These days PhD programs are a gamble. With cut backs at so many schools there are new limitations on how many students are being accepted each year. Therefore it pays to know something about the application process and how you can best increase your chances for acceptance.
1) Make sure to take a long time to investigate and shop for the programs you’re interested in. Based on your interests and research, your undergraduate or graduate faculty should be able to help you find what you’re looking for. Read all the information on each program’s website and weigh the differences between them. Look at the faculty bios to see what each professor is involved in. Make notes of anything in their information that speaks to the work you’re doing. Some programs are very specific as to what they are looking for and will bluntly say that if your research interests don’t match their faculty’s interests to shop elsewhere. Don’t waste your time applying to a program that isn’t geared to what you’re hoping to achieve.
2) Apply to at least three programs if at all possible. The cost of putting an application together has gotten quite expensive but if you can swing three programs, or even four, you should do so. This gives you a much better chance of being accepted. Try to also communicate in some form with the departments either by email or by making a visit. Getting your name in the air from the outset could give you an extra advantage when it comes time to make decisions.
3) Choose your application materials carefully. Look at the work you’ve achieved in your undergraduate or Masters programs and choose what to include with care. When it comes to making these decisions don’t be shy about asking for help. Choose a faculty member to mentor you through the application process. Have them work with you on your statements of purpose to be sure you’re presenting yourself in the best possible way. Ask for their opinion on your writing or research samples. Be very discerning when choosing people to write your letters of recommendation. Stay away from the faculty member who procrastinates. Ask recommenders who know your work well, who like you and who want you to succeed.
4) Get your application packet in as early as possible. Waiting until the last minute can be taken as a sign that you’re someone who isn’t organized and procrastinates. PhD programs are rigorous and no place for someone who doesn’t know how to stay on top of things. You may send a message that if you can’t handle an application, you won’t be able to handle the workload. Departments like applications that come in timely because it makes their clerical and administrative work easier. Yours will be remembered and appreciated if you submit it early.
If you shepherd your applications through every step in a careful and detailed fashion you have a much better chance of being accepted to a PhD program. A doctorate is to be taken seriously and the application process needs to be done meticulously. Organize yourself and do everything possible to put together the best application you can.