1 Applying to Graduate School and Requesting Letters of Recommendation MAKING THE DECISION TO APPLY Pursing a graduate degree provides an exciting opportunity to gain specialized knowledge and delve into a focused area of study. It also involves a complex decision making process with many different factors. Before jumping head first into the application process, ask yourself some important questions: What are my short- and long-term goals? Why is graduate study necessary for me to accomplish my goals? What career opportunities are available to me at the bachelor s, master s or PhD level? Am I willing to invest the time, effort and expense to undertake graduate study? Do I have the motivation, aptitude, self-discipline, selfconfidence, interpersonal skills and persistence required for a graduate degree? Be honest with yourself. Ultimately you are the one who will be dedicating the next two to six years (or more) of your life to furthering your education. It is important to have a sense of where you would like to land once you finish your graduate program. Answering the questions above will also help you determine what type of study is right for you; whether it is an advanced degree which leads directly to work in fields like law, medicine, public health, fine arts, social work, education, occupational/physical therapy, engineering or business; or a research degree that culminates with a master s degree or PhD in a field of interest. As part of the graduate school discernment process, it is important to talk with people in your field of interest. Ask for advice and find out how they ended up where they are today. This input will not only help you decide if graduate school is right for you but also what type of program will help you reach your goals. You may wish to take a year or two off to work in a related field. Taking that time can also strengthen your graduate school application. If you need help with assessing your interests and whether graduate school is the right next step, please schedule an appointment with a graduate school advisor ( ) or a career advisor ( ). SELECTING TARGET SCHOOLS & PROGRAMS Once you have decided to apply to graduate school, you should begin to write your personal statement. Even if only in draft form, your personal statement will help direct your search process and lead you to consider the best schools for your interests. It will also enable you to talk to others effectively about your graduate school goals. Should you pursue a master s degree or a PhD? The answer will focus your search. A master s degree is generally a two to three year program that involves coursework and possibly a practicum. In certain fields, such as social work and business, obtaining a master s degree may be a career-oriented decision which qualifies you for specific certification, licensure, specialization or promotion. A PhD involves original research that culminates in a written dissertation. Most PhD programs include the master s degree study. Should you decide after completing the master s portion that you do not want to continue, you may be able to leave the school with a master s degree. Funding is a factor that may influence your choice in graduate programs. PhD programs often provide funding, including tuition remission. Many master s degree programs are not funded, but may offer a teaching or research assistantship with a partial or full tuition waiver. You may need to rely on student loans to help fund your master s program if it is not part of a PhD. Scholarship and fellowship options may also be available at particular schools. At this point in the process, as you narrow down your choices, talk to faculty members and current graduate students at Washington University. Current graduate students have recently gone through the search process. The network in your particular field is probably much smaller than you think. They will be able to give you advice in your search and explain what the decision making factors were in choosing their current program. Your current professors may know, either personally or by reputation, the faculty and departments at other universities. The individual faculty members at universities will play a much larger role in your target graduate schools than they did when choosing an undergraduate institution. You will want to study under a professor who works in a specialized area within your field. You might find Phone:
2 graduate programs based on where authors of your favorite journal articles or books currently teach. You should also speak to the faculty, students and alumni of the universities that interest you. Here are some questions to ask in your search. Academic Programs: Faculty: Does the school offer a wide variety of courses and disciplines or is it especially strong in certain areas? Is a thesis required for a master s degree? What about exams? How many hours are needed for a degree? How long does it take to complete the program and how many students drop out before completing? Is the program accredited? Is there a time limit for attaining a degree? Is this department a priority on campus? Is it wellfunded? Does it have good facilities? Does the school have the library holdings that relate to your field of interest? What is the process to move from coursework to exams to dissertation work for a PhD? Is the faculty well balanced in terms of educational experience, or do most of them come from the same school or schools? Does the faculty have professional experience outside the academic community? Are professors recognized as authorities in their fields? What is the faculty s publication/presentation record? Student Body: What is the size of the student body? What is the size of the department? Is this a place where I would feel comfortable? Will I feel challenged academically by my fellow students? Lifestyle & Finances: What is the cost of living in the area? Is the school located in a place where I would feel safe? Are assistantships, grants, tuition remission or financial aid available? Do I qualify for student health insurance? What do graduates typically do with their degrees? You should apply to three or more different schools to increase your chances of admittance. As you probably did when you applied to undergraduate institutions, you may wish to select a safety school, as well as a reach school, to give you more options. HOW TO APPLY Generally you will be applying directly to a specific department or program. Your application will be evaluated both at the departmental and institutional level. If possible, arrange to visit the schools before applying and meet with faculty members. Your application will generally consist of: Application Form Personal Statement Letters of Recommendation Official Transcripts GRE Score Report PERSONAL STATEMENT AND WRITING SAMPLE The personal statement, sometimes called the statement of purpose, is an important part of your application. It is your opportunity to show the admissions committee who you are and why you are a good fit in their program. They want to see that you are prepared for graduate school, have demonstrated intellectual growth, and are focused and interested in