Grad admissions

Last year I spent a large chunk of time reading applications for graduate admissions, and I wrote up a blog post about things that struck me (including things I’d remembered from previous years). It might be useful to anyone planning to compile an application for graduate school this year. These thoughts are in random order and don’t reflect anyone in particular who might have applied to my department. It’s a mixture of what struck me as being good about some applications and not so good about others.

  • I like to see where else you’re applying – it helps to get an idea of how you view yourself as a linguist and what your aims are. It doesn’t have any impact on the decision but it is helpful to know (and even if you don’t say, many of the GRE transcripts show where the scores were sent so it’s often possible to tell anyway). On the other hand, saying that you don’t want to tell us just strikes an off note.
  • Please please please proofread your application and make sure that you’re sending it to the right place. It’s fine, of course, to send the same application to lots of different places, but I don’t want to read about how the University of the North by North-West would be a perfect fit for you when I’m at Rice. Likewise, spelling mistakes do not create a good impression.
  • The personal statement is really important. At least 80% of statements start with a variation of “I’ve been interested in language from an early age”, and it gets boring. Of course you’ve been interested in language for a long time – you’re applying to grad school in linguistics, everyone here likes “language” in some way.
  • I get annoyed by the personal statements presented in dialogue or third person. Obviously someone tells students to write statements in this fashion, perhaps to ‘spark interest’ and capture the reader’s attention, or to make the statement stand out from the mass of statements that start “from an early age I’ve had a keen interest in language”. I want to see if you can write decent academic English, and scripts or atmospheric scene-setting don’t do that. Also, I want to know why you want to do linguistics (and I’ve read the occasional statement that didn’t mention linguistics at all).
  • In short, in the summary I want to know something about why you’re going to grad school, why you think our department would be a good one, if there’s anyone in particular you want to work with, something about what you’ve done so far and what’s sparked your interest. You don’t need to know what your dissertation topic is or even what area it will be in, and sometimes being too specific isn’t a good thing (that’s partly to do with our program – we aim for students with interests in more than one area of linguistics. Other programs might want you to be more specific).
  • The personal statements often list specific people that you want to work with. Don’t just copy the faculty list from the department’s web page. It’s a dead giveaway if the faculty appears there in alphabetical order..
  • Departments differ as to the discretion they have to admit candidates without GRE/TOEFL scores. We can’t admit students without decent scores, even if the application is otherwise excellent. So, take the GRE at least slightly seriously.
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2 responses to “Grad admissions

  1. Do you have ideas about what sorts of linguistic writing – essays, theses etc you’d like to see?

  2. hmm, yes, good question. If the applicant has written an MA or Honours/Senior thesis, it’s good to have that available (unless it’s really long) – I don’t mind links to urls because it saves paper, but I wouldn’t recommend that in general. I don’t think it’s obligatry to provide the thesis if there are other pieces of work to choose from (e.g. an article). I’d think it a bit strange if the student’s CV had a thesis and an article on it and we were given a final essay for a class (unless there was a good reason for it, such as the student wanted to do graduate work in the area of the essay rather than the thesis). It’s better in general if the subject matter is something that’s in tune with what we do in our department (e.g. pick something in typology over something using lambda calculus, if given the choice).

    We also take students who are applying from outside linguistics. In that case, I’d say they should pick their best piece of work. They should definitely still submit a writing sample.

    I’m not sure if it specifies in the regulations that the sample has to be in English – all the examples I’ve seen have been, and the personal statement and so on should be (because English fluency is also something that we look at, although it’s a small factor in the decision) but I’m not sure if the writing samples also need to be. It’s best to include something in English if possible, but if not, I’d suggest the student emails us about which language. The faculty has most of the major languages of scholarship between us.

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