The Application Process

Staying Organized

I got myself a few simple folders (you know, the yellow ones that hold sheets of paper in them - no need to punch holes or anything like that), and labeled them - one for each university or fellowship I was applying to. It's never bad to have a couple of extra ones.

Inside each folder I put a checklist with all the items that had to go in it. The idea was that once they were all there, my application package was ready to be sent. In it went, as soon as I got them:

I also made sure I had the application deadline date on each one of the folders, just so I wouldn't forget.

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This was the easy part, although I waited too long to get them, and almost missed the time to send them in. I did not appreciate just how slow universities can be - the exact person I needed was on vacation, and nobody else could sign the copies of the transcripts... you know how it is. I needed to have mine sent from Israel, and since I didn't trust the university to handle it for me, I just ordered a bunch and sent them myself to the universities I applied to - even those who stated they only accept transcripts from the academic institution that issued them. I did try to check with somebody in the universities I applied to (an admin handling admissions, etc.) that it would be allowed. This was not a problem with any of the universities.

Needless to say, I ordered more transcripts than I thought I would need, just in case I would suddenly discover I'm applying to 3 extra universities. And they can come in handy later on as well, whem applying for fellowships and such.

Like anything else, it's a good idea to get this done (or at least ready to be sent out) as early as possible.

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Research Experience

What For?

Early along the way, I noticed that many of the universities instructed applicants to describe their "research experience" in the applications they send in. As I mentioned before, I had absolutely no prior research experience, and very little idea about how to obtain it. But just how important was it?

Here's an excerpt from a letter I received from Ms. Abramson, the Director of Graduate Studies in the University of Wisconsin-Madison (one of the friendliest and most service-oriented places I've had the pleasure of interacting with).

Dear Eran,

...Prior research counts very much in admission. It is almost necessary for admission. In some cases the prior research can compensate for mediocre grades and GREs...

Whoa. Obviously, in my case (considering my BA average) this research experience could make a big difference. And it did. All the universities and professors I've spoken with emphasized how important prior research experience is for them.

Why Do They Care So Much?

As one professor explained to me in a phone conversation: since most of my graduate study revolves around learning how to conduct research and then actually running studies, the university would like to know that I feel generally comfortable in a research environment, and that after some time into the program, I won't turn around and say: "What is this? I don't like it at all. This is not what I expected. I'm outta here!"

Not that I have a way of really knowing what the program is going to be like - but picking someone who has some sort of experience with research is obviously a somewhat safer bet for the university.

On top of that, the way I presented my research experience may have helped the admission people decide whether or not I really knew what I was doing there, and how well I understood what was happening around me. I'll discuss this a little more in the Personal Statement section, later.

What Kind of Research?

How relevant does my research experience need to be, in regards to my research interests?

As much as possible, is what everyone told me. I believed them :-) Obviously, some experience is better than none, but relevant experience is better than non-relevant experience. Since I was aiming for a Social/Personality program, I tried to find a place that would provide me with this kind of experience.

Where Can I Get It?

It seems that many BA students in the US have an opportunity to conduct research while in college - honor thesis, etc. I came with no research experience, and needed to come up with some. At first I looked for jobs in my area, where "research coordinators" or "research assistants" were sought after. I was hoping to be hired, based on my BA in Behavioral Science and my "managerial" experience (I served as an operations officer in the Israeli army). I did interview for one position, but never got the job.

This turned out to be a very good thing, since I could not have ended up in a better place than I eventually did. After the usual initial period of despair ("nobody will want me, why would anyone hire me, this entire graduate school application is a fantasy" etc.) I started Emailing all the professors near me whose research interests were somewhat related to my interest. Here is an example of the letters I sent out. I also decided that if the only way to get the experience will be to volunteer, I would do it - I would find some time to work in the lab for a few hours a week.

Here, like before, the responses were mostly kind. I received a couple of positive answers, and at the end chose to go to a laboratory in Columbia University, hoping the professor I would work for would also write me a recommendation at the end - which actually happened, more than 6 months later. This was probably the most long-term plan I've ever accomplished :-)

I put in a couple of sessions every week, a few hours at a time. I worked mostly with an extremely friendly and helpful post-doc who was working for that professor. I made sure I understood what the studies I was helping to run were really about, and tried playing a little with the statistical software, sitting with the post-doc who was running the studies and talking about them. The idea was to get involved in the data analysis, and not just get stuck as somebody who was running subjects mindlessly. This proved valuable later on, when I had to write about my research experience in my personal statement - it just helped me sound like I had a clue. And by then, I actually did :-)

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Most universities require 3 recommendations, and prefer them to come from faculty members who know you to some extent. Some mention that they'd accept recommendations from people who worked with you for a long enough while. They prefer not to hear from family members - which is a shame, since I bet my mom would've written me a knockout recommendation ;-)

One professor who was kind enough to explain the entire application process to me (over the phone) told me that recommendations are important, but that I really just needed one very enthusiastic/impressive recommendation, and two others that basically wouldn't object to my joining a PhD program :-) This was, probably, a slight exaggeration, but made me much calmer: I had only one contact in the academic world - the professor at whose lab I was volunteering.

It wasn't easy to get a recommendation out of him. I just didn't realize that at the same time, he was besieged by about a zillion other applicants who were hoping for his recommendation as well. I had to badger him a little - sometimes through the post-doc I was working with in reality, who was extremely helpful and kind.

I decided to also ask for a recommendation letter from a senior officer who worked with me for a few years in the Israeli army. The next letter I got was from a co-worker (clinical supervisor) with whom I've worked for about 6 months - he had a MA in psychology, so I was hoping his recommendation would help.

The universities allow you to either waive your right to see the recommendation, or not. Obviously, waiving it means you trust the recommendation writer to write something nice. This means that the recommendations need to be either sent to the universities by the writer, or be given to you in a sealed & signed envelope, which you will send in with your application. I chose to do it the second way, just to avoid having to worry about whether or not they sent out the letters.

I printed out the recommendation forms that the universities provided and filled out all the parts that I could, and then printed envelopes for the recommendation writers. I put little post-it notes on the forms and on the envelopes, so they would know where to put each letter, and I would know where to send the envelopes :-)

Generally, each writer printed out a separate recommendation letter (identical for each university) that was attached to the university form, which was also filled out. Both of those sheets were returned to me in a sealed envelope, signed across the seal. Having the printed details of the writer and myself on the envelope just made everything look nice and official.

I estimated it would take me about one week to get the envelopes back. I was right, which was a good thing - it was getting really close to the deadline date. If possible, I would suggest doing it a little bit in advance, but not too far in advance.

The most important thing is not to be embarrassed when asking for a recommendation. Just ask if they'd be willing to write you a recommendation - and try to ask this of people who you know appreciate you and can write good things about you. It doesn't hurt if you can attach some sort of title after their name ("PhD", "Lieutenant-General" and "MA" seems to have worked for me).

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