In Part 2 of my seminar of writing a powerful personal statement, I talk about how you can turn your story ideas into compelling and interesting essays that engage the reader and make them view you as an interesting, prepared, and attractive candidate. Though these seminars were written for MBA applicants, the same basic ideas and approaches will also work for graduate, medical, law, and undergraduate applicants.
Applying to doctoral programs can be stressful and mysterious, and one of the real challenges is that most of the advice that you’ll find online about the application process comes from people whose experience is in the world of business school, law school, or undergraduate admissions. This advice isn’t well suited to graduate school applications because the process is simply different, as are the goals of the admission committee and the people who staff that admissions committee. We detailed much of this in a recent blog post.
Today, I want to follow up on some of the items we talked about by giving you three practical tips that will help you with your PhD application.
1.It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what you want to study. In my last blog, I pointed out that, the closer you can get to articulating what the thesis of your eventual dissertation will be, the better. This advice often elicits two concerns from clients. First, will being overly specific hurt my chances of admission? No, quite the opposite. If you don’t have a really specific answer to “what?” and “why?” you’ll come across as someone who isn’t quite ready for graduate school. The old joke that ‘PhD’ stands for “Piled Higher and Deeper” is a reminder that doctoral studies are about becoming highly expert in a very narrow question within a very specific field. Or, as my old PhD advisor put it, “Brian, your task is to become the world’s foremost expert in the thing you’re writing about.”
Second, people are often concerned that they either don’t yet know what exactly they want to study or that they might change their mind along the way. Now, if you have no earthly clue whatsoever what you want to investigate, the short answer is that you have no business applying to graduate school. You should at least enter graduate school with some idea of what you want to study. BUT, even if you don’t, you should at least be able to articulate a plausible question that you may want to study. It’s fine if you end up changing your focus because most people don’t actually end up researching the precise areas that they intended to when they arrived. Now, obviously, you will stay close to home, intellectually speaking, so it’s not as though you’ll go from studying Medieval History to Cell Biology, but chances are that you might, for instance, go from studying how neural cell plasticity is impacted by traumatic injury to studying how neural cell plasticity might be involved in autism. It’s the same general subject, be very different questions. That’s a VERY normal thing to happen. In fact, your initial classes and (if you’re in the sciences) rotations through labs are designed to give you a broader exposure so that you can select a precise topic that interests you.
So, if most people end up changing their intended thesis, why do the admissions committees even emphasize your laying out your intended intellectual route? Two reasons: 1.) applicants who can articulate what they see as a cognizable and important question have done the requisite homework and thus demonstrated their seriousness, and 2) you are showcasing your ability to think and write about complicated questions within the field, and especially your capacity to position yourself vis-à-vis the important debates. This is very important skill in academics.
2. You HAVE to email the professors. So, technically speaking you don’t have to do this. Many people are admitted without having done so. That said, you really should do it. The reasons have mostly to do with the nature of graduate school and the nature of graduate admissions. Suppose, for instance, that you want to study Cell Biology under Prof. Jones at State University. In fact, the work she’s doing is what inspired you to study cell biology, her papers are groundbreaking, and her excellence and reputation are what State University’s Department of Cell Biology are built upon. Given this, you need to find out if it’s possible to study under her. She might, for instance, be retiring, moving to a new position at a new university, or may not be taking any more graduate students into her lab. You would thus be in a bad way if you showed up at State University to study under her, only to discover that Prof. Jones is now at Stanford! Or, she might tell you that she doesn’t think you’d be a good fit, and that if asked, she couldn’t enthusiastically support your application. This would hurt, no doubt, but it would allow you to adjust your application tactics.
This brings us to the second reasons. You should email potential advisors because, if you mention them in your personal statement, the admissions committee will usually forward your application to them and ask if they are a good fit for what they do. Them saying “yes” certainly doesn’t guarantee your admission, but either a “no” or an indifferent response will hurt you. As such, you should let that professor know who you are so that when they get that email, they can, “Oh Jennifer? She’s great, and I think she has some interesting ideas and could do great work in my lab.”
Just so we’re clear, if a professor hasn’t heard of you and the Admissions Committee asks them about you, they likely aren’t going to take a ton of time to look over your application at that point. Professors are very busy with other teaching, research, writing, committee work, etc., and they rightly don’t see it as their job to resuscitate your application because you didn’t bother to reach out to them before you name-dropped them.
