Friday, October 26, 2007


Ask My Readers: Grad School Admissions

An assiduous undergraduate correspondent writes:

Is it actually encouraged to email prospective advisors at the schools to which you will be applying? What do you send them-just an email, a copy of your thesis? Should your current faculty be sending introductory emails on your behalf to colleagues who you can then follow up with? Are there any good blogs that focus on getting into grad school, as opposed to the end of grad school life? How much do grades and scores actually matter in grad school admissions (I know, there are so many different schools, etc. Maybe confine answers to the social sciences and humanities?)? Do faculty at prospective grad schools actually want to read your work? Do they actually want to meet with you when you visit the school?

First, my generic warning for anybody considering grad school in an evergreen discipline: for the love of all that is holy and good, don't do it! (For the longer version of this warning, see here.)

That said, one of the perks of working at an open-admissions college is that we don't deal with the angst of people trying to psych out the admissions process. It's pretty transparent: if you meet the basic requirements, you're in. Grad school is not – and should not be – like that.

The downside is that I have precious little wisdom to share on the etiquette of grad school admissions. Luckily, I have the Best Readers Ever, so I'll throw this one open to the readers who have experience working in or on graduate admissions. Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

My best advice is to look up the publications of hypothetical faculty advisers. Read through a bit of their work, then contact them via email yourself. Mention that you enjoyed reading X, for reason Y, and that you hope to do similar scholarship.

Pique their interest by being genuinely interested in *their* work, and they're much more likely to want to meet with you during your campus visit, want to read your work, and remember your name when the admissions committee is deciding which few of the many qualified candidates to admit and fund.
I'll weigh in on the importance of GRE scores in the social sciences.

Q. How much do they matter?
A. They matter more than you can even imagine. They're hugely, hugely important. And in many soc science depts, the quantitative score is *more* important than the verbal score.

Longer version of the answer: in the programs I'm familiar with, it might, *might* be possible to get in with a mediocre score IF and only if everything else in your record is stellar... but it's unlikely, and I wouldn't risk it.
In my humble opinion DO NOT contact the department unless and until you get an interview. I've done this a few times and it has been DISASTROUS. The old adage "don't call us, we'll call you" comes into play here. Why devote hours and hours studying the work of a department where ultimately you don't even make the cut? It's a brutal process. If you rise to the top, then start making contacts. Otherwise, don't. Good luck.
My take on contacting profs (from a top-ranked humanities department):

I have the feeling the protocols for this vary by discipline and to some extent by school. I field a lot of nicely-constructed emails by students (who have obviously been told they should contact potential supervisors) asking whether I'm taking new grad students next year. But we simply don't do things that way. While we're unlikely to admit students whose interests we just don't have the faculty to support, admissions has nothing to do with a particular prof saying, "Yes, I'll take that student as my own." In the sciences and certain social sciences, I understand that it does work that way.

That said, if the student asks for details about my area of the curriculum (e.g. I've learned what I can about the program from the website; these are my interests; can you tell me more about whether I can pursue x or y at an advanced level there; are there any other faculty in allied fields that I should be sure to talk to about a potential application?), I can give them practical information and engage in enough of a dialogue about their interests that I will remember that we had the contact come admissions time. I'm not really all that interested in labored flattery about my own work, and it's hard to respond to that kind of communication except by saying, "Thank you, and is there anything substantive I can tell you about our program?"

On scores: Again, this is very local, but for an utterly nonquantitative field I don't think anybody much cares about the quantitative score, but if you 're applying to do graduate work in a language- and writing-intensive field and have a verbal score under 700, it looks fishy. My sense is that 700 is an important psychological boundary for someone scanning apps quickly, but that if the other elements of the app are strong, high 700s versus low 700s doesn't much matter.

The statement of purpose, writing sample, and letters of rec are collectively the most important factors and if they're really strong will outweigh any blips on the transcript.
Dear eager undergrad,

This is rather long. My apologies; I have quite a bit to say on this subject.

I know, there are so many different schools

That is precisely the problem when trying to psych out the admissions process. There are so many different schools, and different programs, that there is no one answer.

For example, I'm in a masters program in the social sciences at a mid-sized university somewhere in the South. We had a prospective student come in to talk to us a couple of Fridays ago. He got an hour with the graduate director. He sat down and talked to a couple of us students. He reported having gotten a very good reception in a couple of other departments on campus as well, both masters and phd (he's pondering a field change, and so was visiting multiple departments.) He also reported trying to get in to see people at Big Name School an hour east of us. Not only did faculty not return his emails, but when he called the department, the secretary told him not to bother emailing anyone else, because he wasn't going to get an answer or an appointment with anyone.

