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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.

Doug’s New Year’s Resolutions

Man in plaid shirt smiling at camera

Doug Nevins BA ’11, MPP ’21

While I’m wary at this point of setting New Year’s resolutions, and try not to make any that are too unrealistic (case in point: I actually CANCELLED my Planet Fitness membership last week), I’m tempted each January to set some goals or develop a new hobby or discipline. This year I am aspiring to read more for pleasure, and hoping that the January break gives me time to get a head start of sorts.

The impossibility of reading for pleasure, given the voluminous quantity of reading assignments for class, is a bit of a running joke in graduate school. Still, I’ve found that during the pandemic period I’ve turned increasingly to movies and TV for entertainment, and while these have their virtues I am looking to integrate some novel and short story reading into my routine (plus, I am running out of things to watch!) As a former English major, I have always enjoyed fiction and poetry, but increasingly my reading habits have turned to non-fiction. I devour news and articles about current events, but these do not offer nearly the same enjoyment as a great book.

So, I thought I’d share a few of the titles I have on my shelf at the moment.

3 by Vonnegut – as advertised, this collection includes three Kurt Vonnegut novels – Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions. While I read Slaughterhouse-Five in high school, I’m not sure I fully appreciated it, and as many friends have recommended Vonnegut to me I think it’s time to delve more deeply into his work.

Ripley novels – another collection, this one including the first three novels in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series. I read the excellent The Talented Mr. Ripley a long time ago (the movie is good too!) but have not followed up with subsequent titles. I think I also am missing being able to travel, so novels involving holidays in Paris and Tuscany (even when the protagonist is as evil as Ripley) are an attractive alternative.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – this one is actually not yet on my shelf, but I am planning to take it out from my local library, currently offering contactless pick-ups. While I love the fairly recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I have never read any John le Carre, and given his recent passing, it seems like the time to get started. His first novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is reputed to be a good place to start.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead’s alternate history novel, in which the titular railroad is a literal rail network, has been on my shelf for a while and seems like a timely read.

While there’s no guarantee how much time I’ll have once classes begin, I’m resolving (publicly!) to make an effort to read these novels and others this year. I’d welcome any recommendations! Happy reading.

 

Writing Your Best Statement of Purpose with Sami Rovins

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

One of the questions I get asked most as an Admissions Graduate Assistant is, “how can I write the best statement of purpose possible?” It’s a tricky question of course, because everyone’s statement of purpose will be different. But there are a few tricks and pieces of advice I can give to help you create your best statement of purpose possible.

Do your best to make sure that you are truly being reflected in what you write. This is your opportunity to showcase who you are! What do you, as an individual, bring to Heller? What can you add to our classrooms and to our community? What will your experiences, interests, and aspirations lead you to do and accomplish at Heller? Try to convey your passion and excitement for the degree you are pursuing. What specifically draws you to apply for this degree? How have your past experiences shaped you and led you to where you are now?

In my statement of purpose, as an example, I wrote about my experience working at Doctors Without Borders headquarters in NYC right after graduating college. This was an essential experience for me and to this day it contributes to my understanding of what I study here at Heller. My experience in this job was influential in both personal and professional ways. I think that writing about experiences that have shaped you in multiple ways is a great way to start your statement of purpose.

I also wrote about my professional and academic interests which I planned to pursue. I described my desire to learn more about women’s reproductive health, particularly in a South Asian context. Although I had not yet studied this topic, including it in my statement of purpose was a way of clearly outlining my goals and plans for my time at Heller. What interests you, even if you’re not already knowledgeable about it?

I also recommend writing about what drew you to apply to be a grad student at Heller specifically. You definitely don’t need to praise Heller, but I encourage you to tell us why you think you’d fit in well here, and what you can contribute to our community. Have you read about any particular courses at Heller that peaked your interest? Or any faculty whose interests mirror your own?

The greatest bit of advice I can give (at the risk of sounding corny) is to be yourself when writing your statement of purpose. This is your opportunity to show us who you are, not who you think we want you to be. We want to read about your interests and aspirations, your goals and plans. Tell us who you really are!

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?

 

 

My First Semester: A Look Back with Andrea Tyree

A young woman leans against a tree, smiling.

Andrea Tyree, MPP’22

With finals season officially at a close, it feels as though I’ve just awoken from an enlightening, yet hectic, dream. My first thought was: “Wow, my apartment is a mess.” But after a thorough spring cleaning (in the middle of a literal snowstorm), I was able to genuinely reflect on my first semester at Heller and remember some key lessons learned.

Like most students, I was worried about starting graduate school in the midst of a pandemic. Because classes were completely online, I chose not to move to the Waltham area and instead, remained in West Virginia for the semester (and if you’ve ever looked at the rent in the greater Waltham area, you’d get why). Yet I worried how connected I would be to everyone.