So, how do you reach out to a professor? I’ll have more on this tomorrow, but the short version is that you should write a VERY short email introducing yourself, identifying what you’re working on, and asking if you could have 10 minutes of their time. Attach your CV and any relevant other documents. (Again, more on this tomorrow)
3.Copy-Paste will kill your application
We all know that applying to graduate school is hard and time-consuming. You have to study for the GRE, get letters of recommendation, write a personal statement, research and contact potential advisors, revise your writing sample, and fill out lots of other forms. BUT, one thing that will really hurt your chances is to use a personal statement that is very obviously just a single standard essay with the names of your various schools copy-pasted in. It shows that you haven’t done your research and aren’t particularly interested in that school. This doesn’t mean that you have to write completely different essays for each school. In fact, it’s usually the case that you can write your first essay for your first school and repurpose the first two-thirds for every school, and then the final third or so that focuses on your fit with the school you’re applying to can be written custom for each university. But readers know when they’re reading generic broadly-applicable text with the school’s name pasted in, and they don’t like it. So if you have a section like this, dump it and rewrite it:
I want to attend Stanford University because of its excellent faculty, abundant research resources, and the opportunity to work within a renowned university. I have looked at the Course Catalog, and there are many classes that fit my intellectual interests…
You could replace “Stanford” here with any top school, so you’re not really saying anything useful or demonstrating that you know anything about Stanford other than it’s a good university.
All three of these points make clear that a lazy applicant is probably going to be an unsuccessful one. Yes, it takes extra time to email professors, generate a plausible dissertation thesis, and write lots of unique text for all of your schools. But if you’re thinking about spending 7 years in graduate school, why wouldn’t you take an extra 10–12 hours to make sure that you are attending the right graduate school and are positioning yourself for long-term success and happiness?
Okay, as some who has four graduate degrees, this might seem like hypocritical advice. And, in truth, many people should go to graduate school. But my experience is that far too many people do and that folks rarely invest the requisite thought before they begin applying.
While researching for an upcoming article on graduate school completion rates, I came across this blog post from a few years back in which Christopher Pierznik reflects on his decision to drop out of graduate school. He calls it “the best decision I’ve ever made.” His wisdom and perspective resonated with me, so I thought I’d share it. Most of what I do professionally is help people get into top graduate and professional schools, but when working with clients I often get the distinct impression that many people have invested far more time into trying to get into a school than they did in figuring out if they should go in the first place.
In my old job as a university professor, students would often come to me for letters of recommendation for graduate or professional school (med, law, business, etc.). Whenever they did, I saw it as my job to try to talk them out of it. This isn’t necessarily because I didn’t want them to go -indeed, for many people it’s the right move- but because I wanted to make sure they were going for the right reasons. Going to graduate school if you’re not passionate about the material will probably lead to you dropping out, and starting medical or law school if you’re not 100% committed could mean taking on massive amounts of debt that lock you into a professional track you despise.
So, when these bright-eyed youngsters came to me seeking affirmation, I did my best to show them the hard road ahead. I’d ask them all sorts of important questions that they probably hadn’t asked themselves. For aspiring doctors, I’d talk about debt and the fact that, once you start down the path of medicine, it’s almost impossible to get off: four years of medical school, at least two years of residency (and up to 7), and maybe a decade in which you’ll have to stay within the profession to pay off your loans.
For people thinking about graduate schools, I would ask why they want to get a graduate degree. The most common response I got was, “because I like the subject.” That’s a good start, but it’s not nearly enough. First, for all kinds of graduate degrees you need to have a clear conception of how it moves you closer to your professional goals. What job do you want to get right out of graduate school? Why is that the job for you? If you don’t know the answer to that question, delay graduate school until you know.
For folks who are seeking to pursue doctoral work with the idea of entering academia, the job question is an even more pressing one, since even very high-performing newly minted PhDs from elite programs struggle to get jobs. Almost none get tenure-track positions. What’s your plan if you’re among the substantial majority of PhDs who can’t get a fulltime position? More to the point, what’s the question that you will enter graduate school wanting to answer? If you’re doing doctoral research, “I like the subject” isn’t nearly specific enough to sustain the immense effort needed to get you through the slog that Pierznik is talking about here.
As a professor, my fear was that bright students who did not know clearly and passionately what they wanted to do were just using graduate school as a fallback. In law school and in graduate school, I saw so many people who fell into this category, and in every instance they were miserable, and most did not graduate.
So, if you’re not sure about graduate school, take a year off. Travel. Get a crummy job. Try things. And, if you do go to graduate school and recognize that it isn’t for you, take Pierznik’s advice and jump ship while you still can.
On the other hand, if you’ve done your homework, gone through a rigorous process of introspection, and still feel committed to this path, then let’s get to work!
