Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Things NOT To Do in Your Graduate Application

It's that time of year again. Here at Urban University, we have more applications than ever, probably due to the down economy. But proportionally speaking, it's the usual mix of the good, the so-so, and the cringe-inducingly awful. I tend to think that most of the worst mistakes (other than basic grammar and spelling -- come on, people!) are born out of ignorance, rather than stupidity. So, as a service, I present a list of grad school application "don'ts." Sure, it's too late for this year, but perhaps next year will work out better.

When assembling your application, DO NOT, under any circumstances…

  • ...include letters of recommendation from your restaurant manager, coach, or volunteer coordinator (unless, of course, you're going for a degree in hospitality, physical education, or social work). We don't need character references; we want to know if you can do the particular work in the discipline for which you've applied. That usually means that all your references should be from professors, and most of these should be in that chosen field or a closely related one.
  • ...give as one of your primary reasons for coming to our (middling) program the fact that the school (not even the department!) has a decent ranking in US News & World Report survey.
  • ...give as another primary reason the fact that our classes are held at convenient times.
  • ...apply to work in a field for which we have no faculty coverage whatsoever. I'm not talking about you wanting to work on colonial Peru and we only have someone working on colonial Bolivia. I'm talking about something like expressing a desire to work on the pre-exilic Hebrews when the department's one ancient historian specializes in the Augustan age of Rome. Perhaps there was a sliver of an excuse for this back 10+ years ago when you had to go to the library and get microfiche of school catalogs to figure out who worked where, but no more.
  • ...spend more than a sentence in your statement talking about your hard-luck circumstances, unless it's directly relevant ("My long rehabilitation after the accident prompted questions that led me into the field of disability studies" = OK). If your letter writers want to talk about how you got those Dean's List grades while working to support yourself and your two orphaned siblings, fine. I'll be impressed. But your job is to present yourself as a professional.
  • ...turn in a statement of purpose without having a professor go over it. Chances are that you don't understand the genre. Nobody does the first time. Get an insider's opinion so that you don't unintentionally offend anyone, look uninformed, or come off like a pompous jackass. Maybe you're not any of those things, but if your statement makes me never, ever want to meet you, then I'll never, ever know.

Other suggestions?

UPDATE: So many people have been interested in this that I thought I'd also link to this post from over at Historiann's last December, tackling the same topic. Between the two of us (and our commenters), you should have a nice set of cautionary examples.


squadratomagico said...

-Burble on about how your love for history was spurred by the History Channel.

-Earnestly tell us that you want to find out all about how people "really lived." News flash: that's not really a research project.

-Discuss how much you admire a particular professor's publications -- in an area in which s/he never has published!

[Also -- P.S. -- I wonder if you could update the feed to my blog in the column at right, since I've moved over to wordpress -? This comment should connect to the correct url.]

Historiann said...

Oy--good advice, and good additions from Squadratomagico. I'm going to add a link to my post on this topic from last December, which gets googled a lot (as I'm sure this post will too.)

Great advice especially on the admissions essay. You're right--no applicant can or should understand the genre, which is sui generis in academic writing. (And more difficult in my opinion than writing fellowship or grant applications to support a defined research project.)

the rebel lettriste said...

OMG! Squadrato! the HISTORY channel? In a graduate school application? Zounds!

Janice said...

I'd add:

Don't gratuitously insult other historical fields in your application, i.e. "Unlike medieval history, which is boring and irrelevant, twentieth century European history is fascinating and exciting and just what I want to study!" Why go out of your way to diss the scholarly specialty of others who may be reviewing your application?

If you find yourself talking about your feelings in more than passing, you're not doing yourself any favours! We're evaluating you as a scholar, not as a random enthusiast of the field.

That cute anecdote you love to tell about why you decided to get into the field? So not the best use of half your application essay space.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Don't tell us about your goal to prove that Richard II did/didn't kill the princes in the Tower; that the Masons killed Kennedy/Lincoln/Edward II/John XXIII; that Dan Brown didn't make it up, and neither did Michael Baigent & co. ...

In fact, just erase that whole, "With my fascinating research on a topic that is hyoogely popular, I intend to prove ..." sentence.

HA! my sekrit word is noings

steph g said...

Ugh, the statement of purpose. Should you ever feel like writing a suggestion guide for composing those from the insider point of view, it would be extremely appreciated.

I got an "A" in crazy beeyotch said...

Thanks for this post--I'll be sure to refer to it often, and send my phD application peers along as well.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

These are all great!

And for those of you begging for a "how-to" (rather than a "how-not-to"), take a look at the link I added to the bottom of the post, where Historiann does just that.