It’s that time of year again when students start to think about “what next”? Pursuing further studies (an MA or a PhD) is a big decision. It involves more money, or in some cases, more debt. It means more time in school and putting off the work world for a little longer.
Having worn the hat of Graduate Officer a few times now, and worked with various faculty on graduate studies admission committees, I have a few observations that might be useful for those of you who may consider grad school in later years or are now deciding to take the graduate studies plunge.
1. Grades always matter – a lot. If the applicant is a straight A-student, there is little to no discussion around the table. The A-students are on every committee’s “YES” list. It is the students that have a mixed record that we have longer discussions about. Students who did poorly in the first years at university – whose grades jumped from a D- to the B+ range in their last two years, for instance. Or, students who have a smattering of grades at all levels – some A’s, some C’s and some D’s — over the course of their university journey.
2. This is when letters of recommendation matter. An enthusiastic letter by a faculty member, particularly one that refers to, and explains, a record of uneven performance, can make a big difference. At the same time, reference forms almost always ask the professor to rank the student against all the students she/he has taught over the years. If the professor ranks the student in the top 20 percent (rather than the top 2 percent), this is a low ranking. Admission committees pay a lot of attention to these rankings. So, the trick is to ask a professor that is supportive of your graduate studies plans, and willing to point out your potential, despite the fact that he/she may not be in a position to give you a top-level ranking. This is why it is important to have a frank and open conversation with your referee. Always ask if he/she feels comfortable giving you a strong recommendation and if she/he is willing to explain a period of low grades or a dip in your performance.
3. Finally, as graduate coordinator, I always look at the applicant’s prose. This is a strong indicator of potential success in any graduate program. Make sure the application letter you submit is well-written and completely free of errors. Have someone you respect proofread it. And, if you are asked to submit an essay, ensure it is clean – again, well-written and free of grammar and spelling mistakes. I would also recommend you choose an essay that demonstrates your ability to deploy a clear argument and provide evidence to support that argument. I have often made the comment in admission committee meetings that after reading the first three pages of the applicant’s essay, I was unable to find an argument. Admission committee members do look at writing samples and they are an important part of the evaluation process, especially when discussing a borderline-admission applicant.
4. Final piece of advice. Don’t count yourself out of the game. Candidates for admission are always judged against a larger pool of applicants. Sometimes, the pool is strong, sometimes less so. Let the admissions committee decide whether you are a good fit for the program, don’t assume your record is not good enough or less worthy than that of others. Your record may be stronger than you think.