Graduate School Discernment

At the beginning of my senior year, I happened to unfortunately be one of those soon-to-be matriculating undergraduates that didn’t know what they were going to do.  At the beginning of my undergraduate career, I knew the next 5 years of my life but of course, my path in life changed a couple of times that I never really made an updated 5-year plan.

I applied to various jobs sectors and when interviews never really felt “right”, I then looked into graduate school.  I actively asked my friends and family members what they were thinking and given what they knew about me, what did they see me doing (and more specifically what program).  I’m really glad that Continue reading

Strong recommendation letters are a must!

When applying for graduate school, scholarships, fellowships, or internships, it is important to have strong letters of recommendation because this is one of the methods that application reviewers get to know you.  Many times, you will not able to impress them in an interview as there just isn’t time to interview everyone; as such, the letter of recommendation should portray what you have done and what others think about you professionally.

In order to have a strong letter of recommendation, consider these ideas:1. find someone who has known you for a while because you want someone who can speak to the depth of your abilities; plus someone who has known you for a while is a more credible recommender than one who has only known you for a limited amount of time; 2. find someone who has some clout; as much as it is important to find someone who knows you well, reach out in your connections someone who has some clout in the community, either academic, professional, or otherwise; 3. find recommenders that provide variety in your application; if you have one academic recommendation, then find another one who can speak to your professional abilities, etc.

Being able to place your foot forward through your recommendations is key, and your recommendations can serve to be the one big push to get you accepted or awarded.  Good luck!

Tips for a successful application package

A good application package contains: a strong and empowering personal statement, transcripts from the university sealed and officially stamped, letters of recommendation that show how much of an intelligent and dedicated person you are, standardized test scores and last but not least…the application filled out correctly (you would be surprised how easy it is to mess that up when you are so focused on the “hard” parts). My tips for making sure your application stands out: show how well rounded you are, graduate school is a bit more dependent on innovation than undergrad. They don’t need to see that you can memorize a passage, they do need to see that you can create something worth memorizing and that you would bring prestige to the university as an alum. Make sure that your letters of recommendation are coming from people who are relevant and actually want the best for you and believe in you. Its hard to get a feel for an applicant from their paperwork and when you dilute that down with thousands of applications its very important that you stand out. Sometimes your favorite professor has just the right wording about the type of person you are to make the school want to see that for themselves so make sure you ask the right people and give them time to do it correctly. Standardized test scores, in my personal opinion unless test scores aren’t needed or you are some type of savant, there is no reason why you shouldn’t take a prep class for whatever exam you have to take. Yes it costs money and yes its a legitimate class that you have to do homework for. However sometimes a few points on your test is what separates you from going to either your top dream school or you safety net maybe school. Then when you think about the difference in salary you could be getting because of the difference in education you received well then that class pays for itself many times over. Finally your personal statement, it’s your chance to show the school who you are. Take it seriously and imagine that they would have to make the decision based purely off that essay. Read it, reread it, then have 3 other people read it, edit it and then have 3 different people read it. If you put together a good application then you will surely go where you deserve to be. Best of luck to you future scholars.

Relevant Recommendations from Royalty

To present an undeniable application package, show the program that you are currently participating in the very activities in which they expect their current students to be involved.  Aiming for a PhD program, highlight any research that you may have conducted in a masters program.  Make mention of the refereed journal articles you have read and how those articles have influenced the way your approach your research or even altered/reinforced your research interests.

Otherwise, you can take the approach I did: get relevant recommendations from royalty.  Three high ranking administrators/professors from my undergraduate/masters institution (I got both my BS and MEd from the same university) wrote the recommendation letters for my PhD program.  To reflect my academic prowess and scholastic accomplishments, I had the director of the Honors Program, with whom I both taught and taken classes,  write my first recommendation.  Because I was applying for a PhD in Higher Education and Student Affairs, I got my second recommendation letter from the president of the university.  As an added bonus, he also happened to be an alum of the institution to which I was applying. Finally, as mentioned earlier the program has Student Affairs in its name, so I had the Vice President of Student Affairs write my final recommendation letter.

It is kind of difficult to deny someone admission to a Higher Education program who has recommendations from the King (president), Prince (vice president), and Dutchess (Honors Program director) of a kingdom (research university).  In which case, I suggest finding the heavy hitters in your field, and ask them to write your recommendation letters.  Of course, this works best when you first have a relationship with these scholastic celebrities.  Understand that they may not necessarily be the leading researchers in your chosen field, but getting a recommendation from the highest ranking professors on your campus still speaks volumes about your potential.  It means someone who actually has a lot to lose feels confident enough in your abilities to put their good reputations and credibility on the line.

