Putting Your Best Foot Forward: Writing Your Statement of Purpose Part One

I think December is the perfect month to write a statement of purpose, and I’ll tell you why. There’s a deeply rooted inclination towards reflection in the winter months: if fall is the time to reap your harvest and spring is the time to plant seeds, winter is surely the natural time to hunker down in your home, and to think about what’s to come. As the past year draws to a close (after what seems like approximately 47 months) and with the new year approaching, it seems like peoples’ thoughts naturally shift to reflection, goal-setting, and of course, resolutions.

This is the perfect mindset to be in when you’re writing your statement of purpose. You’ll notice that I call it a statement of purpose, and not a personal statement. Don’t be misled by articles that tell you they are essentially the same thing: the two are in fact very different. When you applied to your undergraduate institution, you most likely wrote a personal statement, which is much more, well… personal. Most undergraduate programs recognize that at seventeen or eighteen, you probably don’t have as many concrete goals or plans, and that the ones you have now may shift over the next four years. That’s what college is for, to discover yourself and what you want to do! But when applying to a graduate program, we want to hear much more about your skillset, your goals, and answering your specific questions of why this degree and school are right for you.

To write a statement of purpose, that’s where you need to start, and that’s where I think this special time of the year plays a crucial role. Reflect back on your experiences and what has led you to this exact moment. Be as specific as possible: if you want to help people, that’s great, but tell the reader why you want to help people in this way. I would recommend nailing down concrete, specific answers to the following questions:

  • When did you decide you would need a graduate degree to accomplish the work you want to do? When did you decide that a graduate degree from Heller would help you to best accomplish that work?
  • What skill-set will you bring to a graduate program? Why are you qualified for this program?
  • What skills do you want to gain? How will a graduate degree from Heller help you to gain those skills?
  • What opportunities do you hope this degree will open up? What do you hope to accomplish during graduate school?
  • What do you hope to accomplish after you complete your degree?

Again, you want to be as specific as possible, both about yourself and the program that you’re applying to. There are millions of students applying to hundreds of thousands of graduate programs this year, but what sets you and your chosen program apart? Think of it in terms of new years resolutions: vague goals like “exercise more” or “save money” almost never work out. Rather, you want to nail down specific things like, “Exercise at least three times a week for at least thirty minutes” or “Save at least 15% of your paycheck every month”.

Over the next week, take some time to pour yourself a cup of your favorite warm winter beverage, curl up on your couch and really take some time to look back on what you’ve accomplished and what you hope the years ahead bring you. Journal out your answers to those questions if you need to. If you find yourself slipping into generalities, try to force yourself to name something concrete that drew you to the program. Next week, we’ll dive into the structure of your statement of purpose, the essential scaffolding that will set your statement.

 

Heller Reading List: Andrea Tyree Shares Her Favorite Readings

A young woman leans against a tree, smiling.

Andrea Tyree, MPP’22

Recently, an old friend visited my apartment and, as I was showing him around, he noticed something peculiar. I have a stack of books on my desk, some I’ve read in preparation for coming to Heller and some for specific classes. Most of my class readings are online (invest in blue-light blocking glasses, folks) but there have been a couple I’ve purchased or borrowed (thanks Mom!) outright to really annotate. This particular stack included How to Be Antiracist, The New Jim Crow, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and Hillbilly Elegy.

Noticing this stack, my friend stopped and laughed out loud: “One of these things does not belong.” He wondered why in the world Hillbilly Elegy was included in a stack of social justice literature? Why would professors at Heller, a quite progressive institution, have us read such a biased and inaccurate portrayal of the Appalachian region? (P.S. The new Netflix film is worse.)

“Because,” I beamed with pride, “we tore it apart in my Assets and Social Policy class.” I picked up the book and showed him the countless tabs I had placed throughout the book where I found faults in the author’s storyline and argument.

Now I know I’ve already written about my Assets and Social Policy course, but this course has some of the most enlightening and engaging readings. From learning about the cultural wealth and capital that communities of color have built as a result of systemic oppression (“Whose Culture Has Capital?”) to examining the role of gender-based violence on women’s assets and wealth (“The Role of Sexual Violence in Creating and Maintaining Economic Insecurity Among Asset-Poor Women of Color”), I’ve gained knowledge in this course that I’ll carry with me throughout my life.

