Admissions to the graduate/professional school of your choice depends on your application (including references, test scores, essay, etc.) and possibly a campus interview. Admissions committees not only look for people who have the ability to complete the academic work, but hope to find candidates who are thoughtful, mature, articulate, and well-prepared. They will determine whether you possess these attributes by readings your references and essay.
- Give faculty plenty of time to write your reference. Ask them to write the reference in your junior year or in early fall of senior year, even if you don't intend to go to graduate or professional school immediately.
- Provide your professor with all the information they need. Give them:
- a list of the relevant courses you've taken (and the grades you obtained in them).
- a paper or lab from class (hopefully one on which you did well).
- information regarding the programs to which you are applying.
- a stamped, addressed envelope for each reference letter.
- tell the professor you will pick up the envelope to mail it.
- an occasional prompting or gentle reminder.
Plan to submit one more reference than the program requested.
Writing the Essay
(as paraphrased from Asher's Graduate Admissions Essays -- What Works, What Doesn't and Why)
- As you write the first draft, you will want to start by assessing yourself. What makes you unique? unusual?
- Remember who and what influenced you intellectually. What writers have had the greatest impact on your development of thought? Who were your favorite professors, and why? How has each influenced you? What is the single most important concept you learned in college.
- Write "from the heart."
- Revise it at least three times.
- Get feedback from trusted faculty and friends.
- Answer the question, "Why should the school invest in me?"
Essays for PhD Programs
- The essay counts 50% once you are past the qualifier or grades and test scores.
- Watch grammar and punctuation.
- Emphasize your passion and sense of mission. Don't list accomplishments; you can refer to attached documents (resume, CV, etc.) which describe them.
Strengthening your essay
- Use a strong opening.
- Substantiate your interest in that program.
- Substantiate your preparation and ability to perform, by referring to attached documents.
- Show a vision of your future contribution. If you want to be a professor, emphasize teaching experience.
Emphasize your research
- Use titles of your work.
- If possible, publish in student publications or start an appropriate student journal to get your research published.
- Get on an "et al." list in a professor's publication.
- Submit a paper to a journal for publication just before applying to graduate school. Have a professor help with publication.
For more detail on writing your essay, and examples of strong essays, stop by my office in the upstairs of Edwards House to review Graduate Admissions Essays -- What Works, What Doesn't and Why by Donald Asher.