Additional stress should be laid on several elements in NetCurl's excellent
writeup. My advice is limited to the system in the USA, which is the one I know;
and my field is the humanities, not the soft or hard sciences. See
the other caveats at the bottom.
Choosing a school.
Graduate schools are selling a product. A lot of people recommend looking
at rankings, but the latter do not tell the whole
story. As a prospective customer, get on the phone (or write an email) to the
graduate advisor (or some similarly-titled equivalent) of the department in
which you are interested and ask them a pointed question: have recent graduates
of their program been hired, and (more importantly) where? Any good
school will be glad of its bragging rights and its representatives will not resent
the question (any resentment or unwillingness to answer should be read as a
If you are planning to enter an academic field (the only choice about which
I am competent to give first-hand advice), be wary of any school that does not
send its graduates on as assistant professors to schools in the top X of those
rated in your favorite guide to graduate schools. "Assistant professor"
is an important distinction: it is the default title for professors hired on
the "tenure-track," which means the institution hired them with a
view to keeping them. Visiting assistant professors and adjunct professors are
in a different category--lots of people are hired right out of graduate school
for one-year stints, and because the institution has little invested in the
temporary hire, these positions tell you correspondingly little about the graduate
school's clout, the student's quality, or the hiring institution's opinion of
the student. (As a hiring institution, Harvard is an exception. They characteristically
hire good people right out of graduate school for only a few years with no real
chance of tenure. For tenured faculty, Harvard prefers to hire big guns who've
already proven their mettle elsewhere.)
I wrote "top X" above because a mere number won't do. Maybe you prefer
liberal arts colleges; maybe you want to buckle down and do research without
bothering too much about interacting with students; maybe you want to take
another route, and enter secondary-school teaching. You'll need to think hard
about the names of schools at which a prospective graduate school places its
graduates. But I dare say, this is the most important consideration of all.
If a certain department does not place its graduates well, your chances of their
placing you well, no matter how good you are, will be diminished (though by
no means zeroed out). This is regrettable, but a fact of academic life.
Letters of recommendation.
Given grade inflation, letters of recommendation
are arguably more important than grades. You should think very carefully about
whom to choose, and you should expand your options by going in and getting to
know your professors better. The payoff is that they will get to know you
better, and a letter of recommendation chock-full of anecdotes and specific
examples is extremely powerful. A teacher who's on the ball will ask to interview
you before writing if he or she doesn't know you very well. Watch out if the
teacher seems to take the whole thing as pro-forma. You might get a generic
letter. It doesn't hurt to get your request in the queue early--profs tend to
get swamped with them about winter final exam time, as students take care of
business before going home, and your letter may suffer from being part of a
large number written all at the same time.
Obviously, you want at least one professor from your chosen field of graduate
study to write for you; but it does not hurt at all if one of the (usually) three
is in an unrelated field (or from the "real world," for that matter).
I am in the humanities and regularly write in support of medical school
applications, and tracking results shows that this hasn't hurt them at all.
Likewise, a humanities aspirant would be well served by a good letter from a
math or science prof. NetCurl is right: ask the professor straightforwardly
if they can write a good letter for you. Some profs will agree to write while avoiding the unpleasantness of telling
you they don't think highly of your work, if you do not trouble to ask. This
is all the more important because you should always sign the waiver relinquishing
your right to inspect the letter later. Letters
written by professors with the expectation (or fear) that the candidate will read it some
day are far less powerful than ones the candidate has waived the right to see.
Most graduate applications do not require one. Nevertheless, get one written
and keep it up-to-date, so that you can give it to your recommenders as a summary
of your achievements even if you don't need to send it in with your application.
Everyone has their pet peeves and strong preferences here. My recommendation
is: create a CV (= resume) specific to what you want out of it. If you are
applying to graduate school, there's little need for an "objectives"
section. Likewise, put your information in the order a graduate school (or someone
writing to a graduate school on your behalf) will want to see it in: academic
information (schools, awards, publications, if any), then work experience. Don't
clutter your CV with high school achievements or vaguely self-congratulatory
personal stuff like your age, marital status, smoking status, etc., etc.
At all times in your career, format your CV for legibility. Admissions (and
job search) committees have to look through hundreds of CVs, and a clearly arranged
one (that avoids splashy graphic effects) will be more likely to impress them.
Be honest. We academics are masters at padding our resumes and you play our
game at your peril.
Everyone is agreed that these are not very significant. So why are they required
by a great many applications? It is a brief writing sample that has not been
corrected by a professor, and may just represent something like your native
writing and organizing skills. That means it's not there to get you thrown out
of the pile if you don't find something terribly odd or clever
to say about yourself--it's there to get you thrown out if you have not the
wit to write a clear, syntactically-correct, properly-spelled essay
in an application you theoretically care very much about. Any good professor
will be willing to read your personal statement and suggest ways to make it
better (though not perhaps at the moment you ask--think ahead). You may just
impress someone with an offbeat essay, but that's not the purpose of the exercise.
I am of two minds here. First of all, the publication rat-race
ought really to start no sooner than you've found a job. Publishing takes a
lot more time than just the research and generation of workable
ideas, and I think that for a student, this time might best be used filling
your head with the general knowledge necessary for your field. But the real
world imposes a different view: more and more graduate students are publishing
these days, and these publications are occasionally quite good. By a process
analogous to grade inflation, it's now becoming more and more common for undergraduates
to publish papers in venues designed to receive such work. So sooner or later,
it may actually become a default necessity to publish as an undergraduate.
After being accepted.
This is the time to visit a school or two, if things have worked out such that
you have a choice. Let them sell the school a little more; ask them again about
recent hires among their graduates; ask to talk (with no professors around)
to a couple of their graduate students. Is the culture at that school hellishly
competitive? Do students there apply for and regularly win grants,
or fellowships to study abroad? Are the graduate
students happy? Are they left to fend for themselves? Do they seem to get along
together? These will be your friends within a year: choose wisely.
Again, intelligent people of goodwill will differ, but if you are in the humanities
and not independently wealthy, I advise against going to a school which does
not offer you sufficient free or TA money to support yourself
and a remission of all or nearly all student tuition and fees. The last thing
you want is to graduate with massive student loans to (possibly, if everything
works out right) about a $45,000/annum starting salary. Better to do some further
undergraduate studying, GRE practice, or other
remedial work if your resources will permit it and apply again the following
On cultivating professors.
There is a respectable school of thought which recommends getting to know a
big professor in your area of interest at your undergraduate institution.
The idea is that this prof will write a letter with clout, and that is a good
thing. But be sure to get a letter from a younger faculty member who remembers
what it's like to be applying and hasn't lost her or his fire. There is a notorious
professor in my field who writes essentially form letters for
every student--all of them worthless "this is the finest student ever"
letters. Very embarrassing when two letters from the same prof cross a committee's
Truth in advertising:
I went to graduate school in the late 80s and early 90s. Having done one-year
stints for several years, I was hired as an assistant professor (in a liberal
arts environment) in 2001; now, in a case of the lunatics truly running the asylum,
I write letters of recommendation every year,
and have vetted applications for fellowships and jobs. I have never sat on a
graduate school admissions committee, however. Use my advice with
an eye to my limitations, and, as with any advice, get a second opinion!