It's that Time of Year

By Bernard Wood
December 01, 2011

It will not be long before we will be receiving emails from the Graduate Admissions Office of GW’s Columbian College suggesting we come and pick up the files of the applicants for our HOMPAL graduate program. Last year we had more than fifty applications and I thought for this blog it might be helpful to describe how I make my own judgments about the applications and to dispense some advice to prospective students. Prior to coming to GW I had always worked in medical schools and for thirty years I had been involved in selecting medical students and briefly, as the dean of a medical school, I took a particular interest in the admission of non-traditional students.

First, let me emphasize that the task of selecting graduate students is about the most difficult and time consuming task I do all year. This is because although we try to base our decisions on the data each student provides (GPA, SAT scores, recommendations, etc.) in the end it is a subjective decision. We are also acutely conscious of the consequences of our decisions for each and every applicant. Remember that those of us with older children have been at the ‘sharp end’ of the admissions process.

The application and the recommendations are the primary windows we have into the minds and characters of the applicants. Each faculty member has their own way of judging the merits of an applicant, but here are a few tips of how to get to the top of BW’s list. Some of these may seem trivial, but so be it. Successful applicants will be colleagues of mine for five years, or thereabouts, so I am looking for people who can express themselves well, who are careful, who are mature and who already have some idea of how to behave professionally. For example, email addresses that were cute while you were at high school (e.g., ‘[email protected]’) look a lot less cute on a graduate school application.

Your letter of interest is a critical part of the application. Make sure the letter does not harm your case. Get at least one other person to read it through; for me spelling and grammatical mistakes are an immediate turn-off. I do not appreciate whimsical letters of interest. Just explain why you are interested in our program and don’t forget to use a substantial part of the letter to convince me you are capable of the hard work needed to get through graduate school. Try and find something to tell me/us that sets you apart from the pack. Attending a field school or assisting in an excavation are both evidence that your interest in our field is a serious one. If you still have time to do extra coursework you can’t go wrong with a statistics or molecular biology course, but I also like to see people who have taken a few courses outside of their academic interest. If you play a musical instrument then say so; it takes discipline to practice regularly.

If you progress to the interview stage dress appropriately in ‘business casual’. Make sure you have done your homework about the program; don’t expect me to reiterate what is clearly set out on the website. If you want to work with me then at least make an attempt to demonstrate you have tried to understand what my research interests are. Reading a paper, or two, goes a long way to establishing your credibility. I will have lots of questions for you, but make sure you have questions for me. Write down any questions you want to ask (and you should have at least a couple of questions) and bring that list with you. It’s OK to make notes during the interview. I do not expect applicants to have a thesis topic in mind, but if you do make sure you have researched it carefully.

I encourage you to interact as much as you can with our current students. They are your best source of information about what it is like to be a student in our program and what our program’s strengths and weaknesses are. But be careful what you say to the current students, for we always ask their views about the short-listed applicants who come for interview.

Finally, in your letter or during your visit try to explain not only what the HOMPAL program can do for you, but also think of what you can contribute to the program. Our graduate program is a close, mutually supportive, community and like all communities we want newcomers to add strength to what we have already. Graduate school, like research, is hard work, but there is no reason why it should not be fun. In short, I am looking for bright young colleagues who will teach me at least as much as I teach them. And they must laugh at my jokes.