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Profiles, Results, SOPs, and Advice 2017


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As social scientists, we are invariably infuriated by the graduate school admissions process; it is lacking in methodological transparency, we feel certain that admissions committees suffer from several biases, and much of the available data is anecdotal (my friend got into Harvard with a 310 GRE, etc). This thread is our contribution to future prospective grads, and our tribute to those who have gone before us. Also, it's just really interesting.

Previous threads:

2016, 2015201420132012, and 2010

Format:

PROFILE:
Type of Undergrad Institution:
Major(s)/Minor(s):
Undergrad GPA:
Type of Grad:
Grad GPA:
GRE:
Any Special Courses:
Letters of Recommendation:
Research Experience:
Teaching Experience:
Subfield/Research Interests:
Other:

RESULTS:
Acceptances($$ or no $$):
Waitlists:
Rejections:
Pending:
Going to:

 

LESSONS LEARNED:

 

 

SOP:

 

 

 

 

 

Note: If you are uncomfortable revealing certain aspects of your file in order to maintain privacy, please do not let that stop you from posting the other parts! Anything is useful, and each cycle we have so many applicants who post in the main thread but leave before posting here - let's change that!

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Seeing as I started the thread, I suppose it's only fitting that I go first.

PROFILE:

Type of Undergrad Institution: Large, low-rank R1

Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science / Geography

Undergrad GPA: 3.65

Type of Grad: -

Grad GPA: -

GRE: V167 Q158 AW 4.5

Any Special Courses: Grad seminars in IPE and politics of identity, audited a grad level research design course.

Letters of Recommendation: All tenured or TT political science profs in my department, one from the prof I worked for as an RA.

Research Experience: One semester RA, standard senior thesis.

Teaching Experience: None that I mentioned in my application.

Subfield/Research Interests: IR (international organization/foreign policy/IPE)

Other: I was in the honors college at my undergrad institution, and received a scholarship that covered all of my tuition and fees for four years. I could have gone somewhere more prestigious, but the prospect of a free B.A. was too good to pass up and I don’t regret my decision.

 

RESULTS:

Acceptances ($$ or no $$): UT Austin ($$), UC Davis ($$)

Waitlists: -

Rejections: 8 other programs, all T15

Pending: -

Going to: Not sure yet

 

LESSONS LEARNED:

 

While I did have a successful cycle in the sense that I received two funded offers, I also failed to gain admission to my top choices. The process of putting together my file and scrutinizing it for months has definitely made me realize which aspects could have been stronger; therefore, I’ll talk about a couple things that I think made my application stronger and a couple things that I would have advised my 20-year-old self to do if I could go back and talk to him.

- I think my SOP was fairly strong, and I’ve been told as much by a number of professors (including one at a program that did not admit me). I followed the advice of a GC user who recommended that one take the time to go through the last 4-6 issues of every top journal (both general/subfield), reading abstracts and occasionally entire articles if they are germane to your research interests. I did this and it really helped me understand the current state of the scholarship in my area of interest, which in term helped me to articulate my proposed research question.

- I frequently sought advice from my letter writers throughout the entire process, from figuring out where to apply to deciding between offers. I asked them for feedback on my SOP and writing sample, and their suggestions for edits certainly strengthened both documents. I see a lot of people on here post about not wanting to bother their busy letter writers, but I don’t see any problem with politely requesting their guidance when you need it. After all, they were once in your shoes - all of my advisors assured me that they remembered well the anxiety-inducing nature of this process.

- One thing that definitely kept me out of top programs was my weak quant background; as of last semester, I had only taken one stats course and no calculus or econometrics. I regret this deeply, but the reason I didn’t take these courses was that I didn’t realize that I wanted to do quantitative research until the second semester of my junior year when I took the grad IPE seminar. Unfortunately, by that time it was too late to take most of the quant courses I would have liked to.

- While my GRE Q wasn’t horrible (70th percentile), I know it could have been better if I’d had a bit more time to study. It was only in August that I decided that I wanted to apply this cycle, so I had around two months to study while taking a full course load and working part-time. Ideally, I would have started preparing my application materials much earlier. If you are reading this in March/April and planning to apply in the upcoming cycle, START NOW!

- Try to keep in mind that there are so many idiosyncratic aspects to this process that it is really difficult to accurately predict one’s chances of admission at any program. For example, I had an interview with my POI at Wisconsin that I thought went really well – he expressed interest in my research proposal and asked me if I had any questions about the program. However, I was rejected anyway. While the rejection could have been due to me unknowingly botching the interview, it also could have been factors beyond my knowledge and control (funding constraints, subfield size limits, etc). Don’t beat yourself up about rejections, seriously.


 

SOP: I would rather not share my entire SOP for myriad reasons. I will share the general layout though, which might actually end up being more useful anyway:

1st ¶: Stated my name, intended program and subfield, and my desire to eventually work as a professor at a research university.

2nd ¶: Discussed what I believe to be an underexplored research puzzle in my subfield, and why I believe it is important to investigate.

3rd ¶: Discussed a theory that I believe could be applied to said research puzzle, and why it would be useful.

4th ¶: Summarized how my academic history led me to develop my current interests, and how I attempted to apply them in my senior thesis.

5th ¶: Talked about my experience as an RA, what the project was like and what my contribution was.

6th ¶: Briefly (3-5 sentences, depending on the program) highlighted faculty and program fit. Each version of my SOP ended up being almost exactly 1000 words.

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PROFILE:
Type of Undergrad Institution
:  R1 State University
Major(s)/Minor(s):  Political Science
Undergrad GPA: 2.6 (long time ago)
Type of Grad: M.A. Poli. Sci. 2017 (plus previous J.D.)
Grad GPA: 3.7
GRE: 169V/152Q/4.5AW
Any Special Courses: Full stats sequence plus a Bayesian course; ICPSR
Letters of Recommendation: 2 members of my M.A. committee (one is DGS), plus our Dept. Chair, and a couple other tenured faculty to spread things around
Research Experience: Master's Thesis and conference paper based on it
Teaching Experience: TA and instructor of record for American Gov. gen. ed. course
Subfield/Research Interests: AP/Judicial Politics/Public Law, Mass Media/New Media, APD, Game Theory
Other: Back in grad school after 20+ years of practicing law.  Undergrad GPA was pretty irrelevant as a result (thankfully).  Tons of prior public law experience with government agencies and legislature.

RESULTS:
Acceptances($$ or no $$)
:  Georgia($$), Oklahoma($$)
Waitlists: Indiana
Rejections: Rice
Pending: Penn State, Texas A&M
Going to: Georgia
 
LESSONS LEARNED:  I'm not your typical PhD applicant, so take this for what it's worth.  Fit, fit, fit.  Did I mention fit?  I believe there are two main reasons I didn't get more acceptances:  one, my low quant GRE kept me out of the top 20; and two, my SOP was too tailored for one program (see below).  I was told my age wouldn't be a factor, but there's no way to be sure it wasn't.  For most of you reading this, that won't be an issue.  But the main reason is fit.  That said, I got into where I wanted to go with full funding, so it's all good.  I was hoping for more options though.
 
