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

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)

Winter 2016

Spring 2016

Fall 2016

Winter 2017

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:

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.

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.

Screenshot of 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:

More resources on SOP writing

General tips

Best of luck!

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