organizing your information

Here’s a quick primer on how to organize your information for your letter writers/potential letter writers. It’s also a useful exercise to get a small sense of who you are and what you’re doing.

It’s easy to intimidated by the grad app process. Especially if most of your experiences with the institution of higher education have reinforced the idea that you’re not smart enough, not white enough, not male enough, not rich enough, generally not good enough for the institution and you don’t belong in it.

When I found myself at the University of Chicago as a very working class white guy among very professional class white people, I was overwhelmingly aware of how little I fit in among my new ‘peers.’ Meetings with my ‘preceptor’ (an advanced PhD student hired by UChicago to be mentor/advisor/teacher to groups from the larger cohort of MA students) usually ended with me wandering disoriented back to my apartment and collapsing into a pizza. A lot of meetings in graduate school are like that. You’re very casually told about everything that’s wrong with you and why you shouldn’t be pursuing an advanced degree–the Humanities are collapsing, your project isn’t any good, it’s just identity politics, you can’t write, every writer you like can’t write either, etc…. And it feels as though no matter how hard you try, you can’t explain that you’re actually an intelligent and capable person who belongs in a graduate program.

And there are good reasons why you can’t just explain that you’re qualified. For one, it’s always better to show than to tell, and it’s hard to show how capable you are in the context of an office hours visit. For two, perhaps you feel viscerally anxious when you have to interact with authority figures. There are very real power differentials at work when you’re interacting with advanced graduate students and faculty members. Doctoral programs are the point of entry for becoming part of an exclusive group–which is to say that they’re heavily policed by very self-interested gatekeepers. The application and admissions process is designed to keep people out, and even people who are their to help you can and will also make your life a little or a lot hellish for your desire to pursue an advanced degree.

Sometimes all you can do is prepare in as thorough and professional a manner as humanly possible. Thorough and professional preparation is a great way to demonstrate that you’re prepared for advanced graduate study. With that said, while my preceptor was able to casually assassinate my sense of identity, I still had a mentor with whom I could talk and who believed in me. If you have a supportive mentor, they don’t need to see you as an indestructible scholarship machine. This level of preparation is useful for people around whom you aren’t comfortable, or able to be vulnerable. So, for these potentially hostile folks, and even for the people who like you already, you want to show them that they aren’t taking a chance on you, that it just makes sense for them to support you and your application.

Part of this preparation is producing a dossier of your application materials for your (prospective) recommendation letter writers (more on letter writers in this [soon to be written] post).

In the picture below is the table of contents/first page of my most recent dossier.

Table of Contents

You’ll see every necessary thing in this table of contents, let me break it down:

  1. a copy of the Statement of Purpose
  2. a copy of the Personal Statement/Diversity Statement
  3. a copy of my most recent CV (including the date demonstrates that you have a CV that you update with some regularity)
  4. a copy of each of your transcripts (all you have to do here is copy/paste them into the document, and also set aside your Overall and Major GPAs in bold)
  5. a page for each program to which you plan to apply (more on this below) organized by deadline and with the deadlines right there on the first page
  6. a list of your other recommenders, so everyone knows who else is writing letters for you–the descriptions include their title and their connection to you
  7. this final bit is probably superfluous but it seemed important to me at the time for neurotic, overcompensating reasons: a brief list of potential fourth letter writers.

Returning to point 5, what do these program pages look like? Here is the one page I had completely completed in time to send to my recommenders.

SBMS.App Material USC

This page includes the institution, the name and type of the program, the deadline, (I included the size of the writing sample, this is superfluous information that was there purely for my own benefit and not that of my letter writers), the two faculty members I was interested in working under, (ideally, this page should have included a link to the programs website), and the ‘fit’ paragraph for the program in question.

What is a ‘fit’ paragraph? The fit paragraph is the final paragraph of your statement of purpose. It explains how and why you ought to be doing your PhD work in that paragraph (more on this in a future post). Your entire statement of purpose should be written to demonstrate why you belong in their program, but the ‘fit’ paragraph shows how you fit with the specific faculty in their program. It also demonstrates that you are intimately familiar with the work of the faculty members you want to work with.

This is useful information for your letter writers, who will see that you understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Like I said, the only ‘fit’ paragraph I had completed by the time I sent this out was this one, the rest were usually written within a couple days of the program’s deadline. The rest of the pages included the faculty members with whom I wanted to work and some general information about the programs.

Producing a document like this (and sending it as a .pdf to your letter writers) is useful for you and for them. It demonstrates your preparation for, and seriousness about, pursuing PhD work. It shows that they don’t have to go out on a limb for you, that you’re a viable candidate for doctoral study. After all, it helps elevate their profile when you get into a PhD program. Show them that it’s in their interest to be on Team You.

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