What on earth should I put on my graduate school application CV?
November 30, 2007 10:16 PM   Subscribe

What on earth should I put on my graduate school application CV? I was a good student, but didn't win any scholarships, and my work experience is irrelevant to the academic discipline.

Since I hovered just below the full time status requirement for most scholarships, I never got one, even though my marks were certainly high enough. My family was sufficiently well off and generous to pay for my (rather low, by American standards) Canadian tuition, so I was never motivated enough to apply for obscure, external scholarships, either.

I published one review in an academic journal, won the school newspaper's annual literary prize once, was on the dean's list (for high marks) most terms, and... that's it. That won't even fill a quarter of a page. How do I make this look less drab and undistinguished? Should I even bother?

The application guidelines also say I should include my professional history. Should I, really? Are they serious? My work history consists of menial tech support positions. Tech support is utterly irrelevant to my discipline. I feel completely silly including this. If I should include this, ought I specify what my responsibilities were? "Troubleshooting ResNet connections" just doesn't sound like the stuff to win over professors in the humanities who can't tell their PS/2 from their USB.
posted by limon to Education (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, how much people like a tech support person is inversely proportional to how capable they are of fixing their own computers. Among your humanities professors, you should be almost universally popular. List your jobs away. At the very least, they probably show you have a work ethic and a greater discipline about deadlines than an average college senior. Just don't go into too much detail.

I'd suggest you also describe some of your coursework and perhaps interesting papers/projects. Travel and hobbies give character to an application, though if they take up more than a few lines, your CV will look suspicious.

Do you speak or read any foreign languages? If so, have you done any translations? Ever tutored or taught? All good things to mention.
posted by whimwit at 10:39 PM on November 30, 2007

Many students going into grad school don't have a lot more experience than you do. Most don't have publications, for one. Write what you described here and write about what work experience you do have. Do you speak any languages other than English? Have you volunteered? Now might not be a bad time to start.
posted by arcticwoman at 10:40 PM on November 30, 2007

Tech support is utterly irrelevant to my discipline. I feel completely silly including this. If I should include this, ought I specify what my responsibilities were? "Troubleshooting ResNet connections" just doesn't sound like the stuff to win over professors in the humanities who can't tell their PS/2 from their USB.
You're right that humanities professors can't tell their PS/2 from their USB. So who do you think they rely on to figure out how to put readings up on Blackboard and put together Powerpoint presentations for classes? The answer is T.A.s, which is to say you. Your technical skills, or at least your facility with technology, are not as irrelevant as you think. And I bet there's some overlap between the skills necessary to provide tech support and the skills necessary to teach.

I would avoid using tech jargon in your job description. Stress the bits that highlight your analytical and communication skills. What about "helped customers diagnose computer problems and explained, in non-technical language, how to fix those problems"?

If you have languages, definitely include them.
posted by craichead at 10:51 PM on November 30, 2007

One thing to keep in mind is that whilst it is called an Academic CV, it isn't an applying-for-a-job CV. So you have a lot more scope, which you should use, to peddle yourself on this piece of paper.

So under Academic Achievements, when you list your publication you can provide a one paragraph summery of your review. Same for your entry for the literary prize. Probably the same for the Dean's List (what are the standards for earning that distinction, for example?)

Under Work History, below that, I'd list your jobs in the traditional short format. Showing you have been reliable enough to be employed and had some responsibilities or abilities related to that job is a good thing.

I, umm, really love CVs. And standardised tests. And other odd things. So anyway, if you want someone to look over your CV and give you some feedback, feel free to MeFiMail me!
posted by DarlingBri at 11:30 PM on November 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

I was in your shoes, somewhat. Seconding advice that technical jargon can alienate: highlight your analytical skills, your smarts. Make your CV sing that you can think on your feet and solve problems.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:36 PM on November 30, 2007

Best answer: Graduate schools will care not a whit about work experience, volunteer work, and accomplishments that are not related to your field of study. No one cares that you held down a job (who hasn't?). Don't put it on.

Everything I say from now on might be specific to my own experience and my own field of study (philosophy), but I expect it generalizes across the humanities pretty well. (If anyone thinks that this is bad advice, please do speak up.) I went to an M.A. program that was extremely focused on getting students into upper-tier Ph.D. programs, and got a lot of advice from people who were well-trained at placing students. Here are some nuggets I learned that you might find relevant.

