by Jeremy Young | 9/25/2008 09:00:00 AM
It's that time of year again -- the time when college seniors or graduates begin worrying about applying to grad school in history. Every year at about this time, blogging historians release lists of tips for the grad school application process. Here are some of the best: Eric Rauchway, John King and Andrew McMichael, and the continuing series on applying for academic jobs by Claire Potter, much of which is useful for grad school as well.

Except for the excellent piece above by King and McMichael, however, I haven't seen a good comprehensive advice list from someone who's recently been in grad school (and the King and McMichael piece is now ten years old). So, what follows is my humble attempt at just such a post (warning! this will be a long piece).

First, no fewer than five (five!) caveats:

Caveat #1: As you might guess from the title, I've never sat on an application committee, or even seen how one works. My only knowledge of the grad school process comes from my own successes and failures and from what my undergraduate advisors, fellow grad students, and especially the faculty at schools that accepted me told me -- plus my own surmises. If you want more detailed or reliable information, talk to your advisor or contact one of the excellent history professor bloggers out there.

Caveat #2: I applied to thirteen grad schools, which is a lot. I got into nine, eight of them with funding (the ninth didn't have any funding to offer anyone that year). I was waitlisted and ultimately rejected by one. I was rejected outright by three, including the only two Ivy Leagues I applied to. If you want to know how to get into an Ivy League grad school, this post probably won't be too helpful -- you need some kind of special magic that I don't possess. If you want to get into any other kind of school, I have a pretty decent track record, but not a perfect one.

Caveat #3: This post is just about the mechanics of the actual application itself. If there's interest, I'll write up another post about how to actually go about picking schools to apply to, contacting faculty there, campus visits and the like.

Caveat #4: Since I post under my real name -- and for many other good reasons -- I'm not going to tell you the names of the schools I applied to (except, obviously, for the one I attend). I'm also not going to be dissing professors or admissions staff I contacted (and really, there's not much to diss).

Caveat #5: If you have further questions, please let me know in comments. If you disagree with any of the advice I've given, please let me know in comments.

All right, here we go...

The following items, in descending order of importance, comprise the graduate school application:

- Writing Sample
- Personal Statement
- Recommendation Letters
- GPA/College Transcripts
- GRE Test Scores
- Application Forms
- Other Stuff

Let's tackle these one at a time.

Writing Sample

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important to your application than the writing sample. No program that accepted me failed to mention my writing sample as their primary reason for doing so. Though I had a pretty good writing sample, that really testifies more to how important it is to the admissions committee. Simply put, your writing sample is a direct indicator of how you will do with your dissertation, and it is judged that way. The committee wants to know that you can write clearly and concisely, do historical research and cite it properly, weave a meaningful narrative, and bring off a successful project of a certain scale -- in addition to whatever else they might want to know.

Luckily, the writing sample is also one part of the application that you've probably already completed, though it may need some work. About half the grad schools you apply to will give you a length limit of 15-20 pages; the other half won't give you a length limit at all. The best piece of advice I ever got for my application was that you should always send the best piece of historical writing you have that will meet the application requirements (i.e., length limit). Size is good -- sending a senior thesis is always an excellent choice, because it shows the committee that you can complete a large-scale project -- but if you have an article-length paper that's better, send that instead. If the paper or thesis needs editing, then edit it -- it'll count more than anything else you could do on your application. If you're a senior in college and you feel that the thesis you're working on is going to be the best piece of writing you've ever done, I strongly encourage you to wait a year and complete it before applying to grad school. It's that important.

The reason I make that recommendation has to do with my own experience. My best piece of writing was my senior thesis; I used an inferior article-length cutting of it for the schools with a length limit. Of the schools that accepted me, about half offered me their highest possible scholarship. All but one of those had received the senior thesis. The other half offered me some funding but not their top award. Every single one of those had received the article-length piece. The gentleman who gave me that enormously helpful bit of advice (always send the best piece of historical writing you have) is now my graduate advisor.

Personal Statement

The personal statement is the part of your application where you get to make your case directly to the admissions committee. Think of it as a cover letter for a job application, only much, much more important. It's the thing the program will see first and the thing they'll use to differentiate you from the other two hundred or so applicants. The personal statement and the writing sample together form probably 75% of the application in terms of importance. Of the time-consuming parts of the application process, this is the one you'll want to spend the most time working on.

The length limit for the personal statement will range from 500-1,000 words -- the exact number will differ from school to school. I ended up writing three different versions of my persnal statement: a 500-word version, a 700-word version, and a 1,000-word version. These basic versions are just templates, because each personal statement needs to be personalized (pun intended) to the school you're going to attend. On a basic level, this means you need to mention in the statement the school's name and the names of faculty you want to work with. However, you also need to make it sound like your areas of interest are related to those of the faculty you want to study with, and mention any specific resources the school has that you anticipate making use of (a collection of historical papers you might use, an in-house journal or papers project you'd like to work on, or a specific department focus you identify with). If there isn't a specific resource you plan on using, don't make one up -- it's helpful to your application, but far from essential.

