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I've gone through many application cycles now across admissions, fellowships, and grants. There are some common themes on what is important and what is untold.
Writing & Content
- Optimize for clarity: This is first part of becoming an academic -- there is little time for those reading your material for extra words. Clarity is a useful skill, normally accomplished by re-writing content.
- Optimize toward believableness (can be above cohesiveness): You don't have to have the perfect background for the area you want to work in (for most schools-- commentary on places like BAIR forthcoming). The key aspect if you are changing areas is to make it clear there is a reason for the path you are taking and that you have the skills to accomplish it. Lay out the steps in clear terms.
- Applications are your beliefs when you apply, not when you get in: Write your applications based on what seems right at the time. Just go for it. It's totally normal for this to change when you show up! Optimize for getting in somewhere close, then figure out the rest of the way (the rest of the way is the Ph.D., not the application).
- Professors read applications: Time-pressed people read your applications and ultimately someone must stick up for you if you want to get accepted. Think about who may say "I like this one" and accept you. Think about what other people in your area may bring to the table, and what you bring. You are the only one who can be you, showcase yourself and your uniqueness.
- Scientists outside of your field read fellowships: Fellowship applications are a different balance -- you want to impress the readers with a bit of technical knowledge in your area, but not too much that they do not understand what you are saying. The minimum bar is to convince them of your competence, and the highest bar is convincing them that your work and you are going to change the world!
- "You have to kiss a lot of frogs": My advisor's way of saying the system is stochastic. The most successful academics are persistent, and the application cycles reinforce that. They make sure you are okay with failure because 99.9% of students get rejected all the time in the course of their career - it is the few victories we celebrate and highligtht repeatedly.
- Email graduate students: The most reliable way to get feedback on research, prospective life, and anything related to your future at a school is email graduate students (current or recent grads). These people are more responsive and more honest -- they're a future expression of yourself.
- Work in public: With a website or blog you control your first impression. It is becoming more expected for students to have websites, so take the time to put the foot forward you want. This can be LinkdIn and similar services, but have something!
I have uploaded my materials for graduate admissions and fellowships I have applied for since 2016.
- Graduate Admissions: I applied in fall of 2016 to 5 schools: Harvard, CalTech, Berkeley, MIT, and Stanford. I got accepted to CalTech and Berkeley for Microsystems/robotics. [download material]
- Fellowships: as someone with intermittent funding, I applied to many overly optimistic fellowships. I was a solid candidate for the likes of NSF & NDSEG, getting 3 honorable mentions, but I was overly eager applying for the large-tech company ones (Google, Facebook, etc.). Ultimately, I was rejected from all of these. These are definitely intended for late-stage graduate students with direction and demonstrated success. [download material]
At Berkeley I co-founded the Equal Access to Application Assistance (EAAA) program to help underrepresented groups access writing and material feedback in the cycle (as many applicants from top institutions have).
A resource on similar programs (from last year) can be found here - thanks Chinasa T. Okolo for putting this together. Note - we are building a central resource for this affiliated with the EAAA program.
Other Links (finding more)