The other day, Liz dug deep into the blog archives and found a post that is no less relevant now than it was in 2012. The post considered what a good application looks like, and I’m going to shamelessly draw from it today — not quite repeating it completely, but not writing something fresh, either. The office may be closed today, but I know that applications are still being prepared — here’s a little bit of help for you.
So what does make a good application? Naturally, the best applications will reflect strong academic potential, relevant and rich international and professional experience, and a clear focus for your graduate studies and beyond. Well, from where I stand in December, there’s not much someone can do to improve those credentials before applying by January 10. On the other hand, it’s really important for applicants to note that even the best of you can be bumped down a couple of notches with a sloppily constructed application.
Let’s talk, then, about those aspects of your application that you can still influence. What distinguishes a good application from a crummy one? Two key points. The first should be obvious, but apparently it isn’t: Follow the directions! Answer every question on the form thoroughly. Never (ever ever) say “please refer to résumé.” Be sure to list all your key professional experiences, even if they were unpaid. Don’t assume we don’t want to know about the two years you spent working in a laboratory when, by omitting this information, you make it appear you were unemployed for all that time. I could go on, but the point should be clear — complete every part of the application form with care.
And the advice is essentially the same for the essays. Follow the directions and make sure you have answered the questions. It’s very frustrating for Admissions Committee readers when they reach the end of the personal statement and still don’t know what the applicant wants to do at Fletcher and beyond. A frustrated application reader is bad news for the applicant. We know you want to recycle the same essay for different schools with different essay prompts. Go ahead and recycle selectively (after all, that’s what I’m doing today!), but you still need to be sure to answer the question.
The second point may be slightly less obvious. Your application has many parts, all of which should work on your behalf. Make sure that each piece of the application tells a little more of your story. Beyond the form itself, make sure your résumé is very clear. Avoid acronyms. We know that you know what your organization, Xybrav, does, but we don’t know, and you should tell us. Do you work for the UN agency UNRAITUSAL? Please remind us what that agency does. Remember that Fletcher is a multidisciplinary place — it’s not realistic (or in your interest) to expect everyone to be equally conversant in all areas. And please, I estimate that there are fewer than five applicants each year who need a résumé longer than about three pages. Carefully consider whether you are truly one of those five. (Hint: Is your graduation year 2013 or later? You do not need more than three pages.)
Make sure your recommendations are all written in English. I know that this is a genuine challenge for many of you, but I cannot guarantee your application will be reviewed by someone who speaks your native language. A letter written in a language no one on the Admissions Committee reads is a wasted letter. And note that recommenders can also help you tell your story. Talk to them, and explain what would be helpful for them to say. Were you taking an impossibly heavy course load as an undergraduate? That’s a point that your recommender can make even more effectively than you can!
When you upload your transcripts, ensure they will be legible for us, or we’ll need to contact you to send new ones. Remember that what we want is a scanned copy of an OFFICIAL transcript. Not a copy that is covered with warnings that the photocopy is unofficial. And way too many people ignore the requirement that they explain their education system’s grading, if it’s not on the 4.0 scale that is common (but not universal) in the U.S. Is your grade of “5” out of a maximum of 6? Out of 10? Out of 12? Out of 20? All these options would reflect grading systems we have seen. Is your GPA of 1.3 as awful as it looks in the U.S. context? Or is it as good as it looks in the German context? A passing grade in the U.S. is usually 65. Did your university follow the British convention, in which a 56 might be a good result? As many universities and systems as we know, it is a mistake for you to assume we know yours. If your transcript doesn’t explain it, you should!
Use your essays mindfully. Make sure the second essay tells us something that promotes your candidacy. We still talk about the essay (which, to be fair, was written in response to a since-abandoned prompt) that an applicant sent about how his life’s greatest challenge was getting drunk on his 30th birthday. Need I say more?
Next, DO NOT WASTE SPACE in your personal statement or second essay addressing shortcomings in your application. Use the “Additional Information” section for that. And if you need to explain your grades or test scores, do not whine.
And, finally, both before and after you have completed the application (but before you submit it), review the application instructions. Make all needed corrections before you submit the application so that you’re not one of those people who asks us to ignore something they’ve already sent.
There you go. Make us happy with a well-constructed application that tells your story in the best possible way. It will make us respect you as an applicant, and respect is a good thing.