Finding ways to stand out

Given that there are vastly more well-qualified applicants than there are available spots in graduate programs, I tried to think about ways I could help my application stand out. Most people will have excellent letters of recommendation (in fact, some of my undergraduate professors would not write recommendations at all unless they were sure they could honestly write an excellent letter), most people will have given conference presentations, most will have excellent grades, etc., etc.– so I didn’t think I could count on this sort of stuff to set me apart; I tried to find other ways to make my application interesting. To be frank, I have absolutely no idea what worked and what didn’t. I have no idea why some admissions committees chose my application over others. That said, here’s a couple of things I did (that I did not do my first time applying)…

1. Despite reading advice to the contrary,  I did mention how my personal history has impacted my philosophical interests in my statement of purpose. I do think this is something to be cautious about but if this information is  of the sort that it would be interesting to other people (and remember, we are usually much less interesting than we think we are), and you can mention it briefly without waxing poetic about your days as a youth, or daydreams of allegorical caves, before moving on to a more substantive discussion of your interests, it may be worth doing.

2. As an experiment, on some of my applications that asked for a work history and descriptions of responsibilities, when referencing my experience as a philosophy tutor, I wrote this:

“I worked as a tutor for the Philosophy Department for two years. My primary responsibilities were to assist students with understanding philosophical concepts, making sense of reading assignments, developing arguments, and sometimes, just putting philosophy in terms they could relate to (e.g., on one occasion while working with a disinterested and struggling student, who I knew to be a fan of comic books, I discussed Gettier problems in terms of Marvel Comics’ “Secret Invasion”—a series where problems arise when no one can distinguish the real superheroes from an invasion of shape-shifting aliens).”

Maybe I am paranoid but I suspect, to some folks, this may have made me appear less serious. I decided to include it on some of my applications anyhow for a couple of reasons, but mostly because I thought it might make my application a bit more memorable.

I think if you can find appropriate ways to inject a little bit of your personality into your application (and for the record, getting creative with fonts on your writing sample is not appropriate), it might help you stand out. Of course, depending on how you do it, there’s always the risk that it may come across as self-interested, unprofessional, or just weird. Whatever you do, run your application materials by a couple of your professors before you submit anything anywhere, and make sure you ask for honest feedback–they will probably have a better idea if you’ve put together a good application.


~ by humeisapotato on May 20, 2011.

One Response to “Finding ways to stand out”

  1. Thanks for the correction on my post, I always appreciate feedback.

    I found that explaining epistemological problems to students outside the humanities was far more successful when using examples from philosophy of science.

    Example: When talking about Wittgenstein’s line “a depressed man lives in a depressed world” one might bring in Kuhn’s concept of incommensurability.

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