I also worried about the workload. The idea of taking four classes didn’t seem too overwhelming, but I had been out of school for about three years—just enough time to forget what it felt like to write a 10- to 20-page paper. Other graduate students warned me that I’d need the extra hours available during the week to keep up with the workload. Was I up to the challenge?

Three and half months later I can confidently say (pending final grades) that I was, thanks to some incredible support from my classmates and professors!

Whether you find a place right in the center of Waltham or 500 miles away, you’ll find that your classmates are there for you. My MPP cohort is spread out from one coast to the other and yet we communicate nearly every day. I mean, being in a classroom is nice, but have you ever shared real-time reactions and memes with your 20-40 classmates about what’s happening in class? It can truly turn some of the slowest guest speaker lecture days into one of your favorite classes.

Pro tip: Download Slack before graduate school and use the Newly Admitted Heller Facebook page to build your cohort’s Slack channel! You’ll thank me later, trust me.

On a serious note, being able to communicate with my classmates outside of monitored spaces was a godsend when I was lost in a lecture or missed a class. The kind of people who attend Heller are the kind who are willing to go above and beyond to help their classmates. We’re truly all in this together (cue HSM earworm) and I’m constantly amazed by the things that I learn from my classmates.

The workload wasn’t the easiest adjustment, yet it didn’t take long to find a study routine that worked for me. Remember: If it works for you, stick with, don’t compare it to others. Imposter syndrome is real and will have you feeling like you’re not doing enough real quick. Don’t let it get you!

But if you feel like you’re struggling more than you should, be honest with yourself and others. Talk to your classmates to check if you’re doing too much. Are you skimming most of the five 30-page reading assignments, or are you deep reading all of them? Are you finding 50 sources for a 10 page paper or a reasonable 20? We’ve all been there! I definitely have…but being honest and speaking about it with my classmates and professors prevented endless future headaches. Heller professors want to build you up, not break you down. Don’t be afraid to meet with a professor one-on-one to talk about where you’re at. I promise they (at least MPP professors) won’t bite.

Looking back, this semester wasn’t too bad (though I may be wearing some rose-colored glasses). But I know I couldn’t have gotten through it without my cohort. To the applicants and newly-admitted students, find the people who will have your back during this experience. Trust me, it’s not as hard as it sounds!

See you in the New Year…

Recently, my partner and I have been rewatching The West Wing. If you haven’t ever seen this ’90s and early ’00s classic (you should!), it follows a group of White House senior staff members serving under President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. If you have watched it, you’re probably familiar with one of the most often repeated lines of the show: Josiah Bartlet’s catchphrase, “What’s next?”

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot over the past year, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. We’re in a time of great uncertainty, and planning anything can seem daunting, if not completely impossible. Plans with friends usually include the phrase “when all this is over” or “when things are back to normal”, but no one seems to know for certain when that will be. Everything, it seems, is on hold.

But I’ve noticed that whenever Josiah Bartlet asks “What’s next?”, it’s never in the spirit of defeat, or confusion, or hopelessness. In fact, he usually asks it when he’s just triumphed over one challenge and is ready to tackle another one. Major political scandal? “What’s next?” A slanderous campaign ad from the other party? “What’s next?” Nuclear war resolved at the absolute last second? “What’s next?” Functionally, the phrase signals to viewers the closing of one chapter and the pursuit of a new storyline, but philosophically, it’s about the decision to keep moving forward.

The Heller Admissions blog will be taking a brief hiatus between now and January 5th, and I know I’ll be using that time to relax, reflect, and to come up with new ways to improve the blog in 2021. I hope that you’ll spend the remainder of 2020 in ways that are restful and restorative to you so that we can both greet 2021’s challenges with a Josiah Bartlet-style “What’s next?”

Putting Your Best Foot Forward: Your Resume or CV

Already in this series, I’ve discussed the difference between a statement of purpose and a personal statement; another similar question I get from students is the difference between a resume and CV. For the Heller application, we allow you to either upload your resume or your curriculum vitae, and in fact, these documents will often contain a lot of the same information, but the small differences might have a significant difference on how you choose to structure these documents. Today I’ll be taking you through the anatomy of both, and talk a little about which might be best for you, depending on your situation.

Resume:

Chances are, you already have a resume, as they’re more commonly for job applications. Your resume should, at a minimum, contain your work experience, including key responsibilities and achievements in each role, and your education. Many students also include sections for their skills, awards, publications, and licenses and certifications, if they’re relevant. Typically, work experience and education will come first on your resume (though not necessarily in that order), followed by these additional sections, but as a rule, you’ll want to keep your resume under two pages at most.