Yet my favorite lesson focused on rural poverty—a form of poverty not often acknowledged in social and racial justice conversations—centering on an analysis of Hillbilly Elegy. I warned my classmates ahead of time, “Y’all, as a native West Virginia, I have to represent the thousands of us who cannot stand this book. I’m about to go in on J.D. Vance (the author).”

And go in I did.

Our professor, Jess, created space for a thoughtful and critical conversation on the narrative of poverty within this book. We analyzed how the author placed the responsibility of poverty on Appalachian communities, identifying it as a character flaw rather than the result of generations of systemic oppression, resource drain, and lack of external investment in these communities. We addressed our personal and societal biases against rural, impoverished America and discussed ways to invest in it.

It was one of the first classes where I truly felt seen and heard. I’m grateful that my peers were able to analyze and critique a novel that feeds into the negative narrative about rural America and, specifically, Appalachia. And I’m proud of how I stood strong for my community. It’s moments like those that remind me of why I chose Heller and excite me for what’s to come.

Time to Give Thanks

I have a confession to make: Thanksgiving is my least favorite holiday. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that, in all honesty, I hate it. I’ve been a vegetarian for eighteen years, so the turkeys, hams, gravy, green beans (with bacon), collard greens (with bacon), and other traditional Thanksgiving foods hold very little appeal to me. I live about a thousand miles away from the majority of my family, and going home so close to winter holidays is usually not an option for me. Throw in its decidedly problematic history, and it all adds up to a holiday I’m not particularly interested in celebrating.

With that being said, I think there is something lovely about the idea of a day set aside for giving thanks, especially in these times, where there is so much to be unhappy, or disappointed, or discouraged about. With all the problems in the world, it’s nice to have a day where I take the time to recognize all that there is to be thankful for. So, without further ado (or futher maudlin reflections), here are some things that I find myself truly thankful for this year.

My co-workers. Oh no, is that cheesy? Even if it is, it’s true and I have to give credit where credit is due. I had only been at Heller for seven months when the pandemic forced us to move to working from home, and it would have been so easy for me to feel isolated and disconnected if not for my amazing co-workers. I speak to the other staff members on the admissions team at least once a day, and we have a weekly staff meeting where we share our accomplishments and what we’re working on this week, as well as catch up on what we’re watching on Netflix (I recommend The Queen’s Gambit!). The larger Heller community also frequently meets up for Coffee with the Dean, and I’ll admit that the Election Week Conversations with the Dean is one of the only things that kept me calm that week. Since this is, after all, a blog post, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to the amazing graduate assistants that write for this blog and share their experiences with all of you. Which leads me to…

The fourth season of Netflix’s The Crown. I’m a huge British history buff, but to be honest; I know way more about the Tudor, Jacobean, or Elizabethan era than I know about contemporary British history. The Crown has been a fun introduction to a time in British history I hadn’t known about for the last few years (for example, I had heard of the Profumo Affair, but didn’t know any of the details), but the fourth season was absolutely incredible. For those not watching, this season focuses on Princess Diana’s introduction and marriage to Prince Charles; it may seem silly to say that I don’t want to spoil anything since the events themselves happened forty years ago, but even if you know the outlines of the story, the storytelling still manages to take you by surprise.

This blog. I’d wanted to start an Admissions’ Blog since almost my first month at Heller, but it never quite felt like the right time. Then, when the world as we know it came crashing down in March, it seemed like the perfect time to launch. My goals at the offset were two-fold: first, that it would be a place to share authentic experiences about Heller, and second, that it would help students with the application process, especially students who may not be familiar with the graduate application process. I would like to think that we’ve met those goals, and more. I’m thankful, again, for our student bloggers for sharing their stories and experiences, and allowing me to see a side of Heller that I don’t always get to see.

The rise of TikTok. Yes, TikTok is a massive time thief, but I have to admit that I am thankfulfor it. In these times of isolation, I find myself incredibly grateful for people all over the world who are trying to make others laugh or trying to teach strangers how to bake bread. TikTok truly has something for everyone, and I’ve found myself reconnecting to old friends by sending them videos that remind me of them. I also learned how to make an absolutely incredible butternut squash curry, and it’s now my go-to weekday lunch.

All of you. Again, I know this is terribly cheesy, but it is true. As of today, this blog has had its best month yet in terms of visitors and views. There are so many people, from all over the world (this month we’ve had readers from Columbia, Switzerland, Ghana, India, Tanzania, Germany, and so many more), who are interested in learning more about Heller. And if you’re interested in Heller, I know that means that you are interested and passionate about making the world a better place and creating meaningful change. It’s been a dark year in many ways, but every time I see the statistics for the blog, I’m reminded of just how many people there are out there that want to make a difference.

