[10/20/2012 - I now realize that the students who most need to read this are unlikely to do so because it won't be on the test.]
Occasionally interactions with students remind me of advice that should be given to everyone who hopes to go to graduate or professional school. Maybe posting my thoughts here will help someone.
- Admission to graduate/medical/law/business/etc school is not a right; nobody is guaranteed admission.
- Good grades do not get you admitted. In fact, other than getting the grad/etc program to look at your application, grades are unimportant.
- Good test scores (GRE, MCAT, LSAT…) are also largely unimportant other than getting you a second look.
- Re-read points 2 & 3 above. Go ahead; I’ll wait…
- OK – here’s the story on good grades and test scores: if you don’t have them you won’t be considered – if you do have them you will be considered, but not on the basis of the grades or test scores.
- You have to provide the admissions committee with something that differentiates you from the other applicants with good grades and test scores. They will learn why they should admit you via the letters that are written on your behalf.
- They will also learn from your letters why they should stop considering you.
- Letters are critical.
Consider this in your interactions with professors. You will need to ask some small number of professors for letters – it would be best if these people thought highly of you. When I write a letter for a student aiming for grad school, I consider whether this is a student I am comfortable sending to work with a friend. If the answer is “no” then I cannot write a strong letter. When I write a letter for a student aiming for med school, I consider whether this is someone I would like to find looking down at me when I regain consciousness in the emergency room. If the answer is “no” then I cannot write a strong letter.
My letter will address your academic abilities, of course, but it will also address aspects of your character that are not apparent in your transcript:
- Are you responsible?
- Are you thoughtful?
- Are you pleasant?
- Are you polite?
- Are you interested in learning or just in getting grades?
These are the things that will matter in grad school. You have to be able to play nicely with others in order to succeed in science; a 4.o GPA is no assurance of this. If you want me to write a strong letter for you then do not do any of these things:
- Make an appointment with me then fail to show up (OK – I understand that stuff happens, so in the event of something unavoidable at least act as if you realize that I was inconvenienced).
- “Grub” for grades. Yes – it is certainly fine to ask for clarification if you don’t understand why you missed points on something, but it is not fine to argue that you deserve a point simply because a word in your answer matches a word in a related paragraph in the text. Meaning derives from the combination of words, not from one word. And think about it this way: is the additional point that you might get worth alienating the person whom you will ask to write a letter for you?
- Fail to be polite. A simple “please” or “thank you” goes a long way. Your profs are here to help you, of course, and we like to do it. However, our time is valuable, and meeting you outside of class time or office hours takes us away from other things that we need to do. Acknowledge this.
- Turn in papers or assignments late. You will not get leniency in this regard in the real world: if you miss a grant application deadline, or the deadline for submission of your work to a professional meeting, you have missed it, and will simply have to wait until next time.
- Be a jerk (’nuff said).
To end on a positive note, let me point out behaviors or characteristics that will lead to a strong positive letter:
- Express interest and curiosity in the world.
- Strive for understanding rather than for grades.
- Treat people with respect.
If you do these things, you will be maximizing the chances that you will gain admission to grad school.
[You might also want to read this - similar but with slightly different emphasis.]