Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?
Part II: Grades and Classes
Part III: Letters of Recommendation
Part IV: Writing Samples
Part V: Statement of Purpose
Part VI: GRE Scores and Other Things
GRE scores are less important to your application than grades, letters, writing sample, and statement of purpose. A few schools don't even require them. In my experience, some members of admissions committees take them seriously and others discount them entirely. My own opinion is that they add little useful information. However, since some committee members take them seriously, it's worth studying for the GRE and retaking it if you didn't do well. Also, since the higher-level administrators who oversee the process and often make the decisions about fellowship funding can really only evaluate your GPA and GRE scores, people who do well on these quantitative measures are likely to get better funding offers -- more years of fellowship without teaching, for example (being paid simply to be a student!). Also, it looks good for the department if the students they admit have better average grades and GREs than the students in psychology, economics, etc. We don't want to send too many 1100 GRE offers up to the dean's office for approval!
The GRE scores for this year's entering class at UCR ranged from 1230 to a perfect 1600, with most in the 1300s and 1400s. At UCR I'd say below 1250 is a strike against an applicant, above 1400 is a bonus. There is no GRE Subject Test in Philosophy.
Of course you made dean's list! If you list too many awards, the really good ones may escape notice. Among the most impressive awards: Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, departmental or college "outstanding student" or "outstanding essay" awards (if the department only selects one per year and the college only a few), awards from nationally- or internationally-recognized institutions such as the NSF or DAAD. Generally, though, even fairly impressive awards don't count for much. It's your grades, letters, and sample that really matter.
Race and Gender
Some schools give you the option of specifying your race and gender. Letter writers must also choose pronouns and can choose to mention race if they think it is relevant. (Some would never do so. Others think they help the applicant by doing so, if the applicant is a minority. If you prefer to keep the information confidential, tell your letter writers in advance.) Committees will often guess gender and ethnicity based on names.
Philosophy is largely a male discipline right now in the United States, and it's overwhelmingly non-Hispanic Caucasian. (Tenured men outnumber tenured women by a ratio of about 4-to-1. The ratio of non-Hispanic Caucasians to minorities is probably even more skewed.) I believe there are persistent systemic biases. However, I also believe that most admissions committees would like to counter these biases and see a broader diversity in the field. Admissions committees may nonetheless show bias implicitly in how they read a file from "Maria Gonzales" compared to a file from "Mark Johnson", unconsciously expecting less from the first file than the second. However, at least the admissions committees I've worked on have used conscious strategies in attempt to counteract, maybe more than counteract, these biases. For underprivileged minorities, especially, an application might be seriously considered that would be quickly dismissed if the applicant were a white male.
While we white males might feel disadvantaged by this, we should bear in mind that we profit from persistent bias in our favor in other contexts. For example, it's generally much easier to fit a professor's stereotype for a "promising philosophy student" if you have a certain kind of look and diction, the tone of voice and cultural attitude, that is characteristic of upper middle class white men. Decades of psychological studies suggest that stereotype-driven expectations can have substantial effects not only on how one is perceived (and thus presumably on letters) but also on one's performance on objective tests (through being encouraged, supported, believed in, made comfortable, etc., by one's teachers).
Personal Contact and Connections
Such things don't help much, I suspect, unless they bring substantive new information. If a professor at some point had a good substantive, philosophical conversation with an applicant and mentions that to the committee, that might help a bit. But seeking out professors for such purposes could backfire if it seems like brown-nosing, or if the applicant seems immature, arrogant, or not particularly philosophically astute.
Some professors may be very much swayed by personal connections, I suppose. I myself, however, often have a slightly negative feeling that I'm being "played"; and even if I know the person hasn't sought me out for the purpose of improving her admissions chances, in aiming to be fair and objective in my evaluations I will tend to discount that person's application somewhat -- maybe even more than it deserves.
Your cover letters may be thrown away or lost. Don't include any important information in them.
Part VII: After You Hear Back
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?