Ph.D. Prep – Application Process

Now, the application process:  this includes letters of recommendation, application forms/fees, test scores/transcripts, essays, interviews, and timeline.

Six of my applications wanted two letters of recommendation, and the other 16 wanted three letters.  The point of the letters is to vouch for your skills as a researcher and thinker, not for your character.  These should be from professors with whom you have worked on research.  At the time I applied, I had only researched with two professors, so my third letter was from a professor from whom I’d taken several classes and whom I knew well.

Most of my application forms were practically identical.  A few made me type in all the course information from my transcripts by hand.  My average application fee was $85, but many schools will waive that fee if you can demonstrate special financial need.  I just paid the fees.

Almost all of my schools wanted official GMAT scores and transcripts, sent directly from Pearson and the schools.  A few just wanted self-reported information, with official scores and transcripts to be required upon admission.

Ph.D. essays were not as demanding as MBA essays.  Most schools’ essay prompts were very similar, so I just had to tweak my master copy a little to explain what I liked about that school and with which professors I’d like to work.  Only the University of Michigan and U.C. Berkeley required truly unique essays.

I interviewed with only three schools before I made my decision.  One school flew me to campus for a big interview day.  The other two interviews were about 15 minutes long over Skype (I chose one of the Skype schools).  One program accepted me without any interview at all.  The purpose of the interview is to see if you “check out” and speak English.  If you get to the interview stage, your skills and background have likely already passed the test.  Now, two or three professors just want to talk with you to see if you seem sociable and articulate enough.  Here are some of the questions I got in interviews:

  • When did you decide you wanted to get a Ph.D.?
  • Tell us a little about your research.
  • What did you do in (class) _____?
  • Where else are you applying? i.e. If we admit you, are you likely to actually come here?
  • What are your professional goals?  i.e. Do you want to be an academic (good), or are you headed to Wall Street (bad)?
  • only one school asked technical questions, like “find the determinant of this 2×2 matrix” or “explain OLS regression”

My application timeline started December 1 and ended mid-March.  Application deadlines ran from December 1 to February 1.  I did my first interview at the end of January, and got my first offer in mid-February.  If you receive an offer, the program is obligated to hold your spot until April 15.  However, if you make someone wait until April 15 and then turn down their offer, they then have to scramble to fill your spot at the last minute.  It’s unprofessional, and can burn bridges.

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