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February 21, 2011

5 Tips for Applying to American Graduate Schools in the Humanities or Social Sciences

5 Tips for Applying to American Graduate Schools in the Humanities or Social Sciences

As the global recession slowly begins to lift, graduate school in the humanities and social sciences is still suffering from the initial blows from budget cuts. As such, entrance into these programs, in Europe but in America in particular, is extremely competitive. While most overseas graduate applications are still most highly concentrated in the hard sciences and business, many international students want to pursue post-undergraduate studies in the "soft" sciences and humanistic fields. Here are a few tips for prospective applicants.

1. Have a very specific idea of what you want to research.
Every graduate school application requires a "statement of purpose" (SOP) in which you tell admissions committees why, specifically, you want to pursue further study in the humanities or social sciences. Unlike say, law school applications in which you write about your general accomplishments, the SOP for humanities and social studies applications require that you discuss exactly what interests you in your prospective field, since you'll eventually have to complete original research in an area of specialization.

2. Demonstrate teaching experience or interest. 
While law school trains you to be a lawyer and medical school trains you to be a doctor of some sort, graduate school in the social sciences and humanities is essentially professional training for teaching in institutions of higher education. If you have experience in teaching in whatever capacity, make sure to mention this in your application. Even if you don't, describe characteristics about yourself that would make you a good teacher. This is also a good idea because many schools offer competitive teaching positions that fund your study.

3. Make doing well on the GRE and TOEFL a high priority.
As an international applicant, you are required to take both the GRE and TOEFL. Unlike graduate school in the hard sciences, pursuing a degree in social science of the humanities will require that you read and write a lot. In this sense, demonstrating a high level of competence in reading and writing in English is extremely important. When taking the GRE, place higher emphasis on the reading and writing portion of the exam. 

4. Secure letters of recommendation well in advance of the deadline.
Unlike many European graduate schools, American graduate schools place heavy emphasis on letters of recommendation. Be sure to contact your recommenders (usually three are required) about a year or six months before the application due date. Select recommenders who can comment on your abilities to succeed in academic research as well as teaching. It's best to pick people who know you well and can testify to your strengths in depth and on a personal level. 

5. Apply to several schools, and make sure your selection is diverse. 
Since admission to schools is highly competitive, you don't want to make the mistake of applying to only two or three of your dream schools like Harvard or Yale. You'd be surprised by how many good state schools are out there that don't receive thousands of applicants. Do your research and apply to those schools with faculty who specialize in your area of interest. Diversify your schools list to include a mix of competitive and less competitive schools to increase your chances of admission. 

Katheryn Rivas is a freelance writer who particularly enjoys writing about online universities.  Questions and comments can be sent to: 

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