I'm no expert on how to structure the personal statement, so I'll direct you to the excellent advice of King and McMichael, with whom I agree wholeheartedly on this. The only item I'd add is that if you have something in your application that needs to be explained, you should put that in your personal statement and make it a priority over everything else. For example, if you flunked your freshman year in college but got a 4.0 in all your other semesters, you need to tell the committee why this happened and what turned your life around. Extracurriculars don't generally help your application, but if you served as a State Department historian or something like that, this is the place to tell the committee.

Of the nine schools that accepted me, I had one department chair tell me that the personal statement had clinched my funding package because half the department could imagine serving on my dissertation committee. The other schools didn't stress it as much, but it was certainly an important factor, simply because it told them the essential information about me and made my case in a concise fashion.

Recommendation Letters

There are in fact situations where recommendation letters matter a great deal. The obvious one is when the recommendation isn't very good -- something you can hopefully avoid by picking only professors with whom you have a really good relationship. (You don't want to get recommendations from people who aren't your history professors unless you're a nontraditional student or someone coming in from a department other than history, in which case there are plenty of other good choices.) Where a recommender can make a difference is if he or she is someone who knows you well and is well known for training students (usually graduate students) who go on to be successful in the profession. If a member of the admissions committee can say, "Hey, Bob recommends this guy, and he really seems to like him -- remember those great grad students of Bob's who went on the job market last year?" it can make a huge difference in acceptance and funding at even the best universities.

Unfortunately, I wasn't in a position to fully capitalize on this, because I went to a liberal arts college, so my professors had never mentored grad students and didn't have that kind of reputation. Realistically, most students can't make much out of the names of their recommenders -- so just make sure you pick people you know and trust, and you should be fine. (Don't pick famous names you haven't worked closely with -- that's a recipe for disaster.) Also, treat them nicely and give them plenty of advance notice -- giving them the necessary forms around a month before you want them back is appropriate. Give them a nice card or chocolates or something after they're done, because writing recommendations is hard work, particularly when you're using online forms and/or requiring a lot of recommendations. If you're in the unusual position of having more than three faculty members who've volunteered to recommend you (I was), consider splitting up the workload among them in some fashion.

Of the thirteen schools to which I applied, there was only one where I can definitely say the recommendation letters made the difference -- not in terms of getting accepted, but in terms of winning scholarships. However, in that case, the letter was only a small part of the recommender's effort on my behalf: he was best friends with the professor I wanted to work with, they were in communication several times a week, and my recommender applied a lot of pressure to get me accepted and funded. As nice as that was, it's a pretty unusual experience, and not always successful when it does happen: the other school where I had a recommender with personal connections ended up rejecting me. So while letters are an important part of your package, they're not going to pull you over the finish line if other things are missing.

GPA/College Transcripts

Grad schools don't care what's on your college transcripts, unless it's bad. They want to see if your A average went down to a B average in your last semester, because that's a bad sign for the future. They want to know whether you got more B's in history classes than you did in your other classes, because that indicates history may not be your strong suit. Beyond that, all they want to know is that you took enough classes to graduate, and that you're not lying about your GPA.

Your GPA, on the other hand, is a bit different. If you've got a poor GPA -- say, below 3.5 -- that's an automatic disqualifier at some schools and a potential disqualifier at others. If you've graduated magna or summa cum laude, have a perfect GPA (good luck with that), or were your school's valedictorian, that will help you -- but not overly much. No school I visited ever mentioned my grades in explaining why they wanted me to attend, despite a very high GPA and a perfect average over my last three semesters of undergrad. When you get to grad school, you'll find out the reason for this: grad school classes aren't graded in any meaningful way. The grades are so inflated that a B+ should make you tremble and a B is virtually a death sentence for your graduate career. Since getting good grades is more a predictor of future ability to get good grades than of anything else, it's of limited use to a graduate school admissions committee.

GRE Test Scores

The GRE is just like the SAT, except where it's different. It's got an easier math section (the problems don't take into account any math beyond high school Algebra I and Geometry I) and a scary Analytical Writing section that requires you to write two lengthy impromptu essays within a strict time limit. It's also administered on a computer.

The computer program is what makes the GRE a hard test. If you're applying to grad school, chances are you're pretty good at taking these sorts of standardized tests. But the GRE software actually penalizes you for being good. It's designed to find your score by giving you a question of average difficulty, then giving you progressively harder and harder questions until you miss one, at which point it jumps down a bit and then starts going up again. What this means is that if you don't miss one of the first few questions, you end up taking a test made up of the hardest questions the GRE can throw at you, even if you miss a couple here and there.