So, it depends. Some faculty really do want to meet you. Some faculty and departments really do care about incoming students, and it's not just a function of department size (though that certainly can factor into it.) It depends on campus and department culture, how busy the faculty are, how snooty they are (and perhaps the cycles of the moon and a random number generator.)

You have to consider what you want. Do you want the big name school with the big research dollars, and are you willing to tolerate a little bit of neglect (or a lot of neglect, depending on the school) to get it? Do you want more access to the faculty, and a more nuturing environment, and are you willing to trade the name to get it? Graduate school can be a long, long haul if you're not happy, so really consider what you want out of it.

As far as GRE scores, grades, recommendations, and other gatekeepers, I'm going to respectfully submit the same answer: it depends. And remember: graduate school does not automatically equate to a phd program. If you have problems in one or more of those gatekeeper areas, consider applying to a couple of masters programs along with the phd programs and seeing what happpens. I had fine GRE scores (1450 combined, math higher, and a 6 on the writing test), a crappy undergraduate GPA (I started out life in a field very much not suited to me), a fine major GPA, a 4.0 my last couple of semesters of undergraduate, and it took me over a decade to do it. I doubt I'd have gotten into any of the local phd programs, much less gotten funded, and I got both with my current program (full package: tuition waiver, assistantship, and this year, health insurance). I have several friends in the program who are excellent students who similarly didn't look good on paper for whatever reason (often GRE scores) and are currently thriving. If you're asking about how much these criteria matter because you've got issues in one or more areas, consider a masters first, or at least, a smaller phd program at a smaller school, which may be more willing to take chances.

If you go the masters route and decide to apply to phd programs (as opposed to taking your masters degree and teaching community college, tutoring, advising, working in industry or government service, or the myriad other things you can do with a masters), be warned, you may have to repeat some coursework when you get to the phd program. Talk candidly with the prospective phd programs about what you have and what they might expect you to repeat. If the answer is all of it, find somewhere else; it's not worth it. Oftentimes, local universities will have informal agreements with masters programs to accept their coursework without making you repeat work; a good academic masters program (as opposed to a professional degree) should help you with this, and the whole process of applying to phd programs.

Finally, talk to the students in any prospective program, not just the faculty. They'll give you the student perspective on what it's really like to be in the program. It's easy to get really excited when talking to faculty about their research and what the program is doing - talk to the students and make sure that reality matches theory. If the program doesn't want you to talk to their students, or you sense that there's a lot that the students aren't telling you, proceed with caution.

Good luck!
I'm with Dean Dad: the best advice for applying to graduate school is to not do it.

If that doesn't sway you, ask three more questions:

- what are my goals for a career? Figure out what you need to do, where you need to study, and who you need to be to get there.

- what do I want to study? In humanities/social sciences, you'll be expected to have your own plans for research (unlike physical science, where you hitch your cart to your advisor).

- what are completion rates at potential schools?

Your best bet for learning about programs is to contact graduate students; most will be happy to help you out, though not all will give honest assessments of the program/advisor/etc. A polite attempt to contact a professor with whom you have similar interests will probably be well-received. Don't think of it as contacting a potential advisor; think of it as asking a senior person in a discipline for advice on how to enter that field.

Two caveats: a) I'm in the physical sciences and b) re-read the start of this comment, please.

Good luck to you.
1. DO NOT send anybody an unsolicited copy of your thesis. Whatever else you do decide to do, certainly don't do that. They'll read your work in the form of your writing sample that you submit as part of the application.
2. If one of your current faculty members knows somebody in the department, I suppose that they could introduce you, but I don't think they are under any obligation to do so.
3. In my experience (in English, if that helps) it's not appropriate to contact faculty with whom you think that you *might* like to work before you've been accepted. If you have questions about the program, you can contact the director of graduate studies or the department chair - they generally are in some way compensated for dealing with such queries. If you bother this person with whom you think you might like to work before you've even gotten in? Well, at least in my PhD program this would not have served you well.
4. What Tiruncula said about grades/scores vs. other application materials.

A piece of general advice: as a graduate student, one is a junior colleague of his or her professors (in a good situation) - not an acolyte. This is a transition to make in terms of how one thinks of oneself and how one presents oneself as a student. The eagerness that professors love in undergrads can come off as cloying and immature, especially if the faculty don't yet know you. Think: if you were applying for a job, would you send them a bunch of stuff they didn't ask for, show up at the office expecting to meet with coworkers when you'd not even gotten the job yet? You wouldn't. I think maybe it's good to think about the grad admissions process in the same way.

