Category: Applications (page 1 of 3)

You Ask, I Answer: How to Email the Admissions Office

I’m continuing the “You Ask, I Answer” series where I respond to the most common questions I get from prospective or admitted students (you can find a previous You Ask, I Answer: When Should I Start Graduate School? here). If you have a question you’d like me to answer in the next post, be sure to comment below!

To be honest, this actually isn’t a question that I get from prospective students too often, but at graduate fairs, students often mention that although they have the desire to reach out to admissions contacts, they aren’t sure how, or feel awkward or nervous about contacting admissions personnel directly. Which I totally get! When you’re writing a message to someone in an admissions office, you should think of your email as serving multiple purposes. First and foremost, you’re trying to get an answer to a question you have, either about the program or the application process. That should be what the content of the email is focused on. But secondly, you’re also trying to make a good first impression on the people who will be involved in your application process. This doesn’t mean that you should re-iterate the highlights of your application to demonstrate why you’d be a good fit for the program, but it does mean that throughout your email, you should be making an effort to show that you’re interested in the program, you’ve done your research, and you’re a clear communicator. Let’s take a look at a (fictional) email from a prospective student and then talk about what the student could have done better:

To: AdmissionsContact1@college.edu, AdmissionsContact2@college.edu, ProgramManager1@college.edu, DeanOfCollege1@college.edu

From: FictionalStudent@gmail.com

Subject: questions

Message:

hey ProgramManager3,

,my name is Fictional Student and i want to ask some questions about the mpp porgram ur school. i graduated 1st in my class in fictionalprogram at fictionalschool with a GPA of 3.76. since then, i worked at fictionalcompany for 4 yrs as a fictionaljobtitle, where i had fictionalresponsibilities. then i got a job at fictionalcompany2, where i works as a fictionaljobtitle2, which has the additional responsibilities of managing people. i also volunteer as a volunteerposition, and in my spare time i like to read and play music. but now i’m interested in advancing my education threw youre mpp program  bc i want to make a difference in the world. can u tell me when the deadline to apply to the program is??

thanks, Fictional Student”

You can probably tell that this email probably wouldn’t make the best first impression, but what could FictionalStudent have done better? First, they could have looked up the person in the admissions office that handles the program that they’re interested in and emailed that person (and only that person!). Sometimes students email multiple people in the hopes of getting an answer to their question, but it actually can backfire and create confusion among staff, even resulting in students not getting a reply because everyone on the email assumes that someone else will take care of the student’s question. Next problem? The tone is very informal, especially the text-speak. This doesn’t mean that you have to write in an overly formal way, but you should aim to write as a slightly more polished version of yourself, the same tone that you would use if you were emailing your boss or someone you have a job interview with. In addition to the too-casual tone, FictionalStudent also didn’t remember to proofread their email; a single typo isn’t going to ruin your chances of getting accepted to the program, but an email riddled with spelling and grammar errors definitely isn’t going to make the best impression.

Those are the more obvious errors, but I’d also add two more that may not be so obvious. First, the student is including information about themselves that isn’t relevant to their question and will most likely be repeated in their application. Think of it this way: your application is your opportunity to share more about yourself with the admissions committee, but when you’re emailing someone in admissions, that’s your opportunity for the school to share more about itself with you. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include any information about yourself (in fact, there are a lot of instances where you’ll need to include information about your background and interests), but try to keep the content of your message focused on the question you have and include only the information that’s relevant. Secondly, the student asked a question that can be very easily found on the website. I’m not saying that you have to make sure you scour a school’s webpage before you email someone in admissions, but things like deadlines and application requirements are almost always on a school’s website. Sending an email asking for something that’s featured prominently gives the impression that you haven’t taken the time or the effort to do your research. Let’s end with a corrected email that’s sure to make a good first impression:

To: AdmissionsContact1@college.edu

From: FictionalStudent@gmail.com

Subject: Questions about Submitting Test Scores

Message:

Dear AdmissionsContact,

I hope you’re doing well! I’m Fictional Student and I’m currently applying to the MPP program at your school. While reviewing admissions website, I saw that the GRE requirement is waived for students applying to the MPP program for the Fall 2022 semester. I have already taken the GRE, and I’m considering whether or not to submit test scores as a part of my application. Would you be able to tell me how the GRE is used when evaluating a students application, or what the average scores are for successful applicants? Any guidance you could provide would be very appreciated.

Thank you, Fictional Student”

The Fall 2022 Application is OPEN!

We’re excited to announce that the Heller application for Fall 2022 entry is now open! Today, I’ve compiled some frequently asked questions from students and included a list of resources

FAQS

What is required for the application?

The application is designed to be accessible and is comprised of the following elements:

  • The Heller online application, including biographic information, education history, and work history
  • Statement of purpose
  • Resume or CV
  • Three Letters of Recommendation (two for Social Impact MBA applicants)
  • PhD and SID/WGS joint program only: Writing Sample
  • International students only: TOEFL, IELTS, or Duolingo English Test results, unless you qualify for an English Proficiency Waiver
  • The MPP, MBA, and PhD programs have extended their test-optional policy through the Fall 2022 admission cycle due to the COVID-19 pandemic

You can view a full list of requirements for each program on our “How to Apply” page. 

