Hack Your Library School Application

This is a collaborative post by multiple Hack Library School writers.

Annie P.

Several years ago, I had moved to Savannah, Georgia, to attend SCAD. I didn’t actually end up going to school there, but I had plenty of time to think about what I really wanted to do with my life. I stumbled across an ad for an art librarian and I thought “That sounds like an awesome job that combines my interests!” I ended up back in California, got my B.A. in art history and started thinking seriously about applying to graduate schools. I was very happy that I had fostered good relationships with my art history professors, so it was easy for me to ask them for letters of recommendation. Additionally, I had worked as a cataloging assistant in my undergrad library, so my boss was happy to write a letter for me. It helped that I knew what I wanted to do after I was finished with college, so I tried my best to talk to my professors while I was still in school.

I really wanted an on campus program so I also looked at programs outside of California. I considered Pratt, University of North Carolina, UT Austin, Indiana University, and University of Illinois. Most people wonder why I didn’t just go to SJSU, the most convenient and cheaper school. I wasn’t working in a library at the time, I thought it would be harder to get experience if I went to school online, but that was just my personal opinion. In order to prepare for the application process, I took the GRE and totally bombed it. Standardized tests make me nervous and I honestly don’t believe they are a measure of intelligence. That’s what I tell myself anyway. I wrote multiple letters of intent/statements of purpose, some which were terrible now that I look back on them. I ended being accepted to IU, decided to go to the Indianapolis campus because I thought there would be better job opportunities and the rest is history. I don’t regret coming here at all, I feel like I made the right choice.

My advice to anyone who is applying to library school is to talk to a librarian who has your dream job. Ask him or her about the job entails, just to get a good idea of what you’re getting yourself into.

Brianna M.

I’m originally from Wisconsin and wanted to stay in the Midwest, so I chose to apply to the University of Michigan, Indiana University, University of Illinois, and University of Wisconsin. As I compiled my application materials, I had my mentors look at them and provide feedback. This was tough because though they were wildly supportive, I felt pretty naive. BUT–it is always advisable to have many eyes on your materials to spot rookie mistakes. I compiled my applications with the statement I heard from about seven people ringing in my ears, “DO NOT say you want to go to library school because you love books!” Duly noted. In my application I wrote about how I wanted to work with technology and special collections materials. My advice for writing a personal statement is to give the reviewers tangible goals and aspirations, even if you you’re not absolutely sure or you think you might change your mind later. The personal statement just gets you in the door, and then you can make all the drastic trajectory changes you want. My inclination is that you’re better off providing tangibles than something vague.

One piece of advice for the post-application, pre-decision time is to visit the schools if you have the opportunity. I visited each school, which definitely impacted my final decision. It’s hard to get a feel for the school without visiting in person. And last but not least, money is important. Compare costs very seriously. In particular, if you have an in-state option I would advise you to strongly consider it. I whittled my school down to either IU or UW. UW was in-state and therefore much cheaper, but IU had the dual-degree and the digital library expertise that I sought. Plus, IU was an adventure. I grew up in a Madison suburb and my sister was starting her freshman year at UW. It felt a little too comfortable, so I took a gamble coming to IU. They offered me a small scholarship and I dedicated myself to finding more and leaving with as little debt possible. I’ve done all right for myself; I’ve been persistent, talked to the right people, and secured additional funding. When it comes to reducing your debt, I recommend being absolutely gritty, ruthless, unceasing. These days, library school–and higher education in general–costs an absurd amount of money. Do whatever you can to take care of yourself financially.

Britt F.

Funny that we should be talking about this now, as I just cleaned out the file with my grad school application packet.  I can’t believe I was accepted anywhere with the statement of purpose I wrote!