And as for Joyce's advice about knowing what you want from a program - this is good advice. But if you're in an evergreen discipline, I cannot advise strongly enough to go to the best possible program to which you can be admitted. It can make the difference between employment and unemployment when you're done with your degree(s).
I'm following up with Joyce and asking are you talking masters or doctorate? They are two widely different animals. As someone who handles a lot of admissions-related things for a master's program I can tell you people will return your calls and you can normally make an appointment to talk to a potential faculty advisor. We're used to working with undergrads entering grad school.

On the other hand, doctoral programs usually have as many if not more applicants that already have master's degrees and know the routine. That's certainly no excuse for being rude however and I would recommend considering how much your life might be like that of the characters in Piled Higher and Deeper if you were to go there.

While a lot of folks go directly into a PhD program from undergrad I recommend going into a master's degree program first. It lets you adjust a bit easier. It lets you figure out if this is really what you want to do. It lets you cut and run in 2 years if it's not what you thought it would be.
In my department (social sciences), it certainly doesn't help to have contacted someone ahead of time. If your record is strong (your major is in the area and you have a good writing sample, you have good recommendations from people that the admitting department knows), that's all you need. You will rise to the top of the pool if your credentials are good.

You can contact someone (either the graduate advisor or a particular person you'd like to work with) if you have a very specific question you'd like answered. I agree with the spirit of tiruncula's comment--if you simply ask "Can you tell me about your program", you'll likely be greeted with silence. It's just too open ended, and you should be able to do enough of your own research about the faculty using the website.

About reading your work: YES, they want to read your work. A promising piece of writing and good letters of rec are by far the most important things in my department.
First off: I agree with DD to be cautious about why you want to go to graduate school.

If you have an undeniable passion for your field, then don't listen to folks who say you should not go to graduate school. I know, they are telling you this for all the right reasons: graduate programs (especially in the humanities, which is my field) are glutted with students, and most of them will not go on to research and teach in their chosen fields, if they graduate at all. This is the reality, and you need to know it before going in. At the same time, if you have the passion and the talent for your field, you should apply. If you don't, then someone else will apply for the slot you're aiming for.

I'm the director of the graduate program at my school, and I'd agree with those posters who say some schools don't mind being contacted in advance, while others strictly see such contact as a nuisance. I'd suggest that you contact the administrative assistant who works for the graduate program first. You have every right to contact this person and ask about curricular requirements and/or financial aid issues.

If that initial contact (with an administrative professional rather than faculty member) is friendly and helpful, you could ask that person if it's OK to contact Professor X because you're thinking you'd like to work with him/her.

If the administrative assistant says this is OK -- if s/he says this kind of inquiry is part of the department's culture -- then email Professor X. As others have said, I strongly, strongly advise that you show your familiarity with Professor X's work in the email. Make sure that you have done your homework. You don't want to seem like a consumer trying to choose the tastiest breakfast cereals at the supermarket. Instead, you want to represent yourself as an apprentice in Professor X's field, which is really what you will be if you get into graduate school.

Sometimes at my school, prospective students will bypass the administrative assistant and email me directly about my work and the work of my fellow faculty members. From my perspective, this is fine. I always visualize the person at the other end of the email as someone who might be one of our students the following year, and I treat them as such. But I absolutely understand graduate directors who do not feel the same way. All program directors are overworked, and we all are balancing teaching and research with administrative workloads that are much higher than other faculty members. So don't be alarmed by, or turned off by, graduate programs who discourage this kind of contact from prospective students.
Short answer, no. (I direct a top N graduate program at an R1 university in the science/engineering area).

There's a simple reason -- I personally receive 1-10 emails PER DAY like this. This is just about my own lab -- it doesn't even count the many more I get about the graduate program in general (and I do answer all of those!).

The sad reason why I often delete these without reading is that, 90% of the time, such emails are misdirected spam to the entire faculty. When they are excited about my reserach in X, and I have no clue what X is, they didn't really do their homework!

The long answer is more complicated.

Advice #1: If a faculty member knows of you and your work (for example, prior research advisors, even as an undergrad), this MAY have an effect on your admission (faculty seem to weigh more heavily reference letters by individuals whose work they are familiar with or whom they personally know, even if outside their research area). In that case, have that person email a faculty member in your program -- don't do it yourself. The "mailbox processing brain" will handle it differently.

