The last article described why you should do a PhD in economics, and discussed what is the preferred profile of admitted students at different schools. This article discusses what comes next: the admission process, and how to prepare for it.
First, if you have time ahead, then you can work on trying to adjust the potential flaws in your background. Let me follow the same list of points I highlighted in the previous article. If your current school is relatively unknown (and hence doesn’t allow you to get good reference letters), or you had bad grades (relatively to your potential) for whatever reasons, doing a MSc in Europe or Canada may be a solution, and is almost mandatory for those with mere three-year bachelors. Be careful, however: a bad MSc can significantly hurt your chances too, so if you don’t need it, you should rather focus on doing research assistantships, eventually taking some graduate courses at the university you’re working at to strengthen your profile.
If you believe that this would make a good addition for you, schools and programs to consider include, in my highly dubious preferential order, LSE (MSc. EME or Econ1), CEMFI (MSc. Econ and Finance2), Barcelona GSE (MSc. Econ), Vancouver SE/UBC (M.A. Econ), Bocconi (MSc. in Social Sciences and Econ), Ox–bridge (MPhil Econ), Toronto (M.A. Econ, Doctoral Stream), UCL (MSc. Econ) and Toulouse SE (M1 Economics and Statistics), among others. Most of them allow automatic accession to their PhD programs provided you have good enough grades, so this can be an option to consider for those willing to follow PhDs at these schools. However, be careful in that some do not guarantee funding, which is synonymous to a rejection (unless you’re rich). There also exists master’s program in the U.S. (notably the AM Stats at Harvard and the M.A. Econ at NYU), but they are pricey and I’m not sure they guarantee the same prospects as their aforementioned counterparts.
If you lack math classes and are still studying, you know what to do: just take advanced math and graduate micro courses (which should always be preferred over field courses, yes), and make sure to perform well in them. Some schools will allow you to take courses over the summer, if you’re ready to trade-off some of your holidays. For those who already completed their studies, you can still check if a local university offers interesting math courses to take for which you can receive a proof of attendance/examination; other interesting opportunities exist in summer schools (check out, for example, this real analysis course offered by LSE).
If your GRE is low, there’s nothing else to do but to work more and try again. Yes, it is expensive, and yes, it is boring, but you have to go through it. To be honest, any decent would-be economist should be able to meet the requirements, for it only demands some practice. For more details, check out URCH. These guides are another very useful resource if you’re too lazy to make yourself a study plan.
If you lack stellar reference letters and aim for the top10, that should be your number one priority unless something else is really harming your profile. To obtain good ones, there is probably nothing better than doing research assistantships: if you can invest a year and obtain a position in a top10 schools as a RA, that will potentially drastically expand your set of possibilities (ask your professors/tutors in your home university; NBER also has a page listing some interesting positions). If you are currently still studying, you should select a couple of professors and invest time to not only perform well in their courses but also show some serious interest to their field, by discussing (research) with them during breaks and attending office hours. I’m not talking about “buttlicking”: simply, if you like the content of their courses, you should naturally engage with them. And if there aren’t any courses whose content you like, you should seriously think about what you’re doing here.
Also, think about giving enough writing material about you to the letter writers. Try to arrange a brief meeting, present your interests and intended medium-term research objectives, and leave them a small sheet with bullet points about you and your background. Don’t be shy, it’s part of their job, and you definitely don’t want them to write a flat generic letter that some admission boards will not even take the time to consider. Finally, if you are not sure about the potential quality of a writer, do not hesitate to look for a substitute and eventually alternate between the two in order to diversify your risks. For examples of letters (if your professors lack inspiration), look here and here; Berkeley also provide some guidelines of what a good letter should consist of.
Those were for the longer term improvements, what about the application file itself? Remember the importance of referee letters – take the time to make sure your professors will write solid ones. Similarly, make sure that your transcripts are easy to read and present your achievements in a satisfactory way, especially if they were translated into another language.
The statement of purpose is probably what will actually take most of your time (along with all the idiosyncratic application procedures), and there is a large debate regarding to what extent it matters. The consensus seems to be that a bad letter will hurt you, but a good one won’t help you. Although it is certainly true that some schools probably don’t bother reading them, it is probably better to believe that a good letter can make the small marginal difference you’re looking for. For the content, URCH has numerous posts (i.e. here) on the subject, and LSE provides a list of what to include here. I personally believe that your SOP should be about two pages long (more is usually forbidden, and probably useless), and contain:
I. A very brief explanation about what led you to apply for a PhD in economics.
II. A small medium-term research agenda. The goal is merely to show that you know what you’re talking about and that you have at least one decent idea on which you could start working right away if you wished to. Ideally, it will contain some recent literature to demonstrate that you’re also up-to-date on the subject. Don’t say you love to prove equilibrium theorems from the sixties for instance, it’s outdated and nobody really likes that anyway.
III. Have a few words on “why this school” in particular, and mention two to three names in the (tenured) faculty that work in similar areas of interest and with whom you would enjoy working with.
IV. Explain in a few paragraphs “why you”. Always start your paragraph with a brief punch line, such as “My solid background in mathematics qualifies me for your program.”, and then explain why. Use a concise vocabulary, avoiding any hesitating language such as “I think/feel that”, “probably that”, etc. In fact, as John Cochrane writes it, any sentences containing a “that” should be checked thoroughly for shortening.
V. If necessary, include an explanation for any important gap or exceptional element in your file, be it a bad grade, a long stay in the private sector, etc.
If you lack inspiration and are looking for some cool turn of phrase, you can check these letters hosted on the Caltech website. And remember, never present yourself on a bad day: if you had a negative experience, use it to emphasize how positively you reacted and sublimated yourself. Finally, talking about the C.V., there is enough resources on the internet, and I leave them to you. You can find a set of LaTeX templates here.
To conclude, remember still that nothing is more important than your educational background (grades to start with) and recommendation letters, and it is certainly worth investing one or two years in them (through a MSc. program, and/or a RA position) should it allow you to climb the ladder. And finally, there is always a random component, so diversify your risks (and hopes).
The article that follows tries to discuss what happens after the admission offers are sent, which is both an exciting and stressful situation, and one on which internet particularly lacks resources in my opinion.
1 If you are both motivated and somewhat comfortable with mathematics, you should privilege the EME. The class size is smaller (about 25, vs. 125 for the econ program) and the distinction rate is much higher (around 30%, vs. 15-20% for the econ program): there is a clear selection bias that explains that, but the main reason is that it is easier to get high grades in math-oriented courses.
2 Some will be surprised by how I rank this program. The reason I rank it that high is that it is both very small and known to send its top students to the U.S. top10 on a very regular basis. You will interact a lot with the faculty, which is good for letters. Moreover, it is cheap, and often offer tuition waiver and stipends to top students.