I know — it’s not easy to find a grad program that feels like the school of your dreams. They’re all so amazing. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone just tell you where to apply?
Maybe they’d analyze your profile, read your SOP, and highlight four schools actively seeking students who look just like you (and whose graduates go on to hugely inspiring careers). All you have to do is hit “submit.”
Sounds great, right?
Surely, some websites claim to do this. Unfortunately, they’re all digital garbage, and giving them your email will only increase the content of your spam box.
So, what can you do? How to find a grad program that’s 1) prestigious, where 2) you have a solid chance of admission, and 3) where you can be absolutely certain the faculty are excited and dedicated to launching your career? Does that even exist? Do you just trust the rankings? Do you spray out applications like a waterhose and just hope for the best?
Well, that’s what most students do. (And why most get rejected.)
But today, you’re going to learn a better way. It’ll take some effort. But if you’re willing to do what my man Ganesh did, you too will find your TRUE dream school. A top-ranking program that loves you just as much as you love them.
And, as it did with Ganesh, it might just change your life.
When we first met, I had little idea that Ganesh would be one of the most remarkable students I’ve ever seen. Despite his obvious intellect, and amazing credentials in Human-Computer Interaction, his first-draft SOP had cliché problems:
It was an autobiography (cringe) with zero “Why This Program” section (double cringe!). It gave his entire life story, but didn’t explain what he wanted to accomplish in grad school at all.
Of course, I pointed him to the Master’s SOP Starter Kit, but I also emphasized how important it was that he really dig into his school list. You can’t get admitted to good programs, I told him, without explaining why they’re perfect for you.
“I will come back to you in a few days time after I have reached out to some students and professors in my target masters program, and gained some knowledge on the research work there.”
Honestly, I thought I’d never hear from Ganesh again. I thought he’d be one of the infinite students I encounter on social media who beg for advice but choose not to follow it. When he didn’t reply after a few days, this seemed apparent, and I forgot about Ganesh entirely.
Then, a few months later, something remarkable happened.
How To Research Grad Schools Like a Pro
When the following message showed up in my inbox, I went full-on Tiger Woods and pumped my fist with joy.
“I am writing this message to express my gratitude on what an immense impact our brief conversation had on my life (not exaggerating here).
I started off writing a generic SOP. However, after having read your toolkit I took it upon myself to research thoroughly every program I wanted to apply to. Through this process I discovered myself, I realized what actually interests me, and why it’s important to not just look at the monetary benefits I can derive from a target program, but also personal satisfaction.
Fast forward a few months, my final list of target programs is completely different from my original. The final list doesn’t have the same glitz and accolades of the programs I’d ranked initially, but they’re closer to my interests, closer to my heart.
I wrote to many faculty at my target programs, explaining my interests and enquiring about their labs and current research work, and if they have a place for someone of my skillset in their programs/labs.
Surprisingly, all of them responded! (Although multiple of them did tell me they responded only because my email was backed by detailed analysis of their work, and wasn’t just another generic inquiry – again something I learned from you. It’s not just SOPs that your guidelines helped, but even the emails I write daily.) Some were even surprised that I was just a master’s student and not a PhD (all thanks to you for that!).
Through this life changing journey I discovered what really interests me and I finally ended up with just two programs (which were completely different from my initial target programs) that perfectly aligned with my interests and past experiences.
So please accept my heartfelt thanks for helping me find myself!”
Only Two Schools?!
Honestly, at this point, I was worried about Ganesh. Applying to ONLY two schools isn’t exactly the greatest strategy. (Seriously, I’m not advising this.)
Yet, as we began to work on his SOP, and as Ganesh introduced some of the nuances he now faced in writing his essays, I saw how much he’d accomplished. It quickly became apparent that his research, and his attempts to find a grad program perfect for him, had paid off in a huge way.
At Ganesh’s new #1 Target School, he was interested in working with a certain professor. Let’s call her Dr. Selina Kyle. Curiously, Dr. Kyle was only tangentially affiliated with the program he was applying to (she was in a different department), but Ganesh emailed anyway because her work was so perfect for him.
In their email conversation, Dr. Kyle encouraged him to mention her lab in his SOP. She even mentioned how he could get volunteer research credit that transferred directly to his program, and “when you get here,” she said (as if he was already admitted!) “we can talk about paid research assistant positions as well.”
Lastly, Dr. Kyle told Ganesh that his proposed topic fit well with a current interdisciplinary project that she, another professor in his target program, and a current student were working on. “So there’s definitely precedence for research in that area and I do have several ideas for following up,” she told him.
When Ganesh relayed all of this to me…I was blown away. Seriously. His SOP was writing itself.
How Did This Affect the SOP?
We know that a truly excellent SOP, the kind that boosts your chances of admission, MUST explain “why this program” in a specific, meaningful, and nuanced way.
