[by c4v@anhqle]


I recently noticed how bizarre it is that I have stopped writing much, leaving this blog to languish and despair, despite the fact that writing is the single most important skill to my current career as a graduate student. Too shamed by my own long-held belief of writing as a craft, and hence can and should be practiced into perfection, I am skipping my weekly gaming session, administering a reddit diet, and writing this very line before your eyes.

So, here we go, QA’s Q&A \#5 (you can read more about this series here)

How this Q&A works

As someone who has just finished his own graduate school application last year, I can assure you that the Internet has all the answers. What it is not so good at doing, and which this blog will accomplish, is to tell you what questions to ask. As you upperclassmen already knew, time is a scarce resource — so focus on the important things.

The first version of this entry will address questions I’ve been asked by friends. Should you have any other, please leave a comment and I will add the answer to the entry.

Note: What’s written here is most true for Social Sciences in the United States. I am currently (will be for a while) a graduate student in Political Science at Duke University.

1. The big picture

Here are the factors of an application, in order of relative importance:

  • Letters of Recommendation (LoR)
  • Statement of Purpose (SoP)
  • Research Experience
  • GRE Score

What this kind of list obscures is that the first three factors – Letters, Statement, and Research – are closely related, and thus similarly valued. (GRE score is only a distant runner-up.)

Thus, one should not prepare the letters, then prepare the SoP, while juggling his research paper as if they were all separate things. All three have a mutual genesis, as explained below.

The best way to become a grad student is to act like one

Insert anything in life in place of “grad student” and this principle still holds true. The admission committee is most interested in knowing whether you will do well as a grad student. To make life even simpler, there is only one thing that they do: research.

Hence, to assure them of your potential, simply do one thing very well: research.

LoR will be a natural result of your research experience. Frequent interaction with professors during research projects is the best and most genuine way to let them know of your intellectual capacity and work ethics. There is really no trick nor shortcut to a good letter.

Similarly, your SoP will most likely grow from your research. Despite its name, a SoP is not a declaration of what you will actually do. Rather, it is to show that you understand the field, that you know what doing research actually means, and that you are able to conceive of and present scholarly ideas. Once again, doing research is the best way to learn (and to show that you’ve learned) all these things.

Because of this interconnectedness, preparing for graduate school application is a very holistic process. Start as early as possible (but year is not too late), approach professors whose class or research intrigue you, ask to participate in a project or to formulate your own. Very naturally, while doing research you will become familiar with certain topics, identify flaws in existing literature, come up with ideas of your own, which will serve as your future SoP material. In the mean time, you will also learn how to handle large amount of writing and, doing all this very well, earning the good graces (and good letters) of your professors.

Keep doing this until your senior year (with a brief intermission for focused GRE preparation), and by the time you actually need to ask for LoR and to write SoP, it will simply be hitting the switch of a well-oiled, multi-part machine that you have been putting together for years.

2. Letter of Recommendation

Quick answers to some FAQs on LoR.

  • {How many letters?}Most schools ask for three academic letters. Some will accept the third one from outside the university. Consequently, have in mind three professors and try to write research paper with them (in or out of class). Discuss ideas with them frequently and drop hints at your plan for graduate school (all this will come up naturally, if not inevitably, during your research.) Invest in the relationship. Having a backup is reasonable, but do not spread more than that. You will barely have time and energy to research with three professors anyway.
  • {Who should I ask?}As in more general cases, the ones that know you best. Here in particular, that means the ones you have done research with. Ones whose class you aced is an okay substitute, but if the class is merely of the lecture/midterm/final format, the professor will not be able to comment on your research ability.
                                                    Good class taker =/= Good researcher
    … and adcom cares only about the latter
  • {How early should I ask?}As referred to above, let them know of your plan some time in your junior year while working together. Then by senior’s fall, it would no longer be a surprise to everyone and need no explanation.

3. Statement of Purpose

Consult the Internet. Feel free to ask questions if you have any.

4. GRE

How important is it?

To your ability to succeed in graduate school – absolutely none. To your chance to get admitted into graduate school – somewhat.

During my post-admittance visits, I have been told by adcoms that GRE is mostly used to weed out the egregious cases and to provide some gauge for international students. Therefore, anything above 650 (old score) is good enough, and 800 makes little difference over 700.

How to study

It is not any different to any other test in the world – the best way to prepare for one is to have a lot of practice with it.

There is a very useful mental approach while laboring through GRE, however. Remember this obvious thing: your goal is to get the highest score, period. Less obvious is that this means you should not waste time criticizing (or feeling critical) about the logic of the answers or the triviality of the test. None of that helps realizing your only goal: get the highest score, period. Your job is not to defend logic, but to internalize their logic.

Reserve that truth-craving for your research instead.

(work in progress…)