20/20 Hindsight: What I would have done differently on my applications

They say hindsight is 20/20, but if we could go back and do it all again, would it really turn out perfectly?

road_not_takenAs far as graduate school applications go, it’s perfectly normal to go through multiple rounds of applications before getting into the right school (I just made that sound like dating, but it is kind of a learn-from experience deal). Seniors in high school go into the undergraduate application season armed with their GPA, ACT/SAT scores, and not much else other than a resume of extracurriculars. For graduate school, you truly have to sell yourself on paper. Your statement of purpose could make all the difference in whether you get that acceptance letter – and that leaves a lot of room for improvement on a second go-round.

I will not be participating in the 2014 application season, but looking back I could have made some improvements on my applications. All is well that ends well, but if you are applying this year here are some things I wish I would have known in hindsight.

Things I would have done differently:

  • Done more to research my own fit for a program before I went ahead and applied.  I could have, in some cases, narrowed down my list and in others, broadened it.
  • Contacted persons of interest from the schools I was most interested in before I applied. I didn’t even know this was an option at the time. If the only faculty member who shares your interests isn’t taking on any new students, you have your answer about whether the school would be a good fit. Best case scenario, they are excited to work with you and even push for you during application season.
  • My statements of purpose(s) were in some ways too narrowly focused on a concentration within my discipline. I thought this might be an asset, but it may have closed some doors to me that may have been open to someone more versatile.
  • Finally, I would have looked more into funding opportunities at schools. I’m pleased with the PhD program I will be attending in a month and feel it is an excellent fit, but I can’t help but feel I could have had leverage to ask for a better funding offer if I would have gotten even better funding from other schools.

Things I would not have done differently:

  • Studied more for the Subject GRE. I didn’t crack open a single practice book or read about test strategies and my score was crap. However, less than half my schools required it and the one that gave me the best offer did require it. So go figure.
  • Apply to a “back-up” MA program. Not realizing how competitive the admissions process actually is, I resisted applying to a program that 1) was not in the top 20 and 2) was not direct-entry to the PhD.  I ended up applying and was really glad to have it as an option in the end cause it was a close call with the PhD programs.
  • forkDoing whatever it took to come up with the best writing sample. In the two weeks leading up to my first application deadline I sent my writing sample to a professor for him to read it over. I was expecting a few offhand comments, but he ended up sending me back pages of written advice and working with me on multiple new drafts. It took a lot of time and stress, but his help probably got me into the program I’m currently attending.
  • Make a spreadsheet to organize all my applications. Boy, did things get confusing in the end and I had multiple panic attacks that I had forgotten to send my transcripts. Referring back to my spreadsheet calmed me – and probably saved me from making some more dire mistakes.

If you are a graduate student, what would you have done differently on your applications and do you think the outcome would have been if you had the chance to improve your applications? If you are applying again, how much is “hindsight knowledge” will be an asset in a second round of applications? I’d love to hear other responses.

4 thoughts on “20/20 Hindsight: What I would have done differently on my applications

  1. Brian

    Very nice article! I just discovered your blog and did a quick read through of your other articles to try to catch up.

    I particularly agree with your “Things I would have done differently” section.

    One thing that I’d like to add is that once a student follows your advice, it will make the application process easier. If a student researches graduate programs and analyzes their own “fit” for the program, they will find that many programs will fall off their list and others will rise to the top. Then moving to step two, contacting the programs, will help narrow things down even further. This is a very critical step that students don’t realize is an option.

    Applications are time intensive and expensive. Narrowing your list to programs that fit you best eliminates wasted time and money. Confusion and panic attacks aren’t good for anyone and the more manageable you can make the application process the easier it will be.

    I’ll never advise students to apply to a set number of programs. I have spoken to students that applied to 10-15 programs and I believe many of those were wasted applications. I call these “wasted” applications because often 1.) the program didn’t fit their career goals or they applied to various fields because they didn’t know what they really wanted to do 2.) their academic performance or work/research experience was not competitive for admission 3.) faculty weren’t researching topics they wanted to study 4.) they didn’t take the time to research, or contact, the program to learn whether they were a good fit.

    Going through this process should eliminate the “multiple rounds of applications” you mentioned in your first sentence.

    I’m glad that you found a program that fits you and I wish you the best of luck!

    Feel free to contact me or reply to this post for further discussion!

    Warm regards,
    Brian Clark
    President & Co-Founder

    1. kathleen Post author

      Hi Brian,

      Thanks for taking the time to give your feedback! It’s great to get some other opinions. I do wish I would have contacted people from the programs I applied to more than anything. After receiving a few rejection letters I began to realize…was that program really a good fit for me or did I just like that school in general? I had friends who applied to as many as 20 schools. I can’t even imagine how expensive that would be. It was $25 per school to send my GRE scores after paying $160 to take the test!

      Is there anything you would recommend saying in letters to faculty of interest? Since I did not do that, I never truly thought about what I might have said.

      1. Brian

        Hi Kathleen,

        It’s my pleasure to post on your blog. I usually recommend students ask very simple and direct questions to program directors and/or specific faculty they’d like to work with. Some examples include:

        – I’m interested in studying ____ , or I intend to pursue a career in _____, from what I’ve read I believe your program may be a good fit for me. Have your alumni gone on to careers like this? Is this a good program to accomplish these goals?

        – I have a ___ GPA, ___ GRE score and have this experience. Is this competitive for admission?

        – Are accepted students supported by any scholarships or stipends? Are TA or RA positions available?

        These are very general examples and I advise students on a case-by-case basis. I have some amazing stories about what students have learned from emailing and calling programs. A director told one student that his program wasn’t the best for what she wanted to do and that he would contact the director of a program at that university that fit her better. Within an hour she was contacted by the new program. Programs need to bring in a great class of students each year and most are happy to speak with students.

        In no way am I using your blog to promote Gradschoolmatch.com but this is the exact reason we developed the platform. We give programs and students a simple, two-way street to search for each other and communicate to find the best fits. How amazing would it have been if a program director reached out to you and said “Kathleen, I think you’re a great fit for our program! You should apply.” By building a student profile on Gradschoolmatch that can happen. Students can even search for and contact graduate programs they are interested in.

        I can’t imagine applying to twenty schools! Applying can be very expensive especially for students sending out 10+ applications. As an example, the non-refundable application fee for Stanford’s MBA program is $275 (Fall 2014 entering class; http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/mba/admission/application_deadlines.html). Paying that and fees for 19 other applications is more than a financial burden!

        As always, I’m happy to discuss further! Don’t hesitate to reach out.

        President & Co-Founder

        1. kathleen Post author

          Hi Brian,

          I checked out your website and I love the concept – I wish I would have known about it when I applied to school. How has it been going? Are there enough programs active on the site that students can really get conversations going? Feel free to contact me by email at kathleen@thegradstudent.com


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