Applying to Grad School Part 1 – Finding a program
This past year I followed in the footsteps of Charles Halton as the president of the Graduate Student Association here at HUC. As GSA president, I am able to sit on the Graduate Executive Committee. This has been a great experience since I have been involved in things like approving dissertation proposals and admissions. Having now seen the other side of the admissions process, I thought I would start a series of posts about applying to a graduate program in Biblical Studies and related fields. This probably would be timelier next Fall, but it is fresh in my mind now, and frankly, if you are planning on applying next Spring you better be starting the process now!
Most schools have the same basic components of the application: transcripts, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, sample paper(s), and a statement of purpose. I will talk about some of these individually in further posts, but what is of first importance is finding the programs where you fit best. There are two sides to this. You want to find a program that offers the type of subjects you are interested in studying, but at the same time, you need to find a program that is interested in a student like you! What I mean by this is that most departments have a certain mix of professors, and they need to maintain a similar mix of students (so that they all have classes to teach). Therefore, whether you get into a certain program may depend as much on how you fit into that mix as on your qualifications.
Your first step then should be to find out about the programs to which you are applying. Set up phone calls with the director of the graduate program and the professor(s) with whom you would like to study. Do not be afraid to ask them direct questions about what they are looking for in a student. Find out their interests and current research topics. Find out how many students they plan to accept (they probably won’t know exactly until the budget is worked out in the Spring). Find out how they divide students by area (ie Hebrew Bible, Semitics, Biblical Interpretation, etc) and which areas traditionally have the most applications. Your goal is to position yourself in the “sweet spot” of the program.
Then, once you have narrowed your options to a reasonable number of schools, set up visits. I know it is hard to travel on a student budget, but I cannot emphasize enough the value of seeing a school first hand and meeting people face to face. I was surprised by how few students actually visited HUC. Visiting a campus will also help you meet some current grad students who can give you a feel for what the program is really like.
Another place to meet professors and students is at professional societies. Become a member of SBL, ASOR, etc and attend the national meeting (or the regional meeting if a school is close to you AND the professors will be attending the meeting). I am an introvert and hate that sort of thing, but I wish now that I had gone when I was applying to schools. Most schools will have some sort of reception at which you can meet the professors (and size up your competition!). Again, it will be a place where you can meet current grad students and make some contacts inside the program.
Only once you have a good feel for the programs to which you are applying will you be ready to put together your application. Further, your diligence will help distinguish you as a serious student.