a particular field. Specifically, they want to know what has influenced your interests in the field, what study or research skills you ve gained, how you might contribute to the academic community and what you would like to do with your degree. Use the answers to the questions asked earlier to help mold your statement. It is important to be yourself; don t try to guess what the admissions committee is seeking. It is a good idea to start your personal statement early. As stated above, it can help focus your search and help you talk with others about what you are looking for in graduate school. When you are putting together your application, you should tailor your statement, addressing your fit into a particular program. For doctoral programs especially, a department may request a brief writing sample from you. This would typically be a research paper in the field of your interest. Clean up a copy of a paper from a class or prepare a chapter of your senior thesis to submit. The Writing Center is a great on-campus resource for personal statement reviews and offers workshops on this topic throughout the year. THE GRE & MAT Most graduate programs will require you to take the Graduate Record Examination or GRE. There are three types of Graduate Record Examinations: the General Test, which is usually referred to as the GRE, Subject Tests and the Writing Assessment. You may have to take more than one. The GRE is a computer-adaptive test, which means the computer program decides what questions to ask you next based on your previous answers. This means if you answer a question correctly, you will be rewarded with a harder question, 2
3 which will improve your overall score. The GRE is broken up into three type of questions: verbal, quantitative and analytical. All questions are multiple choice and each test is timed. There will be an additional section which will not count toward your overall score but is used to test new material. A Subject Test might be required by a school to which you are applying. Subject tests are in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, biology, chemistry, computer science, literature in English, mathematics, physics, and psychology. The Subject Tests are given at paper-based test centers in November, December and April. For more information about the GRE, visit It is possible that a school might require the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) instead of the GRE. MAT is a high-level mental ability test requiring the solution of problems stated as analogies. The 120 partial analogies are to be completed within 60 minutes. For more information on the MAT, speak with a graduate school advisor in the undergraduate College of Arts & Sciences. REQUESTING LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION Requesting letters of recommendation can be awkward and overwhelming, but thoughtful planning can make the process move smoothly. Thoughtfully approaching your recommenders allows you to reflect on how you have demonstrated the skills that will qualify you for candidacy in a particular program. The most important aspect of requesting letters is to provide enough time to prepare, request, and follow-up on the letters before the due date. Why do programs ask for recommendations? Many different kinds of programs request letters of recommendation including graduate, medical, and professional schools, scholarships, fellowships, academic jobs, internship programs, and transitional programs. All have a specific rationale in requesting these materials, but most require them for three principle reasons. First, they desire an objective assessment of how you have demonstrated the qualifications they have for candidates. If you have demonstrated these qualities and skills to a person who has held the authority to evaluate you in the past, then it can be assumed that you can and will continue to grow these qualities in their program. Second, in reviewing your selection of individuals to evaluate you, graduate programs gain an understanding of your network and career mindedness. Your reach within your current sphere is an indicator of the kinds of opportunities you ll take advantage of in their program. For example, if you re applying to a PhD program in medieval history but have neglected to request the recommendation of a medieval history professor at Washington University with whom they ve collaborated on publications in the past, then they 3 may question your candidacy. It is not expected that everything in your background should map to their criteria; rather, that your experiences and history paint a picture of how you ve acquired and demonstrated the skills you ll need to succeed over time. Third, graduate programs use the recommendations to assess your ability to understand the differentiating aspects of the program and the skills, backgrounds and abilities necessary. Deliberately selecting recommenders to respond uniquely to the program s criteria demonstrates that you ve reflected on what it takes to succeed in the program and who can best reveal that to the panel of reviewers. How can you build a solid foundation for strong recommendations? Many professors have very large courses so consider how you plan to build relationships early in your course of study. Start with your classes. If possible, plan early to take a number of smaller, upper-division courses in your major or intended field. Review syllabi to determine if larger research projects or presentations are required as these skills are critical to many fields. Consider repeating courses with professors that you ve enjoyed and with whom you hold common interests. Consider developing a relationship with at least one professor in an adjunct field (for example: religion and history or economics and political science). Attend lectures and symposiums. Read related publications in advance. If you re really interested in the topic, approach the speaker or a professor with a couple of directed questions or comments. You can also followup with an or letter afterwards thanking the speaker for their time and posing your questions and inquiring about how to pursue the topic further. Visit professors during their office hours. Prepare a mental agenda or list of questions you d like to cover. If the professor teaches a course you re taking, ask questions to gain clarification on points from the lecture. Learn more about the professor s research or publications and bring your questions or comments. Consider asking the professor to review a bibliography that you ve created of related sources. Consider undergraduate research. Inquire about research projects through the Office of Undergraduate Research (ur.wustl.edu), your academic department or specific professors. You can work with a faculty member on one of their projects or invent your own guided by a professor in the field. Even professors who do not receive outside grants may be willing to take you on as a research assistant if you can volunteer a few hours a week. Write an Honor s Thesis or undertake a longer term research experience as an independent study course under the guidance of a professor in your intended area of study.
