I am serving on the admissions committee of my department again this year, and as usual we are in a position to admit at maximum 20% of the total applicants we receive. I don’t want to reveal the confidential deliberations of the committee, but it has gotten me thinking a lot about how to apply for graduate school, what I look for in an application and how people should prepare theirs. What people look for varies from place to place, and different people will have different priorities than I do, but I offer this to help orient people to an application process that is often confusing and opaque to people who go through it. What, then, do I look for when we admit people to graduate school?
GREs and GPA: The GREs and your grade point average are, obviously, not completely transparent and infallible indicators of your innate biological intelligence. However, our school does require them, and we do look at them. Having a low GPA and low GREs is not the end of the world, since strong recommendations and application essays can offset these scores. But you do not want the people trying to admit you to have to dig around deep in your dossier for proof you would be a good candidate. Having high scores could mean any number of things — they could mean simply that you are punctual and have good study habits — but they will never mean anything bad. The first thing that gets your application taken seriously are high GREs and a high GPA. But a GRE book or take a course or whatever — it’s worth it.
Is there ‘fit’ between your project and our department?: I teach in a four-field department with topical specialties in medical and ecological anthropology, and a strong areal focus on Asia and the Pacific. If after earning your degree in English literature, you apply to my department to do a cultural studies-inspired reflexive account of pop music in west Africa, how much ‘fit’ will you have in my department? You will end up without specialists in your topic or area, and you will take an extra year to finish your degree as you toil through a mandatory course in which you learn the details of dental hypoplasia. And no: your longstanding desire to visit the romantic island paradise of Hawai’i does not count as an ‘areal focus’.
Do you have a project?: You can have a successful undergraduate career by at excelling at tasks that authority figures give. In graduate school, on the other hand, we look for people who are motivated to pursue an intellectual project that is uniquely there own. Graduate students are the future and we, the past, don’t know what the future will bring. This mean that in your essay you must demonstrate to us that you have a topic, project or goal that you are seeking pursue and that you will be successful in achieving if only you had the resources of our department at your disposal. Ideally, you should be able to demonstrate to us that it is surprising that you are not already in our program since you seem so obviously to be our colleague.
Letters matter: Your letters of recommendation really really matter, and they are best written by someone who 1) knows you well and 2) can address the quality of your academic work. General character references from your pastor are not as useful as letters from academics who have been part of your ‘project’ and can testify that you have an autonomous intellectual trajectory and that you are likely to succeed in your endeavors.
It is ok if your biography is all wonky: Many people took time off between undergrad and graduate school, or switched disciplines. The question is: can you narrative your biography such that your life has coherence and graduate school is the next necessary step for you? Again, coherence and a project are the most important things (especially if you blew away the GREs and your GPA back before you started backpacking across Latin America), not necessarily an orthodox straight-line academic career.
Contact faculty: In our department, and in many other departments, it is perfectly acceptable to contact professors who you might be interested in working with and talking with them about your project, their project, and how it fits. Read what they’ve written to see where they are coming from. It may be that they agree to write you a letter of recommendation which will strengthen your application, or it may be that they decide that you are not right for the program. In any event, being proactive in building intellectual ties can, when done ethically and collegially, be an important part of deciding if our university is right for you and vice versa.
There is more to say, but this should provide some very rough indicators of what we, and other programs like us, look for in graduate students. This round of applications is largely over, at least in the US, but hopefully this will help people orient themselves to future rounds. Too often people keep the admissions process shrouded in secrecy beyond what is required out of our concerns for the integrity of decision making, so if people have feedback as successful applicants or as people who have admitted people in the past and are willing to share, I’d very much like to hear comments and questions — let the flames begin!