Even having said all that, some admission committees frown on "faculty intervention", others actually prefer it for making their job easier. I've seen both at my own institution.

Advice #2: Worry about admission first. Once admitted, faculty will be a LOT more responsive to your emails. Graduate program directors will often even help you communicate with faculty you are interested in.

Caveat: take all this with a grain of salt. One of our competitors takes a different tact: they don't even admit someone unless they are specifically matched up with a PhD advisor. But I think even there my advice still applies with regards to admissions.

So learn "each culture" and specifically ask each graduate program about the appropriateness of contacting faculty (and when in the process)
To follow up on ianqui's comment: YES they want to read your work, but, as Crazy said, NO they do NOT want to read it at the time of year when you're still preparing your apps and they are in the middle of Exploding Head Month. They just don't have time to do that for everybody who inquires about their program. They'll see your best writing in the writing sample you submit with your application.
One more thing. Don't under any circumstances send a prospective graduate school your thesis. As several others have said, the admissions committee will see your work in the writing sample. The committee can make a very good judgment based on this sample.
Well, this is timely as I've recently been hounded by an applicant (Ph.D.) who will "do anything" to get accepted by our program and who wouldn't stop telling me that despite repeated attempts to point out that I'm not on admissions board and thus really have no influence there whatsoever.

I'm hoping we don't accept him. But again, I'm not on the admissions board.

Here's the thing:
-If the program wants to meet you, they'll do interviews or have open house days.
-If we want to read a writing sample, it'll be a required part of the application.
-Sending more and doing more is just as likely to make us think you're annoying/high maintenance as it is to make us think you're brilliant/interesting.
-If you have valid questions, ask. But don't take up our time just because you want to be noticed or stand out.

In the case above, one (of too many) interaction occurred when I was the last of 9 faculty members to meet with the over-eager prospective student who asked me (again, the last of *9* to meet with him) questions that could be answered via our web site. Given topical interests, I know this guy could be interested in working with me but he didn't ask about those things at all (and I don't mention this from an ego POV, but per his application he's got to be interested in working with me or one other person -- and we don't do the matchups until the end of year 1). Instead he asked what to send with his application (on web site, and I don't know), if I thought his chances of being accepted were good, what the program of study looks like (on web site), what minors our students usually take (on web site), etc. At the end I wondered if he actually asked these same questions of my colleagues to see if we had different answers or if he, after being so desperate to meet with all of us, seriously couldn't come up with anything he wanted to discuss.
To preface: I'm assuming the writer is a fresh-faced, young undergraduate.

My advice is to get out of academia for a while to see how the real world works. If you still want a life in education, the experience will have served you well. You will be more focused and will bring a few more life experiences to your studies, which will be invaluable. The best faculty at our CC have been in the for-profit sector and bring a wealth of knowledge that no text nor research can provide.

And to top it off, you will see that yes, money actually DOES make the world go 'round! ;-)
As a physicist who found it quite easy to get into grad school (they asked me!) because there were plenty of spaces ... because I entered a few years after about half (half!) of the grad students simply left because only 1% were going to faculty jobs ... my perspective might be relevant to the humanities or social science prospect.

My first advice was already given: read Piled Higher and Deeper. It is funny in the tragi-comic sense of being mostly true. I read it regularly and it has been (mumble) decades since I was in grad school. Still true.

My second advice has also been given: Think twice, then think again. Just as going to college because it is the next thing after HS can be a bad idea, going to grad school just because you got a BA degree is not a good idea. You need a career goal, and a clear idea of how a particular graduate degree AND superb work on your part will fit into that plan. See final paragraph for related comments.

Third, no one cares about your BA thesis except your parents and your grand kids when they run across it in the library catalog ... unless it has been published. In physics, a published paper as an undergrad is a huge plus for a top R1 program, and I'm sure the same would be true in other fields. As others have pointed out, they will ask for what they want and not read anything they did not ask for. Look at the ratio of acceptance to applications for the schools on your list and you will understand why this is the case.

Finally, you might read what I wrote this past summer about physics jobs. I'd suggest starting with part 3, but you should look at the previous one about the demand side of the equation -- with the realization that this is describing a GOOD job market compared to the situation in the "evergreen" disciplines.