For this post, I’m opening up the comments: I’d love to hear what you’re grateful for!

 

Changing the World 101: Democracy and Development

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

Professor Sampath’s class, “Democracy and Development”, has been a breath of fresh air for me this semester. As a new student in the MS-GHPM program, I was missing the readings on social theory that I was so often assigned as a COEX student. Luckily, I was able to take Professor Sampath’s class as an elective course from the Sustainable International Development program.

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman circa 1911
CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

On the very first day of class, we discussed Emma Goldman, an Anarchist writer and activist who lived in the early part of the twentieth century. I excitedly geeked out over the readings we were assigned— they were fascinating! To think that one hundred years ago, an immigrant to the United States was brave enough to vocally advocate for women’s rights, anarchism, and queer rights is so exciting, to say the least. I continue to be truly struck by the readings we were assigned of Goldman’s. I admire her clarity, her bravery, and her emphasis on maintaining joy within revolution.

In general, Professor Sampath’s class is a delight. Even though we often discuss the most difficult and heavy topics, such as racism, politics, intolerance, and histories of oppression, I enjoy hearing the opinions of my classmates especially when we’re split into small breakout rooms of four or five students. Despite being a fairly large class, Professor Sampath’s class can also feel like a smaller, more intimate discussion. “Democracy and Development” has proven itself to be a wonderful course, because of the way these difficult and traumatic topics are handled: carefully, and with great honesty and open-mindedness.

I strongly recommend taking a course with Professor Sampath, even if you are not a student in the SID program. He is a very kind teacher, and very thoughtful when it comes to his students. For example, a few weeks ago our class met amid the confusion and stress of waiting to hear who won the presidency in the US, Professor Sampath allowed us to take the class time to voice our opinions, fears, questions, and concerns. I felt grateful for this opportunity to share our thoughts with each other, and appreciative of his understanding that his students were exhausted and worried.

“Democracy and Development” is by no means an easy or simple class. But as a student, it’s also a class that I don’t approach with anxiety or fear. Instead, I appreciate the flexibility of Professor Sampath, the openness of my fellow students, and the ability to discuss in small groups within the larger class. I highly recommend taking a course with Professor Sampath once you’re here at Heller, even if you’re not a social theory nerd like me.

(Editor’s note: If you’re interested in learning more about Heller, check out this video by Professor Sampath!)

Interview Tips from One of Our Interviewers

Man in plaid shirt smiling at camera

Doug Nevins BA ’11, MPP ’21

In my role as a Heller Admissions Grad Assistant, I have had the pleasure of conducting interviews for the MPP and MBA programs. As these are my degree programs here at Heller, I love talking to prospective students about their backgrounds and reasons for considering these degrees. I enjoy interviewing people – I always found it interesting to take part in interviews of job candidates while I was working full time, and in my prior career as a college admissions counselor I conducted many interviews with high school students applying to college. Interviewing Heller applicants is a new experience, since our prospective students have substantial academic and professional experience, but are also often looking to pivot industries or learn new skills.

While I am by no means an expert, I thought that for this week’s blog post I would try to come up with a list of tips for folks considering an interview with Heller.

In no particular order….

Be yourself!

This probably goes without saying, but it helps neither you nor us to present an inauthentic version of yourself in the interview. Heller students come from many backgrounds and have varying levels of real-world experience with policy and management – and that’s ok! We want to know what experience you DO have, and how it has inspired your interests and relates to your graduate school goals.

THAT SAID….

Don’t be afraid to brag!

It’s helpful for us to know what you have accomplished and what you’re proud of so far in your academic and professional career. It’s totally fine to talk a bit about your achievements in the interview. I usually begin by asking interviewees to “tell me a little about yourself,” and end by asking if the applicant has questions OR anything else they want to share. Hopefully, these moments provide a chance for people to share some points of pride.

AT THE SAME TIME…

Be prepared to talk about challenges you’ve encountered.

It’s common in job and grad school interviews to be asked about both your strengths and weaknesses, or successes and failures. It’s a great idea to spend a moment reflecting on how you would answer these questions. Discussing a challenge you’ve encountered or an area in which you’d like to improve is a great opportunity to give us a sense of how you’ve grown and changed, and of how graduate school can help you to continue leveling up your skills.

Think of a couple questions to ask.