 
SOP:  Don't feel comfortable sharing it, but format-wise it pretty much followed dagnabbit's.  In hindsight I think I may have over-tailored it to UGA, because I had previously met one POI in Michigan and knew a lot about the program from my current dept. chair who got his PhD there.  Yeah, his recommendation letter helped a lot I'm sure, but he has connections at most of the other places I applied also, and it didn't help.  Plus my thesis advisor is a TAMU PhD and his letter didn't help, so...connections are good, but they are not a solution to everything.  I did have a section of my SOP that I changed for each school I applied to, to make it specific, but the bulk of it was the same.  I really wanted to study game theory/EITM and courts, rather than big data analytics or fancy stat methods.  This probably limited my appeal with the Big 10 schools.  Again, fit.

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PROFILE:
Type of Undergrad Institution: Mid-tier private liberal arts university
Major(s)/Minor(s): International relations and cultural anthropology; certificate in international studies
Undergrad GPA: 4.0, Magna cum laude, honors in both departments
Type of Grad: N/A but did take two graduate-level courses during UG
Grad GPA: 4.0
GRE: 162V | 155Q | 5.5AW
Any Special Courses: qualitative methods; research methods in political science; self-designed independent reading course
Letters of Recommendation: mixture of UG tenure-track professors (always 2 IR [1 tenured] and 1 anthro)
Research Experience: undergraduate thesis (for anthropology), all qualitative
Teaching Experience: N/A
Subfield/Research Interests: IR but interests intersect subfields | critical security; discourse; terrorism
Other: The writing sample I submitted was the introduction to my senior thesis for anthropology

RESULTS:
Acceptances($$ or no $$): Ohio State University (TBD), University of Maryland ($$)
Waitlists: Syracuse
Rejections: Washington University, Yale, Johns Hopkins
Pending: Georgetown (likely rejection)
Going to: Still pending, but fairly sure I know where I'll be going [and will update here once I've made the official decision]

LESSONS LEARNED: I only had three months to research and select schools, as well as put together and submit my applications by the time I decided that I was going to apply to graduate school. I had to submit everything two months before the deadlines because of an opportunity that arose that I could not turn down, which would put me outside the country and without reliable internet access (and at times, access to the application websites even when internet was available). In the end, however, I think this likely helped me from over-thinking my applications. I had to be on point and confident in what I submitted. (I am not immune to the freak-out, however; once results started rolling in, I joined the pack of panicked applicants.)

Overall, I cannot emphasize enough what previous cycles have demonstrated: fit matters. I emphasized my interdisciplinarity and my background in anthropology and political science, which likely helped and hindered me at different schools. I excelled in both of my departments in undergraduate, but I approached political science from an anthropological lens (and focused my anthropology studies on political anthropology); I sought to demonstrate the benefits of this interdisciplinary background. I also focused on my training and interest in critical theory, even while knowing the spaces and opportunities to study and practice such in the U.S. are few and far between. I know that my less common background and my research interests helped me stand out at my top choice school to which I was admitted and will be attending. Overall, I think my strong letters of recommendation are what helped me compensate for “lower” GRE scores and my undergraduate background from a small LAC lacking in reputation. That being said, I think I could have applied to some different programs that may have been better fits than the D.C.-area schools, but hindsight is 20/20.

My general advice, in no particular order:

  • Start studying for the GRE early and don’t neglect verbal because you think you’re strong there or vice versa for quantitative. Invest in prep books (and maybe find friends that are also studying and split the cost); they do help, at least as refreshers. 
  • Don’t panic over your GRE scores (or GPA for that matter). Yes, you need numbers not to set off a red flag and to make it past initial cuts, but in the end, schools are more interested in you — your research interests, your ability to think critically, what others think of your ability to think critically and succeed in graduate school. The numbers are just there as an initial check.
  • Be strategic about your letter writers. I came from a small LAC, so no “big” names in the sense of research and Academia (with a capital ‘A’), but I did have letter writers that were more than willing to go to bat for me, one of whom was an alumna of one of the schools to which I applied. Give yourself and them (!) plenty of time to tailor letters to each school if they so desire, and don’t stress if the deadline is approaching and they haven’t yet submitted. Gently nudge, but don’t freak out. They do get done.
  • For your SOP, write long versions and short versions. I started with a long version directed at my top choice school, and then tailored that to my other applications followed by creating a shorter version for when needed.
  • Applications are expensive. Options are good, but I do not think you should feel the need to apply to 10+ schools, especially if some are not especially great fits. I know that there are one or two schools to which I probably should not have bothered applying, but I did anyways and spent the money to do so. Be mindful of cost to apply when selecting your schools.
  • Rejections are not personal. Remember that you are competing with hundreds of other applicants, all of whom have similar backgrounds and aspirations. There is some luck and timing involved in getting acceptances.
  • Don’t be afraid to have contingency plans. Be optimistic about your chances of admission, but also be practical and be ready to move on and have other things to do and places to go. There’s always next cycle.

SOP: PM — if you’re actually interested. I actually emphasized my interest in theory and how it influences my approach to international relations.

Additional Comments: I also recommend that you take a look at the previous cycle of this same type of results threads (see the OP), as well as this great post by @VMcJ about what was done differently this cycle opposed to last cycle. Keep in mind, however, that these exist just to give you an idea of what a small number of good profiles look like. Not everybody excepted looks like a 4.0 GPA and 170/170/6.0 GRE with an ivy background and publications.

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PROFILE:

Type of Undergrad Institution: Large, high-rank R1 State school

Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science major, statistics minor

Undergrad GPA: 3.74

Type of Grad: N/A

Grad GPA: N/A

GRE: V168 Q162 AWA 4.5

Any Special Courses: One PhD-level course in survey/questionnaire design, two courses in the first year graduate student statistics sequence, plus Calc 2 and Calc 3 (the C in the former is the biggest mark on what was otherwise a good transcript)

Letters of Recommendation: Four Tenured or TT Poli Sci faculty, three of which I served as research assistants for at some point, each worked in different subfields (CP, IR, and AP). One is the DGS for my school. Alternated between sending the CP letter and a different AP professor who I didn't do research for but was personally close to and who I often talked about research with, always sent the letter of the DGS and my thesis advisor.

Research Experience: RA'd for four different professors, first projects involved literature review work for two of them, one of which was a big name but rarely got to talk to or get close to and because the work I did was relatively insignificant and because we fell out of touch never asked for a LOR. Third project involved a lot of tracking down of replication data files and R coding for visualizing dozens of results. Fourth project involved interviewing a couple dozen subjects, ended up writing a portion of the final paper and receiving a co-authorship on a conference paper we presented at MPSA 2016, we weren't able to get it published but was able to put a (Under Review) paper on my CV during application process. Did a senior thesis on MTurk survey data that I presented at a poster session at PolMeth 2016. Worked as an editor for an undergraduate research journal.

Teaching Experience: TA'd for one of the professors that I RA'd for.

Subfield/Research Interests: AP (public opinion, information effects, machine learning)

Other: Did an internship during 2016 summer at a news organization that had some "cool" factor

 

RESULTS:

Acceptances ($$ or no $$): UC Berkeley ($$), Chicago ($$), Yale ($$)

Waitlists: Princeton

Rejections: Michigan, Stanford, Stanford GSB, Harvard

Pending: N/A

Going to: Not sure yet, going to come down to campus visits because having chemistry with my advisors and cohort is the highest priority for me, I definitely draw a lot of motivational energy from other passionate and energetic people.

