Over the last several years I applied 4 times to PhD programs and received 4 rejection letters in the mail. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing wrong. Did the admissions committees think my GRE scores and undergraduate GPA were too low? Did I make some mistakes in my Statement of Goals? Whatever the case by the time I decided to apply to Temple I knew I had to take a different approach. I decided I would take a couple of PhD courses non-matric, arrange meetings with the professors, and speak to students in the program. I did a number of things as I was determined to gain admission to the program.
Every doctoral student’s story is different, and some people may not have taken the same steps I did to receive an acceptance letter. However, what I present here is a firsthand account of what worked for me. I hope people who may be thinking about a PhD program will find this information helpful.
The Application Process
The admissions committee at Temple wants to see proof that you can handle doctoral level coursework, therefore all applicants are required to submit copies of their transcripts. Of course they are interested in your GPA, but they will also want to know how well you did in your more difficult classes. In my case I was fortunate in that I took 3 advanced research courses when I was working on my Master of Social Work degree (GPA 3.8) at Temple. I received high grades in those classes so I had some evidence that I was familiar with research methods and theories. In addition to my coursework at Temple I also did well when I was working on my Master of Social Work/Master of Divinity degree (GPA 3.49) at Palmer Theological Seminary. While there much of my coursework focused on how the church can influence society and in my thesis I discussed ways the African American church can address gang violence.
My undergraduate grades were not strong. Unlike people who graduate Summa Cum Laude I graduated thank-you-lordy. I faced a number of challenges when I was working on my Bachelor of Science degree, and it was an accomplishment just to graduate. I feared the admissions committee might hold my undergraduate GPA against me so I implored them to look at my most recent grades to get a better picture of scholarship. Fortunately Temple looks at the whole package, otherwise my low undergrad GPA would have left me dead in the water.
The GRE and Me
The Graduate Records Exam (GRE) is a computer adaptive test administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). Most schools want students to take the test to attain a certain score. When I took the exam several years ago I knew I needed to get a combined score of 1000 on the verbal and quantitative sections and a 4 on the analytic writing section. The GRE has been described by some as “brutal” “crazy hard” and “like the SATs on steroids.” I took the test 3 hour test 4 times at $150 a pop and in the end I think I missed the minimum score 2 or 3 questions. The whole ordeal left me angry, frustrated, and disheartened. I felt like the GRE was keeping me out of a PhD program.
I think part of my problems with the GRE stemmed from the fact that I was working full time and had obligations in the evenings. I really didn’t have time to prepare for it. For those interested in taking the test I would recommend that you sequester yourself, purchase a good test prep book (I recommend this one) and purchase some GRE vocabulary flash cards. Back when I was preparing to take the test I paid $800 to take a prep course with the Princeton Review. My scores increased exponentially. However, I am cognizant of the fact that not everyone has $800 laying around and even if you do it won’t be enough. The folks at the Princeton Review upped the cost and the course and it now costs between $999 or $1299 depending on which option you select.
The GRE and standardized tests are a money making scam and some scholars argue that the tests is culturally biased and simply can not predict how well a person will do in grad school. Even ETS realized there was a problem with their test and in 2011 they instituted a new one that “more accurately reflects the types of questions a person may see in a graduate program.” I decided that I would never take the GREs again and that the Educational Testing Service and The Princeton Review would not receive any more of my money. By the time I applied to Temple I felt as though I had a plethora of other indicators to support my academic abilities and I stated as such in my Statement of Goals.
Statement of Goals
The College of Education requires all applicants to write a Statement of Goals. I know for a fact that the admissions committee places a lot of weight on what a person puts in his or his statement so I made sure I included as much pertinent information as possible. Below are just a few of the things I discussed in my letter.
- I included the fact that for the past 20 years I have worked in an urban school district as Student Assistance Counselor. In this capacity I primarily work with at risk youth or children who need additional support.
- I included details about the ethnographic research I conducted several years ago. I wanted members of the admissions committee to know that I was familiar with scientific inquiry.
- I mentioned my previous coursework which I believed prepared me for doctoral studies. Specifically I discussed the high marks I received in three advanced research courses I took when I was working on my Master of Social Work degree at Temple University. I also described the research I conducted when I was working on my Master’s degree at Palmer Theological Seminary.
- I made sure to talk about my research interests. Specifically I described how I was interested in urban schools and their host communities, parental involvement and how it affects student achievement, and the role that the black church can play in fostering resilience in African-American children.
- I discussed the reasons why I wanted to pressure my doctorate at Temple. First, the College of Education is rated as one of the best programs in the nation, and second the professors are respected, well trained and have published in scholarly journals. Additionally, I mentioned that the school’s mission statement and approach to education research is congruent with mine.
- I discussed why my undergraduate cumulative average was so low. I didn’t just say, “I was going through something at the time.” I provided specific information about the challenges I faced and how I overcame them. I also noted that I did not drop out of college because I wanted to finish what I started.
- In my letter I described how I began to take courses in the College of Education before I applied. I stated that I got an A in the one course I completed and was currently doing well in the advanced course I was taking.
- A lot of programs want you to have a specific person who you want to work with and mentor you. However, in my letter I indicated that I would feel comfortable training under any one of the College of Education professors. I supported this claim by indicating that I had previously met with all the core faculty and taken classes with two of them.
- I noted that I had ideas for a dissertation but had not decided on any one topic.
- I acknowledged that my GRE scores were not up to par, and implored the admission committee to look my combined GPA in my two masters programs. I also noted that the GRE simply cannot measure a person’s drive, aptitude and ability. As education professors I am sure they were aware of this criticism.
