Author: amandamiller (page 1 of 4)

I’m Admitted, Now What?: A Guide for International Students (Part II)

Now that we’ve gotten all of the logistical stuff out of the way in I’m Admitted, Now What?: A Guide for International Students, let’s talk about the experience of coming to the United States for graduate school. I’m not an international student myself, but I previously worked in an International Students and Scholar’s Office, so I’ve heard first hand some of the problems that international students run into and have some tips on how to avoid some of the most common pitfalls.

Plan for homesickness. This isn’t limited to international students, of course (a lot of your classmates will be moving to the area from other states or cities), but it can be especially difficult when you’re moving from another country. It’s totally normal and natural to occasionally feel lonely or uncomfortable while you make this transition, but there are definitely things that you can do to combat it. You’ll want to strike a balance between old and new; maintaining your connections to your friends and family back home, while also establishing new bonds with your classmates and faculty. To maintain those connections, I would suggest: bringing a lot of photos of friends and family to decorate your new home, find a local restaurant that serves your favorite food or drink from back home, set a recurring skype or zoom date with someone back home once a week, maintain some of your old habits (if you always went for a jog before work, or had a cup of tea once you came home, keep doing that!). To establish new bonds, participate in a mentorship program, join a club or study group, participate in cultural events in your new city, and open yourself up to new experiences.

Prepare for academic culture shock. Many students make the mistake of thinking that because they’re familiar with American popular culture, they won’t experience culture shock. But even if you’ve grown up watching Friends, there will probably likely be many moments during your new life where American culture will seem strange, and particularly norms surrounding American educational systems. Especially in graduate school classes, professors expect students to participate by asking questions and offering their own thoughts, and many of your classes may even be discussion-based, rather than lecture style. Another difficulty that many international students run into is unintentional plagiarism; it’s essential that students learn to quote and cite other sources honestly and accurately, in the way that their professors expect.  Academic work in the United States depends on making absolutely clear which ideas and language are your own, and which come from someone else; if the lines get blurred, the credibility of your work is undermined. Luckily, the library at your school most likely offers a workshop or resources for avoiding plagiarism; I would recommend looking into those as soon as possible.

Identify support systems. Speaking from someone in the admissions office, I can attest that the goal of everyone at your university is making sure that students succeed. That starts with admissions, making sure that incoming students have all the advice to make the right decision for them and have all the information they need to ensure their transition to campus is smooth. As a student, you’ll find that in addition to your professors, the Office of International Students, the library, the Health Center, and your program’s administrators are all eager to help you succeed. Don’t wait until you’re in over your head to reach out to ask for help: that’s what we’re here for! I can’t tell you how many times, as an international student advisor, I wished that a student had reached out for help even a week or two before. And remember, life happens and it can be messy. Though I certainly hope your journey is a smooth one, if a major life event happens to you while in school, please please please let the people around you know as soon as possible.

Remember that deciding to attend graduate school abroad is a big step, and will likely not be without its challenges. However, adopting the mindset that challenges are an opportunity for growth (rather than proof of inadequacy) will take you a long way. You likely have a clear reason for why you’ve chosen to make this major change, whether it’s to experience a new culture, broaden your career opportunities, achieve a new level of academic excellence: whatever your reason is, keep that in the front of your mind as you navigate through your new adventure.

Preparing for a Virtual Admitted Student Event

If you’re one of the lucky students who has gotten into one or more of your top choice schools, first of all, congratulations! The good news: the worrying is over! The bad news: the decision-making isn’t. Even if you’ve only gotten into one school, you still have to make the choice as to whether this is the right program for you or the right time for you, and if you’ve gotten into multiple schools, well, you still have to answer those questions! The question of, “Is this the right time for me?” is going to be deeply personal, but when you’re trying to answer, “Is this the right program for me?” there are a lot of resources that you can tap into to help you answer. Most schools (including Heller) are hosting a variety of admitted student events that you can use to help you decide which school is right for you.

In this new world of Zoom, it can be tempting to leave your camera off and attend the event from bed; after all, you’re already in, right? But think about it: the current students will someday become your colleagues and classmates and the faculty will one day become your thesis advisors or mentors. These people’s opinions (whether or not you end up attending the school!) still matter because after all, they’re in your field.  Well, I have three easy tips to make sure you make the best first impression.

