There are three principal kinds of information that applicants are required to submit for our faculty to review: (1) the application form; (2) two letters of reference; (3) official transcripts of all post-high school academic work. Beyond these required materials, your application may be strengthened by volunteering writing samples and a curriculum vitae.
Once we receive these materials in the department, we treat them as a totality; no one source of information makes or breaks an application; nonetheless, some things are more important than others. Here's our priority list:
1. The Application Form: The Graduate School application asks you for some standard biographical details; we are particularly interested in the personal statement. We read that statement very closely, looking for two things in particular. First, is the statement written succinctly and lucidly? Writing lies at the heart of the professional anthropologist's activities; we expect our graduates to be effective writers. Second, what are your educational objectives? Are they clearly or only vaguely formulated? Of course, you do not need to know the topic of your doctoral dissertation research when you apply for the MA program. Rather, we are looking for evidence that you have a clear sense of what you want out of our program. When faculty members look at this statement, they want to assess whether they either collectively or individually can help you reach your objectives. When the statement is insufficiently clear or when our faculty has neither the expertise nor interest in the areas the applicant wishes to pursue, the application will be rejected.
2. Letters of Reference: While there is a requirement of a minimum of two letters, you may submit more, and such letters need not be written on or limited to the form that the Admissions Office provides. When reading these letters, we look for evidence that the applicant is likely to be successful in graduate study. Vague but positive language is not very helpful; detailed descriptions of things that you have done that give evidence of future promise are very helpful. Given how we treat these letters, you should exercise care in choosing your referees. Obviously, we would find letters from individuals who have had professional and/or educational contact with you most helpful.
3. Transcripts: You are required to submit official transcripts of all your post-high school coursework. When looking at the transcript, we try to get an overall sense of how good a liberal arts education you received. We do not restrict our attention to individual grades or to the overall grade point average; rather, we ask, what kinds of courses did you select to educate yourself? Did you take difficult or easy courses? Are there many failures, grades of "incomplete," or withdrawals not adequately explained in the personal statement.
When we look at your grades, we look for general trends, rather than a specific grade or overall average. An upward trend, even with a low grade point average is much better than a downward trend, with a high grade point average. If it has been several years since you took courses, we place much less credence in it as an indicator of your potential success in our program. Instead, we rely more on your personal statement and letters of reference.