I knew it was crucial that I nailed my Statement of Goals. I understood that while transcripts, recommendations and GRE scores were important, the admissions committee would place heavy emphasis on the content of my letter to decide if I was an adequate “fit” for the program.
The College of Education requires that all applicants get three letters of recommendation. Who you select to write your letters is of vital importance. In my opinion your letters should only be written by your former college professors who have a PhD and are familiar with your scholarship. I have heard about instances where applicants had their personal friends or former bosses write letters for them. I am convinced that admissions committees are not interested in hearing about how you are a hard worker, a good person, or come to work on time. They want to know if you have the intellectual ability, critical thinking skills and aptitude for doctoral level work. But what if it has been some time since you have taken classes, and do not have the contact information for your professors? In some cases you may have to contact the department or do a Google search to find them. I found one of my former professors on Facebook! She had retired and moved to another state. Yet she was happy to write a letter for me and for that I was eternally grateful. One of my professors didn’t recall much about me so I had to refresh his memory. It helped that he had my previous grade on file and since I got an A in his class he could unequivocally state that I was a superb student.
I asked three ‘heavyweights’ to write letters for me. All three were respected in their fields and had published articles in scholarly journals. Moreover, all three were Temple professors I had when I was working on my MSW. I contacted them because a) I knew they would be willing to write a letter for me and b) I got an A in their classes.
To summarize, if at all possible make sure you have highly respected former professors write your letters of recommendation. Second, I recommend that you only contact professors who classes you got an A in. That way they can say that you were a superb student and can speak to your intellectual abilities.
Meeting with the Professors
Somehow I learned that it is a good idea to meet with professors in the department before you apply to the school. With this in mind I began contacting people in the College of Ed a full year ahead of time. In my initial contact e-mails went something like this:
Hello, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Marc Freeman and I am interested in Temples Urban Education PhD program. I read your bio and I think my interests may be similar to yours. Would you be available to meet with me so I can learn more about the program and your research interests?
By reaching out to the professors I was attempting to show that I was truly interested in the program. Also I wanted them to remember me when my application came across their desks. All told I met with 4 professors including the interim dean. My meetings with them were brief; no more than 20 minutes, and during that time I sought to learn about their backgrounds and research interests. Where did they go to school and what was their dissertation on? How long have they been teaching and what kind of training did they receive? I didn’t just ask such questions because I was nosey, I wanted to learn more about their background and determine if they might be able to mentor me if I was admitted to the school. I also made sure to ask specific questions about the program. How many students apply each year? What is the acceptance rate? How many minorities are in the program? I read the mission statement on line can you tell me more about your philosophy here? In short I did as much as possible to learn about the school as I wanted to make sure I would fit in there.
The information I received during my meetings with the professors proved invaluable as they told me what type of student they were looking for. Also they gave me advice about what to put in my letter; information I would not have garnered had I not met with them face to face.
Taking Classes Non-Matric
I decided to take a couple of classes to prove that I could handle doctoral work. I contacted a professor in the program and he agreed to let me take a course with him. Taking the class confirmed what I already knew; I wanted to get a doctorate in education and I wanted to get it from Temple. I wanted to make sure I received a high mark so I completed the readings (well most of them) and wrote my papers to the best of my ability. In the end I got the grade I was after, but perhaps more importantly I got a chance to interact and bond with current students in the program; students who understood the application process and were willing to share information.
In January of 2013 I contacted another Urban Ed professor and asked if I could take her course. She has some reservations at first because the class was typically reserved for more advanced PhD students. However, I arranged a meeting with her and after I shared some information about my background and the previous research I conducted she was willing to give me a shot. I won’t lie, that class was extremely difficult. Probably the only course I took that was harder was New Testament Greek. Again I worked hard and in the end I received a high mark. I proved to myself and the professor that I was PhD material and could hang with the more advanced students.
Sometime later I learned that the two professors I took were on the admissions committee. There was simply no way for me to know this when I was taking their classes (although I was glad when I found out). I know for a fact that by meeting with them beforehand and taking their classes I strengthened my candidacy.
Within a month after I applied I received an e-mail from a professor in the program; he wanted to arrange a phone interview with me. I was very happy to receive that e-mail as it meant I made the first cut and was being considered for the program. The first thing I did was e-mail a couple of the doctoral students to find out what kinds of questions I can expect during the interview. One of them got right back to me and gave me the heads up. I knew most of the questions beforehand! The phone interview wasn’t very long and at the end I asked questions about the program. I knew it might be a while before I heard something, but I was prepared to wait. I did all I could do and anxiously awaited the committee’s decision.
I know what rejection letters look and feel like. They are thin in appearance and when you open them up they all essentially say the same thing, ‘We regret to inform you that we cannot offer admission to you at this time’. Imagine my surprise one spring day when I went to my mailbox and received a large envelope from Temple. In actuality it was a standard size envelope only it was thicker in diameter. When I opened it I learned I got in! The envelope was thicker because it contained information about how to register for classes and some additional things I needed to know. It also included a document which instructed me to submit a $100 acceptance fee (ha!) if I was still interested. I signed the paperwork, filled out the check and drove to the post office. I sent everything back quickly because I was afraid the people on the admissions committee might change their minds.
I did it! After 5 attempts I made it into the PhD program of my choice. Words cannot express how happy I felt. I was on a natural high, one that lasted all day. Looking back now I think it was a good thing I received those rejection letters. I could not have landed in a better place than Temple University. The professors are knowledgeable, the students are awesome and I love the campus. I am having so much fun and learning so much there that I almost don’t want to leave/graduate. I guess I can’t stay there forever and with hard work and persistence I should be done my program in 2017.