4 Whom should you ask? In general, follow the guidelines provided by the program or institution. For graduate schools, you will want to ask professors and at least two recommendations should come from professors in the discipline. For medical school, your recommendations should demonstrate how prepared you are for medical school, as well as your character and drive toward a career in medicine. Be strategic about your decisions. First, review the qualifications from the application materials. Applicable skills often include: research, writing, public speaking, analytical thinking, intellectual maturity, language acquisition, time management, and commitment. Do they ask you to respond to specific questions or address certain issues in your personal statement? Can you sense any criteria in their Program Requirements that you might want to address now? For example, if the application materials stated: Strong preference will be given to applicants who are adequately prepared to meet the language requirements for the doctorate (German, French, and Latin). Applicants should be explicit about their research interests and specific about which faculty member they would like to work with as their advisor. When accepted, the student is assigned an advisor who works with them throughout the program, including chairing their general examination and dissertation committees. To pursue advanced work in the field, it is desirable to have a solid foundation in the sciences. How could you address these in your selection of recommenders? In the first example above of the language requirement, if you ve taken coursework in German, you might want to ask a German professor to write you a letter describing your language abilities. In the second example, asking a professor in your field to comment on your sustained interested in a topic, success in courses the professor taught on the topic, or achievements in your thesis would greatly benefit your application. They could also mention that you ve displayed a strong interest in working with a specific faculty member. In the third, the recommender might not repeat your transcript; rather, you select someone in the sciences to recommend you based on your achievements or growth in their courses. You want your recommenders to cite specific examples and anecdotes that support the criteria to which you ve asked them to respond. For example, say you asked Professor Green and Professor Smith to write your recommendations, and in a recent course with Professor Green you gave a presentation she deemed outstanding, then you want her to cite that specific example when the recommendation asks for examples of your oral communication and research skills. However, if you completed a collaborative project in Professor Smith s class with three other students that earned you an A, then Professor Smith should comment on collaboration, but not oral communication and presentation skills. 4 Second, evaluate whether or not your recommenders really know you well enough to write you a strong recommendation. An average or form recommendation is quite obvious to an admissions committee and will not help your application. Consider asking someone who knows your work more intimately over a well-known star in the field who wouldn t remember if you attended her large lecture class. How should you ask and when? Once you have determined who you would like to ask, you need to consider the timing of your request and prepare yourself. Try to avoid rush times for faculty such as just before the semester begins or during midterms. Also, insure that you re giving the faculty member plenty of time to write the recommendation, normally no less than a month. Plan to attend their office hours or make an appointment. Be prepared with your statement of purpose/personal statement for each program, any recommendation forms, your resume, copies of any graded papers or supporting documentation from coursework, and a cover letter that includes: An initial thank you for accepting to write a recommendation. Overview of where you are applying, including the specific programs. Due date for each of the programs with a little padding just in case they run into conflicts. Instructions on where you would like each recommendation mailed, ed, uploaded, or faxed. Provide any postage necessary, though usually envelopes and paper are not necessary as the professor will use their own letterhead stationary. A reminder of the areas on which you would like the faculty to focus. When asking, use phrases that will provide faculty with outs so that they can signal a mediocre or weak recommendation would result. Such as: Professor Smith, I m planning to apply to PhD programs in political science this year. I ve taken several classes with you, including [enter small class name] where I wrote a paper on [enter topic], which you graded highly. I was wondering if you feel you know my academic work well enough to write a letter of recommendation for me. Professor Yu, next year I m hoping to enter a PhD program in history, and I ve taken several German classes with you this year. One requirement of my program of study is entering with aptitude in relevant languages, and I was wondering if you have time this semester to write a recommendation for me based on my acquisition of the German language and ability to translate German literature.
