Hacking Grad School Admissions After 30
When you’ve been out of school for a whole century, the idea of grad school can be incredibly intimidating. Throw in the fact that you’re crazy ambitious enough to decide that you want an ivy league school, and you’ve now multiplied the doubts and fears by 100. But you want this badly, so you push through the fears and you create a login on the application for the school of your choice. This is a good first step, as it makes it more real to you that you’re applying. But then what? How do you get strong recommendation letters, when your undergrad professors are unlikely to remember your name? How do you know what to put in your personal statement? How do you even know what schools to apply to? These were the questions that kept me from applying to grad school for years. Now that I’ve learned so much about the process, I have to share with you to make it a little easier.
First I’ll say don’t beat yourself up for waiting this long. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be in this moment. Isn’t it better that you’re doing it now, rather than throwing in the towel just because you have a few gray hairs? I mean come on, you’re not dead yet. Also, I find that older grad students get way more out of grad school than younger students. You’ve lived, you’ve loved, you’ve failed. Now you’re more certain of what you want than you’ve ever been. You can be extremely strategic about how you use your time and resources to get the most out of the experience to drive forward your future plans.
Now to applying. It all starts with authenticity.
In my opinion, applying to grad school (Master’s and PhD programs) should be something you do because there’s a passion you wish to pursue, that you simply can’t imagine your life without. You will not feel fulfilled until you’ve done everything in your power to create this reality for yourself. This is particularly true of the ivies, but I imagine it is true for most schools as well. Everyone I met at Yale had come to grad school because there was a problem that they wanted badly to see fixed. They were obsessive about solving this problem, and they wanted to be a key part of the solution. Yale is a social change school, so this is particularly apparent here.
But when I sought to apply to other top grad schools for my PhD, I got the same sense of the importance of passion in defining your grad school pursuits. The top schools know that the most successful people in the world are the most passionate people. The people who can not give up on the problem they wish to solve because they literally obsess over it. These schools know that such people, if given the right resources, will ultimately blow existing success stories out of the water.
If you agree with this, then I’d say follow the below few first steps to get an incredible application that admissions committee members will fight for.
1. Define your passion.
Write it down. What is the one thing that you’ve always been obsessed with for as long as you can remember? This particularly applies to your academic and professional life. Is there a common thread? Is there a problem that you’ve been trying to solve, or an issue you’ve always been curious about? What is the one thing you’d never get tired of reading about? Is there evidence of this passion in your resume? In your volunteering activities? In your writings? Your facebook posts? If there isn’t any evidence, start building a trail of evidence now.
For me, I started out thinking my passion was African indigenous medicine. I wanted to interview old women in Nigeria as a medical anthropologist, but I didn’t have a track record in doing anything related. So I signed up for an integrative nutrition course, attempted to take on clients. That didn’t go very far because in the end, there was something else I was even more obsessed with. When I looked at my actual track record, the one thing I had always been trying to do was to reconnect the African Diaspora to the Continent. There was evidence of this in my entrepreneurial and volunteer activities as far back as my second year of undergrad. So, when applying to my Master’s, I decided to figure out a research project that made sense for this true passion. I started three grad school applications, but only fully completed one. That was the one I got into. So define your passion. There are tons of books on Amazon to help you figure this out if you don’t know. One that was helpful for me was The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine. But this is very particular to the kind of person who has a million passions and doesn’t know which one to pick or move forward with. So define your passion.
2. Find other people with a similar passion.
This can seem tricky, but if you’re serious about grad school, the people you should be looking for are the people who’ve dedicated half of their lives to addressing this passion, problem, issue or something related. However crazy your dream is, there’s a good chance there’s at least one person out there who’s done work on it, or something closely related to it. It’s true that your chances of getting into a grad program increase with the number of professors interested in this topic. You want to find a decent balance between entering a brand new area that no one is thinking about yet, and choosing an area that is oversaturated with scholars. If you can find someone addressing the problem but in a different region than the one you wish to study, or if the question you seek to answer requires a deeper dive on existing research, then you’re in good shape to start an application.
Chances are, you became more interested in this topic by reading about it. Who did you read? What are they saying? Who’s writing about this topic in a way that you find fascinating, enthralling? Whose words make you want to have a coffee with them? These are the people you should be applying to work with as a grad student. Wherever they teach, that’s where you apply. Finding these people can of course begin with Google (then Google Scholar of course), but disciplinary conferences will also be incredibly helpful for meeting students and faculty whose work is related to your passion. If you can find a conference somewhat nearby and actually get face time with people in the departments you’re considering, your application just went from a random piece of paper to a whole human! Find your people.
3. Reach out to students.
This is somewhat related to #2, but only separate because even if you can’t make it to conferences, you can make it to Google. Once you’ve identified a few scholars/professors you find interesting, a good step before emailing them is speaking to students who’ve worked with them. You can meet such students at disciplinary conferences, or you can find them on the department’s website. Usually, their email address is provided and you can reach out to them.