 

LESSONS LEARNED:

- I wish I had polished my thesis/writing sample far more than I had. It makes sense for it to be not fully polished during the first months of my senior year during application season, but what I submitted was essentially a first draft and it certainly wasn't my best work, I just felt like it was better to send a research article-like piece of writing rather than what would have been a more polished piece of writing but what would've just been an obvious term paper. I don't think I was wrong in that assumption, but I definitely could've spent less time procrastinating by formatting and reformatting my CV and polishing my writing sample.

- I also think I spent far too much time in my SOP covering my qualifications rather than talking about what I wanted to research, why, and how. I do think I avoided most if not all of the "Kisses of Death" so often referenced, but I think I should've let my CV do the talking as far as qualifications go, and used my SOP to talk more about motivations and ideas. I'll admit that while I sought advice from my letter writers about writing my SOP, I never had them read it before I submitted my applications, which I think was a mistake.

- Others have talked about this in the main admissions thread, but I found it interesting to notice how my preferences changed as admissions results rolled in. While I was applying I always had a mental tier list of where I most wanted to go, but that tier list changed quite a bit as the cycle went along, with one of the schools I considered to be dead last on my preference list currently being my favorite among the places I was accepted.

- I was very fortunate to get early success during the cycle (Berkeley and Chicago were among the first to send out decisions) which made the rest of the cycle go easier, but despite that, it's still emotionally exhausting to get denied from a place you'd spent so many months fantasizing about attending (Stanford GSB and Harvard were my two top choices and I definitely spent an embarrassing amount of time stalking the faculty pages/websites of my fantasy advisors during the cycle)

 

SOP: Rather not share my SOP because there's definitely some things that could easily identify me with a modicum of effort even if I redacted the names of people/institutions.

1st ¶: Stated my name, intended program and subfield, and my specific research interests.

2nd and 3rd ¶: Told a brief story about the juxtaposition between my experience at my media internship and presenting my research, how it motivated me to pursue grad school.

4th ¶: Summarized how my grad-level and quantitative coursework has prepared me for graduate study

5th and 6th¶: Talked about my RA experience.

7th ¶: Described my thesis research.

8th ¶: Described my TAing experience and my experience editing for an undergraduate research journal

9th ¶: Talked about the department and why I thought I was a good fit. On advice of my DGS letter writer I made sure that professors were not noted in alphabetical order to avoid appearance of simply scanning the faculty list.

Each letter ended up being about 1100 words.

Happy to answer any questions, would also love to get in contact with anyone visiting my accepted schools.

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PROFILE:
Type of Undergrad Institution: Ivy League
Major(s)/Minor(s): Government/Sociology double-major, Latin American Studies minor
Undergrad GPA:
3.87
Type of Grad: N/A
Grad GPA: N/A
GRE: 168V/160Q/5.5AW
Any Special Courses: Methods course, Python, 2 seminars in Latin American Politics
Letters of Recommendation: 2 well-known Latin Americanists, one was my thesis adviser in Government. 1 sociology professor, thesis adviser and Director of Undergraduate Studies.
Research Experience: Research assistant for 2 professors, 2 university-funded undergraduate research projects, 1 summer research program with a well-known Latin Americanist at a different institution, 2 honors theses.
Teaching Experience: N/A
Subfield/Research Interests: Comparative Politics, regional focus on Latin America, substantial interest in political behavior

RESULTS:
Acceptances($$ or no $$): UT Austin ($$), UNC ($$), Pittsburgh ($$), UMN ($$), Princeton ($$), Berkeley ($$), Yale ($$), Columbia ($$), Johns Hopkins*
Waitlists: Duke
Rejections: Harvard
Pending: Notre Dame (implied rejection)
Going to: OMG NO IDEA

 * Declined before official offer/funding details

LESSONS LEARNED:

-        I think the strongest parts of my profile were my personal statement and my letter writers. There is something to be said for making strong connections with people in your field. You do this my networking (which is hard, I know) and by being an attentive scholar. Go to office hours, volunteer for research projects (just ask!).

-        Extra-curricular are not important unless they relate to your work as a scholar/contribute to skills that would make you a successful PhD student. For people with a few years left, try to find a research group, do summer research, take methods classes or join a club that does consulting, etc.

-        Calm down. Step away from your computer. You will be absolutely miserable refreshing your email all the time. I did not take this advice, and now have to work twice as hard to finish my thesis in time. I wish I had kept it all in perspective.

-        Impostor syndrome is real. Remember that you’ve worked damn hard to be here and that countless people have done the same to push you to this point. Don’t dishonor your work or theirs.

-        Rejection hurts, no matter what. Keep in mind that rejection of your application is not a rejection of you or your work. There are a lot of reasons why a department would have to cut you from their consideration. There will always be stuff you wish you had done better, but don’t obsess over it.

-        No one has really mentioned it so I thought I should. Applying with an SO is hard, even in the best of circumstances (and I think I/we got incredibly lucky). Be honest with one another from the start, it will make or break your relationship. How much are you willing to compromise on location/program? Are you willing to do long distance? How much distance? These are all important considerations that you should discuss BEFORE acceptances start rolling in. A lot of people make love in graduate school work, but others don't, and you need to be realistic in your expectations.

SOP: PM me, I’ll consider it.

Edited by Bibica
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PROFILE:


Type of Undergrad Institution: Somewhat known international university
Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science
Undergrad GPA: 3.8
Type of Grad: N.A.
Grad GPA: N.A.


GRE: 163/169/5.5


Any Special Courses: Statistics I, Statistics II, Social Science Research Methods, Survey Design, Econometrics I, Econometrics II, Causal Inference, Analysis of Panel Data


Letters of Recommendation: Method prof whose lecture I took and who heard very positive things from others (was the first one in years who aced all the Statistics exams), IR prof at my home university with whom I had two courses, AP at my exchange university for whom I am an RA (free of charge)


Research Experience: thesis, sent one manuscript off before my applications, lots of long term papers (16 times 4500 to 6000 words with original research questions and quant methods)


Teaching Experience: None though the department of the Method prof offered me a TA but I transferred which made this impossible


Subfield/Research Interests: Civil Wars
Other: 3 languages more or less in addition to my mother tongue and English

RESULTS:
Acceptances($$ or no $$): Columbia ($$), Penn State ($$), ETH Zurich MACIS (MA, $$)
Waitlists: NYU
Rejections: Duke, MIT, Stanford, Princeton
Pending: None
Going to: Columbia

 

LESSONS LEARNED:

  •  It's probably a two-tale story. On the one hand, you can get into your preferred university if you work really hard. There have been few days on which I didn't do anything and I always took 1.5 times the regular course load or more and could have probably had my degree after 2 years were it not for a technicality with the transfer and funding requirements. That may have shown and now I am really happy with the outcome.
  • Also never wait for others or blame limited opportunities. If you are interested in something be it advanced methods, game theory or a specific substantive subfield, just google for good introductory books, the main journals, and so forth and start reading. You won't get any younger and it will never hurt to have learned/read more than it would have been required.
  • That said I would not advise anyone to do the same as I did, because the probability that you shoot yourself in the foot is too high if you first transfer and then take an exchange year, because there will be few profs who know you well, few opportunities to get a RA position, and it will send a lot of mixed signals as some others also mentioned to me
  • I would probably just recommend a lot of hard work and a stable undergraduate degree and you should be set. 

