I realize this post is a little late to help anyone who wants to start graduate school in the fall of 2009. But then, I also realize that most of my readers have either already been admitted to graduate school, or they have no intention ever of going (back) to graduate school. Nevertheless, Tenured Radical’s post yesterday about how she spent a full hour writing dozens of letters of recommendation for her students (and then some, since it sounds like she tailors each individual letter before she sends it to multiple institutions), and then was rewarded for her industry with grave bodily injuries as she chucked the last of them into a U.S.P.S. mailbox, brought on flashbacks from my experience three years ago as the Graduate Studies chair of my department.
Undergraduate students don’t know how much work most of us poor faculty members put into their educations and advancement through instruments like letters of recommendation. This post is designed to help prospective graduate students in the humanities avoid the common mistakes I’ve seen in applications, and perhaps to guide advisers of undergraduate students who are applying to graduate school. Please, students: put at least as much thought into your graduate application as your poor professors are putting into their letters of recommendation!
- Know what you want to accomplish in graduate school and with the degree you will eventually earn. Students, don’t let your mother call the Grad Studies chair to inquire on your behalf, and mothers, don’t bother calling. (Seriously! I speak from unpleasant experience.) Don’t write in your essay that you’re applying to grad school because as a child you enjoyed watching World War II movies with your grandfather. (I’ve seen it more than once in our applications.) Graduate school is not just more college–it’s professional training, and you need to have an end in mind as to what you want to do as a professional historian.
- State those goals clearly in your application essay. See #3 for more details.
- And most importantly of all, make sure that the program/s you are applying to are suitable for helping you achieve your goals, and take the time to connect those dots in your application essay. You will want to connect your interests to individual faculty members, and explain how the only logical next step in your educational career is to come to (for example) Baa Ram U. to work with specific faculty members here. The graduate program in my department at Baa Ram U. is an M.A. program with historic strengths in public history, U.S. Western history, and an emerging strength in environmental history. Our website thoughtfully describes all of the faculty and their research and teaching specialties, and clearly states the emphases of our M.A. program, offers checksheets that show the entire curriculum you’ll be expected to complete, and they also indicate the kinds of graduate courses we offer on a regular basis. Don’t apply to our graduate program if you want to do Classics (Baa Ram U. is the Aggie school, and doesn’t offer Latin, let alone Greek!), medieval European history (again–no Latin or Greek here), or anything that’s not modern U.S. or European history. There is a comprehensive Ph.D. program up the road–please send your applications there, since it has the language classes, the coursework, and the library you will need to achieve your goals. We don’t. (Although the other department has its particular strengths and weaknesses, so take care to tailor your application there too.)
I can say unequivocally that in my year as GSC, we admitted every single student who managed to accomplish steps 1, 2, and 3.
I don’t mean to sound like an old crank (much!) complaining about “kids these days…” I think in most cases they don’t understand the difference between choosing a graduate program versus college applications, and they have either been poorly advised, or they haven’t bothered to get any advice before sending out applications. But, I must say that I’m amazed that a generation that’s supposedly so tech savvy doesn’t take advantage of the wealth of information most graduate programs have on the web. Back in the old days, when I applied to graduate school, we had only the American Historical Association’s Directory of History Departments, which was published annually, and the card catalog in our college libraries to help us find the books published by the faculty we wanted to study with. (And don’t even get me started about how we used to have to find articles and book reviews, kids! Don’t wait until next Thanksgiving to thank the god of your choice for JSTOR, Academic Search Premier, American History and Life, Historical Abstracts, Project Muse, History Cooperative, and all of the other on-line services and the databases that connect us to them.)
Here endth the lesson. Does the spirit move anyone else in the congregation to testify? What other advice would you faculty offer to students applying to graduate school? What do you students think would make graduate applications easier and more transparent? (Tenured Radical’s call for a common grad school applicationand other common-sense reforms looks good to me.) TR, this Pisco Sour is for you to speed your healing. Dog bless.
UPDATE, later this morning: Wow–that was fast! A reader, “A,” has written in asking for yet more advice. To wit: “I read your article today at the perfect time! I am applying to graduate school and law school and wanted to get thank-you presents for the people writing my letters of recommendation (there are a lot of letters). I was considering Starbucks gift cards and baking cookies, but I am not super well-versed in this area of etiquette. Also, since some of the letters are not due until Feb. 15, is it better to gift now (some letters have gone out) or when everything is done? Any advice is much appreciated!”
Are you like me, dear readers, in being impressed by this student’s thoughtfulness? As to the question–to gift now, or to gift later?–I’d say that it doesn’t matter much. Coffee and cookies is an embarrassment of riches that would be welcome any time at Historiann HQ, so I’d say don’t worry about the timing. Just be sure to let everyone know where you got in with their generous assistance, and what your plans are for next year after you’ve considered all of your options. Good luck to you, A.! And readers, let us know if you’ve got other ideas.
UPDATE II, March 18, 2009: Notorious, Ph.D., Girl Scholar has added more don’ts to remember based on her review of the applications she has seen recently. Check out the comments, too, for more good advice!