Welcome back to Ought Experiment! Today’s letter comes from a student who just struck out on all their grad school applications, and wants to know what they can do to improve their chances next time:
I have well over a 4.0 GPA, and had great letters of recommendation from my professors. I also have published one paper in an undergrad journal. On top of this, my sample writing was—if I’m allowed to say so—original and interesting—though, I argued for a very unpopular position. I didn’t apply to very many schools (only 4) (partially for financial reasons), and only one of them was ranked (relatively) high (and only one of them was a PhD program). However, I have been rejected from all of them. I concede that my statement of purpose was not very interesting, but I was still surprised to get rejected by all of the schools! Is it because I attend a small (no-name) liberal arts university? If so, why is it seen as such a terrible thing to not go to a well-known school? I was wondering if you (and your readers) had any suggestions for how an undergraduate in my failure of a situation (who does not have many financial resources) could best enhance his chances of getting accepted to grad school on the next try? Should I submit a sample writing that is more mainstream or what?
Four Point D’oh!
Dear Four Point D’oh!,
Getting wiped out this year doesn’t mean that your dream of going to grad school is dead, or that The Field has spoken and it’s time for you to consider a new line of work. Next year might be different. The dream is still alive. Cue the Journey song. Man, that’s a great song. But look, before I get too far into the warm, moderately waffling love and support for which I’m known, I think you have some misconceptions about applying to grad school that are worth addressing:
Misconception 1: Four is the magic number
The first, and probably most important misconception? That applying to only four programs is anywhere near enough. I want to be sensitive on this point, as you list financial considerations as one of the factors in your decision. But competition is stiff, and this is absolutely a numbers game. Most professional philosophers I know have way more than four rejections in their collection. And that wasn’t a turn of phrase, either: collecting rejections is actually one of the most common hobbies in our field. It’s like collecting stamps, but you stop to wonder why you’re spending your life this way slightly more often.
How much do numbers matter? I applied to around 20 programs my senior year of college. And I didn’t get into any of them. Justin got wiped out the first time he tried, too. Daily Nous is actually staffed entirely by rejects. (“We know,” chimed in several corners of the blogosphere.) You say you’re surprised, but the fact that you got rejected from four programs shouldn’t actually surprise you, and I can say that without knowing the first thing about you. To put the point another way, the problem isn’t that you were rejected everywhere. The problem is that your prospects couldn’t weather a very normal number of rejections because you only had four applications in play. Getting into grad school is a gamble, and that means placing a lot of bets.
Which brings us back to the money thing. I can’t just blithely tell you to go into debt for this. Increasing the number of applications you’re fielding won’t guarantee that you’ll get in somewhere, getting in somewhere won’t guarantee that you’ll graduate, graduating won’t guarantee that you’ll get a job, getting a job won’t guarantee that you’ll keep that job, and keeping that job won’t guarantee happiness in life. You’re looking at a dozen years of gambling ahead, at the very minimum. So it might turn out that telling you to go two grand into debt on your grad school applications, like I did over the course of two years, is very bad advice. However, I can advise you to think about application costs in terms of how much sacrifice you’re willing to tolerate for a chance at this life. Is it worth $50 in debt to you? $200? $500? More? What are you willing to give up? Just how much are you willing to gamble? These are the kinds of questions you have to ask yourself. Maybe you’ll think about it and conclude that no amount of debt is worth it. Throwing good money after bad, and all that. That’s perfectly fine. This is a highly personal, highly contingent question. But if so, you’ll have to revise your expectations downward. Rather than being surprised that you didn’t get in anywhere, you may have to prepare yourself for that very outcome.
Misconception 2: You can guess the reason behind a rejection
At least based on your letter, you suspect two possible causes for your rejection: you attend a small liberal arts university, and your writing sample argued for an unpopular, non-mainstream position. If I had to guess, neither of these are the reason why you were rejected everywhere. I’ll offer some likelier guesses in a moment.
But it’s important to note that there might not be any reason why you were rejected at a particular program. Maybe they wanted to enroll six students, you were one of a few dozen great candidates out of a pool of hundreds, and they simply went with a different six. Does this necessarily mean there was something wrong with your application? Does this mean there was anything you could have done differently? Does this mean it’s time to change your thesis to something less controversial? No, no, and no. Heck, maybe your four programs all tried to balance how many students they admitted by subfield, and you were the second best prospective metaphysician competing for a single seat. Did your university of origin hurt you in that two-person race? I mean, maaaybe. Or maybe you were up against the next David Lewis. Shrug.