1. Be camera-ready. Okay, you can leave your sweatpants on, but your top half should be presentable. There’s no need for a suit and tie, but aim for business casual. If the room behind you is visible, make sure it’s in a reasonably presentable state, or better yet, use a Zoom background if your camera has the capability. In other words, prepare the way you would if this were a virtual meeting with your supervisor; even though you already have the job, you want to present yourself in the best possible light.

2. Prepare your elevator pitch. Chances are, you’ll have the opportunity to introduce yourself. The faculty and staff probably already know your background from your application, but especially if you’re meeting with current students or alumni, take a second to think of how you want to present yourself, so you’re not left either stammering to come up with an answer or ending up in a diatribe about your experience at summer camp in the fifth grade. An easy formula is past+present+future, so for example, “I first became interested in social policy when I was interning with Congressmember X while I was earning my bachelor’s degree in political science. After graduation, I’ve worked as a consultant for multiple projects, but I’m most proud of my work with Organization Y, where I helped them to develop an improved delivery system for those living in food deserts. I’m interested in learning more about Z, and I would eventually like to work as a program director for an organization that focuses on reducing homelessness.”

3. Get some questions ready. Again, you’ll want to tailor this to the group of people you’ll be meeting, but you should still ask the questions you want to know. A well-researched, to-the-point question is sure to make you a stand-out! For faculty: “Do any of your current research projects employ students?” “What type of student is successful in this program?” “Do your classes rely more on independent work or collaboration?” For current students: “What surprised you about this program?” “How available are faculty members?” “What’s been your favorite class and why?” For alumni: “What skills did you gain in the program that have proved most useful?” “How helpful was the Career Development Center in finding employment?” You can even write these on post-it notes to stick to your computer so you won’t forget!

There you have it! Now you’re ready to make the best possible first impression and get the answers you need to help make your decision. Remember, admissions offices are hosting these events for you, so make sure you come in prepared to get the answers you need.

I’m Admitted, Now What?: A Guide for International Students

Now that the final deadline for international students has passed for Heller’s master’s programs, I thought it would be a good time to resume the “I’m Admitted, Now What?” series with a post just for international students. If you haven’t read the previous posts in this series, I recommend reviewing these:

I’d also like to issue a quick disclaimer: this is meant as general advice and primarily focuses on F-1 students and their experiences. However, this should not be considered definitive or all-encompassing; visa regulations and travel guidance is subject to change, so for more information, make sure to check out Heller’s Visa Process page, Pre-Enrollment Checklist, or contact Brandeis’ International Student and Scholars Office.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s get started! Say you’re an international student who’s just been admitted… what should you do first (other than celebrate)? Consider this your checklist:

⬜  After you’ve accepted your offer of admission and paid your tuition deposit, you’ll gain access to your Visa Information and Declaration of Finances (VIDOF) Form in March. To complete your VIDOF form, you’ll need to submit a  clear picture current valid passport including photo, expiration date, name, and passport number, as well as proof of your ability to pay for one year of your program (tuition + fees + living expenses). Generally speaking, any proof for funds you’ll be contributing needs to be 1. dated within 9 months of your start date (so there needs to be a date on the bank statement), 2. include a specific amount of funds (in other words, saying “the account holder is in good standing” is not sufficient), and 3. funds need to be liquid at the time of your program start date (meaning that they need to be funds that are immediately available, so for example, a mortgage, funds that have a maturity date after your program start, etc. would not be acceptable). If you’d like to bring dependents under an F-2 visa, you’ll need their passport and proof of funds for them as well.  Make sure to follow the instructions on your VIDOF form carefully.

⬜  After you receive your I-20 or DS-2019, check to make sure that all of the information on the I-20 or DS-2019 is correct. You’ll use your SEVIS number to make your visa appointment; make sure you bring the same documents you used to apply for your I-20/DS-2019 to your visa appointment (and don’t forget your I-20 or DS-2019!). I recommend applying for your I-20/DS-2019 as soon as possible because visa appointments can fill up quickly! You can find a full guide to preparing for your visa interview on Brandeis’ ISSO website.

⬜ Make sure you’re up to date on relevant travel information or advisories well before your flight. You can find an updated list of travel proclamations related to COVID-19 that are currently in effect on Brandeis’ ISSO website. As of now, all air passengers traveling to the United States will be required to present a negative COVID-19 test within 3 days before their flight or provide documentation of having recovered from COVID-19, so be aware that this may still be in effect at the time you’ll be traveling, and plan accordingly.

