a TA I had twice during my undergrad career, and she too looked over my SOP drafts multiple times. You have no idea how much is at your advantage when you maintain relationships with your teachers. 
  • Really question yourself and see if this is what you really want to do. I know this sounds cliche but I know a lot of people who started questioning why they were doing this (AFTER they started the program.) It's really tough. You've heard it all..."don't try to go back to school to avoid the real world" but you have to really know what you're signing up for. Don't do it for anyone else or because that's what your parents expect. Do it because you have your own reasons to do it. That's all I can really say. Some may disagree with me, but this is just from a personal standpoint that I have reflected upon for the past 8 months.
  • For GRE, use Magoosh. I swear by it. Don't bother with those extremely expensive Kaplan or Barron or Princeton Review courses. They dumb down the GRE in my opinion, and I learned it the hard way. I'm happy to vouch that the second time around before I took the test again, I used Magoosh prepware and I improved my score by 15 points. 
  • And as everyone's reiterated so many times on here, DO NOT PROCRASTINATE. Do NOT. I repeat, DO NOT. Have everything done early. You should have already looked at schools around this time of the year and spring into summer is when you should be going through several drafts of your SOP and writing samples. Don't ever send in a raw paper ever. Have all your materials ordered on time. I had a nightmare rush express mailing transcripts and GRE scores to my institutions. That was effing TERRIBLE. That's just more added stress you really didn't need. 
  • As difficult as I know this may be to all of you, stay the HELL AWAY from GradCafe from December - April. I mean it. I MEAN IT. It won't do anything for you, all it'll do is freak you out. I know that being on here helps everyone come together to talk about their stresses and such which is great, and I love the Literature/Rhetoric community on here because everyone is so helpful and reassuring (and it's great that we can all either cry together or celebrate together) but just step away from the computer. Go outside. Get some fresh air. Being on here has stressed me out more than it has helped me sometimes, as much as I hate to admit (because I love everyone here.) Just don't go on the Results board. Don't go on any forums. Don't go anywhere near this place. I've lost a countless hours of sleep just from stalking the forums on here that just added to my stress. I'm telling you, it doesn't help. 

I know these are very general pieces of advice that have been circulated for seasons coming but from my personal experiences from the past year since this whole application process has started, these are the steps that I really really cannot stress enough. I don't care if it's cliche, it is the TRUTH. I know there were things that I didn't follow that I'm stating on here, and who knows, there could've been better ways I have prepared but I'm happy with the outcomes. 

Edited by gk210
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  • 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...

 

 

 

This is so very true! Really, I've known many people who have gotten into Ivy Leagues but have been rejected by "safety schools" like, for instance, CUNY. I applied to eleven schools (which is a lot) because I honestly didn't think I had much of a chance in hell and I wanted to just "go big" while I was doing it. I got into five top programs with full funding, so I am so glad I didn't follow my original plan to apply only to "safer" schools.

 

More things I learned:

 

-This has undoubtedly been stated already, but again, GRE scores are in no way as important as SoP and academic potential. I did not do very well in my GREs and I did horribly on my English Subject GRE. Didn't seem like an issue.

 

-Your research and writing samples do not have to be perfect. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Committees want to see that you are able to conduct research, that you have strong analytical skills, and that you are capable of putting it all together into a coherent paper. It's more about your potential for good scholarship, I think... 

 

-Rejections don't mean you aren't good enough. At one of the schools I was accepted, my POI told me that because he and the other faculty members in my subfield had been more or less on leave , the English department had not accepted applicants who studied my specific century in 2 years.. Rejections sometimes have nothing to with you or your credentials.

 

-Flexibility is key. Be prepared to abandon your dream school for one you never thought you would love! I was admitted into my two dream schools, but now, after doing my campus visits, it seems another school is a far better fit for me than those two.  

 

-I am living proof that you don't need to come from a fancy, big-name undergraduate school or have recommendation letters from superstars to make it grad school! 

 

 

Wish you all the best of luck! Oh, and don't make my mistake: English Subject GREs are only offered twice (sometimes 3 times) a year, so make sure you register in time!! :)

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This is so very true! Really, I've known many people who have gotten into Ivy Leagues but have been rejected by "safety schools" like, for instance, CUNY. I applied to eleven schools (which is a lot) because I honestly didn't think I had much of a chance in hell and I wanted to just "go big" while I was doing it. I got into five top programs with full funding, so I am so glad I didn't follow my original plan to apply only to "safer" schools.

 

More things I learned:

 

-This has undoubtedly been stated already, but again, GRE scores are in no way as important as SoP and academic potential. I did not do very well in my GREs and I did horribly on my English Subject GRE. Didn't seem like an issue.

 

-Your research and writing samples do not have to be perfect. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Committees want to see that you are able to conduct research, that you have strong analytical skills, and that you are capable of putting it all together into a coherent paper. It's more about your potential for good scholarship, I think... 

 

-Rejections don't mean you aren't good enough. At one of the schools I was accepted, my POI told me that because he and the other faculty members in my subfield had been more or less on leave , the English department had not accepted applicants who studied my specific century in 2 years.. Rejections sometimes have nothing to with you or your credentials.

 

-Flexibility is key. Be prepared to abandon your dream school for one you never thought you would love! I was admitted into my two dream schools, but now, after doing my campus visits, it seems another school is a far better fit for me than those two.  

 

-I am living proof that you don't need to come from a fancy, big-name undergraduate school or have recommendation letters from superstars to make it grad school! 

 

 

Wish you all the best of luck! Oh, and don't make my mistake: English Subject GREs are only offered twice (sometimes 3 times) a year, so make sure you register in time!! :)

How is CUNY a "safety school" by any standards? Isn't it ranked in the top 25?

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How is CUNY a "safety school" by any standards? Isn't it ranked in the top 25?