It’s always a good idea to have a couple questions in mind to ask your interviewer. For one thing, that’s what we’re here for, and we’re sure you have questions! In addition, this can really demonstrate that you’ve done some research about our programs and are at the point where you have specific questions that aren’t as easily found on the website.

The interview is informal, but professional.

Our interviews are not meant to be intimidating or overly formal. I try to conduct my interviews as a conversation as much as possible. And I will certainly not be wearing a tie. That said, it’s best to try to find a quiet place to do your interview, and be sure you’re ready to get started on time.

LASTLY…

Have fun!

Again, we hope that the interview is a fairly relaxed experience that enables you to learn as much about Heller as we learn about you. Getting a sense of “fit” when looking at grad schools is important, and we hope that the interview is an opportunity to do that, while hopefully enjoying the experience! I hope these tips are helpful for any prospective students reading, and I look forward to interviewing some of you in the future!

What Does “Holistic Review Process” Mean, Anyway?

Students entering college this year will likely have no memory of cut scores (in which colleges wouldn’t consider applications from students with lower than a certain SAT score or GPA), but for those of us who remember what a VCR was, the transition to a holistic admissions review process can sometimes seem like a catchy but meaningless buzzword. Every year students ask me, “I have a quantitative GRE score of 150, what are my chances?” or “My GPA is below a 3.0, should I bother to apply?” and every year I have to give them the most frustrating answer… it depends. Because I get so many questions about what a holistic admissions process really means, and because students often don’t realize how this process can work in their favor, today I’m going to be giving you the definitive explanation of what a holistic admissions process means for you and your application.

Put simply, a holistic admissions process means that your application is considered as a whole, rather than individual data points. Of course, we still consider your grades and test scores, but we use other pieces of your application to provide context. Let me give you an example of how that might play out.

Student X and Y are both applying to the same program at Heller. Student X has a 3.8 GPA, and Student Y has a 3.0 GPA; a traditional application review process would suggest that we favor Student X over Student Y because of this higher GPA score. But in a holistic application review, Student Y’s resume might reveal that they were working in a nursing home throughout their undergraduate degree, and their statement of purpose might tell us that they were providing care for an elderly parent in their final year of college. Both of these experiences led them to develop an interest in improving health outcomes for the elderly, or patients on Medicare. With that in mind, we might determine that the professional background and life experience of Student Y make them a good fit for the program, even if their GPA isn’t as high. This doesn’t, by the way, mean we wouldn’t accept Student X; we would look just as hard at their application to see what experiences they would bring to our community.

So knowing this, how can you use a holistic admissions process to your advantage? You can’t change your GPA or (if your program requires them) your standardized test scores, and it’s probably too late to get a new job to put on your resume, but you can decide who your recommenders are going to be, what to highlight on your resume, and what to write in your statement of purpose. I’m going to use another example to show you how that can work to your advantage.

Student Z is interested in Heller’s PhD program, but knows that they don’t have strong  GRE scores (editor’s note: the GRE is now optional for students applying to the PhD program for Fall 2021), and low grades in the quantitative classes like statistics or economics they took in their master’s program, although they’ve been out of school for some time. However, they do have more than five years of work experience in a research lab, and their mentor from their master’s program is well known in the field. What can they do to make up for the weaknesses in their application? First, and easiest, they could move their work experience to the top of their resume, and take care to highlight their accomplishments in the years since they’ve graduated, especially accomplishments that would show that they’re capable of performing high-level research. If they have publications, they could find a way to highlight that on their resume as well. When they’re thinking about their recommenders, they could certainly ask their mentor to write one, but they would be smart to make sure that the other two recommenders are people they’ve worked closely with on research projects, who can testify to their quantitative skills or how they respond to new challenges. When they submit a writing sample, they could choose to submit a sample that shows a high level of data analysis. And just like that, their application would demonstrate that despite the weakness of their GRE or GPA, they are perfectly capable of succeeding in a quantitative research program.

This is just an example, of course, and it’s likely that your situation will be quite different. Regardless, the key here is to think strategically about how your application will appear as a whole and make efforts to supplement any potential weaknesses. So take the opportunity to look at your application as an outsider: What’s missing? What part of your story aren’t you telling? What strengths are underrepresented? At Heller, we’re not offering admission to your GPA, we’re giving it to you, so make sure you give us a good sense of what you would bring to the Heller community.

