How to Build Relationships that Provide an Admissions Boost
Prospective graduate students are all looking for a way to outshine the competition. Building relationships with faculty members, especially those you might wish to work with while you’re in the program, can also go a long way toward making your application stand out. Here's how to make it happen.
A productive and positive relationship with a graduate department or particular professor can begin early on in the admissions process or even while you are still shopping for schools. As you consider programs, reach out to the departments directly via email – a general contact address is usually available on the departmental website. Express polite interest in the program and introduce yourself and your academic interests. Ask a few introductory questions that get the ball rolling – are there alumni you can speak with? Would you be able to sit in on a class sometime? Take a tour? Anything that can get your foot in the door and get you in conversations with people who currently or recently attended the program is a good start. These people can introduce you to current faculty. You should also reach out to people from your undergraduate program. It's possible that one of your professors or recommendation letter writers knows or has worked with a faculty member in your preferred program. This can be a great way to get an introduction!
Be an Expert
Once you do make contact with a faculty member, have something compelling to say. Make sure you've read their publications and are up on recent developments in the field. Prepare a few talking points that highlight what you can contribute to their ongoing research projects. Be able to speak knowledgeably about the connections between their work and your interests and talents. Make sure you are confident (but not cocky!) when you highlight the unique set of skills and knowledge that you can bring to the table.
But Admit You Have More to Learn
If you are interested in a graduate program, it’s because you know there are some skills and information that you have not yet mastered. Be specific about what you hope to gain from the program. Have a general idea about what you would like to do after the graduate program, and be prepared to discuss with the faculty member how your time in the program would contribute to that end goal. If they are going to work with you, they want to know where you think it will lead. Be both realistic and ambitious in these conversations. If you have any weaknesses in your application, reveal them, and ask for advice on how best to address them in your application.
Continue the Conversation
The point of this is to build an ongoing relationship. When you speak to a faculty member, take notes on your conversations (or jot a few afterwards), so that you can pick up the threads the next time you have contact. When possible, attend conferences or track the news in the your academic field and when something particularly relevant pops up, get in touch with a quick email comment or ask a question that relates to the professor’s research. But make sure you don't overwhelm them; always be polite and mindful of the time they are giving to you.
Build a Lasting Network
To make these connections last, make sure you are always your genuine self, but your most hardworking, professional self. Let your talents shine, and actively engage in these conversations with faculty. Then, when application time rolls around, you will have hit the ground running with the departmental admissions committee; faculty members will recognize your name and know you have something positive to contribute to the department. But a university wide admissions committee might not know about you yet, so be sure to include on your application that you are particularly interested in working with Professor X, and mention that you have already been in contact with that faculty member. Make sure your contact knows your application has gone in, and then let your great network building work for you.
Close the Conversation Gracefully
When all this networking comes to fruition, you should hear good news from more than one school. After you decide which program to attend, remember to get in touch with the people you met along the way. Let all the faculty members you contacted know where you ended up and thank them for their time. Keep the door open for future conversations down the road. These people are part of your academic community and professional network now, so be sure to end on a positive and professional note.