 

SOP: You dont want to read it. It becomes worse by the second.

 

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PROFILE:
Type of Undergrad Institution:
A relatively well-known international university
Major(s)/Minor(s): Language Studies/Literature
Undergrad GPA: 3.2 [our grading method is very different and it does not translate well]
Type of Grad: Master’s Degree in Literary Theory at the same undergrad institution
Grad GPA: 4.0
GRE: V162, Q168, AW4.5
Any Special Courses: Some PoliSci graduate courses, but as a non-enrolled student
Letters of Recommendation: three professors in the same undergrad institution, all PoliSci and tenured, one relatively well-known
Research Experience: research assistantship (publicly funded) to one of my recommenders since last August
Teaching Experience: none
Subfield/Research Interests: Comparative Politics; federalism in Latin America, political economy and institutions
Other: made my writing sample specifically for applications (a literature review on my research topic with ideas for future investigations)

RESULTS:
Acceptances($$ or no $$):
Ohio State ($$), UT-Austin ($$), Texas A&M ($$), Rice ($$) and Pittsburgh ($$)
Waitlists:
Rejections:
Michigan, Duke, UCSD, UNC, Rochester, Penn, Vanderbilt, WashU
Pending: Notre Dame, Maryland (assuming rejections)
Going to: Still didn’t 100% decide, will update this when it is settled

 

LESSONS LEARNED:

 

Where do I start? First, this cycle was a big win. I expected to get into 1-3 schools, but got into five and all of them funded. Second, after last cycle when I was rejected by eight programs, this was a make-it-or-break-it cycle, and I am glad everything worked out for me. I already talked elsewhere about vital changes in my profile (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/83588-welcome-to-the-2016-17-cycle/?do=findComment&comment=1058439407)

I think I can stress some points that I thought were important for my successes and failures, avoiding to repeat what already has been said on this thread:

1. FIT: you definitely should not try at random. Never, never take prestige as a sign of fit. I would love to go to many places that have little to nothing to do with what I intend to research, and I find myself very flexible between theoretical and methodological approaches. However, on applications you absolutely NEED to provide good signals. And nothing signals better than making the right pitch to the right professors. This will get you out of trouble with your best shots and help in making a breakthrough to your long shots.

One thing you need to understand is fit can have many forms (regions of interest, methods, topics, etc.), and you should not stick to only one when deciding which schools you are going to send an application. Try to think of fit as both a way to narrow your options and to potentially expand your research horizons.

2. WHOLE PROFILE: as you can see above, I was not originally from social sciences and my grades in undergrad are not stellar. Knowing this, I made all that I could to signal how I am or will be able to conduct research at the highest level possible. I RA’d in a PoliSci project connected to my research, tailor-made my writing sample, made a point about how my background was connected to research on politics, etc. The trick here is to convey all your strengths in a way your weaknesses are perceived as minor giving the whole of your profile. It was not enough for Top 10 in my case, and I think my undergrad GPA was critical on that. But I still got a number of very good choices and probably could have got more with some more luck.

3. PROGRAMS’ RESEARCH: do lots of research on your potential programs. Lots of it. Bury yourself on it. I did not do this sufficiently, and this is probably the reason I got some hurtful rejections and was for a while incapable of deciding to which universities I should apply. You need to be able to envision yourself as part of that team and how you plan to take advantage of everything those programs have to offer. That way you will know exactly what to ask when you get an admission, but more importantly, you will know if that program is right for you BEFORE you apply.

This elevates your chances of success ten-fold. One of the programs that rejected me appeared to be a great choice beforehand, but now I see I was a fool for even applying, and that was AFTER a good deal of research. On the other hand, one of the programs that accepted me clearly understood what I was intending if I were to be accepted, otherwise they would not have offered me anything (I know this is true for every one of them, but some fits are more obvious than others, as I am sure you know).

4. THIS FORUM: GradCafe is great for some things, but is useless for a number of them as well. It is good to have advice from strangers and to talk daily about issues that most people in your life simply do not get at all. Being able to count on that cannot be underrated in any way, especially during times of great stress. That being said, this forum is great in advice on how to handle the process of applying, but it is not its purpose to guide it academically, per se. It is odd, although it is expected, that in almost two years visiting and posting I almost never saw discussions on PoliSci topics here. We are mostly occupied with applying and waiting and evaluating offers, etc., and there is little to no debate here about the discipline and its investigational issues.

Let me stress again that this is expected and I would not be comfortable debating my research issues here. But it is important that anyone who reads this understand that your application is about your academic credentials to conduct research on Political Science. We can say that you should improve your GRE scores or that you should get a way to RA, but in the end, we cannot provide really good advice on how you present you and your research as a would-be PoliSci scholar. Therefore, you should ALWAYS consult with closer-to-you people, particularly your recommenders. That is valid for almost every aspect of your applications, and remember to do that constantly. 

 

SOP: Let me put it this way: I remodeled my basic SoP after sending it to UCSD. My first version was worse, I think, but it got me into Ohio and Austin. There is some noise on the whole process, and you can never be sure. My basic SoP followed the format of other ones cited here, and I would be happy to provide you a highly redacted version of it if contacted, but I do not think it will be that much help.

 

Feel free to PM me if you think you need advice, especially if you are Brazilian (I may be able to help more in this case).

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PROFILE:
Undergrad: Top 20 Private R1
Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science & Philosophy/Interdisciplinary Minors
Undergrad GPA: 3.98 (converted to 4.0)
Type of Grad: N/A
Grad GPA: N/A
GRE: 170/161/5.0
Any Special Courses: None
Letters of Rec: 3 polisci research advisors
Research Experience: 3 years of RA/research fellowship positions during undergrad within field of interest (some university awards), 1 year in contract/research work in DC area following graduation.
Teaching Experience: None
Subfield/Research Interests: Subnational/Local politics, with particular interest in ideological geographies and party politics
Other: Some abroad experience

RESULTS:
Acceptances: UNC-CH ($$), UCLA ($$)
Waitlists: None
Rejections: Harvard (assumed), Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, Duke, UCSD, MIT, Yale, UMinn-TC
Pending: None
Going to: UCLA (pending visit)
 

Lessons Learned:
1. Applied to way too many schools, which meant (a) lots of sadness come February, (b) lots of application fees, and (c) not enough focus on fit for each application. Fit ended up being everything; both of the schools I was accepted to have a lot of faculty focusing on subnational politics. I was trying to make room within some departments where there clearly wasn't. Not saying by any means that having a different interest would have gotten me into those programs, though, just that it limited the number of potential "ins" I had with any given school. In the end, happy to end up at a program with deep support for my field of choice.

2. Could have spent a lot more time prepping for GRE. I was always confident in V, but Q was more difficult. 161 isn't awful by any means, but may have given pause at the top tiers. If I had taken it earlier and stressed myself out less, I might have been more inclined to retake with a focus on Q. However, since I was so exasperated after the first go-round, I committed to my scores without a second thought.

3. Unclear whether my time away from school helped or hurt. Job is outside of my field of interest, but delaying the application cycle for one year allowed me to include some conference presentations, awards, and experience on the application. So while the job may have not been worth it, the resume building certainly was.