 

Well I was referring in comparison to top tier schools. However, notice how I put "safety school" in quotations to denote that the term was not accurate. 

 

I recently visited CUNY and they have a fantastic English department with very happy and friendly grad students. I meant nothing bad by my comment. 

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Well I was referring in comparison to top tier schools. However, notice how I put "safety school" in quotations to denote that the term was not accurate. 

 

I recently visited CUNY and they have a fantastic English department with very happy and friendly grad students. I meant nothing bad by my comment. 

 

Sorry, I totally didn't mean for my comment to come off as snarky as it did!!! I guess I was just clarifying if we meant the same school or if I misunderstood the rankings; I definitely know what you mean, like if you're merely comparing it to, say UC Berkeley or Harvard or something!

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Sorry, I totally didn't mean for my comment to come off as snarky as it did!!! I guess I was just clarifying if we meant the same school or if I misunderstood the rankings; I definitely know what you mean, like if you're merely comparing it to, say UC Berkeley or Harvard or something!

 

Haha! No worries at all, you didn't come off as snarky. I was just worried that I had (which was not my intention at all!). 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I love this topic, especially since it allows us to reflect on the previous application season. Apart from those that were already mentioned, here are some things that I'd like to add:

 

Get contacts, and try to know more about the people in your target departments. I learned about my POI's work and the program that I'm going to join this year from a grad student I met in a conference that I attended last year. I also summoned the courage to write to my POI, and she was nice enough to answer my questions about the program, the department and her research. Knowing more about the program and the people in it helped me write a more specific SOP, which I think was what they were looking for.

 

Do not overload your schedule. This is a mistake that I made because I'm an adjunct, and I accepted more classes last semester. I did it because I needed the money, but since I had too much work to do (on top of a couple of conference presentations), I only finished one application (I intended to finish five applications). I was just lucky enough to get accepted in the only university that I applied to.

Edited by literary_tourist
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  • 2 weeks later...

This would be for after acceptances come your way.  Please, please, please turn down offers right away if you are not interested.  As someone who was admitted off of the waitlist only days before the April 15th deadline, I beg of you to be kind to waitlisters and just bite the bullet if you're going to say no.  While initial admits were able to think about their choice for months, I had to make a huge decision in only a few days, and I was only able to visit the campus because I lived nearby.  I've seen a lot of posts in which people describe the dread of turning down an offer, and have waited to do so because they felt badly about saying no.  Please think of the person who can take your spot.  Obviously, you should take your time deciding between schools, but if you know the answer is no, let the program know right away!

 

My other bit of advice: do as much research as you can on the Literature English GRE.  I followed one of the big name guides, and several seemingly wonderful websites, only to find the exam covered very different material than I had been expecting.  It was far less focused on the canon (as in, testing on identification of authors/periods/etc.) than I had expected, and far more centered on interpretation.  

 

Good luck, future applicants!

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Great advice all around. This has probably been mentioned elsewhere (I've never really gone on/used GradCafe, at least the forums) but I'll mention it anyway, especially for current undergrads who are waiting to apply/on the fence:

 

Take at least a year off after graduation to do "something else," preferably outside of an academic environment. Again, your professors, advisers, parents, friends, other close contacts, etc will likely have told you this, but that extra year really does help. Take on projects, jobs, or hobbies outside of your intellectual fields of interest, or even something 'non-intellectual' - but still productive! - altogether. I spent last summer visiting family abroad before coming back home to work as a proofreader/editor for a pharmaceutical company, where I still am at the moment. (I probably got a bit lucky because I also have a science background, and that apparently made me 'appealing' to the recruiter who found me.) Proofreading is hardly a glorious job, but it's a good skill to have and the pay is decent. On a related note: saving money helps!

 

The most important aspect of this experience, however, has been getting to know not only people from all sorts of backgrounds - English/humanities, medical, legal, regulatory, business/marketing - but also the overall corporate structure. Even a glimpse of how the world outside of the academy really works can be 'enlightening' in both the positive and negative senses of the word. And I found that non-academic perspective to be very helpful in my approach to the application process: it made me a better communicator (face-to-face, on the phone, via e-mail, etc), exposed me to professionalism (and sometimes lack thereof) in the 'workplace,' and gave me more time to explore/read about fields/pursue activities outside of my personal interests. This proofreading job also convinced me, ironically, that I couldn't stay here forever, for logistical and personal reasons. 

 

As for applying to schools after senior year - it's still stressful, to be sure, but not as stressful as juggling applications with undergrad responsibilities. Keep close and regular contact with professors whom you want to write your rec letters (e-mail, call, or even drop by during office hours if you're still in the area). They'll understand.

 

Long story short: Take some time off for yourself after undergrad. It really helps.

 

Best of luck, fall 2014 applicants and beyond!

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This won't so much help you (unless you're waitlsited eventually) as others, but don't hang on to waitlists after you've accepted an offer unless you're 100% sure you'd rescind the offer you accepted if you get in there, which probably means you shouldn't have accepted that offer in the first place.  Now that I'm on the grad recruitment side of the picture, I see the damage this causes.  Does it inflate the ego to see a waitlist shift to an acceptance?  Sure.  Does it feel even better to decline that late extended acceptance?  Yes, Machiavelli knew us well.  However, there is a large network constructed by applicants and schools, and if you have no reason to accept a waitlist offer if extended (I know, I did the same thing when I was applying to try to stick it to UT-A), then TURN IT DOWN.  I can't tell you how many waitlisted people I've been in communication with as a grad student recruitment officer and just felt terribly for because people who seem totally uninterested hold on to all their offers to see what converts even after they've made a decision.  That's just mean-spirited.  I don't think most people do this; I'm just posting this as a bit of advice to say that checking ego is always helpful.  

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