Monday, January 01, 2007

applying to grad school (1)

It's a new year and I'm girding my loins for an onslaught of grad school applications. In my first five years teaching History at Western, I've read about 500 such applications and expect to read another 150 or so in the next couple of months. One hundred and fifty transcripts, 300 letters of reference, maybe 50 writing samples from Ph.D. candidates, and 150 "statements of purpose" -- the applicants' paragraph on why they want to do a graduate degree, and why here, why with us.

The statement of purpose is tough to write -- and read. For one thing, students are asked to write only 200 words, hardly enough to warm up (the 100th word of this blog post came earlier in this sentence). But a bigger problem is that these mini-essays become too personality-centred, reading as a natural extension, maybe, of the essay the student wrote for undergraduate entrance to university. Here's how author Gerald Graff (with Andrew Hoberek) puts it in a chapter of his book Clueless in Academe called "The Application Guessing Game", and then offers a solution:
Here is a typical statement, made up by us but instantly recognizable, we bet, by experienced application readers: "Ever since age three I've been passionately in love with the sensuous sound of words. So when Mother Goose was read to me in my crib, I somehow knew I was destined for a lifelong love affair with literature." ... It is not that love of literature is no longer considered a good thing, but that in a graduate application this love is taken for granted and therefore does not score any points: love of one's subject is a necessary qualification for graduate study, but it is not sufficient to get you in. ...In Ph.D. application workshops we developed for MAPH [Master of Arts Program in the Humanities] students, we suggested that the point they needed to get across was not that they loved their subject, but that they are ready to join an intellectual conversation about what they love. They need to translate their passion for their subject into an indication that they know how to discuss it publicly with other knowledgeable people, rather than simply enhancing their private enjoyment of art, philosophy, or classsics. This means showing that they have some plausible picture of the academic field or subfield they envision themselves joining.
Good advice. I'd recommend this chapter to anyone about to apply for grad school. If you want to borrow it, just ask.

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