I graduated from Oberlin College in 1992 with an A- average. I did a double-major in Government and Women’s Studies and a minor in American History, and graduated with honors because I completed a senior thesis. After college I spent three years in Toronto (I’m a dual citizen of Canada and the US), where I worked on the political staff of the provincial government, including two years spent as a special advisor to the Premier (equivalent to the governor). I tell you all this because while I wasn’t a straight-A rock star in college, I think the combination of solid grades and an interesting c.v. made me a good candidate.
In 1994 I decided I wanted to do a PhD in political science, beginning in the fall of 1995. My plan was to focus on the comparative politics of Western Europe, and to study the politics of European social democratic parties. I spent a lot of time reading book reviews in academic journals to figure out who was doing interesting research on European social democratic politics or on related topics, and to find out which universities they were at. Based partly on that list, and also on conversations I had with political scientists about which departments were regarded as the best, I made a list of schools to apply to in the US, Canada and UK: Carleton, the University of Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Edinburgh, LSE, MIT, Northwestern, Princeton, Stanford and York.
I was a bit obsessive about the whole process, and treated it like a professional engagement. I set up a folder for each school I applied to, plus a separate little filofax with a tab for each school so I could keep track of all my application requirements, notes and conversations, which was crucial when applying to so many schools. I also spent a lot of time prepping for the GREs and as a result did ok on the math part (600-something) and well on verbal and logic (mid-to-high 700s). Lest you think I am the biggest grind of all time (and there’s some truth to that) let me note that I did a lot of my GRE studying while sitting in the back of the room during the Premier’s speeches (sorry, Bob) so that I still had time to enjoy a healthy amount of after-work carousing and cultural enlightenment.
I also focused a lot on the personal networking side of the application process. I had heard that individual professors are very influential in the application process; if somebody wants you to come and work with them that can help you get in – assuming you’re a credible candidate, that is. In the fall of 1994 (at the time I was preparing my applications) I attended the American Political Science Association meetings as a way of checking out a whole bunch of professors and departments at once. It was very useful but not for the faint-of-heart since academic meetings are quite cliquish and can be isolating if you’re there without a posse.
The APSA meetings gave me a chance to briefly introduce myself to some of the professors I was interested in working with, creating the helpful if inaccurate impression that I was a super-motivated would-be academic. I then followed up with personal visits to about half the schools I was applying to (including all the schools I was keenest on), and made a point of emailing the professors I wanted to work with well before-hand so that I could meet with them during my visit. I was fortunate to have a generous undergraduate professor who had good relationships with many of these professors, and I am sure that his introductory e-mails and phone calls made it easier for me to get appointments to see them. I also met with graduate student advisors in each department.
When the time came to file my applications I wrote a basic boiler-plate essay that explained why I was interested in studying social democratic politics, and related this interest to my previous studies and applied work in politics. I submitted a virtually identical essay to each school, with one paragraph that I changed for each school. This paragraph described why department X was the perfect place to pursue my course of studying, mentioning 3-4 professors in particular and explaining how each one’s work was relevant to my course of study. Book reviews gave me enough detail on professors’ work to be able to write these brief descriptions. I also included samples of my work and a c.v. in each package.
I was lucky to get terrific advice and help from current students in the departments I was applying to. A Columbia student whipped my application essay into shape (and then went onto become one of the most respected young scholars in his field). A fellow Oberlin graduate who was finishing her Harvard PhD while I was applying coached me through the process via e-mail (and went on to win a major prize for her dissertation). They not only helped me with my applications, but gave me an idea of what I was getting into.
My complete guide to grad school applications:
Who I am: my faux qualifications for dispensing grad school advice
My story: how I survived the application process
My results: where I got in, and how I got funding
Questions to ask yourself: things to think about when applying
Questions to ask departments: things you need to find out for your applications
Acing the application: my tips for winning at the application game