SOP:
PM if interested, but followed same basic structure as given above.

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PROFILE:

Type of Undergrad Institution: Top 40 LAC

Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science and Philosophy

Undergrad GPA: 3.64

Type of Grad: None

Grad GPA: None

GRE: 164 (V), 158 (Q), 5.5 (W)

Letters of Recommendation: Three profs from undergrad, two that I was an RA for, the other I did my honors thesis with

Research Experience: Two summers as an RA.

Teaching Experience:

Subfield/Research Interests: Race Ethnicity Politics within AP

 

 

RESULTS:

Acceptances($$ or no $$): UCSD $$, UNC-Chapel Hill $$, UW-Madison $$, and UT – Austin $$

Waitlists:

Rejections: Twelve other schools all top 20, most top 10

Pending: None

Going to: Probably UCSD

 

   Gradcafe can often make a person nervous.  I tried to avoid gradcafe except to see how people did their SOPs.  LESSONS LEARNED: Apply early and apply often.

 

 

 

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Type of Undergrad Institution: Top 10 liberal arts college
Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science (Theory)
Undergrad GPA: 3.85/4.0
Type of Grad:N/A
Grad GPA:
GRE: V 169 / Q 159 / AW 6 
Any Special Courses: 
Letters of Recommendation: 1 from mentor, respected but not famous polisci prof (somewhat straussian), 2 non poli sci,
Research Experience: Nothing special, honors thesis. 
Teaching Experience: None
Subfield/Research Interests: Theory
Other:

RESULTS:
Acceptances($$ or no $$): Duke phd ($$),  Chicago MAPSS (70% funding), New School MA (70% funding), NYU MA (No funding). 
Waitlists: None
Rejections: Harvard (assumed), Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Chicago, Social Thought, NYU, Northwestern, Cornell, Berkeley,
Pending: Notre Dame, Cambridge MPHIL intellectual history (expected acceptance) 
Going to: Duke

 

LESSONS LEARNED:

 

 

SOP:

Took some risks and proposed an original, somewhat unconventional area of study in political theory. I do not think this was well received, although I still believe it to be important and interesting. I don't regret doing it because I still had a good outcome, but it's possible that a more conventional SOP could have intrigued other schools more.

 

My mentor has major connections to Duke and has sent several other successful students there, so his recommendation counted for much more than any other shortcomings in my file (i.e. unconventional SOP). So I guess I would suggest looking at the personal connections your professors have and exploiting the opportunities there. 

 

Also, I recommend definitely looking beyond the top 10; there are so few spots there, you can easily come back with all rejections. 

 

But in the end, I trust those departments that rejected me. As far as I can tell, grad admissions is about fit above all, and the professors themselves are the best judge of that fit. So I trust their decision not to want to work with me is the best one. Plus a part of me wonders if things would have been better if I had just been rejected everywhere and dodged the academia bullet altogether. Only time will tell. 

 

Good luck to all. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

PROFILE:
Type of Undergrad Institution: T3 University in Hong Kong
Major(s)/Minor(s): Economics and Finance
Undergrad GPA: 3.4
Type of Grad: NA
Grad GPA: NA
GRE: 168 Verbal/ 165 Quant/ AW 4
Any Special Courses:
Letters of Recommendation: 2 from former teachers, 1 from a professor I closely work with
Research Experience: 1 year research exp; projects in Middle East; 1 published paper at a Q1 journal
Teaching Experience:
Subfield/Research Interests: Comparative Politics/ Race, Ethnicity and Politics
Other:

RESULTS:
Acceptances($$ or no $$): Michigan ($$), HKUST ($$) 
Waitlists:
Rejections: Harvard, Stanford, UC-Berkeley (Education)
Pending:
Going to: Michigan

 

LESSONS LEARNED:

 

I think it is better to prepare in advance (at least by early November, you should have your SOP and essays ready) so that you can show them around to your supervisors, which can really beef up the quality of SOPs. I didn't so I really had to rush just before the deadlines.

 

When writing SOP, I followed 90-10 rule, meaning 90% of your research exp, proposed project and its fit to the department, while 10% is your personal motivation for doing PhD and justifying your research interest through personal experience. Don't make it too sappy but make it punchy and relevant to your essay (for example, I used my background as growing up under a military regime.) Everyone has a nice story to tell that can be linked to your research. This will be a good boost to the reader's interest when properly used.

 

Research fit is probably the most important part, as I applied to some schools knowing that I am not a fit. Try to spend most of the time for research into faculty.

 

It is also a numbers game. My strategy is very risky, so don't try this at home. Some fellows say ten is an optimum number.

 

Most of us probably will have to take GRE two times, one for learning how it works and one for really making it work for your application. Give some time for two GREs (Don't take it in November!)

 

SOP: As I said, my background, my research interest, my research experience, and why I am a good fit to the department. Feel free to ask for the file.

 

GradCafe helped me calm my nerves so hope I can pay back a little with this. Good luck to everyone applying for next year!

 

Edited by thiha
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  • 3 weeks later...

I've lurked on the forums the entire application cycle and feel like I should give something back for those who will apply next year...

PROFILE:

Type of Undergrad Institution: Top 20 private school

Major(s)/Minor(s): International Affairs

Undergrad GPA: 3.83

Type of Grad: --

Grad GPA: --

GRE: V163 Q166 AW 5

Any Special Courses: 4 economics, 1 statistics, several graduate seminars

Letters of Recommendation: 2 tenured or professors in the Government department; 1 adjunct professor who works at State with overlapping regional focus

Research Experience: 2 semesters RA, 1 research internship, standard senior thesis.

Teaching Experience: Working as a foreign language teaching methodology trainer in the Peace Corps

Subfield/Research Interests: Comparative

Other: I've spent 2 years in the region I'd like to focus on with the Peace Corps and am proficient in 3 languages I hope to use for research

RESULTS:

Acceptances ($$ or no $$): UW Madison ($$), UC Berkeley ($$), Columbia ($$)

Waitlists: - Indiana

Rejections: Stanford, Michigan, Yale, Harvard, NYU, Princeton, WashU

Pending: -

Going to: Columbia

LESSONS LEARNED:

- Think hard about where you want to apply. I wasn't phased at all by 3/6 rejections I received, I think because I realized (during? after?) the application process that these schools didn't have a great fit and weren't in places I wanted to live. Looking back on it, I wish I hadn't wasted the time applying (and I didn't even pay for my apps because of my financial situation as a Peace Corps volunteer)

- My letter writers told me my SOP was quite strong, but it was definitely a process -- get a current graduate student to read over it and add notes. Mine was lovely in the sense of its prose until a 1st year read over it and ripped it apart; only after that was I a lot more pointed in describing why I wanted to study at a particular university (address research institutes, pots of money, professors' current projects). I think my SOP was fairly strong, and I’ve been told as much by a number of professors (including one at a program that did not admit me). In terms of crafting a research question, I followed passion and borrowed "buzzwords" taken from scouring faculty/student profiles that aligned with my interests.

- I took the GRE 3 years ago after studying for 2 weeks my senior year of college; if you're a senior but aren't sure about applying this year, take the test NOW while you're still in school mode and sit on your nice score until you decide to get serious about applying.