The author is the founder and CEO of Gurufi.com and FourthWrite.com, two educational consultancies dedicated to helping students get into the graduate schools of their dreams. For questions about your graduate school application, you can email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have a draft personal statement, get it revised by our team of experienced Ivy League educated consultants at Gurufi.com. If you need more comprehensive assistance developing, outlining, drafting, and refining your text, check us out at FourthWrite.com!
I have mentioned the importance of contacting potential professors at the schools to which you are applying. It’s vital that you both contact particular professors with whom you might want to work and mention them in your Personal Statement. Today I will say a bit more about what to write in your introductory email. Here are four guidelines for your email to the professors:
1. Keep it short. Aim for about 150 words. If your email is too long, it likely won’t be read. After all, when is the last time you read a long email from a complete stranger asking you for something? Get right to the point and save deeper and lengthier communications for future interactions.
2.Why them? You should say briefly why you have contacted them. Ideally, this would link their intellectual / research interests to yours. If you can point to particular articles or books that you found interesting, then do so. (if you do, and you end up meeting, you should probably familiarize yourself with that book before your meeting!) A little flattery goes a long way. The agony of being in academia is that you can spend years researching arcane topics that few people understand, so having someone tell you that they read your stuff and found it useful is really nice. Of course, don’t lay it on too thick. Nobody likes a phony.
3.Have an ask. In your email, you should state directly what you hope will happen. If you can go to their campus, then meeting up with the professor is a fair thing to ask. Again, make it painless; don’t ask to follow them all day in their lab. Instead, offer to buy them a coffee or “drop by your office for 15 minutes to talk about your research…” If you’re not going to go to the campus, then ask if there’s a time you can talk briefly on the phone. (Again, emphasize briefly, and when you do talk, keep it fairly short)
4.Attach your CV and any relevant documents, such as papers or research you’ve completed.
Here is a sample email that’s about 150 words.
Dear Prof. Joanna Jones,
My name is Sally Smith, and I am presently applying to doctoral programs in American History. As part of my research on the Haymarket Riot, I read your piece in the Journal of American History and found your thesis on the role of anti-immigration violence fascinating. In fact, it informed much of my own thinking about FBI actions in the 1960s.
I am applying to State University this fall, and I would appreciate the opportunity to speak with you about your work and my potential as a graduate student at State University. I will be in Collegetown this October and could stop by your office or we could chat over coffee. If that timing doesn’t work, I could also do a brief telephone call.
I have attached my CV and the aforementioned research on FBI actions in the 1960s. Thank you for your time.
Note that this isn’t especially fancy or long. A few additional notes:
-If, after a week, you don’t get a response, you can send a polite follow-up. After that, assume that it’s a ‘no.’
-If you do meet, be sure to send a thank-you note afterwards. Ideally, this would a short hand-written thank-you card, but it should at least be an email.
-Show up prepared with both knowledge of their subject, what you’re looking for in graduate school. As with all interviews, have several questions to ask. Even if you feel like you know what you need to, the correct response to, “do you have any questions?” is never “nope, I’m good.” Do your research and have a few substantive things to discuss either about their work or the graduate program.
Once you’ve decided to pursue a Ph.D., one of the challenges that you’ll face is that, unlike undergraduate, medical, law, or business school applications, there isn’t really a robust ecosystem offering lots of guidance to would-be applicants. Part of this has to do with subject matter fragmentation. That is, it just seems like an application for a doctoral Physics program at MIT should be very different than, say, a History program at Stanford. There is some truth to this, and there are important subtle differences for how you should approach different kinds of graduate school applications, but graduate school applications as a whole differ in important ways from applications for colleges and professional schools.
I am that rare breed of expert who first attended law school (University of Michigan) then, after practicing briefly, I earned my PhD in History (Yale University). When I applied to graduate school, the process was far more nuanced and complicated, and I benefited immensely from the advice of people who had gone before me, whereas I had found law school applications quite straight-forward. In future posts, I’ll cover some other aspects of graduate school applications that many applicants don’t know about, but today I just want to note what I see as the five most important factors that differentiate graduate school personal statements from professional school (law, medical, business, etc.) or college personal statements.
1. Get the Tone Right
For many applicants, the only advice they’ve ever been given about personal statements came when they were applying to college. College personal statements tend to be very much what you expect from a teenager who’s never actually done or experienced much in their lives: emotionally overwrought, zany, and all about having great “hooks” and a lot of puffery about what they’ve already accomplished and all that they’re going to achieve in life. There is a heavy emphasis on “personal,” and very little that could be classified as substantive. Fair enough, they’re 17 years old! But, if you’re applying to a high-level doctoral program, this is NOT the route you want to take/
You can (and should) incorporate storytelling, and your essay should be engaging, optimistic, and passionate, but it also has to be mature and clear-eyed. In short, you need to show that you’re capable of doing high-level original thinking about a thin slice of a complex subject, and this means projecting gravitas. Humor, purple prose, or stories for their own sake don’t have a place here.