In terms of what not to include in your resume, you’ll notice that in that last paragraph, I used the phrase if it’s relevant. This is key, but an often over-looked piece of advice. Many students, in an effort to beef up their resume, will include every piece of information possible, including their babysitting job when they were twelve and which high school they went to. When it comes to the work experience you do list, I recommend that when listing your job responsibilities and achievements, you try to tailor them to the program to which you’re applying. Try to connect the dots for us between your skills-your career objectives-the program to which you’re applying, as much as possible.

A few more things to leave off your resume: although this differs across cultures, in the U.S., you shouldn’t include your picture on your resume, physical characteristics, or personal data aside from your name and contact information. That means you don’t need to list your date of birth, race, religion, or marital status on your resume; in the U.S., making hiring or (in our case) admissions decisions based on any of these characteristics can be considered discrimination, so employers and institutions in the U.S. prefer that you don’t include it.

C.V.:

C.V. is short for curriculum vitae, or “course of life”; as the name suggests, these are typically longer than a resume, and are focused largely on your academic achievements. You should still include your education and work experience (although in a C.V., you’ll generally put the education section first). But in addition to these sections, you could also include your publications, any teaching experiences, conferences you’ve presented at, relevant coursework, certificates you’ve earned, languages, research interests, and any fellowships you received.

A good way to think about the difference between a C.V. and a resume is that a resume is typically meant to highlight your experience and your C.V. is meant to highlight your credentials. With that in mind, I’d like to close with a quick guide on which might be best to use in your application.

A resume might be best if…  You have significant accomplishments in the workplace that you’d like to highlight, your primary field isn’t academia, you’ve been out of school for a significant amount of time, and/or you’re not applying to a PhD program (a resume, in other words, might be the more appropriate choice for most applicants)

A C.V. might be best if… You’re applying to a PhD program, your primary accomplishments have been in the field of academia, and/or you’re a recent graduate without much work experience.

Writing the Perfect Statement of Purpose with Andrea Tyree

A young woman leans against a tree, smiling.

Andrea Tyree, MPP’22

Disclaimer: My advice cannot guarantee your entrance into Heller. I’m only an MPP student who has seen the values of The Heller School up close. I’ll show you what I think made my essay a success, now knowing Heller a bit better. This essay reflects my own views as a student and is no way the official guidance of The Heller School.

So, you’re applying to graduate schools and have to convince each school why you’re the ideal applicant. Easy, right? Who doesn’t love talking about themselves?

Me. I don’t. (Which is ironic considering I’m always blogging…)

Luckily, grad school apps are less about “What makes you special?” and more about “What makes what you want to do special?” And if you’re applying to a graduate program, you probably have a good reason for it. So here’s my advice on how to make that reason shine:


  1. Ground Yourself: What brought you here?

What inspired you to go for this degree? Did a professional experience show you the cracks in the system and make you realize that a graduate degree could help you mend those cracks? Or were you so inspired by your undergraduate studies that you want to continue your learning and fine-tune your expertise in order to make a greater impact? Or maybe it was a personal interaction that opened your eyes to all that could be accomplished with a graduate degree? Either way, help the reviewers understand why you want this degree.

For example: I spoke about the two communities that molded me: East Timor (where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer) and the Black community in West Virginia (my home). I expounded on some of the lessons I learned living and working in both of these communities and tied it a sector of policy that I hoped to research. I even included some policy research questions such as: “How does the use of excessive force by the police, and the policies that license it, inhibit the socioeconomic progress of Black Americans?”

  1. Be Honest: What do you know and what don’t you know?

We all come to graduate school with our own expertise. Even if you don’t think you’re an expert in anything, trust me, you know more about certain subjects than most of your peers! Believe that and use it. Show the review committee what you know by stating some facts (or, even better, stats). But no one knows everything about everything. And the review committee will certainly call your bluff if you claim that. So save yourself the trouble and admit to the concepts that you still want to learn more about. You could highlight a particular skill or subject, or you could post a research question to which you’d like to find the answer.

For example: I compared the poverty and disparities facing East Timor and West Virginia: 41% of Timorese live below the country’s poverty line, while 19% of all West Virginians and 31% of Black West Virginians live below the US poverty line. West Virginia only has a Black population of 3.6% yet we’re living in a poverty rate that is comparable to a country that is still trying to rebuild after decades of occupation. How is this so? Could it be a result of power dynamics in both regions?

  1. Say My Name, Say My Name: Who do you want to work with?

Graduate school is not just about the degree or the research you’ve completed; it’s about the connections you make and the things you learn from those around you outside of class. Apply for a program with a list of faculty in mind from whom you want to learn. Research professors from within and outside of your program in order to find the people with expertise most relevant to your interests. Naming faculty within your statement will show the reviewers that you’ve done your homework and that you’re ready to be in this program.

