A Harvard PhD Student and Admissions Consultant Shares Her Story [Episode 328]
Interview with Rachel Slutsky, Accepted admissions consultant [Show summary]
Want to know what makes for stupendous statements of purpose or impressive MBA essays? Our guest, and recent addition to Accepted’s team of consultants, is an expert at both. But, for some of you her main claim to fame may be her status as a Harvard PhD Student. In this podcast she discusses how she earned admission to Harvard for a fully funded PhD and what makes for great graduate school application essays. She has also worked with applicants coming from the military and discusses some of the challenges unique to that applicant cohort as well as how to overcome them.
Find out how to apply to grad school successfully from an admissions consultant and Harvard PhD student [Show notes]
Our guest today, Rachel Slutsky, earned her bachelors in English Lit and Jewish Studies from Yeshiva University, her masters in Judaic Studies from the University of Chicago, and is currently pursuing her PhD in Religion and Religious Studies at Harvard University. Since her days as an undergrad she has worked as a writing tutor and teacher, application essay editor and admissions consultant, and she has also edited for the prestigious Harvard Theological Review. Needless to say she knows a ton about the writing required of successful graduate school applicants and students, and she’s going to share that insight with us today.
Can you tell us about your background? Where you grew up? How did you come to pursue the academic path? [2:12]
As you mentioned, I am getting a PhD in religion. I am from the Boston area and had religious studies courses in high school, and my teacher really inspired me. I saw myself being her, and thought I would be a high school religious studies teacher, but when I was in my first year of college, I took a class with a professor who reminded me a lot of my high school teacher. I wrote to my high school teacher and wondered if this professor was at college when she was there, and in fact this professor had made HER want to teach. I switched my goal to teaching similar content but on a graduate school level.
You are in a fully funded PhD program in Religion and Religious Studies at Harvard. Getting into a Harvard PhD program is something many people would give their eye teeth for. How did you do it? [3:57]
I have to admit there is always some piece of luck to it. There is also persistence and actual skill. For persistence I applied to be a Harvard undergrad and did not get accepted. I was not too distraught about it at the time – I really felt like I could succeed there and could go there for another degree. They allow you to submit an application of any sort three times, so I decided for my masters not to apply to Harvard since I knew I wanted a PhD afterwards and wanted to try again then. The real skill thing was being able to honestly evaluate myself. Even though I look back now and think I would have been okay as a Harvard undergrad, I did not present an application that showed that at the time. I wasn’t thinking about the application in a complex way. It was only by the end of college that I felt I understood what it means to apply well somewhere.
In terms of skill, for the application specifically it involves tailoring. It cannot be a common application. You have to figure out a way to stand out. That is really important. It is a performance, and while not exaggerating, you have to put on your best outfit, your best face, and it is the time to show off. With applications every part needs to complement every other part. The cover letter serves a different purpose than the resume. Redundancy is not what the adcom is looking for.
You have received over $50,000 in funding in addition to being in a fully funded PhD program. How did you manage that? [9:45]
I do have to credit some of it to luck. My master’s degree was fully funded which I did not expect. When I was accepted to University of Chicago I got two emails – one was the acceptance, and the other was that I had won a fellowship to cover tuition and a stipend.
Just like with applications for college, applying for grants is a good way to learn and develop tolerance about rejection. One of my professors once said, “If you are getting every grant you apply for you are clearly not applying for enough.” I think of that advice often.
You recently joined Accepted as a consultant after years as a writing tutor, admissions consultant, and even editor for the prestigious Harvard Theological Review. In your Accepted bio, you wrote “One of the most remarkable parts of my job is helping my clients to find their own voices and tell authentic narratives about themselves.” How do you help them tell authentic narratives? [12:56]
Sometimes when applicants are thinking about putting their best foot forward, they can get so lost in that mindset they can get inauthentic and go for what they think the admissions committee wants to hear. I think what they want is X, and I’ll try to please them. To find that authentic voice and narrative, slow down and just tell me, why are you passionate about this, what got you interested in your subject. All of the sudden narratives and stories and authentic voice start coming through. Write that down.
How should the statement of purpose for graduate school differ from the personal statement for college? [14:55]
One of the big differences is that with college applications the adcom is not expecting demonstration of expertise. When applying to masters or PhD programs, though, you want to demonstrate some level of expertise – you get what’s going on in the field, you’ve done your homework, you see yourself developing some kind of career out of this. I don’t think the expectation is career-driven per se, but ultimately you are more looking backwards at aspects of yourself to take with you. For grad school applications you have to be in the know enough – “I understand what it involves to go into this career.”
