Probably the thing you hear me say most come fall is, “have you been reaching out to faculty?” It’s become a mantra in relation to the group of McNair scholars set to apply to graduate school this season. I usually have between eight and ten students applying, and every year I stress myself out worrying if they are “doing enough” to get fully funded offers at their top-choice programs.
I know their intention to do so is there, it’s just that sometimes demands of the semester, coupled with anxiety about reaching out, stymie their efforts.
Each summer I present at a “grad school boot camp” where I talk about the grad application process and how to make those fully funded offers happen. Besides covering the “logistical” aspects and offering a specially designed organizational tool called the Grad App Tracker, the most important thing I tell our McNair scholars is to establish “meaningful contact” with as many faculty members at programs you are interested in as you can. Whether it be through a campus visit (best option), Skype/phone session (pretty decent) or email correspondence (can still be effective), connecting with people you are interested in potentially working with is key to enhancing your chances for admission.
Don’t get me wrong, you have to do all of the other pieces to the best of your ability – writing a kick ass personal statement, building those experiences on your CV, doing the best that you can in your classes, developing relationships with faculty on your campus so that you have the strongest recommendation letters possible. All of these things are important. To really “seal the deal” though, you need to combine the added element of connection.
Case in point is one of our scholars currently investigating applying to a campus visitation program. The process hasn’t been entirely clear and I’ve even tried to reach out to their coordinator for guidance. What it basically comes down to, however, is the student making contact with prospective faculty advisors at that institution in order to be selected for the visit.
A particularly tenacious student, this scholar had been reaching out to multiple individuals without response. Then I get a text with a screen shot of a response from a faculty member indicating enthusiasm for this scholar, as well as “deep respect” for this scholar’s current McNair mentor. As well as the scholar BURSTING WITH JOY! Score! I’m going to wager that this scholar, in fact, gets selected for the visit, which very well might lead to acceptance (with funding) into the program, which is one of her top-choice schools.
This is what I mean by toehold. With these initial connections come the potential for meaningful exchanges that may lead to partnerships in the future. The goal is to establish a “toehold” at as many of your programs as possible. This means reaching out, briefly telling people about your awesome experiences as McNair scholars, indicating a sincere interest in their work and asking whether they anticipate taking on new graduates next fall. Easy peasy! In many cases, these emails will go unanswered. And that’s okay. But the few that do secure a response are the gems that could very well point the way to your future. You just don’t know.
And you especially don’t (and won’t) know if you don’t send any emails.
That’s why I’m constantly asking my scholars if they are reaching out. You never know what kinds of connections you might be able to foster if you don’t try.
It’s like fishing really. Think about how many times you might have to cast that bait in order to get even the first bite. Sometimes they hit right away, other times it takes a slew of casting, sometimes you don’t get any bites at all. But all of that information you are collecting along the way is important in your decision-making process, right? About how to better your approach, about what types of “fishing environments” you’re going to target next.
And when it comes to selecting a grad school, you’re probably going to go where you get some good quality responses. You are going to go where you feel most welcome. And the more of these kinds of “interactions” you can successfully foster during your grad application process the better!
So get out there and start sending those emails. Make it a priority to MAKE IT HAPPEN before all of the sudden it’s Thanksgiving and nearing those December 1 deadlines. I know you can do this. Let us know how it goes!