How to Contact Professors as a Grad School Applicant

If you’re applying to a school that doesn’t require contacting faculty, tread carefully.

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One aspect of the graduate school admissions process that I'm often asked about is whether it's appropriate for applicants to contact faculty members at prospective schools. I always tell students that it can be appropriate, but I suggest doing so very carefully, if at all.

Most of the time, contacting professors as you are preparing to apply is optional. There are instances, however, where you will be required to contact a faculty member. For example, applicants to some master's programs in nutrition are instructed to contact one of the professors and let her or him know about their previous and current research interests.

In these situations, the faculty member has to sign off on the applicant before the admissions committee proceeds with its evaluation. Ph.D. applicants are also often encouraged to contact professors, as at this level, they are much more involved in making admissions decisions.

[Read five guidelines for college student-professor interactions.]

If contact with faculty is required or encouraged, you will be given instructions about what to do. If it is not required as part of the application, a good rule of thumb when deciding whether to contact a professor is this: Do so if you have followed the professor and his or her work over a fair amount of time.

That includes having met the professor (or attended one of his or her talks) and having read the professor's publications, as well as holding a very strong interest in taking his or her courses or in conducting research together. In other words, the focus of your contact should be on the professor, not on you.

Unless specifically invited to do so, do not initiate contact via phone. You should either mail a letter or send an E-mail. Reach out to the respective academic department and find out which way the faculty member prefers to be contacted.

A one-page letter is plenty. You should indicate that you plan on applying for the upcoming term, and what courses and research have caught your attention. Obviously, if you have majored or minored in the professor's area of expertise, let him or her know.

Additionally, if you have had work or internship experience in the field, mention it. Briefly discuss your future plans, and how studying or working with the professor fits with those plans. You should also offer to speak or meet with the professor to provide additional information or to answer questions. Finally, copy the admissions committee on your letter or E-mail.

[Avoid the biggest mistake grad school applicants make.]

If you contact a professor at a school that does not require contact with a faculty member, don't be surprised or offended if you don't receive a response. The level of contact professors have with applicants varies greatly. Some welcome the opportunity to interact with future students, but some do not.

Where faculty contact is required or encouraged, if you still do not hear back after repeated communication attempts, contact the admissions office and seek input. If you find that there is a trend of faculty at a certain institution not responding, you may want to do more research about faculty-student interaction at the institution.

Contact current students or recent graduates. Does the lack of response extend to students? To alumni? If it does, you need to decide if this is the right institution or program for you.

One final note: The focus of this post has been on contact with faculty with whom you have had little or no contact. If you know a professor very well at the institution or in the program to which you are applying, by all means ask for a letter of recommendation. Believe me—the endorsement will definitely help your application.