Applying to Doctoral Programs


When applying to doctoral programs, it helps to start early. For one thing, that will allow you plenty of time to study for the GRE and write stand-out personal statements. Also, a significant part of the application process involves researching graduate programs in order to identify which offer the best personal fit. For tips to that end, see our article “Choosing a Doctoral Program.”

Once you’ve selected your schools, it’s time to sell yourself. Here are two ways to increase your odds of acceptance into a top-choice school.

1. Develop relationships with potential faculty mentors. A personal visit to the campus is definitely advisable, but given the cost of travel, it usually isn’t practical. Another way to make connections is by sending letters of interest to faculty members.

A letter should express your appreciation for the professor’s work and should present yourself as a pleasant, intelligent, hardworking person who would be an asset to his or her department. You might also express interest in a grant they recently received, if you happen to find such a nugget of information online. Don’t be afraid to include your phone number and ask whether they would be interested in talking on the phone.

Faculty members receive many such letters, but often they will respond within a month. If you do get a response, be sure to follow up with a thank you card.

2. Write a strong personal statement. Compared with other items you’ll be submitting, such as GRE scores and letters of recommendation, you have more control over the personal statement. Make the most of it! Your personal statement should explain the development of your academic interest, your goals within the discipline, and how the program to which you’re applying fits with those goals.

Requests for personal statements have different wording, but you can always take the opportunity to show your formal preparation for the program. For example, when you are explaining the development of your interest in the subject matter, include references to educational and professional experiences rather than focusing only on personal experiences. Also, demonstrate your serious interest in a particular subject matter while also showing your openness to other areas of inquiry. After all, you won’t be calling the shots until after you’ve moved through the program.

Finally, regardless of your writing ability, have a professional review your essay before you submit it to an admissions committee. Spending a bit on editorial guidance will pay off in the long run if it leads to grad school and your dream career.

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