⬜ When you enter the US, you’ll be issued an I-94 form that should read either “F-1 D/S” or “J-1 D/S” (depending on whether you’re an F-1 or J-1 student). Make sure you check your I-94 carefully to make sure it says one of those two, and that your notation on the I-94 matches your visa. If you notice a mistake on your Form I-94 (paper or electronic) or passport stamp, please try to request a correction while you are at the airport. If you do not notice the mistake until after you depart the airport, please bring it to the ISSO as soon as possible so that they can advise you on how to request a correction.

⬜  Find housing (see information in a previous post, linked above!). Brandeis does not provide housing for graduate students, so you’ll want to make sure you have a plan for where you’ll be staying prior to your arrival.

⬜ All new and returning international students in the United States are automatically enrolled in the Student Health Plan (SHP), but if you will be in the U.S. and have an insurance policy that meets the waiver requirements can waive the university SHP by contacting our general customer service (800-437-6448 or info@univhealthplans.com) to request the paper (PDF format) international student waiver form. If you have health insurance that meets these requirements, make sure you waive your coverage, but if you do not, no action is needed.

⬜  When you arrive, you will need cash in US currency or a credit or debit card to which you can charge expenses. You should aim to bring $200-$500 in US currency to cover expenses in the first few days of your stay here. Bring enough small bills ($1s, $5s, and $10s) so that you can buy any snacks/food or anything else that you may need upon arrival. You may also bring travelers’ checks, but keep in mind that they may not be accepted everywhere. Make sure to check with your credit card company and/or your bank to ensure that you will be able to use your card(s) here in the US upon arrival. You may want to open a US bank account once you arrive; there are a number of local banks around Brandeis where you can get help to open an account.

Again, this is just a primer on things to be thinking about as you prepare to make your big move to the US; for more information or clarification make sure you contact Brandeis’ International Student and Scholar’s Office!

 

What To Do If You’re Waitlisted

This post goes out to all my PhD applicants (at Heller, master’s applicants don’t receive waitlist decisions, although this may be different at other schools). Waitlists decisions are tricky to deal with because it’s not an immediate yes, but it’s also not a definite no. A waitlist decision, at least at Heller, means that you are a strong applicant and we’d be happy to have you, but we just didn’t have the “space” in the program to offer you an admit decision the first time around. That’s not a knock on you, especially this year: because we waived the GRE requirement, we received far more applications than is typical, and we’re aiming to enroll a slightly smaller class. That’s a recipe for a competitive year, so making the waitlist is still quite an accomplishment.

Okay, okay, but what should you do? Well, as frustrating as it is, you have to wait (check out my previous post about the art of waiting). However, there are a few things I would still recommend doing in the meantime, and a few things I would avoid doing.

You should give yourself space to be disappointed. It’s tough to receive anything other than an admit decision, and I completely understand that, especially if the school you received the waitlist decision from was one of your top choices. But… you shouldn’t give up hope. Heller admits students from the waitlist most years, so all is not lost!

You should still keep us updated if there are changes in your professional or academic life that are relevant. If you got a new job, or promotion, or grant, or publication, let us know! It’s not going to instantly turn your waitlist decision into an admit decision, but it demonstrates interest and may influence your position on the waitlist. But… the key here is “if they’re relevant and/or new”. The admissions committee spent time reviewing your application, and they deemed that you were a strong applicant (that’s why you received a waitlist decision!). Having your third-grade teacher or your mom’s cousin’s boss’ nephew place a call or send an email with additional recommendations isn’t likely to sway the committee.

You should make your choice known, and keep checking your email. In terms of making your choice known, that means that you should respond to the waitlist offer as soon as you are able to (after evaluating any other offers you may have received). This tells the committee that you are interested, and may give you a chance to receive an admit decision even sooner since some students decline our offer prior to the response deadline. But… start considering your other options. That may mean accepting another offer and putting down a deposit if your priority is to begin your PhD program this year. On the other hand, if you’re set on a certain program, it might mean starting to prepare yourself to apply again during the next cycle.

Every year, I get emails from students on the waitlist saying how disappointed they are to have not received an admit decision, and every year it breaks my heart. If you’re one of those students this year, let me say to you: You should be very proud of yourself. I’m wishing you all the best, and if you have any further questions, please feel free to reach out!

