On applying to graduate school

by Jeffrey Angles


So many students have come to ask me my advice about how to apply to graduate schools that I decided to write down my suggestions in one handy-dandy page. In looking around on the internet, I found that there are lots of websites that have basic information about graduate school, but most do not have the really specific tips that I think make a big difference in putting together your application. So, long story short, here are my thoughts!


First, before I get started, if you are just in the beginning stages of thinking about graduate school, I recommend that you carefully read some of the helpful websites on about.com. The following are particularly useful.


        Graduate School Admissions 101

        Should You Go to Graduate School?

        Timetable for Applying to Graduate School

        What Do Graduate Schools Want? This essay is REALLY useful!

        Choosing Among Graduate Programs

        Trouble Starting Your Admissions Essay?

        Personal Statement Dos and Donts Follow EVERY SINGLE suggestion!

        How to Ace the GRE


In addition to the advice that you will find on these websites, I have some advice that will make all the difference about whether or not you are accepted, and perhaps even more importantly, whether or not the school you apply to gives you a position as a TA (teaching assistant) or RA (research assistant) to pay for your education.


Before I give you my advice, however, let me say, a TA or RA position pays both your school and a modest living stipend, so you want to do everything you can to get one! A TA in a Department of East Asian Studies might assist in a Japanese literature course, might teach Basic Japanese I, or might just be a grader for a large lecture class. Each TA has different experiences, but these are valuable experiences and they help pay the bills! The possibility of getting a TAship or RAship alone is plenty of reason why you should heed the advice I have listed below.


The most important advice I have is this: give yourself lots of time to prepare for graduate school. Just the essay along may take at least a month more likely even two. The biggest mistake that applicants make is not to spend enough time working on their essays. Too many people fail to get into graduate school because they made the colossal mistake of rushing to get an application essay done in the week before the deadline.


Each admissions essay must be tailored very specifically to whatever school you are applying to. That means a couple of things.


First of all, before you apply, you should figure out exactly what you want to study. For instance, do not just thinking along these lines: I want to study Japanese linguistics or I want to study modern Japanese literature. That may seem very specific to you, but that is NOT specific enough!


Here are some examples of statements describing more specific fields of study.


-         I am interested in the ways that contemporary Japanese novelists write about the student movements in Japan during the 1960s and 1970s. My goal is to do a comparative study of the representations of the movements in literature and the experiences of student protestors themselves.

-         I want to study pedagogical methods pertaining to the teaching of advanced Japanese, especially reading, to students from non-kanji countries.

-         I want to study Japanese pragmatics as it pertains to the use of the ko- so- a- series in contemporary Japanese.


As you might guess, you need to do your homework in advance to develop a good, solid foundation in whatever field you want to pursue. By expressing a specific interest and showing potential grad schools that you already have some knowledge, you will set yourself aside from the crowd as serious and thoughtful student. Grad schools want students who will succeed and become leaders in their field, not just people who are trying to learn a little more. A specific expression of interest will also let the professors at that university know whether or not they can help you.


That does not mean, however, that you are absolutely wedded to that subject once you get into grad school. Most M.A. programs in Japanese, for instance, have you take general courses on Japanese literature, linguistics, and pedagogy. In the process of taking those courses, many students end up shifting their focus somewhat, as they learn more about the subject and the kinds of research and work that have been done in their field. Still, it is important to show the school in your application that you are serious, thoughtful, smart, and already know the basics of the field you want to enter.


Each year, grad schools gets DOZENS of applications that just say, I want to study Japanese in order to become a bridge between Japan and America. Almost all of those applications are rejected because they do not show that the student has done much serious thinking about the direction they want to go. In short, an overly general application is the kiss of death! Go ahead and mention the names of famous writers and scholars in your field, since that will show that you have done your basic homework.


It HUGELY important to do your homework about the department you are applying to. Use the internet to find out the names of people in the department, and even better, figure out what they work on. If possible, use the internet or the university library to read some of their articles or books. Professors like nothing better than to hear things like the following: I am interested in coming to Ohio State University to work with Professor Mari Noda because of her important work on developing Japanese-language instructional materials for beginning learners. I am particularly eager to learn about textbook design and structure from her, especially since I hope to develop technology that could be of use in the classroom in the future. Specific references to the work and ideas of particular professors help to convince the grad school acceptance committee that their program is the right one for you.


In short, be thoroughly familiar with what is happening at a school before you apply, then use that knowledge in your essay. You will set yourself apart from the crowds of applicants that way.


If you have the time, I also encourage you (after reading the work of particular professors) to contact the Graduate Advisor in the department that you are applying to and tell him or her that you are interested in applying specifically to work with Dr. So-and-so. The Graduate Advisor can do a couple of things for you.


-         The Graduate Advisor put you in contact with the professor whose work you have read.

-         The Graduate Advisor can give you information about whether or not a particular professor is accepting graduate students in the upcoming cycle. (Sometimes professors go away on sabbatical, or leave a university temporarily to conduct their own research, or perhaps even retire altogether.)

-         The Graduate Advisor can answer questions, for instance, what sorts of students they are looking for, the numbers of TA positions they have available, and so on.

-         If you make a good impression on the Graduate Advisor, he or she could perhaps even give advice about what the acceptance committee likes to see in applications.


The most important reason to contact Graduate Advisor ahead of time is that when you send in your application to the department, you will not just be some no-name person applying out of the blue. The Graduate Advisor will recognize who you are and know that you are someone who would fit well with their program.


Start this process months in advance! Be aware that it takes time to make a connection with a particular professor or a Graduate Advisor. Do not expect an overnight answer. (Very famous professors who are busy with their own lectures and research often do not have much time to correspond to people they do not know.) Start the process of contacting them well in advance, and do not necessarily be discouraged if you do not get an extremely personal answer.


Do not send out the same application essay to all potential graduate schools! If you do NOT follow the advice I have given you above and tailor your essay carefully to a specific school and its program, the acceptance committee will be able to tell immediately, and your application is more likely to end up on the back burner. All graduate school acceptance committees want students that are specifically interested in their school.


As for the GRE, be sure to get GRE preparation materials, such as those from The Princeton Review in order to study for the test. A high GRE score is not the only thing that qualifies you for graduate school, but it sure helps. Spending a month or two studying flashcards of unfamiliar vocabulary from the English portion of portion of the GRE can raise your score dozens, perhaps even a hundred points. The more time you spend preparing for the GRE, the better your score will be. Remember, the GRE is difficult. Otherwise, it would not be the standardized test for graduate school!


Finally, apply to multiple graduate schools. The more applications you send you out, the more likely one acceptance committee somewhere is to select you to receive a TAship or RAship at their university. Of course, make sure that every application you send out is carefully tailored to that school and their program. That means doing all of the above things research about the professors, contacting the Graduate Advisor, and so on for each school. (That might naturally limit the number of graduate programs you can apply to.)


All of this probably sounds rather discouraging, but my purpose in giving you this information is to help you do well with your applications process. The more you think about it and the more you prepare, the more likely you will succeed in finding the right program and putting together a successful application! Good luck!


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Last updated September 2, 2008