You’re applying to a top university and you’re trying to set the right tone. What do you say? Well, first, you should know who you’re talking to.
The person who is reading your personal statement and letters of recommendation is not the same faceless bureaucrat that evaluates your scores (GMAT, GRE, TOEFL, etc.). Depending upon the degree you’re applying for, you’re likely writing your personal statement for a committee of professors. And those professors are bound to have divergent research interests. Speak to them.
What does ‘speaking to them’ mean? Academics tend to be reasonably objective types, so don’t get all emotional about your enthusiasm for what you plan on studying or how your ‘destiny’ is to study X. Hyperbole and maudlin sentimentality are anathema to professors (here are a few GRE words for you). Explain succinctly how your background has led you to have an interest in X, explain your specific interest in X (Xy and Xz), show that you know what key research has been done about these specific interests, and briefly explain any particulars about how you plan on attacking your research interests (e.g. methods).
Beyond the ‘what’, address the ‘who’. Let the professors know that you have gone over the faculty descriptions (at a minimum) by pointing to professors who may be able to help you along your academic path (and possibly why). Making an effort to inform one or more professors in the target department – either through email, by setting up a meeting, or by speaking with a professor after a public talk – about your interest in applying to their program and your specific academic or professional interests is always helpful. That way, when the committee meets to discuss applications, yours will not ‘come out of the blue’, but will be something of a known quantity. People react more favourably to the known than the unknown.
In addition to the fundamental tactics discussed above, there are other more engaging ways to signal interest to professors:
- Find out what projects professors are working on. If you signal interest in their current research, you are likely to make a positive impression.
- Request a professor’s latest syllabi for the program of interest, and indicate that you are thinking of applying.
- If you are a competitive candidate, it is important to tell professors where else you will be applying – as long as the programs you list are equal or greater in terms of reputation and ranking. This piques the competitive spirit of professors; knowing that you may be snatched up by another program will make them more likely to float a generous offer of financial support.
- If you are in the same location as a target program and have the time, ask a professor if you can ‘audit’ their class (sit in). The key here is that if a professor accepts, you must do all the reading and show your best academic face to improve your chances of acceptance.
Use your creativity and common sense to come up with other tactics. But three final words of advice:
- Contact professors in the programs where you will apply, well before you apply. Show you know what they do and indicate your interest in applying to the program.
- Be wary of mentioning other faculty in personal communications with professors. Professors are absurdly (and often childishly) political and you may be considered an undesirable if you mention you would like to work with someone with whom your corresponding professor does not get along. It’s okay to do so in your personal statement, but not personal communication.
- At top institutions, the number one objective of professors is to publish in top journals. That means that you should know the top journals that fit your topic of interest and what has been written; and you should also know what the target professors have written. Professors will be especially sympathetic to prospective students who want to work on a topic that is of interest to that professor. Why? Because a) students can act as useful research assistants, taking care of the taxing job of data collection; and, b) professors often consider publishing with excellent students with interests similar to their own.
A focus on professors can be a winning application strategy. Whatever you do, however, be objective. Don’t be excessively fawning about a professor (suck-ups are undesirable) or get caught up emotionally in your application or your research interest. Above all – stick to what professors understand best: research interests.