Home > Grad School > Applying to Grad Schools in Media Studies, Part 3: How Do You Get In?

Applying to Grad Schools in Media Studies, Part 3: How Do You Get In?

August 3rd, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

One of the most important things to realize about grad admissions is that most programs don’t so much reject candidates as they accept other ones. In other words, the point isn’t merely to make it past some arbitrary line of acceptability, beyond which the program thinks you’re good enough. The point is that the program has to want you and you specifically. Related to this point, you should also realize that resources are usually limited: some programs take only those they can fund, yet even those that take more have limitations set by class sizes, available professors, etc. Thus, decisions are bound to be highly competitive. For example, Media and Cultural Studies at UW received over 130 applications each of the last two years, but accepted seven (5%) and four (3%) students each year respectively.

Your job, therefore, is not simply to be good enough – you need to fit the program, and you need to submit materials that will make the program truly want you. Take heart, though, because this also means that a “rejection” from a school is likely more a sign of them wanting other people that year than it is a rejection of you. So many factors can go into these decisions: perhaps the program is lop-sided in one way and is making a concerted effort to tackle that this year; perhaps you’re applying to work with profs who already have too many grad students; perhaps they simply have less spots this year; or perhaps you look great and the committee realizes this, but they also realize that you’d be better served by others (certainly, each year, we don’t accept numerous people who I fully expect to be producing brilliant work in the years to come, and I’m sure that I’ll be reading and greatly admiring work by those who we “rejected”).

Below, I’ll go through the materials in the package, but first I’d counsel you to think about what happens before you send it in. As I’ve argued in the previous post, you really should research each program to which you’re applying. That research may well include emailing or otherwise contacting a professor or more in the program. While some profs find these emails an annoyance, and hence while I offer that as a warning, personally I’m quite happy to get these emails. I find it a pity how many students pay their money to apply to programs that they don’t fit, and that could have told them this earlier, so on one hand, I’d rather help such candidates save their money. On the other side of this equation, if you’re working on something that I think is really cool and if I’m excited by your topic and your file before the application deadline, when I sit down with 130 applications, I know to look for yours. A lot of programs are small and intimate, too, and taking a grad student is agreeing to spend the next 4-8 years of your life working closely with someone, so the more that I feel I know you, the better I feel about my decisions.

That said, don’t overdo the email. Just as a movie trailer is one minute, not an hour, any email you send beforehand should be short and to the point. It’s not an opportunity for you to share all your application materials, nor is it an opportunity to get them to read your drafts and comment on them: it’s a chance for you to succinctly state what you’re interested in, why you’d like to be there, and perhaps ask a clarifying question or two for the application. Never ask questions that the website already answers, don’t pester, and be careful with tone — remain polite, and remember that any communication they’re having with you is on their time (yes, the university gets paid for your application, but the prof doesn’t get paid extra to answer emails, and if you go into these interactions assuming that it’s their duty to respond in full, that attitude won’t be as helpful as one that’s more appreciative.

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As for the packages themselves:

Your personal statement will be a sacred document. It needs to interest whoever is reading it, it needs to assure them that you’re ready, and it should show signs of you asking exciting and important research questions.

To succeed, you should prepare each personal statement individually. Granted, there will be sections that overlap or repeat from one application to another, so you will definitely be using some cut and paste. But, for instance, Comm Studies at Michigan is simply not the same as RTF at Texas, and so on, and if you don’t think you need to account for those differences, you’re writing a bad application. I don’t mean that you need to flatter the program, but you should show some evidence that you know who teaches in each program, you’ve thought about what specifically they can offer you, you know the program’s strengths and can discuss why you’re seeking those, etc. I understand that from your perspective it takes a lot of time to personalize each application, but from the perspective of those reading them, we’re more interested in the people who seem to want to come here, not just in those who want to go to a generic grad school. Indeed, this isn’t just a matter of strategy – you should educate yourself about the various programs you’re thinking about, and should know why you’re applying, or else you’re wasting your money and time. Many of those points in my previous post about how to decide where to go are ones that a good statement will have considered (who would you work with? Why does the program’s style excite you? etc.).

You may be applying to a program with the intention of working with one person specifically. But be careful there. First, ask yourself what you’d do if you got in, went there, and then they moved elsewhere, or if you got in, went there, and found out you hated them as a person. Second, think of this in terms of numbers. For instance, if the program you’re applying to has 6 professors, and accepts 6 students a year, how many students do you think they’ll accept each year to work with one specific professor? While perhaps that prof has less grad students than others, and hence may be open to more, you’re quite likely looking at the individual prof accepting 1 or less. Which might put you into especially tight competition, or might exclude you altogether if the program refuses to accept people who will work with only one prof. However, if your interests would allow you to work with several of the profs, your competition is less tight. So do put the time into thinking whether this is indeed the place for you if you could only work with one person, and then think about how other members of the faculty could contribute to your studies.

