Thinking about graduate school

  • The University of Michigan has a small guide to thinking about and preparing for graduate school.
  • Application process

    • Please refer to this article for good advice on preparing university applications for graduate programs.

James Lang on application essays

James Lang in the Chronicle of Higher Education writes about an interview with Anthony Casgman at the College of Holy Cross in which Cashman explains that student need to make "three basic moves with their graduate-school applications". (Note: I have underlined a few points that I think are particularly pertinent to Korean students.)

  1. Applicants have to tell their story, with an eye to the opportunity they are seeking. Most students achieve that to some degree in their applications but never move beyond it. And they aren't necessarily telling their story well, Cashman says. That's true especially of the personal essay, when students trot out and showcase every award they have ever won.
    "The essay should not read as a list of every accomplishment that the student has achieved," Cashman says. "Think of the application from the selection committee's point of view. The committee members have about 10 or 15 minutes to become familiar with the candidate, and that's a very brief time for such a large task. Therefore, the job of the writer is to focus the readers on those elements that best relate to the opportunity at hand."
    Applicants must think beyond straight chronological accounts, which can tie them into overly long and detailed narratives. Focus on what matters, and what the committee will see as relevant. "An 'origin story'"—like the one my aspiring medical student told about his grandmother—"might be true, but not nearly as important and relevant as the chemistry-research job or the hospital-volunteer position that the medical-school applicant has had."
    Another mistake applicants make in their self-narratives, Cashman says, is focusing on their personality traits: "Students overestimate the importance of character traits in a personal statement. Sure, it is important to be a 'hard worker,' but what applicant wouldn't claim that? And in a pool of high achievers, character traits like diligence and creativity are taken as givens by the selection committees."
  2. Applicants must, in Cashman's words, "articulate a vision of their future." Students typically have trouble with that one, he says, because they "feel anxious about trying to predict what they will be doing even a couple of years down the road." They fear they will somehow be bound by what they have written in their application, or they simply don't have a clear picture of their long-term future.
    To allay their concerns, and give them a practical starting point, Cashman advises students to break this aspect of their application down into steps: "I encourage them to formulate both ideal and more-practical outcomes for both a short term (one to three years) and then a midterm (five-plus years). I do not discourage students from looking beyond five years, but that is typically where the view gets pretty foggy for them."
    Most students can articulate some vision of the next one to five years, which gives them enough to work with for this piece of the application puzzle.
    "What matters most in a personal statement," Cashman says, "is not the precision of that long-term future vision but rather the articulation of some tangible goal so that the selection committee can understand how their opportunity can help the applicant."
    Which leads us to the third and most important part of the application.
  3. Applicants have to explain how the specific opportunity for which they are applying will connect their past achievements with their future goals. Most applications Cashman sees initially fall short in making that connection. "When I ask a student if a particular fellowship or graduate school is a good 'fit' for him or her, usually the student launches into a list of accomplishments, things that 'qualify' him or her for a position. At the outset of an application process (and applying for anything should be a process that includes a period of discernment, research, and multiple drafts of the essays), students rarely see this other side of the application—namely, how does this scholarship or graduate program work for me? "In essence, the applicant needs to demonstrate that the school or fellowship will meet the individual's needs in the short and long term. And this deficiency, I suspect, crushes a lot of applications because, all things being equal, the selection committee will take the person or people whom they can best help with their opportunities."

Lang concludes that probably the best advice in general is: "Think beyond your first idea. That first idea might be a perfectly good one, but it could also be the first thing that occurs to a lot of other people, too, and hence might not grab the reader's attention in the way you expect."