Exploring the Boston Area with Sami

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

Waltham and the greater Boston area as a whole are such fun, vibrant, and exciting places to be a graduate student. There is always something to do, something new to experience, eat, or see! It’s not easy to narrow down a list of recommendations, but here, in no particular order, are my top five:

  1. Walden Pond is a historic, wooded area that’s a perfect place to spend an afternoon in the Spring or Summer. The lake has plenty of room to swim, get a tan, relax with friends, and enjoy the trails in the surrounding woods. For history nerds like me, there is lots of information about Henry David Thoreau, who famously lived and wrote there. You’ll even be able to visit a model of his house. Walden Pond is only about a 25-minute drive from Waltham, and it is the perfect escape from the business of grad school.
  2. If you’re a fan of Indian food, you’ll love Punjabi Dhaba. It’s a casual spot to eat in Cambridge that is usually overflowing with happy customers. It can be tough to choose what to order off of their long and varied menu! Personally, I’m a very big fan of their Paneer Chili Masala. Combine that with a samosa and a mango lassi, you won’t leave disappointed.
  3. The Isabella Stuart Gardener Museum is my favorite art museum in all of Boston. Having once been Ms. Gardener’s personal art collection, it’s a unique and unusual space filled with art from many different places and times. Be sure to keep your eyes out for a few large frames with no art inside of them: after a robbery (the paintings were never recovered), the museum chose not to replace the stolen work with anything else.
  4. Take a walk along the Charles River and enjoy one of the more scenic spaces in Waltham. There is a long and lovely trail along the water that provides a beautiful walk through Waltham. It’s another great way to escape the stress of a busy day, and a great opportunity to get to know the town of Waltham in more detail. You can also explore the Charles by renting a kayak and navigating through the water.
  5. Enjoy a dance party, see a show, or do karaoke at The Middle East. A funky club and bar in Cambridge, The Middle East is the perfect place to unwind after classes end on a Friday or over the weekend. Once you’re there, you’ll discover new music, make new friends, and enjoy delicious Middle Eastern food. My favorite is getting nostalgic at their 90’s throwback dance party.

There’s so much to see and do around Boston and Waltham, it’s hard to pick just five recommendations! Once you’re here, you’ll have ample opportunity to get to know the area and discover what’s most exciting to you.

A Letter to My Future Self (to read upon graduation): Andrea Tyree

A young woman leans against a tree, smiling.

Andrea Tyree, MPP’22

Dear Future Andrea,

Well, it looks like we did it! We are finally graduating with a Master’s in Public Policy from The Heller School. Congratulations!

I’m not surprised. Well, I’m a little surprised. Let’s be honest, neither of us thought we’d make it through Econometrics or Economic Theory unscathed. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about our final capstone. But we made it, and I’m sure you’ve learned some incredible lessons along the way. I’m only two months in at this point, but I’ve already uncovered some surprising insights on police brutality and other forms of oppression through my research. I’ve also learned that it is both useful and encouraged to speak up to leadership when you and others believe that something isn’t right. I hope that you have expanded upon these lessons and they have led you to opportunities that I can only imagine.

I wish you were here now to answer some of my questions. Do we ever return to courses in person? How does the political climate affect our emotional and mental health? How does it affect the direction of our classes? Has the struggle of attending graduate school during one of the most politically and socially tumultuous times brought our cohort closer together? What future opportunities should I keep my eye out for? Where does my path lie after graduate school?

That last question is truly the most important. Where is this degree taking me? Will I continue my research by entering a PhD program, in hopes of one day becoming an expert on police reform? Or will I return to the world of nonprofits and grassroots organizing, taking what I’ve learned to help turn the needs of a community into policy? What if I took that one step further and worked as a lobbyist helping to create the policy that will impact communities? Or maybe I’ll spend some time in a local government department, gaining tangible experience in the sector of policy implementation? It’s possible that I could end up on any of these paths.

I have a feeling I know which one you ended up choosing, but I’m dying to know if I’m right! Sigh. You would probably tell me to relax and enjoy the ride. Smell the roses. Take in the scenery. All that junk.

Alright, I hear you. I’ll work on enjoying every last moment of this experience. At the same time, I’ll focus on taking every opportunity to learn as much as possible about the issues I’m most passionate about. The beautiful thing about an MPP degree is the ability to apply every lesson to your particular field, to truly build your expertise. I’ll continue to do that while you celebrate. And one day soon, I’ll catch up to you.

Enjoy your graduation, future Andrea. I’m sure you’ve earned it.

