Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?
Part II: Grades and Classes
Good grades alone won't secure admission to a Ph.D. program in philosophy. Writing samples and letters of recommendation are also very important. I believe writing samples should carry more weight than letters (and admissions committees often say they do), but I suspect that in fact letters carry more weight. An applicant needs at least three.
Whom to Ask
If a professor gave you an A (not an A-minus) in an upper-division philosophy course, consider her a candidate to write a letter. You needn't have any special relationship with her, or have visited during office hours, or have taken multiple classes from her -- though all those things can help. Don't be shy about asking, we're used to it!
No matter how friendly they seem, you should be wary of asking for letters from professors who have given you A-minuses or below, since if they have integrity in writing their letters, it will come out that your performance in their class was not quite top-level. If a professor has given you both an A and an A-minus, there might still have to be some restraint in the letter -- though less so if the A is the more recent grade.
Letters from philosophers are distinctly preferable to letters from non-philosophers. Letters from eminent scholars are distinctly preferable to letters from assistant professors. Of course, these factors need to be weighed against the expected quality of the letter.
You may submit more than the stated minumum of letters, but be advised that three strong letters looks considerably better in an application than three strong letters and one mediocre one.
Although it's a delicate matter, you can ask a professor whether she thinks she'll be able to write a strong letter for you.
Should You Waive Your Right to See The Letter?
Most applicants waive the right, and some professors will feel offended or put on the spot if an applicant does not waive the right. However, I must confess that in my own case, I think I might be slightly less likely to say something negative, and I might think more carefully about how the letter will come across, if I think the applicant might view it. On the other hand, for the few very best of my letters, I might also slightly restrain my transports of enthusiasm. (I suspect professors don't really have good self-knowledge about such matters.)
Enabling Your Professors to Write the Best Possible Letters
Think of all those wonderful things you've done that don't show up on your transcript! You audited some philosophy classes at Harvard for fun (and on the sly) for a few weeks one summer. (I did this once, going to every upper-division class on offer for two weeks before Stanford's quarter started in late September; it was a kick!) Or you gave free tutoring to needy high school students. You won the Philosophy Department award for best undergraduate essay. All on your own, you read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason last summer and two commentaries on it. You play piano in nightclubs. You have a blog that gets 1000 hits a week. (But be careful what's on your blog, since the admissions committee might look at it!) You got a perfect 1600 on the SAT.
Your letter writers want to know these things. Such facts come across much better in letters than in your statement of purpose (where listing such things might seem immodest or irrelevant). In letters they can be integrated with other facts to draw a picture of you as an interesting, promising student. So give your letter writers a brag sheet and don't be modest! Sit there while they read it so they have a chance to ask questions. Explain to them that it's just a brag sheet and that you leave it to their judgment how much of that stuff, if any of it, will be useful to them in writing their letter.
Give your professors photocopies of all the essays you've written for them, including if possible their comments on those essays. I don't always remember what my students have written about, especially if it has been a year, even if the essays are excellent. With a copy of the essays in hand, I can briefly describe them -- their topics, what seemed especially good about them -- in a way that adds convincing detail to the letter and gives the impression that I really do know and remember the student's work.
Give your letter writers copies of your statement of purpose. If a letter writer says "Karen has a deep passion for epistemology and hopes to continue to study that in graduate school" and your statement of purpose mentions nothing about epistemology, it looks a bit odd. You want the portraits drawn by your letter writers and your own self-portrait to match. Also, statements of purpose are extremely hard to write well (more on that later!) and it's good to have feedback on them from your letter writers.
Give your letter writers your transcript. They may not know you have excellent grades across the board. Once they know this, they can write a stronger letter and one that more concretely addresses your performance relative to other students at your school. Also, they might be able to comment helpfully to the admissions committee on aberrations in your transcript. ("Prof. Hubelhauser hasn't given a student an A since 1973" or "Although Jill's grades slipped a bit in Fall Quarter 2006, her mother was dying of cancer that term, and her previous and subsequent grades more accurately reflect her abilities". Of course, they can't write the latter unless you tell them.)
Give your letter writers the cover sheets and envelopes for all the schools you are applying to, along with an overall cover sheet designed by you. Envelopes should be addressed but needn't be stamped since they'll be going out in the unversity's mail. The overall cover sheet should list the deadlines for all applications. It should also specifically highlight schools that request online letters and for which, consequently, there is no school-specific cover sheet.
Give your letter writers all this material at least a month before the first application deadline.
Professors are flaky and forgetful. They are hardly ever punished for such behavior, so their laxity is unsurprising. Also, it's part of the charm of being absent-minded and absorbed in deeper things like the fundamental structure of reality!
Consequently, it is advisable to email your letter writers a gentle reminder a week before your first deadline. If you don't receive an email in reply saying that the letters are sent, send another reminder a week after the deadline.
Don't panic if the letters are late. Admissions committees are used to it, and they don't blame the applicant. However, if the letter still isn't in the file by the time the committee gets around to reading your application it will probably never be read. (You may still be admitted if the two letters that did arrive were good ones.)
It's also advisable to call the schools a week or so after the deadline to confirm that your application is all in order. Departmental secretaries sometimes goof things up, too.
Advice to Letter Writers
Reading hundreds of letters of recommendation, things become something of a blur. Most letters say "outstanding student" or "I'm delighted to recommend X" or "I'm confident X will succeed in graduate school in philosophy". It would be strange not to say something of this sort, but still -- my eyes start to glaze over. I suspect that trying to detect nuanced differences in such phrases is pointless, since I doubt such nuances closely track applicant quality. More helpful: (1.) Comparative evaluations like: "best philosophy major in this year's graduating class"; or "though only an undergraduate, one of three students, among 9, to earn an 'A' in my graduate seminar"; or "her GPA of 3.87 is second-highest among philosophy majors". (2.) Descriptions of concrete accomplishments: "Won the department's prize in 2006 for best undergraduate essay in philosophy"; or "President of the Philosophy Club". It's also nice to hear a little about the applicant's work and what's distinctive of her as a student and person.
Regarding those little checkboxes on the cover sheet ("top 5%, top 10%" etc.): My impression is that letter writers vary in their conscientiousness about such numbers and have different comparison groups in mind, so I tend to discount them unless backed up by specific comparison assessments in the letter. However, my experience is that other people on the admissions committee often take the checkboxes more seriously.
Most letter writers write the same letter for every school and simply attach it to the cover sheet rather than addressing the specific paragraph-answer questions that some schools include on their cover sheets. However, if you think an applicant is a particularly good fit for one school, a specifically tailored letter that explains why can be helpful.
Part IV: Writing Samples
Friday, September 28, 2007
Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?