The paradox at the heart of graduate admissions

Elite graduate schools are looking for a fundamentally different mix of skills than those that are usually graded in undergraduate courses. And probably in no field is this truer than sociology. Undergraduate sociology courses emphasize learning a basic perspective on the world: one that sees the social world in fundamentally social — not individualistic — terms. Learning to think in that perspective is a necessary foundation for graduate work in sociology, but is only the beginning.

Professional sociologists create new knowledge, and top programs seek students who they can imagine creating new knowledge themselves. Your primary job in applying to graduate school is to signal that you can do this.

The problem? You most likely don’t know how to do that. Why? Because that skill is what you learn in grad school, not beforehand.

This paradox is one major way that graduate admissions reproduce advantage and inequality.

It is not students’ fault that they don’t know what graduate admissions committees are looking for, and in my experience, whether students have been professionalized into (consciously or unconsciously) reproducing academic norms in their application materials is a poor predictor of whether they will go on to do interesting, creative and important work.

I am turning a service I’ve offered privately for years into a public advertised service as one means to address this issue.

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