Pro Tip: Reach out to those faculty members before school starts. Heck, you could even reach out to them before you apply; chances are, they’ll answer! Faculty members aren’t usually the ones making admissions decisions, but if you’re interested in their research or you think they brought up a salient point in a recent interview, ask them about it! Being able to throw that conversation into an application shows great initiative. It worked for me, it can work for you too.


Good luck with your application! And remember, if you truly believe that you’re right for Heller (and I’m sure you are), make that shine through your whole statement!

Reflecting on the Fall Semester with Sami Rovins

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

As the Fall semester begins to wind down, I’m beginning to reflect on my greatest accomplishments over the past few months. Some of these accomplishments are big, others are much smaller. Sometimes I get caught up in how tough everything seems to be, on the assignments I didn’t do too well on, or how much work I have left to do in the next few weeks. That’s why I think it’s important, especially when things are stressful and difficult, to think about my successes at Heller so far.

I feel proud that even while I was up to my eyeballs in work for the Global Health Policy & Management program, I managed to begin work on my Capstone paper and presentation for the program I did last year, Conflict Resolution & Coexistence. I feel proud that I have been able to carefully balance both of these large responsibilities. I am writing my Capstone on the need for comprehensive, culturally-competent sex education for women and girls in India. I have been able to utilize some of the new skills and knowledge I’ve gained in the MS program and apply it to my COEX capstone. For instance, I can now better understand a large survey of teens’ knowledge of reproductive health. I now know what a regression is and how to interpret it within studies about sexual health. Being able to marry the skills of COEX and MS has been a big accomplishment for me this semester.

I also take pride in researching and writing a 16-page paper for one of my classes, Democracy & Development, over the course of one week. We were given a broad assignment of researching any topic that related to the class and I chose to write about the influence of various radical women on the politics and philosophy of Malcolm X. I also consider this a big accomplishment because I was juggling my other four final exams and projects at the very same time. In the end, I consider my paper to be a well-researched and well-written success!

My last accomplishment revolves around my ability to maintain important relationships while simultaneously managing finals. In all the madness of finals, it can be easy to forget friends, family, and loved ones. But I know I couldn’t possibly have completed this semester without the help of the people closest to me. I made an effort to make some time to meet friends for a socially distanced visit, to watch a film with my roommate, and to FaceTime with my parents. Reaching out to them for support makes such a difference and I consider it a huge accomplishment to maintain these connections despite the craziness of finals season.

FINALS!: It’s Crunch Time for Doug Nevins

Man in plaid shirt smiling at camera

Doug Nevins BA ’11, MPP ’21

As another semester draws to a close, Heller students find ourselves in the midst of another finals period. Returning from Thanksgiving break to a marathon session of exams and other assignments is a bit of a rude awakening, but luckily the end is in sight!

In my first year as an MPP student, my midterms and finals mostly consisted of research-based papers and policy briefs. Getting back into the swing of academic research and writing was a challenge after years of being out of school, but ultimately I felt like I was reviving skills I had used frequently in college. Having been an English major, I wrote a lot of essays in college! Exams, not so much. Now, as a first-year MBA dual degree student, I have found myself confronting both papers and exams, both take home and “in-person” (over Zoom). This is a new challenge entirely and has required me to rediscover study skills long neglected since high school. Flashcards? Check. Moments of frustration about a persistently confusing concept? Check.

The best thing about studying for exams at Heller is that everyone is in the same boat and that studying need not be a solitary activity. As much as I have sometimes found that the most productive use of time is to rewatch lecture videos, review textbooks, and drill accounting and econ problems on my own, in general, I have found it even more beneficial to hop on Zoom with a friend or two and go over course content together. This would be my number one recommendation for future Heller students. No matter how well you think you understand a concept, you’ll feel more confident once you’re able to explain it to someone else. I often find that when I study with friends, our collective intelligence (I recommend the Leadership and Organizational Behavior course if you’re interested in this concept!) far exceeds our individual knowledge of the material.

This same principle holds true for writing papers. Part of the appeal of studying public policy for me was the prospect of discussing topics with curious, knowledgeable, and critical peers. This has definitely been the case at Heller, where I know that my MPP classmates will offer insightful comments and feedback on my ideas for research papers and projects. I’m actually looking forward to the last few assignments I have, once I’ve completed my more quantitative finals because I’ll have the opportunity to dig into a policy area of interest.

The finals period is no picnic, but the supportive culture at Heller makes it manageable. Faculty care about our learning and growth, and assignments are intended not to trip us up but to help us confirm that we understand course concepts and can apply them. As weird as it is to be taking exams again, I know this process will help me feel more confident upon leaving Heller that I’ve gained new knowledge and skills. Plus, we have a long, well-earned winter break at the end of the finals period! Good luck to my fellow students – we’re in the home stretch!

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