The only effective way to ace this test is practice. I highly recommend taking the online practice tests at the GRE website and buying this book, which was a real life-saver for me. Their tricks and cheats will help you significantly on the math and verbal portions of the test, but they're just about useless for the Analytical Writing section, which is insanely hard even if you're a good writer. The best way to study for Analytical Writing is to pore over this scoring guide and then write a ton of practice essays, asking a friend or teacher to score them for you according to the guidelines. You'll probably want to spend more time on the Analytical Writing section than on the other two given how hard it is to prepare for. Also, keep in mind that the GRE charges you a small fortune every time you take the test -- well over $100 -- so you really want to do well the first time.

Thankfully, there is no longer a GRE History Subject Test -- it was discontinued several years ago. If you find a test-prep book for it in your campus bookstore, as I did when I was preparing for the test, tell them to get rid of it.

After you're done, make sure to remember to send your scores to the colleges you're applying to. You can send four scores at the time of test-taking for free; additional scores cost $15 apiece and take up to two weeks to arrive. Are you being robbed by the test company? Absolutely. Can you do anything about it? Nope.

How much do these scores matter to admissions committees? Not nearly as much as the SAT scores did for undergrad. I earned excellent scores, but no school I visited mentioned the scores as a reason for accepting me. On the other hand, my undergrad advisor warned me that abnormally low GRE scores can be a potential disqualifier. At any rate, this is one part of the application that's good to get out of the way long before you actually apply for schools. I took my GRE after junior year, a full year and a half before I applied to grad school -- and never regretted doing it that early.

Application Forms

These are unquestionably the stupidest part of the application process, and for precisely that reason the most time-consuming. What awaits you is a mountain of paperwork, much of it with no rhyme or reason behind it. The main problem is that there's no grad school version of the Common App -- a standard application that undergraduates can fill out once and send to many schools at a time, including additional bits of information as necessary. This would be ridiculously easy to create for the grad school application process because so many of the grad schools use the same online application software. Of the thirteen schools to which I applied, seven used a single type of software with minimal variation, and three more used a second type. If the software were reconfigured to share data between schools, that would have meant that I only had to fill out five complete applications instead of the full thirteen (actually even more than that -- see below).

Anyhow, as you might expect, having to do all this paperwork takes many days, and the process can be extremely buggy. Here are a few examples from my experience:

- Multiple applications for the same school. Three of my thirteen schools made me submit separate applications to the university graduate school and the department. This means filling out two totally different applications for a single university, complete with different personal-statement-like questions for each, which is utterly ridiculous because no university graduate school on earth is going to reject someone the department has already accepted. This seems to be almost exclusively a large-state-university thing; thankfully, none of the private schools I applied to required this.

- Weird college transcript requirements. Many schools want you to send them unopened, official copies of your transcripts -- but they also want those transcripts to be mailed with the rest of your application, which means they have to pass through your hands. This gets fun when you have to explain to a registrar over the phone that you need the transcripts to be mailed to you double-wrapped in two sets of envelopes. The strangest request came from one school that insisted that my transcripts be accompanied by a form cover letter with my signature on it, but that they also had to be both unopened and mailed directly from the registrar. How exactly was I supposed to get a community college registrar in another state to use my signed form? Luckily the registrar was understanding and we worked it out, but I don't like to think what would have happened if I'd needed transcripts from a study-abroad program in an unfriendly country.

- Repetitive or unneccessary requests for information. I had one school ask me to write out my entire college transcript on the online application so they could decide whether to give me funding before my official transcript arrived. The same school insisted that I give them my entire financial history and tell them how much financial aid I would "require" even though they awarded identical packages to every incoming student. This was an Ivy League school, so I guess they can get away with stuff like this, but it still seemed unnecessary and just plain onerous.

- Misleading web forms. One school asked me for two letters of recommendation on the application site, and three on the form itself. I didn't realize this until I'd already given my recommenders their assignments, and I had to go back to one professor and ask her for another letter. Another school said they wanted a 3-5 page personal statement, which was pretty shocking, since it was a huge state school and the average length for a personal statement is a page or less. I spent a couple of hours beefing up my stock personal statement with additional material, went to copy-and-paste it into the correct box -- only to discover that the web form would only accept the first 800 words. Thanks, guys!

If all this sounds extremely daunting, it is. It's unquestionably the hardest part of the application -- but at the same time, it's the least important. Sure, you won't get accepted at a school where you haven't filled out the forms properly -- but you're not going to get any extra credit for doing so. My recommendation, which I can't stress highly enough, is to fill out the online applications first, before you tackle the rest of the process. Figure out all the bugs and quirks now, and get them out of the way so you can focus on the stuff that actually matters to the folks looking at your application.

