Category: Admissions (page 4 of 7)

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.

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?

 

 

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?”

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Time to Give Thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Interview Tips from One of Our Interviewers

Man in plaid shirt smiling at camera

Doug Nevins BA ’11, MPP ’21

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

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

In no particular order….

Be yourself!

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

THAT SAID….

Don’t be afraid to brag!

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

AT THE SAME TIME…

Be prepared to talk about challenges you’ve encountered.

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

Think of a couple questions to ask.

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

The interview is informal, but professional.

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

LASTLY…

Have fun!

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

What Does “Holistic Review Process” Mean, Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Graduate School Application Mistakes to Avoid

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

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

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

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

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

 

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