Disclose sibling graduate school attendance?
January 7, 2013 9:07 PM   Subscribe

My sibling is at the same graduate school to which I'm applying (she PhD, me Master's for now). The application asks how I learned about the program. Mention the family connection?

We are in the same field: think postmodern literature and medieval literature, so not a lot of coursework overlap but the same overall interest. My sister has stated that the departments are pretty separate. This is a very good school I'd apply to anyway, and one of the top in my field of study. My sister and I are not daily-contact close, but love one another and I'm prioritizing this school not only for academics but because she is pregnant and I would like to be around to help when the baby comes. Obviously I wouldn't go into that level of detail in a brief application, but is it likely to help or hurt my application to mention that my sister is at the school? Possibly relevant: I live across the country right now, so she would be my only connection in the area. If this were a job I'd be moving cross-country for, I'd mention it for sure, but my instinct is that it might give the wrong impression about why I'm applying.
posted by c'mon sea legs to Education (29 answers total)
Just tell the truth - I seriously doubt it would hurt your application, especially assuming you're able to also articulate why this is a good school for you anyway, regardless of the family connection.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:12 PM on January 7, 2013

I think don't mention it. You learned about the program because you're terribly interested in the sort of postmodern literature they study there and were looking at where the interesting scholars, such as member of the faculty Jane Smith, were. Which, given that you would apply to this place anyway, is both true and what you say for them to take your interest seriously.
posted by hoyland at 9:18 PM on January 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

Not mentioning it is probably going to be perceived as weirder than mentioning it, should the family connection emerge along the line. There's no harm in saying that the academics are the prime motivation, but that your sister's experience attracts you to the wider institutional setup.
posted by holgate at 9:18 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

If the departments are separate enough that the faculty in your prospective program won't know her by name already, then don't mention. It's irrelevant to whether they'll admit you, in that kind of humanities field anyway.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:19 PM on January 7, 2013

I should probably specify it's not actually a literature program (that was my stab at pseudo-anonymity). Maybe a better parallel would be psychology, in that there's a practical bent to the study. I don't know if this makes a real difference or not.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 9:23 PM on January 7, 2013

Yes, different fields vary hugely in how their grad admissions work! The more accurately you can specify what the two fields are, the better answers you'll get.

(So much so that you can probably disregard my answer as not applicable.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:26 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think it would hurt. I mean, everyone's going to say that they know it's a highly respected program within their chosen field. That's kind of standard. But knowing that you had a personal recommendation re: the quality of the institution is beneficial for them because it helps their understanding of where their students come from.
posted by heyjude at 9:29 PM on January 7, 2013

I could be wrong about this, because I haven't been to that sort of a grad school program, but in other similar applications, when they asked "how did you hear about this program" on the paper application, it was like a marketing question, i.e. potential answers would be "Google, U.S. News and World Report, heard about it from a friend" etc., so that they would be aware of how potential applicants were learning about their offerings.

That is a completely different story from the question "why did you apply to this program?" when asked on the application or at the interview, to which you needed a prepared answer which would hopefully incorporate specific knowledge you had about the structure and facets of their program and why it was a good fit for you.

My impression was that you were asking about the former question rather than the latter.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:36 PM on January 7, 2013 [10 favorites]

you should mention it, but the overall tone of your application should demonstrate that this school is a good fit for you. if you can't make that argument ... why are you apply for a graduate degree there?
posted by cupcake1337 at 9:38 PM on January 7, 2013

I suspect this is a generic school-wide marketing question the department doesn't really care about, and the school's marketers have no influence over your admissions. There's no benefit to you in answering this question in a way that's useful to them, particularly if it makes you look like you're applying for the wrong reasons.

On the off-chance the department folks look at this question at all, tell them a truth they want to hear: that you're aware of what the top programs are and that you're aware they're among them. If any of your undergrad profs ever mentioned the program or, especially, if you've read any research by someone there and that influenced your decision to apply, either of those would also be good answers.

You'd be surprised how many people apply to graduate programs just because they're nearby, when what the graduate program wants is to admit people who have knowledge of the discipline and who're committed to attending a program appropriate for their research interests, regardless of location.

TL;DR: mentioning your sister is only slightly better than saying you like their football team.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:40 PM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yes, I think you should mention it in passing, as it is likely to come up if you are accepted.
posted by (F)utility at 9:42 PM on January 7, 2013

Oh, one anecdote that contrasts with my own opinion above: I knew someone who had a superstar student from another discipline take several of his classes, and on her word alone, he picked her sister's so-so application to his department out of the middle of the pack and insisted that she'd be joining the department as a protégé of his. She got in.