Other Stuff

There are a lot of other intangibles the committee considers, but I'll focus on two:

- Where you did your undergraduate work. This is the most important part of the application that you can't do anything about, and it's probably also the most unfair. Plenty of professors will tell you it doesn't matter where you went for undergrad, so long as your work is good. That's poppycock. Try applying to Harvard from State University at Podunk and you'll quickly learn the facts of life. If you think your school isn't good enough to get you into the school you want to get into, you really have only two options: 1) apply anyway and also apply to several safety schools, or 2) leverage yourself up the academic ladder by getting a master's at a better university. The second option will put you deeply in debt and cost you at least a year in the academic process, but it also works very well -- it essentially erases the reputation of your undergrad college in the minds of the committee members.

- Relationship with a faculty member/fit with the department.. There's a lot that could be said about this. The short version is that you absolutely must make a personal contact with a member of the department with whom you want to work. The long version -- well, I'll save that for another post if there's interest.

Finally, a couple of additional points:

Be prepared to spend a lot of money on applications. Between application fees, GRE and transcript ordering fees, and photocopying and mailing costs, I spent $1,500 on my thirteen applications. If you apply to fewer schools, of course, you can spend less -- but remember, this is a place you'll end up having to live for five or more years. It's probably worth the investment up front to cover all your bases.

Make sure you apply to enough safety schools. The most common mistake I see among my fellow grad school applicants is the assumption that if you include one safety school on your list, you're home free. That's a very dangerous assumption -- no school is safe, no matter what its admission rate or reputation. One of the schools that rejected me was a safety school. If you're dead set on going to grad school and earning a scholarship package, make sure you apply to at least three safety schools, at a minimum.

Turn in your applications on time, or early. Don't put this off until the last minute, or you'll end up even more stressed than you need to be. And you really don't want to get rejected from a school because you forgot to turn in the paperwork before the deadline -- you won't get your application fee back, and you'll feel really dumb about it. I personally made a list of all the application deadlines (they generally vary from December 1 to February 15, with big state schools and Ivy Leagues going earlier) and sent everything in before the first school's deadline arrived. It was a lot of work, but I didn't have to worry about forgetting deadlines. Another good tip in this vein is to stay on top of confirmations that your applications actually arrived where and when they should have. If you use an automated system, you should get an e-mail confirmation instantaneously. If you sent items through the mail and haven't heard anything from the admissions secretary for a couple of weeks, don't be shy about e-mailing or calling to make sure it got there. (I had some serious trouble with this when filling out undergrad applications, and would have been rejected from the school I ended up attending if I hadn't kept on top of things.)

Double- and triple-check your personalizations. Don't do what I did, and e-mail a faculty member at one school with the name of another school in the text of the e-mail! He was nice about it, but not everyone is. Be especially careful about your personal statements with this, because mistakes are easy to miss.

Make a trip to the schools you're seriously considering attending after you're accepted, and before you make your decision. More on this in the next post, if there's interest.

All right, fire away with your questions/corrections!

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 9/25/2008 10:46 AM:

Top-notch advice, all around. I've never been on an admissions committee, either, but it certainly jibes with what I've seen over the years.

I'd offer a caveat: the emphasis is different out side of US history, where an undergrad background in history is almost 100% required; for those of us in international history, letters of recommendation from faculty outside of history are quite standard and very important (especially faculty who can comment on language ability).

You wrote: "This gets fun when you have to explain to a registrar over the phone that you need the transcripts to be mailed to you double-wrapped in two sets of envelopes." My experience is that many grad school registrars are used to that kind of thing (it was a standard option transcript request form at my grad school). Undergrad institutions and community colleges may not have as much experience with it, it's true, but I'd be surprised if anyone in a registrar's office above the level of temp worker was really suprised by such a request.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 9/25/2008 11:11 AM:

Interesting -- thanks for the corrections.

That explains why the registrars were less surprised than I thought they'd be. To me, it seemed like a terrible imposition to ask for all that stuff.


Blogger AndrewMc on 9/26/2008 8:35 PM:

Hey! Thanks for the link to my article. John King and I wrote that in our second or third year together in grad school. It seems to hold up. Now that I'm on the other side of the table, I can say that it still seems like pretty decent advice.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 9/26/2008 10:50 PM:

Heh -- I didn't want to "out" you, but I was hoping you'd see this and comment. I somehow missed your piece when I was going through the grad school process, but it would have been a lot of help then -- there's not a single word in it I disagree with, and the advice remains excellent. Good for you!


Blogger AndrewMc on 9/27/2008 7:23 AM:

Thanks. It took us a while to write, in part because we had to trim back all the stuff that we thought was important.

Most of all I remember the tussle with a couple of Perspectives people because we initially had a very strong warning at the beginning that said, in essence, "You probably won't get a job in academia because the job market is so bad." Or words to that effect.

That's the first piece of advice I give undergrads even now.