Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tips for Creating A EXCEPTIONAL Graduate Application in Philosophy

Obviously you must be passionate about philosophy and that is the most important thing. Yet it is hard to show on paper that you spend 10 hours a week in the library tracking down obscure footnotes. Philosophy is unbelievably competitive, many 4.0 students don't get into the top 15 schools. Here are some things one can do to make your application look better on paper. Presented in an easy to follow list.

Yet again, you got into philosophy because you love it, you wouldn't pursue graduate school in philosophy if you didn't, because career wise its a bad bet to make. In all likelihood you will be teaching at a community college for the rest of your career but if you love what you do then that is still great. If one is passionate there are several strategic things one can do to get a leg up on the competition.

There are several documents which are essential to every graduate application. Informaly ranked in order of importance. (each of these are important for different reasons and some of the lower ranked ones can disqualify you, so don't take the order too seriously).

1. Writing sample
2. Letters of recommendation
3. Transcripts
4. C/V or Resume
5. GRE scores
6. Personal statement

Things you can do:

1. Writing sample

a.  Usually 15-20 pages.

b.  Polish as much as possible.

c.  Map out the logic of your argument and be sure that you don't contradict yourself.

d.  Make sure your paper has a clear order and flow, use numbers or letters if necessary.

e.  Have peers and other students read your paper and comment on how it could be better.

f.   If you can ask the professors who are writing you letters of recommendation read you paper. Also ask professors from different areas of philosophy read your paper, the admissions board is made up of professors from different areas.

g.  Submit it for publication if you have time, the worst that could happen is they reject it and don't tell you why. They might accept it and publish it or give you valuable feed back.

h. Consider doing an honors thesis, this can makes a great writing sample.

2. Letters of recommendation (x3)

a. Identify who you might want letters from, "big" names can be quite powerful, so ask around. Make sure you like them and that they are not known for writing outrageous letters.

b. Develop a relationship with your professors as soon as possible.

c. Talk with them after class about topics of interest.

d. Go to office hours.

e. Ask if there are any opportunities to edit or co-author a article. (rare)

f. Ask them about graduate school, they will be much more helpful than your staff advisor.

g. Get an account at (some schools don't take interfolio so check, otherwise you might have to express ship a letter which is no fun for anyone)

h. Be sure to ask your professors if they can write you a "GOOD" letter of recommendation.

3. Transcripts

a. Keep your GPA as high as possible.

b. Especially focus on your grades in philosophy classes.

c. Take more than the minimum number of classes for the Major.

d. Take as many upper divisions as seems doable.

e. Inquire about how to take seminars or graduate courses before senior year.

f. Ask about how to graduate with honors.

g. Independent study or directed reading with a professor.

h. Many Philosophy departments have a honors thesis option. (This can be a great writing sample)

i. Learn a second language relevant to your areas of interest. For philosophy this usually means Greek, Latin, German or French.

j. If you transfer from one school to another make sure you know your cumulative GPA, not just the last school.

4. C/V or Resume

a. Publish one of your papers. Graduate and undergraduate publications add some to your C/V but try to get into a ranked journal.

b. Join Phi Sigma Tau

c. Join the philosophy club, ethics bowl, or other philosophy organizations. (OR start them!)

d. Attend philosophy conferences.

e. Present papers at confrences or give presentations.

f. Become a tutor: usually offered in logic or ethics.

g. Join professional philosophical associations and news letters. (APA, APPA, NDPR etc...)

h. Submit papers for awards, scholarships ect...

I. Become a TA: usually undergrads do things like indexing (rare)

J. Learn a second language relevant to your interests. If interested in ancient Phil learn Greek ect...

5. GRE scores


b. There are study books and courses out there. I recommend going through at least 3 books.

c. Keep several vocab flashcards on you everyday and look at them occasionally.

e. The top 200 words are not the only ones your tested on. Study as many as seem appropriate.

f. Take an assessment test as soon as possible to see how much work you have to do.

g. While GRE's count the least in most schools, a combined verbal + quantitive score below 1200 will count against you for most PhD's.

h. The analytical writing section is the hardest to prep for. Get a group of interested students together and have everyone write on a prompt for a couple of minuets then switch papers and analyze the argument of the other person and write a response.

i. For analytical writing memorize your fallacies!

6. Personal statement

a. The personal statement carries little positive weight but can get your application thrown out if its done wrong.

b. Include your purpose in graduate study (MA or PhD). 

c. The area of study in which you wish to specialize.

d. Your intended future use of your graduate study. Don't be too long most schools just assume you want to be a philosophy professor.

e. Your unique preparation and fitness for study in the field. Correlate your academic background with your extracurricular experience to show how they unite to make you a special candidate.

f. Any problems or inconsistencies in your records or scores, such as a bad semester because of health problems.

 g. Any special conditions that are not revealed elsewhere in the application, such as a significant (35 hour per week) workload outside of school. .

h. You may be asked, "Why do you wish to attend this school?" Research the school and describe its special appeal to you, mention faculty with whom you hope to work with, show that you have done research on their work if you have.

i. This is not an auto biography, think of it as a job application.

j. Show your passionate but don't overdo the "value" of philosophy, many career philosophers are a bit bitter about philosophy.

k. DONT:  brown nose, use an arrogant tone, just list your accomplishments (a C/V should do this if they accept it), and don't be afraid to toss your statement and start all over.

Note: Many of these suggestions need to be done really early if you want to go straight to grad school. For example publishing can take up to 8 months or more. Also the GRE takes about 3 weeks to mail their scores. At some future point I will create a timeline for these suggestions.

 These are conclusions that I have come to through my own research on the topic. Please feel free to comment on things which I left out or on your own experience with this process.

If you have served on a application review board your comments would be greatly appreciated and helpful.

I hope this was helpful to everyone,
Please comment,

- William Parkhurst


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