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Currently a Senior double majoring in Political Science and Middle East studies at a third tier university (think GW, Syracuse, UMass, that league). I am planning on applying for Political Science PhD programs next December. I'm looking specifically to do Comparative Politics with a focus on the Middle East.

I will probably graduate with around a 3.68 (cum laude) and a 3.9 in my major.

I'm currently abroad in the Middle East on a Boren Scholarship where I've been studying Arabic and conducting research for my senior thesis for the past six months. 


  • Senior thesis will likely be strongly tied to research proposal and its a reasonably impressive piece of work for an undergrad
  • Letters of rec should be pretty good
  • Lots of experience living in the Middle East
  • I'm taking a gap year, so lets assume I'll have time to nail my GRE 
  • Fluent in French, strong foundation in Arabic


  • No quant experience (did poorly in my mandatory math class)
  • No research experience outside of my thesis
  • GPA is kind of a bummer

Where I need help

  • What are my realistic prospects for schools? Is a top 25 something that's within my reach?
  • Does anyone happen to know schools outside the ivies that are really strong for my area of interest?
  • I decided to take a gap year only because I wanted to focus on Arabic while I was abroad instead of grad school apps, so my time is wide open. Is there anything I can do to strengthen my application with this time?

Thanks in advance for the advice. 

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1 hour ago, Habermas said:

I will probably graduate with around a 3.68 (cum laude) and a 3.9 in my major.

  • GPA is kind of a bummer


Since when is an A- average a GPA that "is kind of a bummer"?? This makes no sense to me whatsoever.

If you know math is your weakness, work on it by taking a quant course and doing well in it.

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You're in a pretty good position, especially because you're thinking about this plenty of time in advance. If you make sure you put in the time and effort to create the best application you can, you're certainly in the running for top-25 schools (always keep in mind there's a lot of luck/randomness involved in the admissions process too, so apply to a decent number of schools). For grad school, don't think in terms of ivies, that's not the relevant metric for top schools here. Look at a bunch of different rankings for some idea of what schools to look at, then look at placement records and talk to professors as well as of course finding a good fit to narrow down your list. 

The most relevant question is of course what you can do now. If you have a very weak quant background, you need to really own the GRE quant portion. Luckily, that's very doable, as it's completely a studyable test. So, get a number of GRE books and get practicing. It just takes time and effort, it's all material that anyone can do. While you're at it, study for the verbal part as well just because you have the time to do so and it will help if you're concerned about GPA (although I agree with rising star, that's not a big issue).

Don't stress too much about research experience either - almost no one at undergrad has done actually serious research experience that would be publishable at grad level. Having a senior thesis is great because it shows that you know what doing research involves. Spend a lot of time thinking about what your interests are for the future and writing a good SOP that centers around those interests. The most tricky part (in my experience) is finding a balance between showing you know what you want to do and not being overly specific because you will never end up doing the project you currently envision.

Other than that, enjoy your gap year. Get some nice work experience, do some research work, improve your languages further, whatever you would like to do. A lot of the aspects of admissions (undergrad performance, recommendation letters) are already out of your hands, so focus on the things you can improve, without going overly crazy.

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You're competitive anywhere with that profile.  The GPA is a little low, but not a "bummer" but it matters what's dragging that down.  You have a 3.9 in major, which is great.  If you had some low grades freshman-sophomore year in core classes or something, then that's not a big deal.  If the lower grades are more recent that could be less good.  Worst case scenario if you come out of a university known for high grade inflation in political science and the lower grades are in more "rigorous" (less grade inflated) departments.

Six months in the Middle East on a Boren fellowship is huge.  That's your headline.  Double down by investing as much time in perfecting your Arabic over the next year as you can.

Middle Eastern politics is not a heavily quantitative area, so I don't think that a lack of qualifications in quantitative work will be a big problem.  Although, if my "did poorly in my mandatory math class" you mean something below a B, that could raise eyebrows.  In the spring semester, I'd take another stats class if I were you.  That will also be good preparation for next year.

As for where to look, part of this depends on substantive interests. You're looking at a different set of places if you want to do terrorism vs. authoritarian politics vs. oil vs. etc.  As a general rule, it's more far important to go to a department that is strong for your topic than for your region.  A number of very successful people have written dissertations on regions under advisors who have never done work on those regions, but very few have successfully written dissertations on topics where their advisors have no expertise.

As always, the advice is to go to a top-10 if one accepts you.  Stanford is probably best for Middle East.  Outside those, Georgetown, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania come to mind entirely off the top of my head.  Also, just about every public policy/IR school out there has at least two or three people working on the Middle East, so provided that the political science department has faculty that align with your topical/substantive interests, anywhere with a good policy school will have some Middle East scholars for you to work with.

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