SOP: Layout:

1st ¶: Stated my intended program and subfield at X university

2nd ¶: Explained my background in a multidisciplinary undergraduate program for international affairs, and how it led me to believe that my subfield is the best way to approach questions that pique my curiosity  

3rd ¶: Breakdown of my undergraduate thesis and the theories I tested

4th ¶: Summarized how my thesis developed over 2.5 years with multiple summer research trips, which has prepared me for graduate-level work

5th ¶: Strength of my language skills

6th ¶: How Peace Corps has challenged beliefs I developed in undergrad and confirmed my love of the region

7th ¶: Proposed a puzzle about the relationship between nation-building and state-building in post-communist contexts

8th ¶: X, Y, Z professors I want to work with at this university and addressing exactly what aspect of their research interests me

9th ¶: Future plans (literally 1 sentence)

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  • 2 weeks later...

Thanks to all who have posted so far! We really do have an impressive community of scholars on GC, and I am glad to know that our "cohort" will be well represented in the nation's top programs. Seeing as April 15th has come and will soon be gone, I figured I would bump this thread one last time - if you are reading this post and you have not yet contributed, now is your chance! The fact that this thread has already accumulated over 4,000 views is proof that the hard-learned lessons and advice that you post here will reach many inquiring eyes, and your posts will likely help to quell the anxiety of future prospectives who are scrounging for any insights into this stressful process.

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Type of Undergrad Institution: State Public School (Not Highly Ranked)

Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science

Undergrad GPA: 3.48

Type of Grad: --

Grad GPA: --

GRE: V162 Q156 AW 5

Any Special Courses: Two graduate level courses at a T10 institution through a special program.

Letters of Recommendation: 1 Tenured Professor at my institution (we did not share same substantive interests), 1 Assistant Professor at my institution, 1 Tenured Professor from the T10 institution where I completed a program.

Research Experience: Independent Study through entire second year, Independent Study the following summer, Local Internship resulting in research paper the following Fall, senior seminar resulting in research paper (in my substantive interests) the following Spring, research program resulting in another research project the following Summer, research presentations in the Fall of my senior year, and the beginning of another independent study this Spring.

This is a bit wordy and hard to follow however, this is presented to say I have consistently immersed myself in research from my second year going forward.

Teaching Experience:  Naturalization course TA, Political Philosophy class TA

Subfield/Research Interests: American Politics

Other:  N/A

RESULTS:

Acceptances ($$ or no $$): UCLA ($$), UCSD ($$), Columbia ($$), University of Michigan- AA ($$), University of Virginia ($$), Duke ($$), Vanderbilt ($$)

Waitlists: - Yale

Rejections: Stanford, MIT, Harvard, NYU (Offered admission to MA program), Princeton, UC Berkeley

Pending: -

Going to: Columbia

LESSONS LEARNED:

1)      Think about where you are applying. Take the time to read through at least the biographies of the people that may be of interest to you. That means going to the website and filtering faculty by area of interest. It sounds like a lot of work, especially if you are applying to many schools, however, you will thank yourself later, and you will maximize your chances of being accepted when there is a genuine fit.

2)      Don’t freak out about GREs. My GREs aren’t that great, and I got into some amazing programs. I personally know people with lower GRE scores than I had, who still got into T10 institutions. I know for people applying GREs can be a great source of stress, but I hope this alleviates some of the anxiety, don’t sweat it, you got this.

3)      Apply to a wide range of programs. Do not limit yourself to where you think you can get in. Half of the programs on my list were not on my initial school list because I thought there was no way I could get in, but I was dead wrong. Apply to the most prestigious programs if that’s somewhere you want to be and of course if you can afford it.

4)      For people of color/underrepresented backgrounds Ronald E. McNair is your friend. If you meet the requirements, the McNair Scholars program can make a world of difference. I did not pay for any applications (hundreds of dollars in savings) because I was a McNair scholar. Schools want to diversify their cohorts, being a McNair scholar in some ways is a draw. Also, you can join McNair pretty late into your undergraduate career and still benefit from the free application waivers. You also get to cut the cost of the GRE in half (that will come in handy).

5)      Stick to having about 2 different people help you with your apps. Asking for advice is important. On optional statements as well as your SOP and writing sample. However, you will find that the “right thing to do” will vary based on who you ask. You want to be as prepared as possible but asking too many people will result in having conflicting opinions and possibly a weaker package.

6)      Letter writers matter, but in varying forms. I would imagine the importance of letter writers vary based on the committee dealing with applications. I did not have anyone widely renowned in my field write a letter for me, although I technically had the option to have that. I chose to have the people who knew me best write my letters, and I feel it worked to my advantage. One of my writers was not even tenured and before the results came in, I panicked a bit due to the stigma surrounding those kinds of people write recommendations. The people who wrote letters for me I’m sure wrote them extremely strong because they spoke best to my strengths and weaknesses as a budding scholar. I would say do not worry too much about the status of your professor, I was glad I asked the assistant professor to write my letter, it was probably the strongest one, if not the second most. These are the people willing to stick there necks out for you, and it works (at least for me).

7)      Don’t be afraid to reach out. I e-mailed professors in almost all the institutions I applied to because, I wanted to make sure they felt out interests fit. There is no harm in that, and if you do it right it will help! They really do remember you, and you never know, it could mean the difference since this process is such a crap shoot. As for timing, I emailed in the summer before the application process and followed up when I submitted my application.

8)      Making a decision is tough, even if you got accepted to the school you thought was your favorite. This process is long, and your favorite school might not be your favorite by the time all the decisions roll in. For me this process was filled with stress, even if it was a good problem to have. This also goes for people who are not accepted to their dream program. It is going to hurt, but if you prepared yourself in the right way, your other options are also great fits for you, meaning you will have a great time in a multitude of ways, elsewhere. When navigating through making your choice, try to think about where you can see yourself actually completing the program and also growing most personally and professionally.

9)      Gradcafe is not all that bad. Professors will tell you to stay off of this website. Although they do have a point (your anxiety builds up as you see others get accepted places), this website also has great value. You have people going through the same thing as you, and it provides a bit of structure when you feel in dark in regards to the decisions rolling out. That said, I primarily visited the main 2017 discussion thread and refreshed results here and then. On a bit of a side note, do not go to polisci rumors… that website is utterly toxic.

If you have any other questions PM me, I am open to chatting about the process.

SOP: Layout:

1st ¶: My research interests/subfield and why I think its important to pursue ideas along those lines (very brief and to the point).

2nd ¶: A little bit more about the kinds of puzzle I want to pursue alongside my plans on how I would study it in the near future (Spring Independent Study).

3rd ¶: What I have done throughout my undergraduate career to try to study the puzzle I have been discussing, alongside the limitations I encountered.

4th ¶: What I have been doing more recently (think around the Fall when students apply to schools) concerning the topics of my interest and also how beginning to speak to how X school might help me overcome the limitations I have encountered. Essentially a paragraph speaking about the value added to me if I am admitted to X school.

5th ¶: Fit paragraph! Who I wanted to work with, what interested me about what they do, and any research centers/opportunities that stand out from X school. In addition to expressing interest in helping them with their research agendas.

