Name One Thing with Dr. Samantha Brown | Advice on successfully applying to graduate school

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Name One Thing: Advice on Successfully Applying to Graduate School

Welcome to Name One Thing, the monthly interview series where I ask academics, researchers, postdocs, and other professionals what they wished they’d known when they were in graduate school. This month, we’re getting insider secrets on successfully applying to graduate school from Dr. Samantha Brown, an Assistant Professor of Criminology who serves on her graduate school’s admissions committee.

If you’ve got questions on how to apply to graduate school, the things most students get wrong when applying, getting into grad. school with less than perfect credentials, how important your GPA really is (and if you can get into graduate school with a low GPA), and the best thing you can do when you start graduate school, don’t miss this interview!

Name One Thing: Advice for graduate students from those who’ve been there.

About Today’s Guest

Image of Dr. Samantha Brown, being interviewed for the Name One Thing series, here to talk about Applying to Graduate School.

Name: Dr. Samantha Brown
Degree: PhD in Criminology and Criminal Justice
Current role: Assistant Professor in Criminology and Criminal Justice

1) Name one thing you wish someone had told you when you were a graduate student.

Graduate school is a social experience—make sure you socialize! Many graduate programs have social events early in the semester, so make sure to go to those events and meet other graduate students. It’s okay if you don’t go to every event, but if you keep declining events, eventually you won’t get any more invites—so make that effort to go, especially early on. Form study groups with your peers, but also plan game nights or movie nights, or other events that don’t revolve around discussing school.

Once you have that friend group, they’ll be your support system as you work through classwork, comprehensive or qualifying exams, and your dissertation. It’s also important to have friends outside of graduate school, so look for other opportunities to socialize in the local community as well. Studying and work will always be important, but you want balance in your life—and that comes from having a solid social life. I graduated about five years ago and I still communicate regularly with my friends from graduate school. Some of them are now my research collaborators and some of them are just friends who I can have a laugh with, and both of those things are extremely important for a successful life!

2) You serve on a graduate school admissions committee, name one thing that surprised you about the admissions process once you were on the inside.

It surprised me how unimportant GPA was to the application process. We get a range of GPAs among our applicants, and oftentimes the stronger applications are not the students with the 4.0. We have a minimum GPA, but it’s not strongly enforced. We have, for example, let people in on probationary status if they are a little under that minimum, as long as their application was strong in other ways.

Overall, we place relatively little emphasis on GPA, especially because average GPAs vary a lot by college and we know grade inflation has become rampant in recent years. As an undergraduate applying for graduate school, this knowledge would have shocked me, because I believed having a high GPA was the single best thing I could do. It’s certainly still a good thing to aim for, but you also want to do other things to set yourself apart from other candidates who will also all inevitably have decent GPAs as well.

3) In your experience reviewing graduate school applications, name one thing that could improve most student’s applications.

In my experience, the personal statement is absolutely essential to determining if a student will get into a program or not. It’s hard to tell much about a student by other factors in their application—especially because GPAs are often inflated, volunteer and internship experience might not always be relevant to the field, and some recommendation letters can be very vague. That leaves us with the personal statement. A lot of students view the personal statement as an introduction about themselves, or a chance to talk about their interest in the field or the program. Those introductions are definitely useful to us, but realistically we know many students may end up changing interests or career goals along the way, so we’re not really evaluating you based on your particular goals.

There are other things you can also put into your statement that would really help your application. For example, students can use the personal statement to address anything negative in their application–such as a series of withdrawals or bad grades on your transcript (by explaining briefly what happened and more extensively what you’ve done to make sure that won’t happen again), a long period of absence from school (by discussing something productive you did during that time), or a low GPA (especially if you can discuss a positive trajectory, such as improvement in your last year or two of undergraduate education). They can also discuss their personal background, highlighting ways that their personal experiences have helped them learn about the field, or how their personal experiences might help enrich classroom discussions. It is also very useful when students provide context about the most important things on their transcript or their resume—highlighting the classes (within the field) that they enjoyed, the internships that helped provide direction to their studies, the jobs that might lead to future careers, or anything else that might not be fully explained by a single line elsewhere in their application materials.

Overall, though, we’re assessing that personal statement for the applicant’s overall writing and communication skills, which are important indicators of how successful a student will be in graduate school. Whatever you end up writing, make sure you take time to edit it carefully, which includes editing for spelling and grammar, clarity, organization, and voice. Run it by a few people, including someone you trust will provide you with constructive criticism.

4) When applying to graduate school, many applicants have a weak point in their background that could count against them. Name one thing these students should know about approaching (or not) these weaknesses in their applications.

Whatever your weak point is, you should address it. The most obvious space to address it is in the personal statement, although you might have opportunities in other spaces as well (such as during interviews or meetings with professors if your program does that prior to accepting students). Importantly, do not just explain what the weakness is—make sure to explain how you improved or addressed the issue. This latter part of the discussion is key—we need to be assured that the issue won’t become an issue again once you’re in graduate school. For example, if you had a bad semester due to some mental health problems, you can tell us that (giving only as much information as we need to know). Then, highlight how the issue was addressed (such as working with a therapist) and provide evidence or assurances that you improved afterward (perhaps by highlighting your accomplishments in the following semester).

If the issue is something that’s not going to arise again (such as a family issue that is completely done), make sure to state that. If it’s something that could be ongoing (such as a health problem), then briefly discuss the steps you take to keep the issue at bay. The key is that you want to explain away the weakness, not just by providing an excuse for the weakness but instead by showing how you have overcome that weakness to be successful. That gives the admissions committee more confidence and certainty that 1) it won’t become an issue in graduate school and 2) if it does, you’ll be able to address it in a healthy and productive manner.

Don’t let this discussion become a sob story—it should be focused largely on the positive ways in which you have handled whatever this weakness in your application may be. However, I’d only discuss this weakness if it’s something that would be visible (but unexplained) in your application—such as a gap in your resume or a low GPA or something similar. If you had a bad semester but still got great grades, don’t bother addressing it in that case.

Thank you for sharing your experience serving on an admissions committee with us, Dr. Brown! So many students feel overwhelmed when applying to graduate school. This is particularly true regarding what to include in their personal statement, how important GPA really is when applying to graduate school, and what to do if they have a blemish on their records.

I was thrilled to see your take on being open about things like physical or mental health challenges that may have affected a student’s academic trajectory. It’s a challenge I see frequently and as much as I would like to believe we can be honest about these experiences, that’s not always the case. Your guidance on how and when to approach these sensitive topics when applying to graduate school is invaluable.

For all the aspiring graduate students out there, I invite you to join our Discord Community, where you’ll be able to ask me and other mentors and graduate students about our experiences applying to and getting into graduate school.

Wishing You All the Best in Your Academic Success.
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach.

Interview Disclaimer

We aim to share diverse perspectives and experiences. The views, opinions, and experiences shared by our guests in this interview series are solely their own. Their participation is not an endorsement of our services, products, or views, nor does it imply an endorsement of their services, products, or views by us.