We also need to see signs of you knowing what you’d research. And I mean specifics. Saying you’re interested in “media and culture” or “television” without further elaboration doesn’t help. If your research interests are way too broad, they suggest that you don’t know the area. You don’t need to go too far the other way and map out the entire dissertation, as I’d rather see room for growth and development. I should also note that candidates applying with only a BA are rarely expected to have as many specifics nailed down as those applying with an MA. We know, in other words, that your interests may shift and narrow and winnow and focus with time; but most programs will want to know that you’re not starting at Step 1 wherein you’ve decided that the media is important and haven’t really moved beyond that.

Proofread this statement very carefully. If it looks like you knocked it off on a bus ride home one day, you’re not going anywhere. Media and Cultural Studies scholarship requires an ability to write and write well, so every typo, grammatical slip-up, and awkward construction works against you.

As for autobiography, obviously we want to know about you … but not too much. A little bit of background, an anecdote, or so forth can go a long way. Just select it carefully and watch that it doesn’t say things about you that you don’t want it to. And don’t let it take over the statement. If you’re telling me about that time you caught a baseball when you were twelve and your boyfriend or girlfriend was in the stands watching, and it was just so wonderful, you’ve very likely off-topic.

Watch your tone. While you definitely need to tell us about your accomplishments, and while a statement isn’t at all somewhere to be shy about them, arrogance is a kiss of death. Remember what you’re applying to do, as well – to be a student. The program will want to see that you can be one, and that you think you have things to learn, and will worry if you suggest that you know it all already. (Somewhat related to this point, though a narrower one: if you have teaching experience, by all means let us know that, but remember that we’re looking for PhD students first and foremost. If you have skills that would make you a good TA from the start, that’s great, but the TA position is secondary to why we’d be giving it to you – namely, because we want you as a PhD student).

added after initial posting: Finally, don’t ever try to game the system by giving the committee the scholar that you think they want rather than yourself. First and most importantly, this could produce a miserable few years in grad school, as you’re then forced either to be that person or to exist in a program that isn’t really a match for you. Second, it will likely backfire — personally, I’m more interested in what you can do that’s new, and candidates who propose to be Jonathan Gray 2.0 don’t interest me. I’d imagine most others feel the same way.

The writing sample should fit the program you’re applying to. I’ve told this to some candidates via email before and they’ve complained that they don’t have a paper that applies to our program. Wrong answer. If you’ve never worked on this area, why should we choose you over many other more qualified candidates who aren’t new to it? If you truly are new to the area, you might therefore consider proving you’re capable by writing a new paper as your sample (and if the thought of writing a paper annoys you, you might want to reconsider this whole grad school thing).

Similarly, you should supply the length of paper that’s asked for. This might require you to heavily revise something else you’ve written. Perhaps you’ve never written anything more than 8 pages and the school wants 15? Or perhaps you’ll need to shrink something larger.

It should be your very best work. And if it’s not, then, as said above, write something new. We’re not just checking to see that you’re literate – we’re looking for evidence of vibrant, original, thoughtful thriving scholarship. And let us be the judges – don’t submit papers with grades and comments already on them.

GPAs and GREs are a contentious area for discussion, because every admissions board and individual likely has a different approach to reading them. Take everything I say here with that very large grain of salt. Some folk begin with them and if you haven’t reached a certain standard, your application is immediately out of the running. But personally, I like to read them in concert with the rest of the application. Great scores won’t mean anything to me if your statement and writing sample are poor or even just mundane. Bad scores may be overcome, but only if your statement and sample are pretty sublime. Mediocre scores demand something well above mediocrity in your other materials.

Watch being too much of an apologist for worse scores. It’s certainly appropriate, and may be important, to explain why your scores weren’t as good as you’d like or are capable of if that’s the case, but if you talk too much about how bad they are, you’re merely drawing attention to them, and risking the semblance of protesting too much. A good application should speak for itself, and if you have a meh GPA and/or GREs but everything else is impressing me, that will go further than a full paragraph of “my dog ate my homework” style excuses. Trust, too, that many of us know how to read these things. When I look at a transcript that shows a bunch of low grades in the freshman and sophomore years in things like Intro to Chemistry, but stellar grades in your major, I know you’re bad at sciences, or that you went to a college with lots of freshmen requirements. It doesn’t mean much to me. I know to look for whether the GPA has gotten better as you’ve specialized.