PS - I have actually read the magazine "Evergreen", back in the 60s. Is that where the term comes, DD?
I've been very happy in grad school. I heard a lot of the "save yourself" advice, and I know it's a long shot that I'll find a permanent job at a research university, but I don't think that's a reason to quit preemptively. For right now I'm doing what I love -- if/when that goes south I'll have my whole life to make compromises.
My answers are probably completely irrelevant due to my being in a science field, but:

1) I had good experiences contacting professors AFTER my application was accepted, or at least in with verbal confirmation that I had gotten in. Already knowing your funding package is especially helpful here. Faculty were great about talking to me about their research when I was an admitted student who was very seriously considering the school, but not yet a student. (They were more interested the more serious I sounded.) I followed the drill suggested by rebecca--all I told them were the barest facts about me and then demonstrated that I actually understood what their work was about and cared about it. I think it impressed them much more, or at least much more quickly, to have me be able to converse well with them about their work than to have any particular sample of my work.

2) The graduate coordinator of my department offered me admission and a 4-year fellowship (verbally) within two minutes of my entering his office. Why? GRE scores. They're stupid and arbitrary but they're standardized, and that's great for when you need to make cuts in admissions.
First: There is a blog that's all about getting into grad school. It's a livejournal community, Applying to Grad.

Your current faculty members are your best guide and resource for applying to graduate school, even if it's elsewhere. As coordinator of our graduate program, I regularly field queries about how to apply to grad school from students who aren't interested in our program. But I'd start with the professor you feel closest to in regards of your research and work. Find out, frankly, whether or not they think you're grad school material. I am often shocked at the number of low-achieving students who think they'll get into grad school (in my field, unless you have an A- average, you are not getting into anywhere except for maybe Terminal U).

Research the schools in which you're interested. Pour over their websites, then decide if you want to contact them. Don't hit up random faculty members unless you've been given an introduction by one of your current profs. Do approach the coordinator or administrative assistant for the program (lucky programs that HAVE admin resources!).

Don't send unsolicited writing samples, or your thesis, whatever you do. That will only serve to gain you a reputation as a real PITA which will hurt you come admissions time.
"A piece of general advice: as a graduate student, one is a junior colleague of his or her professors (in a good situation) - not an acolyte."

I thought the correct term was "slave".
Good advice here, so I won't reiterate it. In my grad school applications (social science PhD), I did email certain professors-- carefully. I emailed the people who were the reason for me applying to that schoool, and did not ask them about the program or school itself. The email went like this:
"Dear Professor X, I intend to apply to your program. I am writing because I am very interested in your research on Y (Details about articles I had read, main ideas, in one or two sentences). I believe your research is a good fit for my interest in Z because of Q. My undergraduate thesis is on B. I realize that decisions are made by committee, but I wanted to ask whether you are accepting grad students in your lab for the coming year. Thank you for your time, etc."

The whole thing was about 2 paragraphs long and very carefully tailored to each professor's research interests. I was surprised that ALL of them wrote back! I sent the emails because I didn't want to apply somewhere where my intended advisor's lab was full; in other words, I applied to advisors, not to programs. But again, I didn't ask questions that were answered on the website, and I understood that professors could not admit me themselves.
As a grad student in English with one of those blogs about the end of grad school, I would point out: if everybody is writing advice on how to finish/end/walk away from/get a job after/ grad school, and no one is telling people how to get _in_, that is a really important sign.

Ask yourself what you really want: why do you want to go to grad school in the humanities or social sciences? What do you hope to get out of it? Is it ok, in your opinion, to spend 5-10 years studying and doing a PhD and not get a professorial job on the other end?

Because, as other people have said, it is incredibly difficult to get a full-time, non-adjunct job as a humanities professor. Even if you do get a job, you are limited in terms of where that job might be, and they don't pay all that much. Seriously, think about this. It seems like an easy decision when you are 22 and all your friends are working for just above minimum wage as Starbucks baristas while they "find themselves," but as you get older you will want more stability in terms of your paycheck and living situation, possibly want to start a family and think about retirement. But you will only be partway through a long time of angst and financial precariousness and will either have to soldier on through for a long time or quit the program.

That said, you should choose schools not only based on an advisor you want to work with, but also on their funding packages and job placement rates. Ask the graduate admissions counselors for your targeted departments about these numbers, and be prepared for them to put the most positive spin on their response. I bet you that the faculty you try to contact will not have any data on this, and in our dept., they want to hear from students who have been admitted and are considering attending, but not before.
There's lot's of great advice above.

Here's one additional point to remember. There are _big_ differences in traditions, plans, experiences, as one compares different schools and even different fields. I'm in X Engineering, and I know that our grad program is very different from Y Engineering, even at the same R1 in the same engineering college. We also differ from X Engineering at other schools.