What To Do If You’re Denied

Hearing “no” is the worst, isn’t it? Believe me, I’ve been there: as a high school student, I got denied for my first-choice college, and again, when I was applying for graduate school, I got my fair share of deny decisions. Even as an adult, there have been a few denials: rental apartments that go to someone else, job interviews I never heard back from. As hard as it is, it bears repeating: getting denied is a part of life. Even the most successful, intelligent, well-spoken, beautiful, wonderful person you know has heard “no” at least once in their life (and probably much more!).

Still. It hurts. It feels bad. Again, I get it. So what should you do if you’ve been denied? And what should you not do? As someone who’s been on both ends of the admissions process (and thus been the one both giving the no and hearing the no), this is my advice.

DO: Take time to be sad. Being upset, or disappointed, or frustrating is entirely normal. Maybe you had your heart really set on this program and have spent the last few months (or even years) daydreaming about what your life at this program would be like. That’s a loss, and it’s okay to feel it. If you’re feeling upset, take some time for yourself to call a friend, write in your journal, watch a bad movie, take a long walk… whatever is going to make you feel better and regroup.

DON’T: Wallow. “But I thought you just said that I should take time for myself?” That’s true, I did, and you should! But the purpose of taking time for yourself is to regroup. We all have dream schools and programs, but the fact of the matter is, there are HUNDREDS of graduate schools in the US to apply to, and THOUSANDS of graduate programs in the world. Maybe this one school didn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean that others won’t. In addition, many students go through many rounds of applying for graduate programs before they’re accepted into the right program for them. The purpose of taking this time off is to renew your dedication, not stay in a slump forever.

DO: Put things into perspective. Being denied doesn’t mean you’re not smart, talented, capable, articulate, etc. The fact of the matter is, many schools are bound by real constraints of how many students their programs can handle, lest they be trying to cram one hundred students into a twenty-person classroom. This year, because many schools eased up on their requirements for application (such as waiving test scores) and because of the economic downturn, many graduate schools received more applications than they would have normally, making admission even more competitive this year. Moreover, it may just be that your research isn’t the right fit with the faculty: that’s not a reflection on you, just an indication that this program wouldn’t be the best fit.

DON’T: Lash out. Sometimes, when we’re upset or angry, the temptation to lash out is there. But now’s not the time to write your admissions contact a long letter demanding to know why you weren’t let in, or to email your recommenders a diatribe saying that they obviously didn’t say enough good things about you. Sit on it for a week; trust me, it’ll keep, and you’ll probably find that you’re a lot calmer with some time and space from it.

DO: Prepare for next year. As I said before, many students go several cycles before being admitted into the right program for them. If you really have your heart set on a particular program, there’s usually no reason you can’t try again the next year. To close, this is the advice that I normally give to students who have been denied who are interested in reapplying in the next cycle:

  • Update your Resume/CV with any experience (s) that you have gained within the past year. Did you get a new position? If yes, tell us what some of your responsibilities are.
  • Update/rewrite your personal statement – Your personal statement is critical. In your personal statement, I encourage you to talk about your specific interest(s) and also identify which faculty member(s) are currently doing similar work. Your statement has to be engaging and has to paint a picture for the committee on why you want to pursue a degree at Heller. Questions to cover: Why a graduate degree? Why now? Why Heller?
  • Letters of Recommendations – Identify strong candidates (individuals whom you have a great working relationship with and can speak thoroughly on your behalf) to write your recommendations. You do not want individuals who aren’t able to speak on your professional background or character to write your recommendation letter.
  • Retaking the GRE exam (if applicable!) – If you feel you could have done better on the GRE exam, you should take it again.

I hope that helps, and remember: whatever emotions you are feeling right now are okay. The question is, how are you going to channel those emotions? I would encourage you to try not to stay stuck in a negative feeling for too long. As someone who has received denials myself, I know that the thing you least want to hear right now is also the truest thing I could tell you: It will be okay.

 

Facing Challenges with Doug Nevins

Man in plaid shirt smiling at camera

Doug Nevins BA ’11, MPP ’21

I would not describe myself, traditionally, as someone who has sought out coursework about finance or accounting. As I’ve referenced in prior blog posts, my undergraduate career as an English major did not prepare me directly for certain types of courses I’ve taken at Heller, and in fact, was guided in part by an effort to avoid quantitative coursework. Since beginning grad school, I’ve rediscovered the potential for mathematical thinking and data analysis to actually be fun, and I’ve really enjoyed courses involving data visualization, like Evaluation for Managers and Intro to GIS. 

