How I applied to grad school: tips on reference letters and statement of purpose
Grad school application deadlines for Economics in Canadian universities were at around end of January to early February in the 2017 cycle. It was frankly an overwhelming experience and I hope some of my insights can help those interested in the process.
This post focuses on the following two topics, but I might have more to write on study tactics in general in a seperate post.
- Reference letters
- Statement of Interest/Purpose
So… who wants to write a letter saying that I’d be great at grad school? *Crickets*
With the context that application deadlines for my programs of interest were mostly around the end of January 2017, I started reaching out to professors as early as November 2016 (Fall 2016 school term).
Ref letter acquisition timeline (spoiler: long time)
- Microeconomic Theory 3 (ECON401, core course) marks released
- Senior Honours Essay (ECON472, research course) marks released
- First approached ECON401 prof for reference, prof said to wait for ECON402 marks to come out before he decides
- Approached 3 other profs for reference - 2 rejected, 1 maybe
- 200-level elective course prof, rejected and advised that an upper year course reference would be more meaningful to admission committees
- 300-level core course prof, rejected because my ranking in the course was not high enough
- 300-level elective course prof, maybe, similar advice that an upper year core course would be more meaningful to admission committees
- Macroeconomic Theory 3 (ECON402, core course) marks released
- Asked ECON402 prof for reference, agreed
- Went back to ask ECON401 prof for reference (now that I had ECON402), agreed
- Asked ECON472 prof for reference (one program needed 3 references), rejected, too last minute
Make things as easy as possible for the professor you’re ‘popping the question’ to
To each prof I asked, I sent a google docs folder with:
- A spreadsheet of schools and program names I was applying to, and their deadlines
- A draft of my statement of purpose
- My CV. Not the same as a job search resume - tailor this to make it more academic focused with expanded details on coursework and research
Yes, your grades are good, but it might not be as easy as that…
As you can see from the timeline, many factors that I could not completely control affected how the prof reacted to my request.
- They might want to see how you do in other courses before they commit to recommending you. It’s not personal, since they know you did well in their course, but the letter is to recommend you for grad school in general so this makes sense. Don’t let your guard down for other courses even if you think you have some letter writers down for sure!
- References from profs that taught you upper year, core courses seem to be more convincing to the admissions committee. Word through the grapevine is that if they have tenure, that is most preferred. Take that with a grain of salt. I’m just a clueless student.
- If you ask too last minute, you could be rejected (duh). My personal rule of thumb is to reach out 1 to 2 months before the deadlines.
Yes, your grades are mediocre, but it might not be as impossible as you think…
I actually didn’t rank that high (maybe top 33% at most) in one of the upper year core courses but the prof agreed to write for me. This is my own guess as to why he did so, but it revealed that even to profs, grades aren’t everything.
What happened is that I didn’t do well on the first midterm, but I showed up to office hours consistently after that, determined to get a grade worthy of a grad school application. I hadn’t yet told him of my intentions to apply to grad school at that point. For the final exam, I had finished studying everything (by studying ahead) two weeks before the final. Talk about being keen! So when I went to office hours that week I think that he noticed from the questions I had, how much effort I had put in.
Again, I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened there. But if you can demonstrate that you have an unshakeable work ethic, that is basically saying that you can succeed in grad school, where grit is necessary. If the professor believes that, they are likely willing to write you a letter - your grades are just one indicator out of several.
Statement of purpose (SOP)
To be frank… I don’t have much to offer here, as the screenshot is from the University of Toronto’s admissions FAQ page.
Jokes aside, I did send my SOP to profs when asking them for reference letters, so I must have done something right.
Here are my general rules of thumb for SOP/cover letter type writing:
- Include your areas of research interest, and why those areas. Especially if you have a supervisor in mind, and you’ve chatted them up already and want to do research with them, you should definitely emphasize your shared interests.
- Brief overview of academic history from a good angle, especially if there are questionable grades. My Economics major average wasn’t high, 75%. After some deliberation I didn’t explicitly point out that it was low, but rather stressed how strong my 400-level grades were. More on how I overcame my low average here.
- I personally don’t like sob stories, but maybe someone on admissions can shed more light… (see the resources linked below)
More resources on SOP writing
- Start early, especially for reference letters!
- Make things as easy for letter writers as possible - provide them with deadlines of your applications.
- Get friends to read your statement of purpose. Better if you can get help from profs since they are familiar with the process from the other side.
- Check the grad school related subreddits linked above, and Grad Cafe.
- Bonus: after you submit your applications, go here to freak out - https://www.thegradcafe.com/survey/
Best of luck!