You recently worked with applicants in the process of separating from the military and applying to college and graduate school. What are some of the distinctive challenges they face and how should people coming from the military address them? [17:12]
One they pose to themselves. There is a lot of anxiety – will I even be accepted? I am such an unusual candidate. I have been out of school for 7-10 years. My skills aren’t finely honed; I am the wrong candidate.
It is really about changing perspective. In reality they are very attractive candidates if they can tell a narrative and show the reason why college is right. There is immense maturity and bravery by pursuing a military career, and there is lots of expertise that can be talked about in a very compelling way. Military vets should not overlook that in taking advantage of the GI Bill, not everyone is doing that, and in fact some never go. In that sense, they have a really deep appreciation for education, their country is thanking them with the gift of education, and they know they want this.
You’ve worked with applicants across a range of specialties as a writing tutor and admissions consultant. What are some of the differences that applicants should be aware of let’s say between an MA and an MBA? [23:23]
If you want to go into academia you typically want your master’s degree to lead into a PhD. In either case you need to show research and work done, and that you can think deeply and theoretically about things. With an MBA you want career goals that apply to the “real world.” In some ways that can produce more interesting and readable personal statements because they are very autobiographical, like, “how my experience inside of Amazon has influenced what I want to do.” Sometimes with academic applications the narrative is more about thinking deeply and proving one’s ability to think deeply.
How do you advise those considering applying for graduate education in the humanities where you don’t have assurance of paying off the loans? There can be quite a bit of risk involved. [27:40]
There is a lot of rhetoric in the academy right now regarding a job shortage. Only so many professors are needed and there are 2-3 times as many doctoral students being produced. It is a combination of staying practical and pursuing what you are passionate about. Everyone needs to have a savvy side plan or job alternative, developing skills while working on academic careers. For me I am writing and editing and could see myself doing more than I do now if the PhD career didn’t pan out. I am still investing a lot of my time writing a book-length dissertation, but having some other skills in my back pocket is very important.
What about the differences in putting together a master’s application versus a PhD application? [30:00]
For the investment aspect, my experience has been that humanities PhDs in the U.S. are fully-funded, though there is often a heavy teaching load. The real money comes from the master’s students, as they are rarely fully funded. In that sense, some people debate if it is worthwhile to apply straight out of college for a PhD. Some people are more ready for that, but I had a vicious but helpful lecture from a professor. I mentioned a student who had been accepted to a particular doctoral program, and I said maybe I can do what he did, and the professor said, “Did you know how many languages he learned on his own, and how many papers he’s already had published?” I ended up applying to a handful of master’s programs and two PhD programs, and got into all the master’s and neither of the PhD programs, so doing a master’s to build expertise is one functional difference in the programs.
In terms of the PhD application, you must show more research, a clearer sense of direction, and show increased specialization. When you are coming out of college you can say, “I took courses in X, am super interested in Y, and have some ideas.” A doctoral application doesn’t have to promise a specific dissertation topic, but must show thinking on the level of someone already writing a dissertation – I have topics in mind, I could see myself writing about this ancient book, etc. These are things I could not have articulated before doing a master’s degree.
What do applicants frequently just not understand about the grad school admissions process that they should really grasp before they start applying? [36:56]
People often don’t understand (and I didn’t) that like the SAT, the GRE is not the total measurement of who you are. The SAT is its own test, and you have to learn a set of skills to be good at that. It is ignorant to think that if you are smart, you’ll get in, or if you write well, you’ll get in. There is a certain way for the application to be constructed, so that’s where an admissions consultant is so helpful because we can help an applicant figure out how to apply, and then there are systems in place to seek out and do that.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen in applicant essays? [40:24]
Reticence in talking about oneself. Figuring out how to talk about yourself that is not too casual but in the realm of the subject matter. Skipping important parts of one’s story is another – the admissions committee wants to see self-awareness. Do you know how you got from point A to point B. And build the bridge to the school and program you are applying to.
Any last words of advice? [43:36]
Seek help. No matter how accomplished a writer you are.
What do you wish I would have asked you? [44:17]
I would want to reiterate the aspect of persistence – don’t let it turn into obsession – but don’t let a rejection be a judgment of you, but try to view it as a judgment of an application. I would go over the application with someone to figure out what could have been done better. These are skills you can take with you when you apply for grants.
• Rachel Slutsky’s Bio
• Harvard Kennedy School: An Interview with Admissions Director Matt Clemons
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