What are the deadlines for the application?

You can find deadlines for each program on our “Application Deadlines” page.

How can I start an application?

I would recommend starting by reviewing the “How to Apply” page for your program of interest before beginning an application.

What are you looking for in an application?

The best way to find out what each program is looking for is by connecting with one of our admissions representatives, but you can also read our blog series, “Which Program is Right for Me?”

Resource List

 

FAQs for Prospective Students, from Sami

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

As a Graduate Assistant with Heller Admissions, I hear from so many prospective students interested in studying at Heller. Often, they have similar questions to ask me about the admissions process and the Heller experience. I’ve narrowed it down to the top three questions I’m most commonly asked to help you to streamline the process of completing your application, to improve your application to Heller, and to make important decisions about your plans to study in grad school.

  1. Based on my professional/academic background, should I apply to Heller? Yes! One of the things I like most about Heller’s admissions process is that it is truly holistic. Instead of looking at just GRE scores, or reference letters, or grades, the Heller Admissions department takes everything into consideration. If you’re worried about a lack of professional experience, for example, or less-than-ideal grades during a semester of undergrad, keep in mind that we take into account the whole package that an applicant has to offer. We know you can’t simply be boiled down into grades or test scores, and we want to see who you are, and how you intend to change the world after your time at Heller.
  2. What should I write about in my statement of purpose? What you write about is entirely up to you, but keep in mind that we want to get to know you in a meaningful way through your statement of purpose. Tell us what inspires you to apply to graduate school, and what a degree from the Heller School will ultimately help you accomplish. Convey to us who you are as an individual, a student, and as someone who wants to make their mark on the world through positive social change. Tell us what you are passionate about, why you’re passionate about it, and what you intend to do about it.
  3. What is life like for a Heller student? Life as a Heller student is both challenging and rewarding. At times, your work load will certainly be intense. But all of us are 100% capable of getting our work done, and getting it done well – That’s why we’re all here! I simply can’t even describe how rewarding it is to turn in an assignment that felt completely impossible at first glance. Life as a Heller student is also about the community you’ll find here. The friendship and support you’ll gain from your classmates will be your most valuable tool as a graduate student. There will be challenging moments during your Heller experience, but there will be far more rewarding moments filled with accomplishments and a strong sense of community.

As we get closer to the 2022 application launch date (early September!), I hope these are helpful to all of our prospective students, and remember: you can always contact us with any of your questions!

You Ask, I Answer: When Should I Start Graduate School?

I’m starting a new series today called, “You Ask, I Answer”, where I respond to the most common questions I get from prospective or admitted students. This question is one I get asked frequently, but if you have a question you’d like me to answer in the next post, be sure to comment below!

What do getting married, starting a family, and beginning graduate school have in common? There’s never the “perfect” time.

Of all the questions I get at graduate school fairs, this one is the most difficult to answer because it really, really depends on each student’s unique situation, but I’ve weighed what I think are some of the most important factors to consider when making the decision to apply to graduate school.

Advantages to starting within 1-2 years of graduation

  • It’s easier to uproot your life. The younger you are, the more flexibility you’re likely to have when it comes to relocating; you may not have to think about moving a partner or children with you, the way you might when you’re older.
  • Your knowledge is fresh. Other students in your classes may not have taken statistics in five or even ten years! The sooner you begin graduate school after undergrad, the fresher a lot of the material will seem, and you may not have to “re-learn” as much as older students will.
  • You can be more involved in extra-curriculars. Graduate school can be a wonderful opportunity to make new friends and to get involved with clubs that interest you. Obviously, older students can do this too, but it’s certainly more difficult to grab an impromptu drink with your cohort after class if you know your spouse and kids are waiting for you at home (or if you have a deadline to meet for your job).

Advantages to starting with 3+ years of work experience

  • Money, money, money. Yes, it’s the elephant in the room when deciding to pursue graduate school: even with significant scholarships, it is still a financial investment. Waiting to start graduate school gives you more time to plan how you’ll pay for it, and to save up money for your degree.
  • You know what you want to do. It’s not always realistic to expect someone to know what they want to do for the rest of your life 22 or 23. Sure, a job or field might sound good in theory, but after a few years you might realize it’s not quite the right fit for your interests or skillset. The longer you wait to attend graduate school, the more likely you are to have a clear idea of the professional path you want to take.
  • You can apply theoreticals to the real world. While Heller is great at providing students with real-world scenarios and giving students experiential learning opportunities, there’s no better teacher than doing. The more experience you have, the more likely you’ll be able to connect what you’re learning in the classroom to real world problems and solutions.

In general, I tend to advise students to gain some professional experience before applying to graduate school. I went to graduate school a year after I finished my undergraduate degree and earned a master’s degree in English with the aim of becoming a teacher, only to find that although I loved the world of higher education, teaching wasn’t the right fit for me. If I had taken a few years to work as a teacher in a classroom setting instead of going straight to graduate school, I could have saved myself a lot of headaches (not to mention time and money!). On the other hand, I have close friends who started graduate school later in life who then had to navigate uprooting their families to a new city, making a financial sacrifice that affected their entire family, and raise children in between studying for midterms. Each path has it’s pros and cons, so make sure you consider the above factors before making your decision.

 

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.

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.

 

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.

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