Some people seem to come out of the womb knowing how to succeed in academia. I am not one of them. I have had to work hard, google a lot of questions, and cry on the shoulders of my favorite professors. Not exaggerating.
A year ago, I began to apply to grad schools and felt that my university had few resources in place that allowed me to ask questions and explore my options. I mean, we had a career center, but I had a lot of questions that were specific to studying Art History. The process of applying to grad school was initially a stab in the dark and I came to the realization that my applications were going to take up as much time as a 400 level course would.
Luckily I had a professor who put up with my thousands of questions and gave me moral support when I got my first rejection e-mail. I probably wouldn’t have gotten through the application process without having had so much support. (Thanks, Dr. Taylor).
The following is a sort of walk-through of my process, littered with things that I found helpful.
I’m by no means an admissions expert, but I feel that I’ve gained some wisdom through the past year’s experience and what I have learned may be of some value to pass on to others. A lot of my advice is tailored to Art History specifically, but I’m sure that it can be applied to other disciplines, especially those that remain grounded in academia.
- Have a specific research interest or “niche” of your subject in mind – General “Art History” is incredibly broad. It’s really crucial to know that you like Baroque art far more than Contemporary Art, for example. Because, there is going to be little to no study of your favorite artist Jeff Koons in your Byzantine Art History courses, let’s be real. A postgraduate degree is obviously going to be much more specific than an undergraduate degree, as you’ve completed the “survey” phase of your academic career. It’s important to have used your undergraduate education to identify what facet of your subject you are interested in pursuing. And if you don’t know yet, take a year out after undergrad to really figure out what gets your attention. Showing admissions that you have a passion for a specific facet of your field is important, as it demonstrates that you haven’t mindlessly taken notes and written papers for the past four years – you actually have a personality and interests and this is reflected in your academic career. Lemme tell you my secret: I personally believe that having a really unique or obscure interest is incredibly beneficial.
- Have good (if not spectacular) grades – You know the drill. I’m not going to harp on this because I’m sure you hear it enough. But they are really important, as they are a way for potential universities to quickly gauge your skills (sort of unfair, I know). GRE scores are important as well, if you’re applying for programs in the United States. I had very mediocre scores on the GRE, so I’m not going to attempt to give advice on that…
- Research graduate programs – This may very well be the most important prep work you do. Applying for graduate programs is very different than applying for undergrad in that you ideally want to choose a school based on the faculty available in your field and the strengths that it is know for. (Whereas in undergrad, there could be fifty universities across the country that have pretty much the same resources available for your degree.) Prestige is just as important important as the right fit for your interests. Don’t apply to Harvard just for the name if they don’t have a program that suits your needs. In researching what I wanted in a masters program, I spent a lot of time looking at the faculty at schools that I was interested in and their research interests and publications. (This is time consuming, I know). Ultimately, your professors are going to be the ones working with you during your dissertation, so its best to have some sort of connection to their research interests. Also – looking at where said faculty completed their own degrees is a great way to find and explore other schools with potentially similar strengths. The internet is a powerful tool…use it
- Establish a good rapport with professional mentors early on – Recommendations are a part of the graduate application process and having a professor or professional figure with the ability to write a good recommendation highlighting your skills is very important. It’s great to have professors that you’ve known from the beginning of your academic career, so that they really know your strengths (other than the basic bullet points about yourself that are listed on a CV). Asking recommenders as early as possible is really important as well – people get busy and forgetful! Your mentors are also a great support network for when things start to get really tough (aka when you have two ten page papers due the same week as two grad school applications). Trust me, you’ll need their encouragement at some point!
- Do an internship (or a few!) in undergrad – Apart from just being bullet points on your CV, internships are probably the best way to explore what you really want to do with your degree later on in life. Having had two internships and an apprenticeship to an artist in undergrad, I have really formed a concrete idea of how I would eventually like to put my degree to use. Internships are also a great way to make connections and network, not just with professionals or those above you, but with peers who are aiming for similar career paths. It’s always great to know people in your field who have “been there and done that” because they can give you advice and help you out down the road. It’s also fun to have a set of friends connected to your studies. I’ve been lucky to collect a couple of friends at every internship I’ve done! 🙂
- Write an undergraduate thesis – And a good one, at that. Approach a unique topic with an unprecedented angle so that you can potentially publish your research. Having research under your belt not only looks good on a CV, but also prepares you for the rigorous nature of writing a dissertation. I really expected my thesis experience to essentially just be writing one long research paper, but it took a lot more creativity and plain hard work than that! Down the road, you’ll be thankful you put in the grunt work.
- Have a detailed, yet concise personal statement – Your personal statement is probably the most important part of your application, as it essentially outlines who you are, what you’ve done and what your goals are for the future. Yet, I found it to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written! I may outline my top tips for personal statements in a later post, but essentially this is an opportunity to brag about yourself – but you still have to keep it classy and professional (that’s the daunting part). This is the place where you outline the research that you have done, how your internship experience has contributed to your set of skills, why you want to attend the university that you are applying to, and a bit of bragging about what sets you apart in the slew of applications that they’re going to receive. This is sort of your resume, in academic essay form.
In the end, I applied to five programs. Three were in the United States and two were in the United Kingdom. I got three rejections, an waitlisting and an acceptance. I’m about to begin my masters at the institution I was waitilisted at – ironic, as it is arguably the most prestigious of the five. This just goes to show that graduate school acceptance is strongly tied to how well one fits into the environment of the program and how well the faculty will be able to support one’s research interests. Don’t take your rejections to heart – a lot of the time, the acceptance rates for programs is below 10% for many liberal arts subjects – it’s incredibly difficult to make that cut!
At the same time, I’m a true believer that gaining acceptance to a well-regarded institution that suits your needs is entirely possible no matter where you attended undergrad. It just requires the correct strategy and a great amount of work research. (And will probably include a handful of 10+ hour library sessions).
What are your tips for graduate school applications? Would anyone like to see a post about personal statements? Let me know what you think!