6th ¶: Aspirations (very short)

Edited by jge
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Hey all, this isn't my application season (post in last year's thread here), but I did want to impart a bit of advice. It is likely that your research interests overlap somewhere with another member of this forum. While you're all still on this forum (as most of you will likely never return after the beginning of grad school), I encourage you, if you are comfortable with doing so, to talk to each other privately and de-anonymize. Networking is a huge part of how you fare on the market, and it does not hurt to start today. So turn to each other and start talking, arrange to meet each other at conferences, and possibly co-author something once you feel ready to do so.

This is not empty advice. I am currently co-authoring a project with a (former?) active user of this forum, who I will leave nameless unless they wish to announce themselves, and it's looking promising. The type of people who self-select into GradCafe are usually ahead of the game, and all of you this year were no exception. So get networking!

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I'll throw my oar in here as well. 

PROFILE:

Type of Undergrad Institution: No-name LAC. 

Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science, Economics (double major), Philosophy minor. 

Undergrad GPA: 3.99

Type of Grad: --

Grad GPA: --

GRE: V170, Q161, AW 5.5

Any Special Courses: Of course, lots of econ stuff and philosophy stuff. 3 stats classes, econometrics, etc. 

Letters of Recommendation: 1 professor emeritus (retired at the end of my Junior year, but I took 3 classes with him and worked as his TA/RA for a year), 1 tenured professor, 1 visiting professor who I coauthored with. Not much choice, in a department my size. 

Research Experience: RA for 2 years, research fellowship/internship one summer (but policy-based), and two senior theses (1 poli sci, 1 econ). 1 peer-reviewed paper (coauthor, but I'm the primary author). Presentations at a number of regional conferences, including one "Best Undergraduate Paper" award. 

Teaching Experience: 2 years as a TA for political science--assisted with a wide range of courses and course tasks. 

Subfield/Research Interests: Theory, constitutional law and development, legal theory. Methodology and statistics. 

Other: Some language training, including classical languages.

RESULTS:

Acceptances ($$ or no $$): UNC-CH ($$), Boston College ($$), Baylor ($$), Chicago MAPSS ($$)

Waitlists: - ND, UVA (I accepted my offer before they decided). 

Rejections: Duke, Northwestern, U Chicago Ph.D., Committee on Social Thought

Pending: -

Going to: UNC-CH

LESSONS LEARNED:

- Start revising your SOP early and often. Honestly, I believe that my SOP was a weak point in an otherwise very strong application. Unfortunately, I'm the first student in nearly 20 years to graduate from my program and pursue a Ph.D.--and most of my professors are long out of graduate school--so I had very little support for how to tailor my application for today's market. GradCafe was very helpful in that regard. I (sadly) feel that my SOP may have been a deciding factor in how my application was viewed at some of my top choices. 

- Avoid sharing useless information. I received a lot of feedback from professors at the schools I did get into that indicated that my economics background, for instance, was interesting but largely irrelevant, and I could have used that application space to discuss something more relevant to my intended course of study. It's good to remember that the broad and widely varied training some of us may have received in a LAC, at this point, needs to become razor sharp and specialized. 

- Have good relationships with your LOR writers. Several of the acceptances I received mentioned specifically the strength of my LORs. For those of us who are coming from a no-name school/have LOR writers who are completely unrecognized in their field, it's possible to overcome the stigma by having quality work and excellent LOR. 

- If you can, take the GRE twice. I test poorly, and the second time I took it, I improved my composite score by 6 points without ANY additional study--just being more comfortable with the testing procedures. 

- Don't be crushed by rejections. I know (firsthand) that it's hard to feel like your entire life was weighed and found wanting, but the process is arbitrary enough that there are a multitude of reasons you may (or may not) get into your program of choice. Don't set your heart on any one program, but be willing to be wooed by any program that admits you. 

- Do your work, do it well, and then try your best to relax. Only check GC or your email periodically, go on long walks, and spend the waiting time well. 
 

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PROFILE:

Type of Undergrad Institution: Lower-ranked private LAC

Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science, History, Psychology

Undergrad GPA: 3.94

Type of Grad: MA Political Science

Grad GPA: 4.00

GRE: V157 Q153 AW 4

Any Special Courses: Advanced statistics courses in graduate school & intensive summer language training in foreign language specific to my expected dissertation research.

Letters of Recommendation: 1 tenured professor in grad Political Science department; 2 assistant professors

Research Experience: 2 semesters RA, 2 research internships, undergrad senior and MA thesis.

Teaching Experience: Worked as a TA for 2 classes (1 in undergrad, 1 in grad)

Subfield/Research Interests: IR/Comparative

RESULTS:

Acceptances ($$ or no $$): Michigan State ($$), UVA ($$), University of Toronto ($$), George Mason ($$)

Waitlists: - CUNY

Rejections: Columbia, Penn State, Georgetown, GWU

Going to: University of Toronto

LESSONS LEARNED:

1) Don't sell yourself short. In my case, there were definitely some schools that were going to be out of reach given my GRE scores, but at the same time I sold myself short by applying to lower-ranked schools (they aren't listed here) that I wouldn't necessarily be happy attending anyway, just so that I would have a 'safe' choice. In the beginning of the process I was so focused and nervous about 'getting in' somewhere that where I applied became a game of numbers and calculations. Of course I am happy with my choice ultimately, and with the schools that I did get accepted to, but I could have saved myself a lot of money by not applying to schools that had little else for me other than being a 'safety' school.

2) Your preferences might change. I went into the application process (like most other people) with a clear ranked ordering of which schools I most wanted to get accepted to. This is a great thing to do because it allows you to prioritize, but what I have found is that the schools I thought I liked the most on paper did not hold up in person. Schools (and professors) can be great online, but my expectations of schools that I thought were my "top choice" did not exactly pan out during the visits.

3) Visits matter. The point above leads perfectly into this: visits matter!!!! I cannot stress this enough. What you see and read online is often quite different from reality. Professors that seem great based on their bios might be unreachable, unfriendly, or disinterested in working with graduate students, and the only real way to get a feel for this is by visiting the university (and the professors) of interest. My mental rank-order flipped completely after my visits based on (un)met expectations. If you absolutely can't visit, then I would suggest reaching out to professors of interest and setting up a phone call with them so that you can gauge their level of interest and availability. 

4) Professor match matters. I can't say this enough: your match with professors matters! My rule of thumb was that if there weren't at least 2 professors at a school that I could foresee myself working with, then I didn't even bother applying. It might be your dream school, but if you can't find a good match with a professor, it won't be your dream school by the time you're done.

5) Quality of life matters. This might be a controversial point given the competitive nature of jobs in our field right now (and may also be somewhat specific to my situation), but I think it should be said. A lot of the advice that I got from people in my field was to choose the place that will give you the best job opportunities down the road. While I don't suggest that you choose a school that is ranked light-years below another school based on the fact that you want to be close to your s/o or live in a particular city/town, I do suggest to keep these things in mind when comparing similar schools. My choice ultimately came down to two schools (one Canadian and one American) that are objectively the same in ranking and prestige (although it is hard to gauge the rank of an American school that isn't in the top 20 with a top Canadian school), but were quite different in terms of program characteristics and quality of life. One was in a big, exciting city with a big program to match (but with less $), and the other was in a small (and isolated) town with a small program to match (but with more $). Putting money and job prospects aside for a moment, remember that wherever you go, you are devoting 5+ years of your life (and in my case, the rest of my 20s) to a difficult degree that can often be isolating and can take a toll on your mental health and happiness. While job prospects are obviously important, if you are comparing relatively similar schools with wildly different qualities of life, think hard about what the pay-off of a lesser quality of life really is in the long-run for only a small difference in money offered and job prospects afterward. 

