The Gentle Guide for Applying to Graduate Schools

Full grad school application

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By David Shorter 

I’m wrapping up my eighth and final year as chair of graduate admissions in my department. Along the way I’ve learned a few lessons that seem worth sharing with the many readers who advise students applying to graduate school in the humanities or social sciences.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice for undergraduates planning to take this step is the most obvious: Start early. But for the focused and determined applicants, a thoroughly considered approach can be managed with forethought and method.

The following suggestions will hopefully provide a gentler strategy — gentle on the applicants and on those of us charged with reading their applications. I do not mean "gentle" in relation to the applicants themselves or their chosen research interests: Even radical work can be planned in ways that are mindful of everyone’s health and ease. Feel free to share the following tips with your students.

Laying the groundwork. Early in the calendar year (ideally from January to March) start planning for the two to four letters of recommendation that you will need by year’s end, from people who can speak about your work (not biography) in detail. A clear majority of the letters should be from academics. At least one should speak to your promise in the field(s) to which you are applying.

Only by starting this work early can you have a quarter or a semester taking courses or independent studies with those teachers who could write great letters on your behalf. Also, these are the months to ask yourself if you should take a "test prep" course for the GRE.

From January through June of the application year, secure your working relationships with your letter writers. Demonstrate for them clear evidence of your thinking, writing, self-motivation, originality, commitment, and scholarly promise. As faculty, we rarely will ask you to do that up front, and yet those are the qualities on which we will be evaluating you. If you’ve done your job on this front, when we sit down to write you a letter of reference, we will be able to see that you helped us write glowingly, and with specificity.

Perhaps the most important preparation for applying also comes this first half of the year: Map out your ideal possible futures, asking yourself how it feels to imagine yourself in one field or another.

The Ph.D. career path requires devotion, and often a few decades spent working on a set of research questions. Make a rank-ordered list of different versions of your project, working in different disciplines and with a range of theses. If you do not like reading and writing — a lot — then start looking at studio arts, performance, or other such training.

Keep in mind that these paths also benefit from grant writing, almost continuously. In other words, ask yourself if you enjoy this preliminary stage of writing, research, and rewriting. Now is the time to confirm that you would like a life spent with those activities as your primary responsibilities.

Narrowing your options. From June to August, you have three main tasks.

  • First, using that rank-ordered list of your "ideal future" as a guide, investigate departments that offer training in those areas. Search for institutions that focus on the professional field, geographic region, culture group, methods, and/or languages necessary for your ideal projects. See what other resources might exist near those campuses: populations, cultural centers, archives, and institutes. Make a list of those places. And I suggest that you apply to whatever programs interest you regardless of cost. Financial concerns can be more fully considered once all of your options are on the table.
  • Second, during the summer months, make notes about readings that excite you in your area. You can of course be excited or challenged without being in exact agreement with the authors. Who are those scholars? Where do they teach? Have they written other works that suggest they might have moved on to other primary research topics? Make a list of their professional email addresses and programs where they have appointments. Here is where you read tons and write out your rank-ordered list again. The point is to be current in your knowledge of who is actively working in research areas that interest you.
  • Third, using your evolving lists, determine if any of those places require GRE scores. Register for exams with enough time for the scores to arrive before the application deadlines. In my department, for example, if even one element of the package does not arrive by the due date, the application is marked "incomplete" and review is deferred. It bears repeating: Never give an admissions reviewer a reason, no matter how small, to evaluate your application as unprofessional.

Searching for potential advisers. From August to September, email the scholars who are your most probable future advisers and ask in a succinct manner: (1) Are they expecting to continue their work in the areas you find relevant? And (2) do they expect to be working with graduate students in the coming years?

Those emails should not be more than four or five sentences long. Don’t attach any documents. Don’t ask if the professor would like to work with you or is planning to take sabbatical, retire, or change jobs. Avoid sending them your written work or CV, or anything more than a sentence or two accentuating your interests.

Nor should you be writing doctoral programs to ask if you would be a good fit for them. Either the methods outlined above or the departments’ websites will help you answer that question on your own. At any rate, that is a matter determined by the actual application-review process.