This semester entails a new kind of challenge, as I am enrolled in not one or two but three courses involving finance and economics – Managerial Accounting, Financial Management, and Public Finance and Budgeting. This schedule, which I would have undertaken as an undergraduate only in an anxiety dream, is one that I have actually been excited about since enrolling in the Social Impact MBA. Working in non-profit settings after college demonstrated to me the importance of financial decision-making and budgeting and the degree to which these considerations are almost more central for managers and analysts in non-profit, mission-driven organizations than in traditional corporate settings. Following politics and policy debates has motivated me to learn more about economics and the role of government economic intervention – for example, I’d like to better understand the details and competing priorities contained within President Biden’s stimulus proposal. I also wouldn’t mind having a better than half-baked take on Gamestop! 

One of the best things about Heller has been the variety of coursework and many skills which they engage. In the MPP and MBA programs, and I imagine in all Heller master’s degrees, writing- and research-intensive classes are balanced with courses in statistics, economics, and finance. Many classes integrate a combination of these skills, since analyzing data AND being able to communicate your analysis effectively is necessary for many management, research, and analyst roles. I’ve found it helpful, as a graduate student in a professional degree program, to redefine my understanding of a liberal arts approach to education – while as an undergraduate I took advantage of academic flexibility to focus largely on humanities courses, in graduate school I’m enjoying the holistic approach taken in my core coursework. While I won’t be offering any stock tips in the near future, I’m excited about this semester and about future coursework in Corporate Finance and other related areas. 

 

What To Do If You’re Accepted

Picture this: after submitting your graduate application, and after waiting patiently for weeks or months, you check your email and there’s an email message from your top choice school. You log into the school’s portal to view your decision letter— and you’ve been accepted!

Okay, what next? You’ve been thinking about this moment for so long that you didn’t plan for what comes after. As someone who has been both a graduate student myself and as someone who now works in admissions, I’ve put together some absolute “must-dos” after you’ve received your acceptance letter.

First, CELEBRATE. I can’t emphasize this enough. Applying to graduate school can be a long and arduous process, and an acceptance letter is a clear stamp of approval that it’s all paid off. So whatever celebrating means to you, whether it’s treating yourself to a nicer-than-normal-dinner, taking a well-deserved nap, posting your acceptance letter on Instagram, calling your mom and all of your friends: do it! You’ve earned it.

Second, learn more. You’re probably yelling at me, “I already researched this school for my application!” That’s true! But professors, students, and alumni are going to be a lot more accessible to you now that you’ve been accepted, so take advantage of that. Most schools are hosting virtual events for admitted students (be on the look-out for more events coming soon at Heller!), so take advantage of that. Reach out to the admissions office for help in being connected to a particular professor, or a current student or alumni. This is really the time to get all your questions answered, so don’t be shy.

Another part of learning more is taking a look at your financial aid package. Yes, this is probably less fun, but it’s so important. Really read the fine print of each package, because every school frames their financial aid differently. Consider what conditions your scholarship has: at Heller, tuition scholarships are not tied to required research assistantships or teaching assistantships because we reward you for the work you’ve already done. However, at many schools, scholarships are dependent on working as a graduate assistant, which may make it difficult for you to work for outside organizations during your graduate program. Similarly, at Heller, scholarships are granted for the full length of your program; other schools might stipulate that your financial aid package is only for the first year or is subject to change. Even the length of the program matters! If you get offers from two schools that each cost $50,000 a year, and one gives you a 50% scholarship, and the other gives you a 60% scholarship, it may seem like a no-brainer to choose the one offering 60%. But if the 60% program is even one semester longer, you’d end up paying $25,000 more!

Finally, start thinking about the next steps. Review your school’s Admitted Student Checklist and start planning what you’ll need to do before next September comes around. Having a rough idea about what’s coming next will help prepare you so that you’re not scrambling in August to get a copy of your vaccination records, request official transcripts from your undergraduate institution, and find an apartment in the span of two weeks. This is especially true if you’re an international student: requesting an I-20 and scheduling a visa appointment can often take some time, so it’s best to start early if you can.

If you’re reading this because you have just been accepted to Heller: congratulations! I’m so excited to welcome you to the Heller community, and if you haven’t already celebrated, go do that right now!

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

In my head, I’ve been calling this post “What a former English teacher can teach you about writing a statement”, because the truth is, even though your statement of purpose isn’t the same as a personal statement, it is still a narrative. You are still telling a story. Your challenge will be to write an engaging and compelling story, while presenting all of your qualifications. So… how do you do that?

