Oberlin Blogs

Applying to Grad School, Ch. 3

March 24, 2011

Will Mason ’10

I wrote here and here about my experience applying to graduate schools. I'm now writing to report the happy news that I was accepted into the music theory PhD program at my top choice, Columbia University, and will be attending in the fall. I found out a month ago, but the news still hasn't really sunk in and probably won't until I show up in September. Columbia is a perfect fit for me. I'm interested in spectral music; one of the founding composers of spectral music, Tristan Murail, is on the faculty. I'm interested in jazz, improvisation, and avant-garde music; George Lewis, trombonist and member of the famed AACM, is on the faculty. I'm interested in the music of the Second Viennese School and its mid-century exponents; the chair of the department is an expert in those areas. And, of course, I am interested in seeing world-class concerts of cutting-edge experimental music on a regular basis. Hello, New York City. On top of that, Columbia offers ample teaching opportunities, since all of its undergraduate students are required to take a semester-long music survey course. Plus, if I can find the time, I may be able to sustain a modest performing career in the city while still a student (without incurring the financial risk usually associated with moving to New York to perform).

All in all, I applied to seven schools--all of which were very strong programs in the field of music theory--and was accepted into four of them. I don't offer this fact to gloat, but instead to show that Oberlin is really really good at getting its students into graduate schools. The Oberlin name carries a lot of weight. It has to, because there was nothing exceptional about my application. My GRE scores were average, my GPA is only a 3.8 (most grad school applicants to top programs in the humanities have a 4.0), and my primary writing sample was only about five pages long -- not the lengthy honors or masters thesis that most grad schools expect you to submit. (I should qualify that last part by saying that I did also submit a 20 page research paper, but it was from a politics class and was only intended to show that I could write a research paper. Also, those five pages were about a piece of music that was only 9 measures long, so suffice it to say that they still went into some depth.) There had to be dozens of more qualified applicants than me, so clearly factors external to my application materials played a part.

This is reinforced by the successes of my other friends at Oberlin, the vast majority of whom have done as well as I did in applying to graduate programs. My best friend and housemate (with whom I've lived for all five years that I've been at Oberlin--we practically have a domestic partnership at this point) is going to enter the PhD program at UC Berkeley for philosophy in the fall, and was also accepted at other top programs. Another friend is deciding between a masters in public policy at UT Austin or Indiana University -- again, both top-ranked programs. Another friend of mine was invited to interview at Stanford's electronic music department and is still waiting to hear back, but things look promising. And my friend + neighbor last year was accepted at Columbia's med school, so I'll have another friendly face there come fall. There are countless other examples from this year's graduating class, I am sure. These are just a few from my immediate peer group, which is really saying something.

I should also say that I received invaluable assistance from the faculty here, who went out of their way to help me. David Walker met me for coffee to assuage many of my fears about the applications process. I also received an incredible amount of help from Brian Alegant, chair of the theory department. In addition to working tirelessly with my anxious, idiot self on my application materials, he also gave me lots of sage advice about programs to look at, approaches to navigating life as a graduate student, and even some tips to make my application stand out when, five-plus years from now, I start applying for university jobs. (That he had just read through countless job applications to hire new theory professors for next year made this advice especially potent.)

Most important, he talked me down when, two days before my applications were due, I considered postponing the entire thing for a year. I was worried that my application was laughably inadequate, especially given how many people are applying to graduate school right now -- it's as competitive as it's ever been. His advice was simple and correct: there's no way of knowing how competitive you are, so you might as well apply and let the schools be the ones to tell you "no," rather than telling it to yourself. I can never express enough thanks for that.

Of course, as is my custom, as soon as I am confronted by good news I turn it into something I am more comfortable with: bad news. Namely, I feel as though I've successfully duped the admissions panel at Columbia and will be revealed as an impostor come September. I've even been having nightmares to that effect, in which I'm teaching in front of a big hall filled with students and other professors (clothed, but I might as well not be), poorly improvising a lecture on a topic about which I know nothing. I do think that ultimately this fear is constructive: I will work much harder if I'm afraid of being the dumbest guy in the room.

I'm trying to push those fears of inadequacy out of my mind. I'll deal with all of that next fall. For now, I'm taking this semester "off" (I graduated early) and trying to relax, for the first time in quite a while. I work about 20 hours a week for the conservatory's communications office, which pays the rent and the bar tab and not much else, and I spend the rest of my time playing music, cooking, reading, and spending time with friends. I'm painfully aware every single day that my time at Oberlin is dwindling, though I try not to dwell on it. The party's not over just yet.

Responses to this Entry

Congratulations again, Will! I knew the results from Facebook, but hadn't heard how well you did in the sweepstakes. I have to say, though, that you're selling your record *way* short. There's nothing sub-par about a 3.8 GPA, and it's simply not true that "most grad school applicants to top programs in the humanities have a 4.0"--conceivably that's true in some fields, but I don't think I've ever known an English major with a 4.0 GPA, including many who have been accepted at the top grad programs in the country. Your record is outstanding, and you deserve the good things that have happened to you.

By the way, though, you'll keep having that lecture nightmare. Happens to me pretty regularly...

Posted by: David on March 24, 2011 9:29 PM

You rock a lot. Congrats on Columbia!

(And if I'm in New York for breaks, I'm gonna try and track down if you're playing gigs somewhere. For sure.)

Posted by: Ma'ayan on March 25, 2011 11:21 AM

thanks guys! David, most of my info comes from the admittedly unreliable source of online grad student forums. I guess that other prospective students embellish a bit when their anonymity is protected. Nevertheless, a 3.8 is probably safely in the middle of the GPA range, which means that it neither helped nor hurt much.

What's the caddyshack quote? "Don't sell yourself short, judge: you're a tremendous slouch."

Posted by: Will on March 25, 2011 12:33 PM

Will, congrats again on Columbia! It was nice to talk about grad school briefly, in-between the hilarity at Alex's house on Saturday. I just wanted to say that you captured perfectly my past, present, and future anxieties about this process. And it's nice to know that I'm not alone. I was similarly convinced of the inadequacy of my applications and expected to get rejected from all six programs I applied to. To get into four art history programs and actually have a choice to make is wonderful and shocking to me. I want to echo your sentiment that Oberlin does a fantastic job of preparing its students to enter grad programs (whether we have confidence in that or not).

Posted by: Franny on March 28, 2011 10:37 AM

Oh, Mr. Mason, if only my GPA were "only a 3.8" - :)


I'm coming to Oberlin next week Wednesday-Saturday and, though nothing is settled yet, there's a good chance I'll be spending a fair amount of time in NYC next year...so, probably, see you soon!

Posted by: Anna Ernst on March 28, 2011 4:20 PM

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