It’s not that you’re in a bad position to guess—it’s that rejections encode far less information than you think. There could be hundreds of reasons why a particular program made a certain decision, and if all you have to work with is a “We regret to inform you” letter, then you’re not going to be able to tease out the actual reason. And you might overcorrect, trying.
So don’t speculate about what happened at these four programs. Even asking people for general advice about what to change is of limited help. (“Now you tell me!”) If you haven’t already, show your full dossier to a few different professors at your institution, and ask them if they can spot any glaring mistakes or if they have any concrete suggestions. If there is something wrong with your application, then it’s probably not going to show in the handful of summary stats you sent me. It’s probably lurking somewhere deep in the dossier itself. Even the documents that you’re confident are high quality, like the writing sample, should go before as many sets of eyes as you can get to agree, because you might be wrong about their quality. Maybe your professors won’t find anything that needs fixing. Maybe you did just get out-competed four times in a row. Either way, re-vetting the dossier is likely to give you a better sense of what to fix and what not to tamper with than speculating about reasons.
Misconception 3: What you think matters is what matters
Sometimes surprised applicants have a “but I did everything right!” mindset when processing their rejections. But there’s no such thing as doing everything right. Not every program is looking for the same thing in a candidate. And even if they were, applying to grad school isn’t like a formula or a recipe, where following transparent steps guarantees results. This isn’t about clearing some threshold beyond which acceptances happen. There’s absolutely nothing you can do to deserve an acceptance letter. This is all about increasing the probability of being accepted. And some elements of the dossier increase that probability more than others.
I think you have the wrong idea about which elements those are. For example, you confidently note your publication in an undergraduate journal, and you kind of brush aside the fact that your statement of purpose was not very interesting. My sense of things? Publications in undergraduate journals probably don’t help applicants at all, but statements of purpose and cover letters are absolutely, critically, vitally, astoundingly important.
Why do undergraduate publications probably not matter? Leaving aside the problem that it’s not always clear whether such publications actually signal much about the quality of your work (what are the editorial and review practices? how much competition was there?), there’s the fact that we always have a far more reliable mechanism for assessing the quality of your written work: reading your writing sample. A publication in an undergraduate journal will never convince me that a bad writing sample is good, and a lack of undergraduate publications will never convince me that a good writing sample is bad. The writing sample is what I care about, because it tells me whether you can do this. To be clear, I’m not saying that opportunities like publishing in undergrad journals have no value. I’m just saying they probably have no value to admissions committees. Especially not compared to the writing sample.
Now, why do statements of purpose and cover letters matter? It’s where you demonstrate fit. And fit is the other thing I care about. If programs only have a handful of seats a year, and admitting a grad means an investment of half a decade’s worth of money and time and energy, then we really, really don’t want to waste seats. Generally speaking, admissions committees are looking for two things: evidence that you have what it takes to successfully finish the program, and evidence that this is the right program for you. What kind of evidence tells us that you’re a good fit? The kind of evidence that only you can provide. Listing areas of interest that match our program strengths. Telling us that the courses you took or the writing sample you provided are indicative of the direction you want to go in, rather than just being a function of what courses were available and which term paper your advisor told you to use. Mentioning the names of the professors you’re excited to work with, and telling us why you want to work with them. Demonstrating that you know something about the program to which you’ve applied, and that you’ve made an informed decision that this program that can help you do the kind of work you want to do. A generic, copy-paste kind of cover letter is lethal. It has a survivability rate of 8%. And giving it a number as high as 8% might be my optimism showing.
Hey, halfway through #3 you finally started to answer my question!
Hey, so I did!
Probably the two most important elements of any application are the writing sample and the evidence of fit. So if you want to increase your chances of getting accepted next year, then in addition to increasing the number of programs to which you apply, I would pour all your available time and energy into changing, improving, or polishing these two documents.
The second year I tried, I again applied to around 20 programs, but this time with a better than 50% success rate. I ended up accepting the offer of an excellent program. The two things I changed that second year? I made sure I fit the places I applied (and made sure they knew it, too), and I spent months writing and rewriting a new sample. Same home university, same recommendations, same transcripts, same GRE score, and same couple of red flags that I couldn’t do anything to change.