The idea here is to simply focus on those places that are feasible and worth your application labor and the university’s application fee. And on that note, if applicable, you should be submitting your requests at this same time to the graduate schools or admissions staff members inquiring how to have your application fees waived.

Late summer and early fall are also the times to contact your recommenders to ask if they are able to write you strong, positive letters of reference. Let them know you will be proactive in getting them any documents they need to write the letter — for example, final drafts of your application materials and copies of your previous work. Confirm the minimum amount of lead time they need for reference requests.

Now is also the time to ask a couple of your references if they could read a draft of the "statement of purpose" you have to include in your applications. If none of your letter writers are available to review your final application materials, enlist a friend or another faculty member to be your editor.

Most programs do not favor campus visits from prospective students before they have been accepted. Campus resources are already taxed with current students. Some places do not want to privilege those applicants who can afford to travel or those who are local. Keep in mind: You will have plenty of time after you are admitted to visit the department and talk over questions of fit.

The application process is a standardized opportunity to showcase your research interests, experiences, and work samples. Sending your work, visiting the department, or asking for individualized attention before applying will perhaps make you stand out, but not necessarily in a good way.

Submitting and waiting. Be sure to meet your deadlines. Submit the requested documents — at the specified length — and do not ask for exceptions. Do not send in anything but the most perfect final drafts of your materials. Do not ask to resubmit revised application materials.

Feel free to confirm that your materials were received — assuming that information is not available online. But do not write afterward to confirm where the department is at in its application process.

Review processes differ by program. They can take between one month and seven. In my department, members of the admissions committee have a designated period where we give your materials close consideration. We will look at your writing skills, your narrative voice, your knowledge of our fields, and your letters of reference.

Most important, we will consider how you would fit within our department culture with other students and with our faculty and staff. We often consider how applicants could form cohesive and complimentary cohorts. Students tend to worry about GRE scores, but I have never heard of a department that gives them primary weight over other factors. At this point, with your applications submitted, trust the process.

If you did not gain acceptance at a particular program, keep in mind that departments can rarely give you specific details as to why. Your reference letters are confidential; matters of cohort cohesiveness are difficult to describe since they pertain to other applicants’ research; and we simply lack the time to foster conversations about your writing skills or preparation. Graduate programs — particularly in the humanities and arts — are usually forced to concentrate their energies on students who are already in our programs. But many of us welcome applicants to reapply.

To be sure, the graduate-application process in the humanities and social sciences mirrors the nature of academic work and life. You find out early on how much reading, writing, research, and rewriting (editing) are required. If you do not enjoy doing that work before getting in, you probably will not enjoy it once you are admitted, nor when you are paid to do it as a professor.

Likewise, the method of planning work slowly over months in preparation for a distant deadline will be a lifelong responsibility in academia. You will be constantly rewarded, at least in terms of health, by not waiting until the last minute.

In both the application process and in an scholarly career, your passion for the work will have to take precedence over many other considerations, including location. If you feel that you can only apply to graduate programs in one specific geographic local, remember that the competitive academic job market favors those who are mobile. I have had stellar doctoral students limit themselves regionally and then struggle to find a tenure-track job. I wish that aspect of the academic life was different. But saying you would only live near the coast, or in a specific state, will greatly limit your chances for employment, and the same is true for graduate study.

Lastly, much like the profession itself, applying to graduate school can be highly rewarding. You are choosing to pursue a path that accentuates your contributions to the world. This phase is a wonderful opportunity to craft your writing voice, to narrow your range of scholarly interests, and to "put yourself out there" to see where you might end up being for the next two to seven years.

To foster an application process that is less stressful on everyone involved — including you — start early and work methodically. Keep in mind that you can control how gentle (or not) this year can be. One’s years in graduate school can be formative for so much of one’s life; the process of deciding where you will go, your teachers, and your research project deserve focused attention. Best of luck.

David Shorter is a professor of culture and performance at the University of California at Los Angeles. He has served as the chair of admissions for the last eight years and frequently presents on graduate-school professional development topics

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