For GREs, I won’t say the math score doesn’t matter, since I’m always impressed by students who are well-rounded, but I will say that it’s not the score that I’m most interested in (if you’re applying to a program with a quantitative tradition, this will obviously change. Apply to UW’s Communication Science program with poor math scores and you’re likely going nowhere). A poor essay score is really damning, and will likely require a killer writing sample and statement to overcome. Poor verbal scores are also something to worry about.

If you’re not a native speaker, your TOEFL score should be high, and since your writing sample or personal statement could have been proofread or edited, it’s hard to recover from a low score. You should also check to see whether a school funds everyone or almost everyone through TA positions, since those that do nearly always take the TOEFL scores much more seriously, since they need to put you in front of a group of undergraduates and be confident that your language skills will be good enough to teach them.

Recommendation letters are really important too. Make sure that your referees know you and your work well enough to write several paragraphs about both. Letters from those who a program might know and respect personally can go an especially long way. And if you’re using a letter from a TA, it should only be one – ideally, you should have impressed your profs too. That said, you won’t see your letters, so there’s not too much advice I can give here.

I can give advice about using folio services that amass your letters and send them out for you. These are convenient. But the downside is that they don’t allow for personalized letters. If there’s a program that you really, really want to get into, and if your letter writers are willing to angle a letter or three towards specific programs, you may find it better to avoid folio services here. For instance, if one of your profs did his or her own PhD at the school to which you’re applying, it stands to reason that their letter could be especially helpful, given their intimate knowledge of the program, its likely expectations, and perhaps even the people who’ll be reviewing your file; in such a case, it would be a pity for you to have a folio service send a generic letter instead of that personalized one.

Keep your letter writers happy too. Ask them if you can use them well in advance. Don’t try to tell them what to say. Be super-thankful. Give them dates and other information as early as possible. Smile at them a lot. Write your best work in their classes. And when it’s all over, tell them how you fared.

Beyond the package, if you find yourself shortlisted, you may well get a phone interview. Some programs don’t do these, but I like to do them with finalists. By way of helping you to prepare for them, let me explain why I like to do them. First and foremost, there comes a point when one has been looking at this many applications and everyone just seems like a file, and it’s nice to see them as a person. So one of the key reasons I do phone interviews is to turn your file into a human being. That’s important for a second reason, too, which is that our program isn’t huge, and we do things together way more than do many programs, so your human-being-ness will be important inasmuch as I want to accept people who will fit in and who can hold their own in intellectual discussions, not just on paper. Therefore, when I call candidates, I’m hoping to hear someone who sounds personable enough and who can talk lucidly and impressively about their academic interests. If you don’t sound excited by your project and/or work, I sure as Hell won’t be excited by it.

Phone interviews are awkward, though, for everyone involved. It would be much better if we could see each other and read body language. You may not know how long we want you to spend answering a question, for instance (and hence a good technique is to answer a shorter version, then ask the interviewer if s/he wants to hear more). You may be intimidated by getting a phone call out of the blue from someone whose work you’ve read and admired. The connection may be bad. Phone interviews suck, all around. So be aware that most people come away from these feeling that they did an awful job. To try and make yourself do better, though, I’d recommend stacking the deck in your favor – if you’re a gesticulator, talk on a hands-free device so that you can gesture while talking (even though the interviewer won’t see it, it might make you more comfortable). Try as much as possible to have the interview at a time when you can be somewhere you can relax, without background noise, stresses, etc. Research the program beforehand, so that you’re not caught looking stupid when the interviewer asks who you want to work with, for example. And have some questions of your own ready to ask the interviewer.

As a final comment for this post, I should mention the pre-decision campus visit. While you may be invited for a campus visit after being accepted, you might also wish to get a sense of a place before applying or before decisions come back. If you do so, though, I’d highly recommend that you realize that you’ll be getting sized up during the whole time you’re there: in my experience, a lot (too many?) of the people who visit here before applying or before a decision has been made think of their visit solely as time for them to get a sense of us, but they forget that it’s only natural that we’d take the chance to get to know them too. Thus, everything that you’d need to do to prepare for a phone interview, you should prepare for a campus visit too.

And that’s it for now. Best of luck with your applications!