Most universities have online application programs that are run by the graduate school. These will include generic fields such as "professional accomplishments" that are more relevant to some departments than others. While the graduate school wants to make sure that you fill in their generic application, it's the individual department that will be appraising your application in the end, and they'll know that some of the questions aren't exactly appropriate. Make sure that what you do submit looks like a complete and well-crafted package, and don't worry about trying to shoehorn the way that you present yourself into the application process. I don't think you should totally buck the system, but you also shouldn't sweat it if you're having trouble filling in the application forms. No relevant work experience? Leave it blank. No one cares.

The Academic CV is one of those things that is mandated, and that departments will look at, but that isn't really that interesting or telling. Remember that this isn't a private-sector job. Committees care about letters, writing samples, GREs, and grades much more than they do the CV. Write an honest CV. It'll probably get pretty much ignored anyway, and having a short CV is no sin. I don't know what field you're in, but you sound like you'll have a strong application. In many humanities programs having a single publication already puts you leaps and bounds ahead of most of your competition. If you wrote a major research paper, like a thesis, you can use the CV to briefly describe it. Try to sprinkle content related to your field of study wherever you can in your application. If you're applying to a program in history, try to do a tiny little bit of history. That way you don't just describe your aptitude; you show it.

(Also, a word about the personal statement. The best advice I got was this: a bad personal statement can destroy you, and pretty much the best that a good personal statement can do is not hurt you. You have to have seriously good writing chops and seriously know your audience to get something that will be a net positive. Play it safe. No personal stories about the epiphany that got you interested in history or whatever. It'll just come across as maudlin.)
posted by painquale at 11:54 PM on November 30, 2007 [11 favorites]

Speaking as someone who has chaired grad admissions committees quite a bit -- what painquale said. Great advice.
posted by Rain Man at 1:10 AM on December 1, 2007

Yeah -- my CV just had scholarships and I listed coursework I'd done to fill it out a bit. Most people going into grad school are in more or less the same boat.
posted by SoftRain at 1:21 AM on December 1, 2007

As a career student, one thing I've learned about going up the ranks in the education system is that you gain an education in going up the ranks. I just applied to grad school and what I found was that because I didn't set myself up for success in higher education (I was more focused on simply getting my B.A.), I am only eligible for higher education at the level at which I applied myself towards that task.

When I was getting my B.A. I didn't connect with professors, I didn't prepare for tests, GRE, etc., I didn't apply for scholarships, and I didn't get to know the people that would be able to write me letters of recommendation in the future. Therefore, the grad schools I am likely to get into are those that don't need GRE scores, letters of recommendation, or scholarship accolades. In essence, I get an "F" in mastering the education system. Now I am forced to go to an uncompetitive school that has a small masters program that I can get into and attempt to "ace", so that I can go back and get these things I didn't learn the first time around. When I get through this program, this time connecting with professors, preparing for tests, applying for scholarships, etc., all relevant to my area of study, and getting top grades, I will be able to select the PhD program of my choice.

My point is, it all balances out and to some degree (pun!), you get what you deserve. Accept it and move up! Flaunt what's relevant, take what you can get and use it to focus on both your area of study AND taking the steps necessary to allow yourself access to the higher levels of the system.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:47 AM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

No personal stories about the epiphany that got you interested in history or whatever. It'll just come across as maudlin.

...however, don't mistake this advice for not being personable and compelling. While it's not interesting to reading an epiphanic coming-to-the-discipline personal statement, a well-turned sense of why you are applying to Program X, when you haven't really done much work in X, can be helpful. This is your place to put yourself into conversation with the field to which you are applying and the program that you wish to study in. Your writing sample focuses on the strength of your ideas, the personal statement focuses on the strength of your ability to articulate yourself as a subject in relation to the material/institution you wish to engage. So, I agree that a bad personal statement really is deadly. But I think a superior personal statement is especially helpful, particularly when a reviewer might have questions about you.
posted by mrmojoflying at 1:48 PM on December 1, 2007

What painquale said. What gets you in the door, in philosophy at least, is good letters of recommendation from a reasonably good school, and a good writing sample.

The CV and personal statement and GREs are meant to show that you are above some threshold - reasonably well prepared and that you understand enough about the field to say "I want to work on roughly this sub-area, and I think your program is a good fit for that." So, put stuff on your CV if it shows you are well-prepared in your field, or maybe if you have been in the working world for 15 years and that's an important contributor to your academic interests. It's not meant to be a record of your every move. Similarly, all-business with the personal statement; it should be well-written but it's not meant to be an autobiography.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:15 PM on December 1, 2007

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