First, I researched programs much more carefully. As an undergraduate, it’s hard to know the sociology of the field. I thought the best programs were those at the most famous institutions, and mistakes like that aren’t uncommon. And even if I understood that fit was what matters, how was I supposed to know which programs were strong or ably represented in my areas of interest? Google every single program out there, including the ones I didn’t even know about? So I started with the Breakdown of Programs by Specialties over at the PGR. (Am I allowed to favorably mention the PGR on Daily Nous? No, wait Justin – what are you doing? I’m sorry! No, please don’t throw me in the Daily Nous dungeon! It’s so dark and consensusy down here! Fine, fine, I hear this and this are also good!)
The PGR isn’t perfect, but the breakdown told me where to start my investigation. And investigate I did. I read the faculty pages of professors in my area. I read or at least skimmed a lot of their papers. I got as clear a sense as possible of what kind of philosophy they did, and what their approach to philosophy was. And that information went into my cover letter. When I said I wanted to go to program x in a letter, it wasn’t because x was a well-ranked program (that kind of reason tells committees more about the program than it does about you, the applicant). It was because professors y and z at program x work on a and do so b-ly, which dovetailed with my own carefully explained and detailed interest in pursuing a-like work from a b-like direction. I convincingly demonstrated why I wanted to learn from and work with y and z, and without painting my interests as inflexible or resistant to being shaped, I made a highly tailored, non-bs case for my admission.
The other thing I did? I junked my writing sample and started all over. My first writing sample was just a polished version of my best term paper. It wasn’t even a term paper in my stated area of interest. My second writing sample was the best piece of philosophy I was capable of producing at the time, intended to show committees the kind of work I wanted to do as well as my ability to do it. I spent four months researching and writing this thing, and I treated it like my full time job, because this document was the best argument I could make about the kind of philosopher I could be. Of course, I realized about a week into my first graduate seminar that my new thesis had been a very, very stupid idea that could never, ever work (stupid, stupid Louie, and my stupid face, too), but hey, it got me in the door.
Does this one anecdote mean that polished term papers make bad writing samples? Not necessarily. The treated-it-like-a-full-time-job thing probably played a bigger role. And again, you want to check with professors who have access to your entire dossier, because a handful of stats say less about your candidacy than you think. But I stand by the idea that of the variables over which you currently have control, demonstrating fit and writing a sample that serves as your advocate matter most.
Now, based on your letter, I only know two things about your writing sample: that it argues for an unpopular position and it’s not mainstream. Maybe all you meant by ‘not mainstream’ is the unpopularity thing again, or maybe you meant that it’s not on a mainstream topic as judged by the programs to which you’re applying. The latter would be a big problem because, you guessed it, fit.
But if you meant the former, and its only problem is that it defends an unpopular position, then I don’t think it has a problem. Folks might disagree with me in the comments below, but I don’t think you need to be a cookie cutter candidate with mainstream views to get into grad school. Of course, there are more and less philosophical ways to buck convention. Sometimes original papers can read like polemical screeds, short on citations and long on assertions. Sometimes ‘original’ papers come across like the author wasn’t aware that there’s actually a lively literature out there on precisely their question. Notice that those are philosophical flaws, not a sin of originality. I’m willing to wager that most graduate committees don’t have a bias against unconventional, original work. Theses aren’t like art—unrecognized displays of genius not respected in the author’s lifetime. Committees are judging skill more than content.
Maybe this is my optimism talking, but I think a rigorously researched, carefully argued, controversial paper is actually a great writing sample rather than a risky or a wounded sample. It takes a lot of chops to pull off a controversial paper well, and chops impress! What matters are the ‘rigorously researched’ and ‘carefully argued’ parts, because those are the parts that tell committees whether you have what it takes to succeed. Committees aren’t going to hold you to the thesis you defend for life, but your abilities at that moment in time are being compared to the abilities of all the other applicants. So if your paper isn’t mainstream in the sense that it takes a bold stance, then shine on, you crazy diamond. But if your paper isn’t mainstream because you break all the rules of philosophy papers because you’re just that original damnit, then you’re not giving committees evidence that you can do the kind of work that programs are all about training you how to do. You’re not showing them that you know what philosophy is. And enough of your competitors aren’t going to make the same mistake. Remember, we don’t want to waste seats.
I think some of this advice is fairly standard: apply widely, and focus on your writing sample and on demonstrating fit. But there are controversial points, too: you may have to go into debt if you want to get into grad school badly enough, and you don’t have to change your unpopular views in order to get in somewhere. And there are some elements that I just don’t have enough information to comment on, like whether students coming from certain institutions should try to get a solid MA first. (I don’t think so, but again, I don’t know.) So I’d be interested to see what others think below.
— Louie Generis