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  1. August 3rd, 2011 at 08:59 | #1

    Great advice as always. A few additional thoughts:

    - I think the folio answer is that you should use one, but ask any faculty who are really your advocates to work their networks. With students whom I really endorse for grad schools, I email or call the faculty I know at those programs above and beyond my letter. This makes those students stand out, as I clearly care enough to spend extra time advocating for them. Likewise, I’ll often get calls from committees asking about my students, and I can help distinguish there.

    - Great point about the meaning of selectivity at the grad level – it’s really particular and specific, not necessarily about your quality. For a personal anecdote, I applied to 8 graduate programs and only got into one (and my application certainly fell victim to many of the pitfalls highlighted above). But it turned out as I learned more and began attending the program at Madison, I realized that it was by far the best fit for me and my interests. Still felt crappy to be rejected so frequently, but it worked out in the end…

  2. Burcu Bakioglu
    August 3rd, 2011 at 10:10 | #2

    Jonathan,
    I always appreciate the useful info you give both for future grad students & future faculty. Your posts demystify the intricate process of academic applications :) Clearly, it takes a lot of time to write thoughtful & useful posts like these so thank you!

  3. Josh S.
    August 3rd, 2011 at 10:43 | #3

    This reads like the holy-grail of application advice to me. I’d especially reaffirm one point generously broached here that’s often treated like the ‘secret handshake’ of the application process.

    Students need to have a strong and clean enough application to get in and have a clear idea of why they fit in to a program as a means to get their foot in the door, but in the end applicants should pay attention to the ‘intangible tangibles’ that will push them into the final selection process. GRE’s seem to be weighed less strongly than 15 years ago, which is a very good thing as they’re inconsistent prognosticators of program completion and often favor specific racial and classed educational backgrounds. But they’re absolutely crucial for program ‘reporting purposes’ to administrators at the university as well as finding additional outside-program funding lines like fellowships. So from what I can tell, they’re still a necessary evil, and a strong score is necessary. It’s worth taking that Kaplan class if you can’t get a certain percentile (and can afford it). Even more presciently, _already_ showing competence in a professor’s research is very important. If a student really wants to work with a specific professor, they’re well-advised to read that professor’s books and articles and briefly speak to them in the package. It’s shocking how many _graduate_ students haven’t even mastered their sub-field concentrations, so gently pointing out that interest is genuine in an advisor’s work can provide a little push.

    But back the ‘secret handshake’ thing: the quietest yet most influential part of any application process is the ‘phone call’. From what I can tell, and this seems to be pervasive in every academic discipline, at least half of every pool of successful candidates get in because a trusted colleague or successful alumni has emailed or called their pal to say “I’ve got a great student for you”. Those students will have met all other requirements, but are then differentiated from the 10-15 other highly qualified candidates who could otherwise be admitted. Professors have confided to me at different institutions that stored favors are often repaid during the application process. Not every admitted applicant will have this kind of direct access, but one’s chances are significantly increased when a professor takes personal time to put their reputation on the line to support a promising student. I think following all of your recommendations here comprises a near-perfect formula, Jonathan, but I’d also advocate that students attempt to orchestrate their ‘tangible intangibles’ correctly. This means applying to institutions that one knows one has a real chance at, which means figuring out where their recommendations have friends, and then figuring out how to differentiate oneself among a program’s final 5-8 choices.

  4. August 3rd, 2011 at 12:11 | #4

    @Josh S.
    Such great advice here, Josh. Thanks so much.

    Indeed, you’re right on the money when you point out that one needs not only to get the faculty to want you, but to give them the arsenal to push you through. It’s worth realizing that admissions can sometimes be competitive within the selection committees, meaning that external markers of excellence such as GREs, GPAs, and killer letters can certainly help committee members make their case that you and not someone else’s preferred candidate be given the spot.

    Thanks too to Jason for the equally helpful comments, and to Burcu for the nice words :-)

  5. August 4th, 2011 at 15:41 | #5

    Pardon the hijack, but I thought this might be useful to place here, a list of film/TV graduate schools: http://www.nd.edu/~cbecker1/gradschools.htm. And if I’m missing any schools you know of, please let me know (cbecker1/at/nd.edu) so I can update the list.

  6. Matt Sienkiewicz
    August 16th, 2011 at 19:53 | #6

    This sounds like tremendous advice, virtually none of which I followed when applying to schools. Which somehow worked out just fine. Jonathan’s advice is the percentage play and you’d be a fool not to follow it. But applications are read by people and people have biases, politics, histories and so on. So do what The Professor says, but remember that, good or bad, you need to keep the results of something like this in perspective. As Jonathan notes, this is a negotiation between a whole slew of subjectivities. Beating long odds always requires an element of serendipity.

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