What better way to answer that question than by paraphrasing the words of professors who are already encouraging you to apply?
In his SOP, Ganesh articulated it this way:
“After convening with Dr. Selina Kyle and discussing upcoming research in her lab and current trends in international UX design, she expressed an openness to integrating my interests with the previous work of her HCI student, Barbara Gordon. Barbara explored how communicative adaptation works in industry in terms of cultural dimensions, and similarly, I plan to explore the relevance of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions in localization efforts for multinational companies. Though I will pursue employment in industry after graduating, such research opportunities, even if limited, will only help me to make well-informed design interventions at a global scale, and make products more locally relevant and competitive.”
It doesn’t get any better than that.
Why this program?
“Well, because your professors already know exactly how I’m going to fit into their work, they’ve already proposed new projects, and it seems we can accomplish something truly amazing together.”
Curiously, among his two applications, Ganesh only received one admission…because he canceled his second application when his #1 choice (a very high-ranking school) admitted him.
I got in!!
I got into [university name redacted]! I am sure you receive many similar emails, but in my case it was not just the SOP you changed but indirectly my entire profile and my future goals. I can’t thank you enough for this transformative journey. Please never stop doing what you are doing. I remain indebted to you for your invaluable help.
Ganesh is extremely polite here. He’s an awesome guy. But he’s underselling how much time HE spent doing the real, hard work of defining his target schools.
Even so, be like Ganesh, folks.
I don’t mean that you should only apply to two grad schools. I mean that you should do extensive research on the unique aspects of every program, reach out to professors, reach out to admissions folks, reach out to ANYONE who can give you insight into what your grad school journey might look like. After all, Ganesh explored a dozen or more schools before he found the two that were uniquely and uncannily perfect for him.
Ganesh isn’t alone here, guys. This is what ALL the best applicants do. Don’t believe me? Check out more examples here.
If you want to find a grad program that loves you as much as you love them, you have to do your research. It might take a month of effort. But, as the wise sages teach us…
In His Words: Ganesh’s Tips to Find a Grad Program That’s Perfect for You
“It all started with Jordan’s SOP Starter Kit. I was quite passionate about my area of study, HCI, however I hadn’t dived deep enough to identify that niche sub-study within HCI that relates the most with me or drew me to it in the first place.
The very first section in the Starter Kit (“what is my academic goal”) helped me embark on a journey of self-search that allowed me to identify specific topics within HCI I could best utilize. Once I knew what fascinated me most, I set out finding programs that had active courses and research work in that sub-study. Incidentally, there were very few programs involved in that sub-study, so I saved a lot in application money ?. But at the same time, they were highly competitive programs with acceptance rates falling way below 20%. However, all the soul searching definitely helped me craft a SOP that stood out (thanks to Jordan who vetted the SOP and helped better portray my journey) and I suppose that helped the adcom identify me as someone who is best suited for the program.
Before I applied to the programs, I made a point to dig as deep as possible on all the contributions the program/university has made to my chosen research interest. I reached out to professors through LinkedIn and email (two modes of communication that are the most likeliest to get you a response, at least in my experience). I also reached out to research assistants and PhD candidates, because they are more likely to respond compared to professors who might be under tight schedules. It also helps to send a personalized invite which briefly describes your interest and how it is intertwined with the lab’s work and the professor’s previous work. (I have had professors tell me that they responded back only because it was not another generic invitation.) [Jordan’s Note: read this article to find out how to email professors in the most appropriate way!]
I believe doing this will not only help you craft a very sophisticated SOP, but also give you an opportunity to figure out if this program actually helps with your academic goals and aligns with your interests.”
Sure, it would be nice if someone could just tell you which schools to apply to. Ranking services like US News, QS, and (my favorite for CS students) Drafty all attempt to give you some clarity as you find a grad program that’s right for you.
But the rankings are just “Step 1.”
Once you compile a list of attractive programs, it’s time do the real work that Ganesh described above:
- Identify specific topics in your field that interest you most (the Master’s or PhD Starter Kits will help!);
- Find programs with active courses and research work in that sub-field;
- Dig as deep as possible on all the contributions the program/university makes to your chosen research (or professional) interest;
- Reach out to professors, PhD candidates, and research assistants through LinkedIn and email. (Might this annoy them? Yes, but who cares. You’re in this to win!);
- Briefly describe your interest and how it intertwines with the lab’s and professor’s previous work.
From that point on, you’ll have everything you need to write an A+ statement of purpose, maximize your chances of admission, and map out a grad career that excites you.
Huge thanks to Ganesh for sharing his story and tips for success. I hope you find his incredible journey just as inspiring as I do. Now, go and do the same. You’ve got this. Your dream school is waiting.
Need some help clarifying the “Why This Program” section of your SOP? I got you!
How will you find a grad program that’s absolutely perfect for you?