Not much time is left before graduate school applications are due, ask a member of your academic field’s royalty for a recommendation today.

Be Yourself: Submitting an Effective Application for Admission

Often times depending on which program you are applying to, the only opportunity for the admissions committee to get to know you is through your application.  Most programs aren’t able to hold in-person interviews, and therefore, they rely on the application, personal statement, and recommendations to determine if the department will benefit having you as a student.  As a result, it is important to make sure that each piece of the application highlights a different aspect of your personal and professional life.

Your resume or curriculum vita should highlight your academic and professional accomplishments. For the difference between a resume and CV, please refer to one of my colleague’s post.  https://employmentelements.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/resume-sample.jpgYour resume is the opportunity to explain to the admissions committee the skills and abilities that you have.  It is important to highlight leadership experiences, unique educational and professional recognition, and tangible skills that you would bring to the school and educational environment at the university you are applying to.  Instead of being repetitive, use the opportunity of having different experiences to list different skills and accomplishments.  If you find that you have a long list of items, shorten it with only the most important and those that will really highlight you as an applicant.

Your personal statement is your “interview.”  Instead of writing about cliche topics, those that are expected to be read, use this opportunity to “wow” your readers.  Be personal.  Let them into your life and heart to understand why you are really pursuing this degree.  Everyone says, “make them cry,” and in essence, yes! You want to make an impact after the committee reads your personal statement.  This being said, you may have to dig deep and write about a challenging time in your life, a situation that is uncomfortable to rehash, or a topic that is uneasy to share.  Not only will such an experience help you to reflect upon your own life but it will give a personal inside look to the person you really are. To the committee member, you will become a person not just an application.

Letters of recommendations are very important.  Recommendations allow the admissions committee to see how others think of you.  While it is important to have a letter from an important person, it is more important to find someone who really knows you and can write to your strengths.  If you have a recommendation from an important person who doesn’t know you well, you will get a very standardized letter that won’t tell the reader much about you.  But if you get a letter from one who knows you well, the writer will be able to refer to specific examples and highlight the strengths and abilities needed to get your admitted.

Because the admission application is a critical piece of your admission into your dream program and school, utilize it wisely. Since there is limited space, be sure to make good use of every page without being repetitive.  An application that highlights all of your strengths and abilities while giving a personal, inside look of who you are will make you a strong candidate!  Good luck!

Getting into Grad School – Letters of Recommendation

Don’t forget to give your writers PLENTY of notice.

I’ll just go ahead and say it, asking people to write me letters of recommendation is one of my LEAST favorite things to do. Asking for letters of recommendation can be stressful. You have to find the right people to ask, hope that they are willing to do you the favor, and then relinquish a little control over how you will be represented to admissions committees. Yuck yuck yuck. The whole thing makes my stomach churn a little, every time I have to do it. Unfortunately, this process isn’t going away any time soon, so here are my tips for making the process less painful.

Ask right away. - As soon as you know who you are asking, don’t procrastinate. Give that person as much notice as possible. It’s the courteous thing to do, and it leaves you room to send reminder emails later.

Provide all the info upfront. - It’s best to provide all the information you can in that first email where you make your request. That way, the person writing the letter doesn’t have to go searching around last minute for all the details and instructions. Things you’ll want to include:

  1. Where you’re applying
  2. Why you’re applying there and why you’re a good fit – A  brief summary will help your “recommender” construct a more detailed letter.
  3. Your current CV and any other application materials you’ve completed – Your recommender won’t be able to remember all your qualifications off the top of their head.
  4. Logistical info – where the letter or email should be sent, who it should be addressed to, when it is due, and any other relevant information

If you don’t hear back, follow up. - Once someone has agreed to write you a letter, check in with them when the deadline is drawing near – I would say somewhere between one to two weeks before the letters are due. A gentle reminder might be necessary (students aren’t the only ones who procrastinate).

Say thanks! - Yes, it’s kinda in the job description that professors have to write recommendation letters, but it’s also nice of them to take time away from their other responsibilities to construct a thoughtful letter on your behalf. So show your appreciation with an email or better yet a thank you note.