So if your sister is blazing a trail even half as bright as that, I guess that could favor you, but otherwise, it's irrelevant.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:04 PM on January 7, 2013

Mention it. Your willingness to tell the truth about this will show that you're a normal, honest human being.
posted by John Cohen at 10:43 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think it will act in your favor (because legacy admission is becoming a thing of the past even for undergraduate programs) and I think it could make you look like you're applying because you want to be near family (which is actually a very common reason but one we all keep secret because for some reason caring about one's loved ones is seen as a disadvantage). "Word of mouth" is a perfectly acceptable short answer to the marketing-type question, and you don't have to specify whose mouth or how recently. M. Caution's first post is right on and I think his second counter-example is about being recommended by the superstar sister, which isn't quite what you're talking about.

The greater "why would you be a great fit for our program" question needs a lot more politicking than that and your sister can be no part of it. (Also, you oughtn't talk about what a great city the place you're applying to is in, or the reputation of the school as a whole; what you need to explain is that even if the graduate program was located at the bottom of a murky pit that people regularly spat contemptuously into, you would still seek it out because of whatever the reasons are.)
posted by gingerest at 10:49 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

You would be in a different department from your sister? Then it basically doesn't matter. There is zero chance that I would know enough about grad students in a different department to care about their siblings' admission to my department.

I would not mention it because that's usually not done in written grad school applications, so it would look weird.

If your sister does have faculty pals in your prospective department she could ask them to look at your application. That is much more likely to help you.

If you are willing to state what field this is people could give you more specific advice on the cultural norms of that discipline.

Also, people move across the country for school all the time. This is not something you need to explain.
posted by medusa at 11:07 PM on January 7, 2013

If you are in different departments, don't mention it.

If you are in the same department, probably mention it.*

*If your sister has a really good relationship with her advisor, leverage that a little. At least ask sister to sound her professor out on whether to mention it. Her advisor then knows and has the option to put in a good word for you, though it was never explicitly discussed. If the advisor says don't mention it, obviously don't mention it.
posted by pseudonick at 11:27 PM on January 7, 2013

I really like this book by Donald Asher called Writing Graduate School Applications (or something like that), and I used it to get into grad school. Asher says that when you're applying you should make it crystal-clear that you've researched the heck out of a school, and that you believe it is uniquely perfect for you. This primarily includes how totally fabulous the "postmodern literature" faculty is, how you'd love to work with Professors X and Y because Y's theory of semiotics is so groundbreaking and you loved X's paper in the Journal of Smeary Blots, which is amazing because you're into smeary blots yourself, as they'll see if they look at your resume... BUT ALSO, in a sentence or two at the end, that you would love to go there also because Gainsville has such great food and weather and you've always wanted to live in Florida because your hobby is photographing alligators. (The last part, the geographic love letter, is put there to further demonstrate that if they accept you, you are likely to choose them in return.)

So by Asher's reasoning, you'd want to say you LOVE their school for eight million academic reasons PLUS, by wonderful coincidence, your sister is also there and you'd love to go alligator-photographing with her. The idea is that the person reading the application will be like "say, not only does c'mon sea legs love our school and have many characteristics which would make him/her fit right in here, CSL will probably TAKE our offer if we extend the promise of admission, because CSL's sister is here already!" (Admissions officers don't like it when they let you in and you go somewhere else. It makes them look less prestigious.)

So I think probably yes you should tell them, just make sure to also first tell them all the many, many other reasons you're applying to their fine institution. Good luck with it! I wish you a successful application, happy studies and a healthy+cute niece or nephew.
posted by feets at 11:44 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mentioning your sister adds no value to your application. You're being evaluated on your merits, and your fit with the program. Sure, if someone in the faculty or admissions office somehow mentions her name (assuming you still share the same last name, and they recognize it), you can of course discuss how highly she's spoken of the school, but...it's not relevant or professional to bring it up in the application, unprompted. And it's not like you are being dishonest or withholding to not mention it.
posted by nacho fries at 11:47 PM on January 7, 2013

Oh totally mention it. I have seen how applications work. People care more about who you are as a person than it being a strict meritocracy. Having a sister in the same school helps you. It almost ups your social capital. I could imagine you almost getting an interview based on that fact alone. No doubt whatsoever in my mind.
posted by kellybird at 12:48 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would say don't mention it. If its in the form, not the statement, I don't think it would be a factor either way, but in the statement would be a (slight?) negative. I strongly disagree with the idea that this might provide some kind of social capital or will up the odds of an interview from what they already are - I have never known this kind of connection to help, it just makes it more awkward if we choose to reject the person. This being academia, awkwardness is not a major barrier.