Any English teacher will tell you that the backbone of any good story is structure. You could have the most amazing and creative story in your head, but if your reader can’t follow it, your story is ultimately no good. The same goes for your statement of purpose: you could be the most amazing applicant in the history of Heller, but if your statement of purpose doesn’t connect the dots between your impressive resume to why you’re interested in this program, and from this program to your future career goals, it all falls apart. Today, I’m going to share what I think of as “the anatomy” of a good statement of purpose.

Section One: Hook + Introduction

In this section, you want to introduce who you are and what has inspired you to pursue a graduate-level degree. Pretty straightforward, right? Not really. Think of it this way: the committee reading your application is probably reading tens of applications a day, and hundreds over the course of a cycle. Your job in this section is to make yourself stand out. You want to share what made you seek out a graduate-level degree in an interesting and engaging way. That means avoiding cliches like, “From a young age, I have always been interested in x”; instead share a concrete story that shows your interest in x! If your interest really was sparked at a young age (and by the way, it’s okay if it wasn’t!), tell the story of when you first realized it. “I was seven when I noticed that my classmate had holes in her shoes” is a much more interesting opening line than “I have been interested in economic inequality from a young age”. The golden rule here is show, not tell.

Section Two: Why Me?

Next up, you want to begin to lay out what makes you qualified for this program. Don’t repeat your resume verbatim (we have that too!), but focus on the skills and accomplishments that you’ve obtained over the years and be specific. Rather than saying, “I worked at XYZ Organization for five years as a program manager”, say “During my time as a program manager for XYZ Organization, I was responsible for running weekly reports on X initiative and presenting these reports to shareholders, which as a result, significantly strengthened my data analysis and visualization skills”. Some questions to ask yourself while writing: What qualities and skills do you have that show that you would succeed in the program? What do you bring to the program that’s unique? What differentiates you and your viewpoint?

Section Three: Why This Program?

In the previous section, you’ve demonstrated what you already have; in this section, you want to think about what you’re missing, i.e., what you want to gain from this program. This can include what skills you want to gain, what areas you’d like to strengthen, which faculty you’d like to work with, what opportunities you want to take advantage of, and why this program is appealing to you. Again, specifics are key here, so do your research! It’s easy to say “I’m interested in working with Professor X” or “I want to take Y class”; tell us why! Much better to say, “Professor X’s research on health outcomes for rural populations is extremely relevant to my interest in opioid addiction in rural communities” or “Although I have a strong background in quantitative analysis, I am interested in taking the Applied Qualitative Research Methods course in order to develop my ability to ask complex questions about the healthcare system”.

Section Four: Conclusion + What’s Next?

So now you have what led you to graduate school and what you hope to accomplish while in graduate school. This last section is to tie it all together: With the skills that you’ve gained (enumerated in section three), what’s next for you? Ideally, this will underscore the importance of your choice to pursue graduate study.

In general, your first and last sections will probably be a little shorter than your second and third sections, and you may find that your second and third sections might work better blended together (for example, a paragraph about your research interests in the past and what you’re interested in researching while in school, or a paragraph about your professional accomplishments and what your professional skillset is missing), but these are the basic questions that will form the skeleton of your statement of purpose and help guide you as your craft your narrative of what led you to apply, what you hope to accomplish in graduate school, and what your goals are for after you finish.

Putting Your Best Foot Forward: Letters of Recommendation

I don’t know about you, but for me, asking for letters of recommendation was the hardest part of my graduate school application. The statement of purpose was fine, because I like writing and I had a clear sense of why each program would have been a good fit for me, and I already had what I felt like was a fairly strong resume, so I only had to make a few tweaks. But reaching out to my professional and academic contacts to ask them to do something for me felt… awkward! I hate feeling like I’m inconveniencing people, and I felt certain that everyone I was asking had about a hundred and one more important things to do.

Now, after having worked as both an instructor of record and a manager, I’ve written several letters of recommendation myself and really enjoyed doing so. Especially with people I had close professional relationships with, it was always a pleasure to reflect back on my experience with that person and share what I thought would make them an asset to a program or a job position. But I’ve also realized that there are several things an applicant to do to ensure that their recommender is set up to write them the best recommendation possible.