5 If the professor hesitates, suggests another writer, or you receive a lukewarm reception, proceed with caution. Most recommendations are closed, which means that you will not see what they write. Therefore, you want to give them an out. Professor Yu, I understand if you feel overwhelmed with your course load and impending book publication this fall. I appreciate your consideration of my request. If your recommender enthusiastically consents, be prepared to provide them with relevant information to insure that they do not write a form letter. Even professors who you perceive know you well might resort to a formatted letter if they re too embarrassed to admit that they don t remember specifics or are too rushed to give the letter adequate reflection. Offer the materials you ve brought to the meeting and ask if they d like you to them a reminder one week prior to the due date. Some professors may prefer an of your materials in addition the hard copy. They will use these materials to paraphrase in their own letter. How should you follow-up and confirm that your letters have been received? On the due date you provided your faculty member, confirm that the letter has been received by contacting the receiving body or checking WebRec. If the letter is delinquent, you ve built in enough padding to allow you to contact the faculty member to check on the status of the letter. Call and the faculty member to inquire into the status of the letter. Be respectful and understanding. Sometimes it just takes a little reminding. What if I plan to take a year or two off between graduation and medical school or graduate school? First, schedule an appointment with a career advisor to develop your plan. Second, meet with your major advisor, preprofessional advisor, or someone else in the field to review your options. Third, inquire about recommendations now, especially if you ve narrowed your options down to a couple of types of graduate programs. The Career Center has a service, WebRec, where you can store your recommendations until you apply. These recommendations will be considered valid for a couple of years so it is worth pursuing them now while your academic work is fresh in your professors minds. WHAT GRADUATE PROGRAMS WANT Every program has different criteria for accepting students. More competitive programs may use the GRE score and grade point average as a way to limit the applicant pool before looking at other parts of the application. Their final choices will come down to who fits best within their program. Your application provides a picture of who you are and your goals. Do your research about the program and make sure that your application addresses why you are a good fit. Remember, if you need help with this process, make an appointment with a graduate school advisor in the undergraduate College of Arts & Sciences ( ) or a career advisor ( ). Once you ve confirmed that the letter has been received, write a thank you to the professor for their time and thoughtful consideration of your skills and achievements. Mail it to their office. What can you do if you do not have strong enough letters of recommendation to support your application? For example, you are in a large major, started your planning late, and haven t developed strong relationships with appropriate professors. There are several options. First, seek the advice of the Deans in the College of Arts & Sciences or your major advisor. You can also schedule an appointment to talk with a Career Development Specialist in the Career Center. You may decide to delay graduate school for one year and apply to a transitional program or other short-term opportunity between now and then. Plan to take a smaller course in the field at a local college or university and make a point to get to know the professor. You might also choose to do research or work in an academic library where you can work alongside professors in your field. There are many options to build recommendations. 5
6 TIMELINE The following is a recommended timeline for your graduate school search and application process. Schedule an appointment with a graduate school advisor in the undergraduate School of Arts & Sciences, career advisor, academic dean or faculty member to talk about how to adjust this schedule to fit your needs. RESOURCES Career Center handouts: Applying to Law School Applying to Medical School Chronicle of Higher Education Spring Semester - Junior Year Talk to faculty, especially potential recommenders, about your plans; get their advice Start thinking about the GRE, especially Subject Tests (where appropriate) Draw up and research a tentative list of programs and begin to research the programs more closely Summer - after Junior Year Register for and prepare to take the GRE General Test Request letters of recommendation (faculty may have more time during the summer) Begin writing personal statement Research funding options beyond what universities offer Fall - Senior Year Have your personal statement critiqued by faculty advisors and the Writing Center Contact faculty and current students of programs to which you are applying Take the GRE Subject and/or General Tests Apply for scholarships with early deadlines Request letters of recommendation at least one month before deadline; give recommenders a copy of your personal statement and other application materials Have transcripts forwarded to programs; if possible, arrange with Student Records to send a transcript that includes your senior fall grades Submit completed applications by mail and/or online; its best to get applications in early! Complete financial aid forms and apply for relevant scholarships Spring - Senior Year Visit top choice schools, if possible; ask current graduate students in these departments what it s really like. Compare financial aid offers, consider negotiating If you are applying for need-based financial aid, you may need to file a FAFSA with the Federal Government s loan program at GradSchools.com Grad Source Peterson s Guide 6
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