Again, authenticity. I reached out to students whose passions / research areas were somewhat related to mine so that I could actually connect with them meaningfully. Of course I targeted Black women, but there were lots of non-Black students who responded to me and helped me tremendously. I would not have gotten into Cambridge if not for one such person. The people I actually got on the phone were more than happy to help me with my application. They gave me insights about professors–who would be on sabbatical the year I wished to enter, who would be most interested in my topic, who was actually very difficult to work with, etc. Some even read and edited my personal statements.
Current students may also be invaluable for clarifying which department you apply to. Sometimes they’ll be able to tell you you’d be a much better fit for another department, and connect you with their friend in that department.
4. Start writing your personal statement.
No matter how bad you think your statement is going to be, the worst thing you can do is delay writing it because of fear. Write a bad first version. At least then you have a first version! You have something to build upon, improve upon and in between writing sessions, you can start thinking more deeply about how you want to say what you need to say.
My PhD statements for this round were read by tons of people, from friends to Writing Center student staff to my professors. Some professors where I applied even offered to review my statements/applications before submission. All were incredibly helpful, even if I didn’t incorporate their feedback. You ultimately have to trust your gut, and know what you want to say. Whatever feedback you get should only clarify the message you’re getting across. There’s no cookie cutter answer to a personal statement. The key is authenticity. Not only is writing quality critical, but also showing that you have deep knowledge of the area you wish to research and deep knowledge of the people you’re applying to work with. You’re articulating your journey. Why you’re passionate about this topic, what you’ve done in the past that has prepared you for grad school. Who in the department you’re excited about the possibility of working with and why. What about the school makes it the right place for you. There’s a formula I used for Yale Sociology, but this may not be applicable to other schools. Hit me up for that formula.
If you’ve read a scholar’s work, been excited or intrigued by it and are now applying to work with them, let that show. Show how much their work resonated with you. If you’re a strong candidate (strong academic record, recommendations, scores etc, depending on the school), your application will ultimately end up in front of that person. If they get that you’re excited, but also that you will add a key new dimension that gives further relevance to their own work, they’ll be interested in working with you. You can only do so much of this in the personal statement. You can do a ton more in your writing sample. Which we’ll talk about after recommendation letters.
5. Find recommenders.
Recommendation letters are the hardest part of the application process for many applicants. This is the single area that kept me from applying to grad school for years. I was like who in the world will write these for me? By the time I got serious about grad school, I had been out of school for almost eight years. My undergrad professors weren’t going to recommend me, I thought. For the ivies, it can be true that the more prominent your recommender, the more visible your application. This is why applying to grad school isn’t usually something you start doing the day before the application is due, or even the month for that matter. If you’re just starting to get serious about this, and you don’t have amazing recommenders in your pocket already, it might take a little time. But don’t let that discourage you. My recommenders for Yale were two former supervisors and an undergrad professor whom I was able to convince of how much his course made an impression on me. Of course I had received an A or A- in his class ( I had to send him my transcript ), so this was believable. But I was also able to articulate to him how important it was for me to go to grad school, how grad school made sense for my story and how it would help me achieve all I wanted to do in this world. I was very specific about what I wanted to do in the future as well.
It’s much easier to get recommendation letters if currently in school. But even then, you should choose professors whose classes you’ve taken. People you’ve spent time with outside of class, who’ve enjoyed your work and have given you good feedback, these are the kinds of professors you should be asking for recommendations. If I could do it again, I would engage potential recommenders my first year of my Master’s. We’ll talk later about taking a Master’s program before a PhD.
6. Finesse your Writing Sample.
My writing samples for my top choice schools referenced the work of the scholars in the department I most wished to work with. This is an under-utiilized strategy in my opinion, from the people I spoke to during the process of applying to PhDs this last round. If you’re saying that you’re interested in this professor’s work, what better way to show that than a writing sample that demonstrates your research interests while engaging with their work? This is another one of those moves that takes your application from random piece of paper to personal inspiration for that very professor.
7. Consider other programs to prep you for PhD.
Another strategy is to do a Master’s program before a PhD program to prepare you for PhD applications and to strengthen your application. Though the other two applications I started when I applied to my Master’s were PhD programs, I’m so glad I did the Master’s first because the depth of knowledge I gained about my material and about the PhD application process made my PhD applications a thousand times better. And I was coming from a computer science background into the social sciences, so it was helpful to get practice being a social scientist.
My prayer was always for top schools. I didn’t apply anywhere that wasn’t ivy or ivy-esque. I was very honest with myself about the kind of resources and community that I needed to gain in this grad school process. So the pain of the Master’s was worth it for me. You can likely go straight into a great PhD program without a Master’s, but this is what helped me tremendously. If you’re resisting Master’s programs because you’re worried about time, after the Master’s, you can finish your PhD in as short a time as you want, especially if you go into the program with a clear plan on what you’d like to research. Even in departments where most people take seven years to graduate, some finish in three years. Because they’re on a mission.
This list is preliminary and includes the key secrets I learned through the process of applying to eight top PhD programs. But there are many other tips I can share with you directly if you’d like more info. I’ll also be writing another piece on hacking grad school soon. You can leave questions in the comments or email me.
For those who’ve applied, what other tips do you have for grad school applicants? Please share in the comments.