Letters of Rec

Obtaining strong letters of recommendation, for me, is a really vexed thing to do. Here’s some pointers that I’ve been working with for a few—hopefully you find them helpful:
DO:
*Only ask people to write your letters if: (1) they know you in at least a classroom capacity, but ideally they also have a sense for a range of skills you possess (e.g. teaching, researching, communicating in class, etc.). (2) you are confident that they can write you a strong letter.
* Be strategic in who you will ask for letters and how you will ask for them. Anyone can write you a letter of recommendation; not everyone will write you a glowing one. Not only do you want a stellar letter, you also want a letter that will come from a person who is well-positioned to evaluate and speak to your strengths. On this note: ALWAYS ask for strong letters; a mediocre letter will only hurt your application and you don’t want that—and, in all likelihood, neither does your letter-writer.
* Communicate with your letter-writers WELL in advance of deadlines. I typically give at least one month whenever I can—though I have had to ask faculty to write letters for me in a pinch. As soon as I find a grant (job, fellowship, etc.) that I want to apply for I put it in my calendar and set a few reminders to myself about sending out emails soliciting letters well in advance.
* If you’re asking someone to write a letter and they have never written one for you before be sure to ask them what all they might find useful in writing their letter.
* Regardless of whether this is their first letter for you, you should do your best to get them a copy of the materials (even if they are rough) that you will use in the application they are writing about. I often also send a copy of my CV and, as appropriate, an abstract of the project I’m proposing in the grant (in addition to the complete materials).
* Be super polite!
* If, for any reason, someone is not able to write a letter for you—whether because you haven’t done well working with them, they’re swamped, or they have a conflict of interests—don’t freak out! It isn’t the end of the world!

DON’T:
* Assume you have a right to letter writer’s time, energy, or their good graces. It is always an honor to have someone write a strong letter on your behalf, and I’ve found that the more I share with them about how much it means to me, the less faculty hesitate to support me.
* Ask someone to write a letter for you that is due two days later. That’s never good form!
* Be too shy: if you need a really strong letter then you have to be up front about it. Most people will write a letter if asked to; that doesn’t mean it will be what you want.

My experience on securing strong letters of recommendation …

Many of my colleagues have given great advice regarding how to secure strong letters of recommendation. Thus, I am going to share how I got my letters of recommendation. I decided to go to grad school during my sophomore year and it did not take long to realize that no faculty member at my institution knew me well enough to write a strong letter. Therefore, I talked to one of my professors and he recommended me to go to a summer research program. This provided me with my first letter (it is always good to have a strong letter from someone outside your school), as well as, enabled me to get hands-on research experience. Once, I got back I felt confident enough to ask one of my professors to hire me as a research assistant, hence, securing letter the second letter. Finally, realizing that I would need one more letter, in my senior year, I took an independent study with another faculty member so that I could work on a research project and he could get to know me better.

In summary, once you have decided to apply to grad school, if you do not have enough strong recommenders either: 1) go to a summer research program, or 2) enroll on independent study credits, or both.

Thank your letter writers!

Don’t forget to thank the people that wrote your letters of recommendation. These faculty members took time out of their very busy lives to write letters for you, and they deserve at least a thank you in return. Send them a thank you note, or stop by their office to say thank you in person. This not only shows that you are truly grateful for their effort, but it gives off a very good impression.

Also, stay in touch with these individuals. In the spring, let them know which schools you got in; when you go off to grad school, drop them a line every once in a while to let them know how you are doing. You might need to request their help again at some point in the future, and they are more likely to help if you have kept in touch with them.

Recommendation letters – Even MORE Advice

There’s a lot of good advice around here – not to toot our own horns, it’s the truth! Here’s my own two cents on recommendation letters. Sometimes it’s really difficult to know who to ask, and how. If you’ve done a special research project with a faculty member, that’s a great place to start. If you haven’t, it’s not too late! Have you written a paper you are especially proud of? Use that as an “in” to get to know a professor. It can be tough approaching professors for favors like these, and that’s why it’s important to develop a good rapport with your letter writers beforehand. And above all, put yourself in their shoes. Does the person know enough about you to write a good letter? If you have doubts, it’s time to put some face time in.

I had some trouble thinking of who to ask for letters when I applied to graduate school. One reason for this is that I took two years off between undergrad and grad school. If you are thinking about taking time off, try to find ways to maintain contact with those undergrad professors who will be writing your letters in the future. Even one or two emails – maybe seeking advice on your grad school search – are a better prelude than emailing someone out of the blue and requesting a letter. Another tip for those taking time off: use your time wisely. Grad schools want to see that you are making progress, even outside of school, and contacts made in the interim can also write those letters for you. I chose to volunteer for an anti-looting organization during my time off. This gave me valuable experience and an additional letter of recommendation. Even a little volunteering over a summer or winter break can broaden your horizons (please excuse the cliche) and produce a great letter from a new perspective.