Quick summary: make sure that you make your decisions (and do ask yourself why you want the degree) based on your specific discipline, at the actual schools you are considering.

One other bit of advice: peruse job ads _now_ to see what kinds of positions are available to candidates with the degree you're considering. Would you like those jobs? What subfields are being specified? (I've heard that getting a job as a medievalist is particularly tough, compared to something like 19th century Brit Lit, for example). Be wary about choosing an unemployable subfield, despite the interest to you.
I'd add only one more piece of advice to the excellent advice that has been posted. Even if you think you want to work with the great Professor X, pay attention to which departments have clusters of faculty whose interests are related to yours. This will provide a richer experience overall. If Professor X doesn't have colleagues in fields you think of as "adjacent", then you might be lonely, while a group of people might produce a cohort of grad students that creates a stronger community.
I know I'm reiterating some of these comments, but here goes anyway:

1) Do NOT send them your thesis. Period.
2) Feel free to contact faculty members that you are interested in working with, but don't expect them to have any say in your admission. Simply state that you found their work very interesting (and why), and then ask them about the department. Don't flood them with emails; just introduce yourself and say that, if accepted, you look forward to working with them in some capacity. They may or may not reply.
3) If you live nearby, you could certainly visit campus and set up a meeting with the grad director or a prospective advisor (if they are willing). Also, you should absolutely try to meet a few graduate students.

I am a history graduate student, so this is perhaps specific to my field, but generally professors at both my M.A. institution and Ph.D. institution are interested in meeting prospective students as long as said students do not take up lots of time (i.e. don't be clingy or expect to spend hours picking their brains). In my experience, making contact with professors puts you in a positive light (when done correctly) and demonstrates that you are legitimately interested in their program.
When I was grad-school shopping, I visited three of the four places I was accepted to (one didn't give me any money) just to shake hands, say hi, and check out the vibe, including speaking to a few graduate students.

Everyone involved in the conversations acted as though this were perfectly normal, and I got a couple of tours which allowed me to decide between the two schools I was most impressed by. I'm still glad I made those trips.
Reiterating part of rebecca's advice, I'd say you should write to faculty members whose work really does speak to you. But keep it light, and absolutely avoid asking them to commit to working with you. If you know enough about your interests to have picked out a few crucial scholars in the field, you should be able avoid sounding like you're just casting about for someone to take you in. While faculty members may or may not choose to reply, if you keep it brief and exploratory, there's no reason for them to take offense (and if they do, you probably would find life with them hellish).

My own experience was similar to History Enthusiast's -- possibly because I am in a history subfield. Faculty members were happy to speak with me, and this communication helped me with the application process.

Here's my story: I approached PhD programs with a strong idea of my research areas (and after having completed a Master's degree.) I identified a small handful of schools which appeared to fit my interests, then I set about to confirm these impressions. My emails to faculty expressed familiarity with their work, then described what I was hoping to find in a program, and asked them whether they thought my interests might fit with the general aims of the department. (This sort of question might not work as well in other fields, or in larger and more diffuse departments.) I specifically did not ask if they would be willing to work with me, but I did try to sound as academically attractive as possible.

I got good responses from the few (very few -- choose carefully!) professors I contacted, and their replies helped me in two significant ways: a) I learned whether their department might be a good place for me, and b) I was able to speak to this potential fit in the application.

The two places where I spoke with professors ahead of time, and got a sense of where I might fit in with the department, are the two places which accepted me. Both of my acceptances were at big universities (one was a highly respected state RI, and the other was one of the fancy Ivy League places). I don't know whether the relevant professors were on the admissions committees, but I was able to highlight aspects of my CV and goals which I knew the department would find appealing in light of their current objectives.

I actually heard from a faculty member at one of the two places which rejected me, and apparently the one thing missing in my application was a strong sense of how I could fit into their program. I heard from this professor because he realized that my work was a great fit for his -- something I would have learned if I'd written an email to him -- and he hoped to be able to work with me in the future.

To flip this around, though: In reflecting upon students who've followed me into this program, I can say acceptance didn't seem to be predicated on someone having met or spoken with faculty prior to their application.

It seems to me, then, that if you really have specific faculty in mind you should approach them. But if not, don't. Wait until you're accepted, then speak with faculty to see if the school will meet your needs.
The downside is that I have precious little wisdom to share on the etiquette of grad school admissions. Luckily, I have the Best Readers Ever, so I'll throw this one open to the readers who have experience working in or on graduate admissions. Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? secondary tuition
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