29 January 2009

Graduate School Applications

I recently applied to a number of PhD programs for next fall (I'm completing a Master's degree at my current institution). A lot of people complain about the application process, and I think their criticisms are fair. The system pisses off students, it pisses off recommendation writers, and it probably pisses off the admissions committees and administrators who have to deal with loads of incoming mail. In short, I'm adding my voice to the chorus advocating overhauls to the application process.

To start, many of the applications are now online. I think this is a major improvement over paper applications, because none of my material can get lost, have coffee drip on it, or be damaged in the mail. On the other hand, online applications require a username-password combination. Some schools assigned my username as an unalterable, random alphanumeric combination. Others restricted what my password could be (requiring at least one symbol, forbidding any part of my name, etc.) so that I had at least four different passwords for online logons. Every time I went to log on to an application, I had to look up the school's username-password combination. (I don't use Firefox's "remember this password now" feature for possibly irrational privacy reasons.)

Next, there's the matter of personal information. You would think that schools on the same network (such as the ApplyYourself network) would share such basics as name, social security number, birthdate and addresses across applications. No such luck. I had the joy of entering my information n-teen times, which eventually came to be a sort of zen-like task.

After the basic information is complete, it's time to notify the recommendation writers. Some schools email writers for recommendations as soon as you enter the appropriate information; other schools request recommendations after you submit your application; still others provide text for you to email to your letter writers on your own. One old-fashioned school even had my letter-writers submit actual (gasp) letters, with pre-addressed and stamped envelopes provided by me. I feel extraordinarily grateful to my letter writers for putting up with n-teen request emails, reminder emails, individual log-ons, and annoying forms. I'd send each of them a giant fruit basket, if I could, but I'm trying not to cross any ethical lines. At least while I'm a student, a handwritten thank you note will have to suffice.

The personal statements were the most time-consuming part of the processes. Some schools wanted one statement describing everything: how I got here, what inspires me, what I want to study, career plans, my underwear size, everything. Other schools made it clear that anything beyond a concise statement of my research interests and career goals would not be acceptable. Some schools wanted one of each essay. Some essays were restricted to a page; others could be two pages, or 5000 characters, or 800 words. Some forms required me to copy and paste plain text of my essays, instead of letting me submit them as PDFs in the pretty LaTeX format I adapted for that purpose. At least two schools required an additional ("optional," but who can tell what optional really means?) essay on how I would inspire diversity at their institution. How do I gently point out that I'm a woman in a technical field, and that should be enough diversity, thank you very much?

One feature of some applications seemed to be designed to enrage students. A few schools required not only official transcripts from the university, but a full manually-entered list of courses, including textbooks used and grades received. I had to call up my parents to go through my bookshelf in my old bedroom to find out what textbook I'd used for Intro to Technical Science freshman year. It seems like a spiteful move on the part of the admissions commitee, in my opinion.

One of the biggest surprises was an inconsistent definition of deadline. While most applications were due at 11:59pm on the day of the deadline, some were due at 5:00pm, and others at 1:00pm. I'm lucky I realized this (the information was not displayed as prominently as I would hope!) before it was a problem.

All this is, of course, assuming nothing goes wrong. If recommendations or transcripts or GRE scores don't arrive on time, there's no guarantee your application will be reviewed. The whole process was like having a part-time job for two months. I'm glad that it's over, and I hope in the future those in charge will seriously consider changes, like a Common Application similar to the one for undergraduate institutions, to save a great deal of hassle for everyone.

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