What does it mean to “campaign” for a good graduate program or job? This is a good question.
Imagine you are a member of a graduate school committee, desperately trying to narrow down the search for the “perfect match” for your program. All of the prospective student files are stacked neatly on a desk, at the corner of a table, or are nested in file boxes (often good graduate programs will receive hundreds of qualified applicants). You have narrowed down your search to a few, stellar files, the top 10 applicants. What do these files have that set them a part from the others?
1.) The file was complete.
This means the file had all three reference letters, in addition to GRE scores within the desired range, transcripts with grade-point averages (GPA) within the desired range, a statement of intent, completed course prerequisites (these vary depending on the program), as well as any other supplemental materials necessary for THAT specific program. These checklists will be clearly outlined on graduate program websites or in recruitment materials. So it should be no surprise that files are rejected if they do not include all of these things. A complete portfolio just gets the applicant in the door. In other words, it means their files are considered.
2.) The Statement of Intent was specific.
The final round applicants will also have a statement of intent (similar to a cover letter) that specifically addresses how they ‘fit’ within the desired graduate program. This may also include a specific discussion of which graduate advisors or laboratories they were interested in.
3.) The applicant included a curriculum vitae (CV).
The curriculum vitae (academic resume) clearly outlined their strengths, skills, experiences, internships, accomplishments, teaching history (if they have any), their presentations, and any other information that made their portfolio more competitive.
4.) Their reference letters were from relevant, educated professionals and they were supportive of the applicant.
Even if you know Barack Obama and he personally provided a letter, if his knowledge of you is not meaningful for the graduate program, he should not be a reference. Additionally, do not ask a professor to be a reference if they cannot give you a glowing review. This means they need to know you outside of the classroom, whether in research, advising, mentoring, or some other avenue.
5.) The applicant was well-rounded.
This means that the applicant was not simply a tweedy academic, but an intellectually engaged scholar, involved in research, civic engagement, and mentoring (e.g., teaching at some capacity).
6.) The applicant had study abroad experience.
This is a strength, particularly if there is some second language competency. This is not necessarily a requirement but it helps.
7.) The applicant sought out relevant employment.
This could be through a relevant volunteer agency or through a job that benefits the graduate program (e.g., hospitals, counseling, Big Brothers and Sisters, etc.).
8.) Their portfolio was polished.
This does not mean that they put their materials in a glossy presentation folder, went to Kinkos and had their materials professional bound , nor does it mean they used pretty, scented paper. This means that they double checked for grammatical and spelling errors. Further the data and information that they cited in their portfolio materials was all accurate. Be sure you double check that the academic advisor is not an emeritus faculty member or retired.
9.) Their statement of intent or if relevant, their cover letter did not over-share or ramble on unnecessarily.
The statement of intent should be no more than two pages double-spaced and it should NOT include hyperbole, cliches or platitudes. It should address how the applicant is an asset and might contribute to that specific, graduate program (not necessarily how the program would benefit them, this is a given). For example, the applicant did not say in their statement of intent that they chose to apply to a graduate program in psychology because “they wanted to help people.” Of course this is true, the alternative is that they don’t give a rip about mental health. More likely, the applicant discussed an experience (though not from a family history of schizophrenia) that was important and meaningful in helping shape their interest in the field.
10.) Their correspondence was professional.
Professional correspondence could be through email, portfolio materials, through an interview either on the phone or in rare instances, in person. In all of these interactions, the applicant behaved in a way that indicated that they knew what it meant to be professional. Their emails were formal, edited and respectful, as was their statement of intent, their telephone interview, etc. In light of this, change any email that has a handle that is unprofessional (e.g., “firstname.lastname@example.org,” “email@example.com,” etc.), any public, personal web materials that do not reflect positively on your portfolio (i.e., Facebook should be private), or photos of you that are public and less than credible (e.g., your 21st birthday photos at a bar).
I will talk more about all of these areas throughout this blog. I also have samples of some of these things (e.g., CVs, resumes, Statements of Intent samples, and so on) on the Resources page.
These are some of the important elements of a competitive career portfolio that set applicants a part from others.
The fact that planning for a career is a campaign means that it is not something that you put together in a weekend. It is something that students should begin to work on early in their undergraduate career. Each opportunity, whether in research, mentoring (i.e., undergraduate teaching), presentation (even for a class), and service is an additional merit badge for your professional portfolio.