I ultimately ended up choosing a school that might not be the most obvious choice: it's Canadian (which presents some hurdles for getting back into the American market), and I am getting less money to live in a more expensive city. In my decision, more money did not necessarily equate to a better quality of life, because I knew I would have been unhappy if I had chosen the option with more money, despite the potential for a slightly better outcome in terms of job prospects. My opinion is that if you are doing what you should be doing in grad school anyways (publishing, networking, doing interesting and relevant work), then minute differences in ranking don't mean much, especially in the face of the potential for a better quality of life. Perhaps I would have better job prospects if I chose the American school with more money, but ultimately I would not have been happy with that choice (and student unhappiness is a large factor in attrition).  

The point of my long and winded explanation is this: the only thing we have in this life is time, and slightly better job prospects or slightly more money ultimately don't buy you more time. Once schools are ranked relatively equally and there are only minor differences in program quality and the money offered, choose based on your own happiness.     

Edited by mstama123
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PROFILE:
Type of Undergrad Institution: Small, unranked, Private Liberal Arts College
Major(s)/Minor(s): Major: History, Minor: Music
Undergrad GPA: 3.6/4.0
Type of Grad: Top-75 European Research Univ, International Relations
Grad GPA: 3.87/4.2
GRE: 170V, 154Q, 6.0W
Any Special Courses: UG Thesis, Grad Thesis, Graduate seminars in IR theory, normative theory, research methods, etc
Letters of Recommendation: 1 TT Poli Sci/IR Professor (Grad thesis supervisor, program director), 1 tenured history professor (UG thesis supervisor, head of department, took 6 courses), 1 TT undergrad humanities professor (took 7 courses)
Research Experience: 2 theses (undergrad & grad), 1 student journal publication, 1 research internship with US government agency
Teaching Experience: 2 semesters TA for undergraduate politics course
Subfield/Research Interests: International Relations (International organizations, international law, conflict & intervention)
Other:

RESULTS:
Acceptances($$ or no $$): Univ. Southern California ($$), Michigan State Univ ($$), CUNY ($$)
Waitlists: MSU, CUNY (offered off waitlist); George Washington (rejected off waitlist)
Rejections: GWU, Georgetown, Univ. Minnesota, Northwestern
Pending:
Going to: I've made a decision, if you're really curious feel free to shoot me a message. 

 

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • Doing applications while working full-time is challenging, be sure to set aside time to work on your SOP and study for the GRE. I found it worked best for me to stay in my office late to work or to go to a library/coffee shop on the weekends, working at home was largely unproductive.
  • I'm unsure of how my letters may have helped or hurt me. One plus side - I knew all of my referees very well. An advantage to a small undergrad was that I had taken tons of discussion-heavy courses with my letter writers. This meant that they knew me well and even after time away from the school they were familiar with my research interests and personal goals. Downside - only one in the field and no big names.
  • Do what you can with the GRE, and try to do better in the quantitative area than I did. I know that a 154 didn't do me any favors, and mentally that kept me from applying to many top programs.
  • Turn off the computer in January. Applications are in, rereading your SOP won't help, and decisions likely won't be coming for a couple weeks. Take January to give yourself a mental break - February and March will be bad enough.
  • There is a lot of discussion on here about if doing a masters before a PhD is the right step. I think it helped me - confirmed my interest in switching fields, exposed me to the literature and types of working being done and allowed me to improve upon a lackluster undergrad GPA. Downsides? Cost and time. Think carefully on it. If you're from the US and thinking of doing a master's abroad and have any questions feel free to send me a message.

 

SOP: Mine was pretty typical. If you're really interested in it you can message me, but it fit the common pattern. One thing was that if I couldn't find a program with at least 2 professors that I could discuss in my SOP as being good research fits, I didn't apply. Fit matters.

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To throw in one more piece of advice....

For the love of God, once you've submitted your applications, DO NOT READ ANY OF YOUR APPLICATION MATERIALS. That way lies madness. Seal those things away in a dark little corner of your hard drive, and only look at them if you decide to apply again in the next cycle. 

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PROFILE:
Type of Undergrad Institution: top 20 US university
Major(s)/Minor(s): political science, computer science minor
Undergrad GPA: 3.81
Type of Grad: n/a
Grad GPA: n/a
GRE: 169V / 168Q / 5.0W
Any Special Courses: game theory, econometrics, quantitative political methodology, ~advanced r programming, research design, matrix algebra, calc III
Letters of Recommendation: 1) poli sci tenured professor, senior thesis advisor; 2) comp sci tenured professor, TA supervisor; 3) poli sci tenure-track professor, TA and RA supervisor; 4) (when possible) poli sci tenured professor, took two seminars with him
Research Experience:  undergrad thesis; lil bit of r and python coding for professors' projects
Teaching Experience: two comp sci courses, one poli sci
Subfield/Research Interests: IR, international organizations and international law
Other:

RESULTS:
Acceptances($$ or no $$): emory, wisconsin, nyu, osu, unc, penn state, texas a&m (all $)
Waitlists: harvard
Rejections: stanford, yale, columbia, rochester, ucla
Pending:
Going to:

 

LESSONS LEARNED:

For 6 of the 7 places where I was accepted, I included a section in the SOP about why I wanted to go to that school specifically, where I mentioned a few professors I'd like to work with and whatever talking points I could scrape from the website.

 

For 4 of the 6 where I did not get in, I basically submitted a (cmd+F replace with school name) form SOP.  Take away from that what you will. 

 

In retrospect I applied to too many places. At the time I had absolutely no way of knowing whether I had a shot at any one place, so I tried to maximize my chances. I did make sure only to apply to places where I would have been happy to go.

 

On the advice of my undergrad mentors, I refrained from contacting any professors before being accepted to their programs. Again, mixed success, so take from that what you will.

Edited by yessiree
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PROFILE:

Type of Undergrad Institution: Comprehensive Canadian University

Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science & Legal Studies Option 

Undergrad GPA: 3.84/4.00

Type of Grad: I am applying for Masters

Grad GPA: N/A

GRE: Did not have to complete 

Letters of Recommendation: 2 tenured professors in Political Science department; 2 assistant professors (non-tenure track)

Research Experience: 2 published journal articles & undergrad senior research project.

Teaching Experience: Worked as a TA for 4 classes (4 in undergrad)

Work Experience: Policy Intern at Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C, Legal Intern at a top 20 international firm, and an analyst at a Fortune 500 company. 

Subfield/Research Interests: IR

RESULTS:

Acceptances ($$ or no $$): LSE ($$), UCL ($$), St. Andrews ($$), SOAS ($$), Cambridge ($$), Edinburgh ($$)

Waitlists: 

Rejections: Oxford

Going to: Deciding between LSE, Cambridge, Edinburgh, & St. Andrews (Leaning towards LSE/Cambridge)

LESSONS LEARNED: 

DO NOT APPLY LATE TO YOUR DREAM PROGRAM. Goodbye Oxford :( 

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