Qualifications: I am a faculty member in the sciences who participates in admissions.
posted by advil at 4:24 AM on January 8, 2013

I sometimes do grad admissions for a science program. It would make no difference to your acceptance should you mention it.
posted by procrastination at 4:31 AM on January 8, 2013

I would mention it, but in conjunction with positive academic factors about the program. Also, can you use your sister's connections to informally visit the program and meet some of the faculty/students? I know that at my own graduate program (very competitive, fully funded) an applicant who I would have assumed would not have been invited for an interview was brought in because she took it upon herself to visit the school and that reflected upon her very positively*.

*She still didn't get it, probably because she was wildly unqualified. But it would have made all the difference for a borderline case.
posted by fermezporte at 5:26 AM on January 8, 2013

I would mention it in the context of having a better understanding than most in the actual program's day to day workings because you have a sister (or could say "a person with whom I am very close"). If being a good fit is important from both admissions and applicant, well of course every applicant is going to say they are a good fit, but you can say you are because you are so familiar with their program through your sister.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:57 AM on January 8, 2013

I have absolutely no qualifications and my anecdote is about undergrad not grad, so disregard my answer if you like, but... my university just published an article about a legacy family which has had 3 generations and 2 separate branches of the family as students for the last 40 years. They mentioned which kids were still in high school and expected to attend 2 years from now. I know of 3 or 4 other legacy families that have been highlighted in the newsletter, and a past article about even more families that have just one or 2 siblings who have attended the same university.

In other words, for my school, it is a point of pride to show the close family relationships and how the school is part of the family and vice versa.

This is obviously not true for all (or even most) schools. My advice would be to ask your sister about the atmosphere at her school.
posted by CathyG at 6:54 AM on January 8, 2013

I run admissions for a Ph.D. program in the sciences, and it's helpful to me if I know that a good candidate has a particular reason to choose our university over others of roughly the same quality.
posted by escabeche at 7:13 AM on January 8, 2013

Mentioning your sister adds no value to your application. You're being evaluated on your merits, and your fit with the program.

You're also being evaluated to some degree on your fit with the institution. The value that's added is "I am familiar with its broader context, and will not discover, on arrival, that all the non-departmental stuff makes me wish I never applied." This is non-trivial, given that applicants can be coming from 2,000-student liberal arts colleges to 40,000-student state campuses, or from big-city colleges to relatively remote college towns. Or vice versa.

I'm fine with JohnnyGunn's suggestion to shade it and say that you have positive recommendations and an insight into broader institutional life from an existing grad student.
posted by holgate at 11:11 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

"I am familiar with its broader context, and will not discover, on arrival, that all the non-departmental stuff makes me wish I never applied."

That's a really good point. My granddad, dad, and two siblings all attended the same university, and it was helpful to my youngest brother to have both a historical perspective on the institution, and to have his older sibling's more recent take on the place.

On the other hand, my younger sibling's experience of the university was wildly different (in a negative way) than his older brother's, so that inside intel ultimately didn't help him.

And given all the info available online, in the form of message boards where students discuss their experiences, that same information is now available via non-family channels, so I don't see the need to cite inside sources in the application.

There is also the (probably very slight to nil) chance that the OP's sister has, unbeknownst to either sister or OP, ruffled feathers somewhere in the academic food chain, and is not entirely favorably viewed by the decision-makers. But I'm a worst-case scenario thinker by nature, so it's perhaps overly pessimistic to even factor that possibility in.
posted by nacho fries at 1:41 PM on January 8, 2013

It can't hurt to mention your sister, and I wouldn't lie about that element or anything.

But in some situations, this question is code for "Are you just applying blindly to every program in the state, or have you actually done your homework first?" So the ideal answer might be something like "Well, I first found out about it because a relative of mine studies here, but then I looked into it some more and realized that it would be a really good fit for me because $REASONS."
posted by and so but then, we at 7:56 PM on January 8, 2013

Thank you for your feedback! My sister and I would be in the same school, different departments, so upon reading your answers I thought it would be possible that admissions staff would know her and it would seem shady if I didn't mention her. I did write mostly about my (genuine and preexisting!) interest in the work of the faculty, as I did for other schools I was applying to, but mentioned in passing some positive she had to say about the institution as a whole.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 8:59 PM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

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