First, and I cannot emphasize this enough; before you add a recommender to your application, check in with them first and confirm that they will be willing to write you a recommendation.  In this first email, make sure you’re clear about when the deadline for the program is. These letters do take time, and the person may not be able to make that commitment depending on what else is going on in their work or personal life. It’s also just good manners!

Once your recommender has agreed, reply with a thank you note and attach your resume so they can reference specific accomplishments or timeframes. When applying to a graduate school, you can also share what appeals to you about this program, as well as letting the recommender know what you’d like them to highlight in their letter. A good thank you note could go something like this:

Dear _________, 

Thank you so much for agreeing to write a letter of recommendation for my application to X Program at Y University. I have wanted to pursue a graduate degree in Z field for a long time, and I believe that your letter of recommendation gives me an advantage in this competitive field. 

Your class on _______ helped to spark my insight in Z field, and I hope that in ______ class, I demonstrated an interest in A, B, and C, all of which are very relevant to this program. Something that drew me to X Program was it’s _____________, and I feel your recommendation could underscore my interest and qualifications in this area.

I am very grateful that you’ve agreed to write this letter of recommendation; I know it will be an asset to my application. I’ve attached my resume for your convenience, but please reach out to me if there’s any more information that I could provide that would be helpful to you. 

Sincerely, 

Your Name

Just like that, you’ve not only thanked them for the time and effort they’ll be taking in writing your letter of recommendation, but you’ve also given them a clear idea of what you’re hoping their letter of recommendation will highlight and connected the dots for them between your experience and interests and this program. This can be the key to getting a great letter of recommendation versus an average one.

The Art of Waiting

For PhD students and master’s students applying for the first priority deadline (at Heller, it’s January 15th), the hardest part of the application process is almost upon us: the waiting time. The time between when you press that “Submit” button and when you hear back from the schools you’ve applied to can be madness-inducing.

I get it: waiting is hard. In a society geared around ultra-convenience, we don’t get a lot of opportunities to practice patience. If we’re hungry, we can order a pizza that will be delivered in thirty minutes or less, or microwave dinner in under five minutes. If we want to talk to someone, we can send them a text or give them a call with the expectation that we’ll hear back from them soon. If we want to watch a movie, there’s an endless selection just a few clicks away. And if the pizza gets to us after 40 minutes, or we don’t get a text back in a few minutes, or the movie we really wanted to watch isn’t available… we’re annoyed.

This past year has made me even more aware of how bad many of us, including me, are at waiting… but it’s also forced me to come to terms with the fact that there are many things that I will have to wait for, whether it’s for my recent COVID test results, for travel to be safe again, or for my favorite restaurant to open back up. This is what I’ve learned over the past year about the art of waiting:

Stay busy, but in a productive way.  This might seem contradictory, but waiting doesn’t necessarily mean that you do absolutely nothing. If you’ve submitted your application, chances are, there’s still a lot to do! Some students will put that nervous energy into writing to admissions officers every day asking for an update, but if you can redirect that energy into productive endeavors, you’ll be a lot better off. You can write thank you letters to your recommenders, you can look up how to request official transcripts from your undergraduate institution in case you’re admitted, you can take a free course online or volunteer (even virtually!) to strengthen your resume, you can learn a new skill or develop a new hobby; the goal here should be to do something that will have a positive effect on you no matter the outcome of your admissions decision.

Trust the process. As hard as it can be to give up control, sometimes you have to surrender to the wait. If you’ve submitted your application, have faith in yourself that you’ve done your best work and that now you have to wait for the outcome. You also have to trust the process: if you’re accepted, that’s great, but if not, it may be because it wasn’t the right fit for you.. and that’s a good thing! Getting accepted to a program that isn’t right for you and your goals isn’t a good outcome, either for the school or for you. Know that whatever your decision letter says, you will be okay.

Phone a friend. Even if you do all the things I’ve listed above, you may still need assurance that everything is going to be okay. That’s completely normal! If it all starts to feel like too much, reach out to someone close to you, whether a family member, friend or colleague. You probably know other people applying to graduate school, so why not form a support group? Even if you don’t, you can find forums all over the internet where you can commiserate with people in the exact same boat as you. Find a place where you can vent all of your anxiety and worry, and then repeat steps one and two.

Waiting is built into our lives: when I was a kid, I was waiting to go to college, then I was waiting to graduate, and once I graduated, I was waiting to get a “grown-up” job. Even once you get your decision letter, you’ll then be waiting to start your time at Heller. Since it’s inescapable, why not use this time to learn how to wait well?

 

 

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