Election Week Fretting

Man in plaid shirt smiling at camera

Doug Nevins BA ’11, MPP ’21

By the time this blog post is published, we will (likely) know the outcome of the US presidential election (editor’s note: still waiting!). For political buffs like me, and of course for the millions or billions of people who will be directly impacted by the electoral outcome, this has been an anxiety-inducing few months! At Heller, we learn how to use data effectively, but also are taught to be skeptical of how data is presented and aware of the potential for error. This is a lesson that many people took to heart after polls failed to predict the stunning outcome of the 2016 election. Our inability to fully trust the information we have about how people will vote only increases our uncertainty.

However, I want to write this post not about the election itself, but about the experience of being a part of the Heller community throughout the primaries and general election. Being a part of an MPP cohort and a student body full of knowledgeable, thoughtful, and politically engaged individuals made following this election a unique and unexpectedly rewarding experience. My classmates and professors pushed me to be more self-critical about my own political preferences and assumptions and consider substantive policy differences between candidates rather than simply following the horserace. Through conversations during class, brown-bag lunches with faculty, lectures, and other events, we had the chance to analyze the election and candidates in the context of political theory and history. For someone like me, who tends to favor big, universal policy interventions rather than targeted, means-tested ones, I was challenged to think through the logistics of major policy change and consider the costs and benefits involved.

Being part of the MPP cohort has made a somewhat stressful election cycle fun, at least some of the time. During the Democratic primary debates last fall, the MPP student association reserved lecture halls and bought snacks to host watch parties for anyone in the Heller community. Discussions about the candidates’ performances and platforms began on car rides home from campus after the debates and continued the next morning when everyone gathered in the Zinner Forum before class. As Heller shifted to remote instruction, political discussions continued through text threads and Zoom happy hours, as well as periodic “tea with the director” cohort meetings on Zoom. Faculty like Professor Bob Kuttner set aside time at the beginning of each class to discuss the race in the context of the pandemic and economic crisis. While of course the stakes of this election are far from academic or theoretical, the policy disagreements revealed during the primary and general election provide rich material for analysis in public policy classes. I feel supported intellectually and personally by my Heller peers during a difficult political period for our country, and I know that the outcome of this election, whatever it may be, will only inspire Heller students to re-commit to using their knowledge and policy skills to advance social justice and equity.

Common Graduate School Application Mistakes to Avoid

If you’re considering applying to graduate school, chances are you’ve taken a look at one of the many guides all over the internet giving advice on how to start the process (maybe you’ve even read the blog post I wrote earlier last month on some do’s and don’ts!), and realized that most of the advice columns offer the same advice. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve almost certainly read one of my many, many, posts where I urge students to proofread their work. “I get it, I get it, how many times are they going to tell me?” you’ve probably thought…. but the truth is, we repeat these maxims over and over because we run into them over and over. So at the risk of sounding like a broken record, let’s run through the most common application mistakes I see and some tips on how to avoid them.

Start off on the right foot. When I was 4/5/6/7/8/9 years old…”, “From a young age I have always been interested in…”, “For as long as I can remember I have been interested in…” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve read these words as the opening line in a personal statement, I could take myself and every reader of this blog on all-expenses-paid vacation. If you added a nickel for personal statements that begin with a famous quote, we could all retire. Now, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t reflect on what brought you to apply to graduate school, and it doesn’t mean that you can never use a quote in your personal statement. It does mean, however, that we’re more interested in the specifics of what led you to the program you’re applying to than about generalities.

Don’t be a rebel. Follow instructions. Read them carefully, and then read them again. It’s easy to overlook directions when you’re juggling multiple applications at once, but the ability to follow procedures and stay organized are key components for being successful in graduate school, and application readers look for those skills in all aspects of your application. Make sure that you’ve answered all the questions on the application, and that you’ve answered them correctly. Double-check that your statement of purpose doesn’t exceed the page limit (same goes for your writing sample, if you have one!).

Choose wisely. Without fail, every year I get an email from a professor who is baffled by the fact that they’ve been asked to write a letter of recommendation… from a student they’ve never met. If you’ve never made this mistake, it can be hard to believe, but it really does happen!  It may seem obvious, but you should make sure the recommenders you choose know you well, even if there’s a more “impressive” contact you could ask.  An unfavorable letter of recommendation is as bad as having no letter at all, if not worse, and a generic letter doesn’t do anything to help your application.

With application deadlines coming up soon, I hope you use this list as a guide to put your strongest foot forward and gain entry into the program of your dreams. Good luck and stay focused!

 

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