When working with clients, I’ll often say, “this is for graduate school, not your Tinder profile.” In other words, the Admissions Committee isn’t trying to find a life partner or figure out the machinations of your soul; they’re trying to assess whether you have the talent to do difficult scholarship and an interesting perspective and set of germane experiences to build upon.
2. You Need to Demonstrate Subject Matter Familiarity
Unlike law school, where you can arrive with little to no real knowledge of the law, graduate programs operate under the assumption that you know the field and will arrive on Day 1 ready to engage with it. As such, how you discuss your field and the questions you want to pursue are really important. If you can signal work that you think is important and position yourself relative to scholars whose work you think is interesting, then that helps. Doubly so if those scholars you’re talking about are at the school you’re applying to (more on this next). A good rule of thumb is that the closer you can get in your personal statement to articulating what your eventual dissertation thesis will be, the better. Another way of thinking about this is that you are going to graduate school to acquire the intellectual tools to answer a question; what is that question? What do you think the answer is? Why? These are the sorts of questions that you can only really discuss if you’re familiar with the field.
3. Applying to a Program, not Really to a School
Okay, this one isn’t REALLY about the Personal Statement, but it’s worth keeping in mind. It’s hard not to be impressed by a brand name, but while top schools do have lots of top programs, don’t fall in love with brands. If the precise thing that you’re passionate about isn’t a strength at Harvard, don’t apply to Harvard. It may be that the University of Indiana or Georgia Tech (two perfectly good schools) are actually the best at what you’re interested in. Over and over, I’ve had clients who will either try to shoehorn their interests into what is offered at an Ivy League school or decide to pursue something else that they’re less interested in because it’s offered at a school they think is great. These are bad ideas. First, graduate school is a long hard slog, and if the school can’t support your particular intellectual interests, you’ll get frustrated and, frankly, you’ll probably quit. Likewise, if you elect to pursue something else just so that you can get a Princeton degree, it’s likely that in year 4 of your 7-year PhD program you’ll be so miserable that you’ll just decide you’ve had enough. A major contributor to the fact that only slightly more than 50% of doctoral candidates earn their PhD is that people aren’t thoughtful about selecting their program.
4. Talk with specificity about why THAT program
Given that you’re applying to a program, and not a school, you need to articulate why you want to attend that school. Importantly, this means avoiding generic sentences like, “Columbia’s excellent faculty, fist-rate facilities, and strong curriculum make it a compelling choice for me.” That just reeks of copy-paste text that could apply to any school. Instead, get specific about which professors you want to work with (I’ll have more on this later this week) and why, the specific programs and facilities that you want to use, and maybe even some of the coursework you hope to complete. So, the generic section above should instead say something like:
“I would be excited to study under the direction of Prof. Jones, whose work on the instability of zeta particles in the CERN superconductor-supercollider poses complex questions about string theory. While working in the Jones Lab, I hope to have access to Columbia’s new high-frequency spectroscopy device so that I could explore whether similar conditions manifest in high-radiation environments.”
Note how (fake physics gibberish aside), a reader knows exactly “why Columbia?” and can picture what the applicant’s time within the program would look like.
6. It’s Both an Intellectual and Personal History
As I noted above, it’s great to use storytelling to establish how you came to be interested in this particular subject. After all, graduate programs want people who will finish, and if you’re not passionate and excited about the field, you likely won’t. So, having early or formative experiences within a subject be the frame for your essay is a great idea.
But you also need to weave in your intellectual journey. What questions triggered this exploration? What books, ideas, studies, or intellectual problems have you found engaging, exasperating, or in desperate need of solution? If you answer these sorts of questions, and can fuse them with your personal narrative, you can produce an essay that moves the reader and allows them to understand your potential within the field and, importantly, like you as a person who shares their excitement for the subject.
You can see why I said that graduate school personal statements are more nuanced and complicated. And, frankly, my experience is that they’re just harder to write. Given the general rule that you shouldn’t exceed two single-spaced pages, this means you need to write with economy, structure, clarity, and punch. This is a high bar to clear, but if this is really your life’s passion (and if it isn’t, you shouldn’t apply), it’s well worth the work it requires to write, revise, and perfect a dynamite personal statement!
If you need help with your graduate school personal statement, or if you have any questions about these topics, please shoot Brian an email at email@example.com. You can also check him out at Gurufi.com. Note that GREPrepClub members get a 25% discount on Gurufi.com revisions. Just use the Coupon Code GREPrepClub at checkout!