It’s Hard Out Here for Graduate Admissions

Mar 30th, 2014 | By | Category: Columns

So, as another application season comes to a close, I take this moment to reflect upon my chosen career path. You see, I have an MFA in Creative Writing, which apart from allowing me to wrestle with this strange need to write fiction, has propelled me in the exciting career world of college administration. But to be more specific: graduate admissions. And I love my job. It’s a hectic mixture of marketing, communications, file management, trouble shooting and customer service. I still get to keep in close contact with my old grad school professors while luring in the next generation of crazed grad folk. However, the further away I get from my old grad-student self, the harder it is for me to really empathize with the anxieties of a new applicant who is just beginning this journey.

Part of my job is guiding applicants through the application process.  Year after year, I’ve given talks and check-lists of this process and yet, I’m always surprised at some of the decisions my applicants make. What I’ve learned is that it’s not always about having a to-do list. Sometimes, it’s about having a don’t-do list as well.

So, for those of you who will be applying to grad school in the near future, here’s a starter list of don’ts:

1. Don’t ask us to waive a requirement.

I know.  You want a GRE waiver and an application fee waiver. Well, I want a pony. Sometimes we don’t get what we want.


2. Don’t try to manipulate time.

Here is a phone conversation I’ve (unfortunately) had more than once:

Caller:   I over-nighted my documents this morning but they are not showing up as received in my profile. Have they arrived?

Me:        I’m sorry, when did you send them?

Caller:   This morning. It’s urgent they get there.

Me:        So, you over-nighted them this morning, correct.

Caller:  Yes.

Me:        And you want to know if we have them at 2 in the afternoon on the same day, correct.

Caller:   Yes?

Me:        Let’s think about what we said.

Caller:   ….

Alas, I am not even joking.

3. Don’t start your statement of purpose with a song lyric.

Do you remember that song “Hell” by the Squirrel Nut Zippers, circa 1995-96? I do. I was in high school. I literally ran out and bought the CD, played it on repeat for two weeks and then abruptly  forget about it. Until now, when I started seeing these opening lines in a lot of personal statements:

In the afterlife, you could be headed for a serious strife.
Now you make the scene all day, but tomorrow there’ll be hell to pay…”

Egads, people! What are you trying to say with these lyrics?! Accept me or there will be divine retribution? I’m a tortured soul awaiting judgment? I still live in my parents’ basement listening to niche 90’s music?  Enough is enough. Also, stop with the Morrissey, Brittany Spears and Aerosmith lyrics. You are not helping your application!

Well … unless you want to try quoting Gwar. There’s a few statisticians out there who could afford to have their feathers ruffled.


3b. For that matter, don’t start your statement of purpose with irrelevant statements or a scene from your childhood.

A statement of purpose is designed to answer two questions: 1. Why do I need you? 2. Why should your program accept me?  The easiest way of accomplishing this is by blending three points together: your goals after the program, what the program is currently doing to help you reach your goals and what have you been doing to prepare yourself for the program.

Look, generic statements like “I want to help people”, or “I have been a storyteller since I was three”, or “I love science” are like a slice of generic Swiss cheese. It’s thin, has holes in it and it’s bland. And not to make light of anyone’s personal experiences, but if it’s traumatic to write, it might be a little traumatic for a professor to read.

Consider a statement of purpose kind of like a one-night stand. I want to know the basics: you’re good in the sack, I want you to talk about me a little bit and I want to know that if we’re a good fit, we can have a repeat visit.

4. Don’t apply to the wrong program.

By this, I mean pay attention to the focus of the program you are applying to. Telling a Literature Department about your favorite Michael Bay movies will not win you approval. Anthropology and Sociology are not the same thing. And don’t assume every Psychology Department wants you to be a therapist. Many of them are interested in psychological scientific research. They don’t mind if you help people, but they probably want you to experiment on a few first.

5. Don’t ask your best friend, therapist or your manager at Best Buy to write you a recommendation letter.

Why, my pets? Because your recommenders should be talking about your intellectual curiosity, your research abilities and your ability to succeed in the program. Here is what the following people can say:

“Jonathan is my best friend. EVER!”

“Jonathan is not nearly as psychotic as he used to be.”

“I get the feeling Jonathan’s heart really wasn’t into selling those televisions.”

7. Don’t send us modeling photos or pictures of your ab muscles.

Really people, that’s got to stop. It was cute the first few times. But that picture of you straddling the horse statue outside of that museum in Prague … it didn’t make it to the professor’s desk. You are not going to dazzle or seduce your way in.

Let me dispel the rumors. Professors are like ethereal swan-like creatures, aloof and graceful, and can only be stimulated through THEORY. So, leave them alone.

Elora, Patron Goddess of Microeconomics. She cares not for your tight t-shirt.

Elora, Patron Goddess of Microeconomics. She cares not for your tight t-shirt.

8. Don’t let your parents call the department.

This is one of the biggest don’ts of all. For a long time, we often talked about helicopter parents, hovering over their children like a protective cocoon, constantly directing them on the right path. Well, it turns out that these parents are transformers (of the Michael Bay variety) and have now transformed into the dreaded Bulldozer Parents.

The bulldozer parent is the type who tries to push every obstacle out of their grown children’s way. They are relentless, merciless and a tad embarrassing. A few years back, I had a wonderful phone call from a mother who was demanding to know why her son hadn’t received his decision letter yet. I tried to reason with her, but she was too busy telling me off that she couldn’t even give me her son’s name so I could look him up in the system. Then, nearly fifteen minutes later, her son got on the line and said, “Mom, I didn’t even apply to that university!” And she didn’t even apologize.

9. Don’t send us a writing sample with a bad grade written on it.

This really happened. I opened an envelope and inside was an academic paper that still had the red pen markings. Written on top was: “C-. You need to come to my office hours!”  Yikes.

Your writing sample is like a pet. You need to train it and love it and make sure it behaves before showing it off in public.  A good writing sample will connect with some of your interests you covered in your personal statement. Take your best “A” paper and spend another week polishing it so it looks like an A+.

And one little side note: sending home baked goods to the Grad Admissions office never hurt anyone.

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