I was a English Literature/Creative Writing double-major in undergrad, and I intended to pursue a MA/PhD in English Lit with a research focus on radical/critical theory readings of children’s literature… until I had an epiphany my final semester that public children’s librarianship is where I wanted to be all along.  Academia would have been awesome, but I needed something more grassroots (and I’m too anti-establishment to have done well as an elementary school teacher).  With this in mind, I applied to schools that not only had a progressive/critical theory-oriented approach to LIS, but also were in locations where I could work with the community I wanted to serve after graduation.  I applied to Pratt, as I was particularly interested in their LEO (Literacy, Education, Outreach) program; to UCLA (in-state tuition and their leftist/diversity focus was a big plus in their favor) and University of Washinginton’s iSchool.  I took the GRE once, and my verbal reasoning score was very high, and my quantitative reasoning score, very (very) low.  I was convinced that I wouldn’t make it in with such a low score, especially as I had a high undergrad GPA, but had done terribly in all of my math classes.  I tried to make up for this by asking for letters of recommendation from a professor that I had served as a graduate assistant to as an undergrad (to demonstrate academic ability), a small press I volunteered for (to demonstrate well-roundedness and skills in fundraising and marketing), and a children’s art therapy program I taught for (to show commitment to serving low-income communities and experience with children).  The above-mentioned awful statement of purpose focused on my own experience as a poor kid in a rural community who was able to survive/thrive because of the local public library, and then broadened out to my practical interests (literacy, the library as a community center, family education) and research interests (radical/progressive children’s literature, progressive library policy).

I received acceptance to Pratt first (in a beautiful package I just recycled), and even though they offered a merit scholarship, it was still incredibly expensive.  I was half way through my UW application when my acceptance letter to UCLA arrived.  It had been sitting on the counter for hours without anyone telling me.  I opened it, screamed a four-letter word in exuberant joy, and accepted the next day!  While later I wished that I had looked for programs that had a stronger youth services focus, I also appreciate that being a minority specialization gave me advocacy skills, and the experiences I had working out in the SoCal community are, I think, what makes me marketable at the entry-level.

Heidi S.

Like Zack, I talked to my mentors at my college library (where I worked for 3+ years) and asked them about their experiences in library school and where they thought I should apply. One of them mentioned the University of Washington iSchool and I started looking into it. At the same time I learned about ALA standards and looked into which schools had specific focuses or tracks for librarianship. At that time I wanted to be in an academic setting. I began the application process in August and had completed three applications by Christmas. I was accepted to one (my third choice) by January and was waitlisted for my top two choices. In March I was offered a spot in my second choice and in the middle of May I was offered a spot in my first choice – the University of Washington! I probably shouldn’t have led my second choice school on as much as I did, but I didn’t want to give up hope for my first choice school. Being put on a waiting list is the worst feeling – the uncertainty is nerve-wracking! My best advice for someone completing library school applications is to talk to your mentors, do your research and be patient.

Julia S.

One of my best friends had a knack for befriending/dating LIS students, and he was the one who told me ‘hey, you should be a librarian!’ Apparently, I give off a librarian vibe, which is exciting. I only applied to the one program in Iowa City (University of Iowa SLIS) because at the time I wanted to stay here (I still love IC, just not tied to it the way I was.) I got some stellar letters of recommendation from professors, and I felt like my statement of intent was pretty solid, but I still for some reason doubted I would get in (probably because I’d been rejected from a number of Psychology PhD programs before this.) So, when I checked my mail when I got home late at night, I remember walking in the door and announcing to my cats that my rejection letter had arrived, and then being so pleasantly surprised when I got in that I jumped all over my apartment. My big take away from this is to make sure you turn in the absolute best application materials you can. Talk to the people you really hope will write letters for you (remember, the worst they can do is say ‘no’) and spend a lot of time on your own letter. For my MLS application, I think I had 6 or 7 people look it over for me. That’s probably excessive, but all that insight and forced rewriting made it much better than it would have been otherwise!

When I applied for PhD programs last year, I decided to apply only to programs I really loved and avoid applying to back up schools that I was less thrilled about. I made a decision early on that, because I absolutely adored what all the programs were doing, I would allow funding packages to be a strong influence on my choice. It was a major consideration anyways, but focusing on funding allowed me to free myself (somewhat) from staying awake at night agonizing over which of my favorite schools I liked the best. I did the same thing as before (stellar rec letters from wonderful profs, tons of proofreading, etc.) and I got accepted to 3 of the 6 schools I applied to. Choosing between those 3 was such a hard choice! I loved all of them, and all of them offered great funding packages and, more importantly, the opportunity to work with and learn from some incredible faculty members.

All 3 accepted me pretty early on, which was nice because I had a lot of time to ponder and weigh my options. It came down to Florida State and another school, and it was a really hard decision! They were the top 2 of my top choice schools, so I was very excited I got in! I spent a few weeks talking with faculty from the department and other SLIS students/alum who were going through or had just been through the process. In the end, I chose Florida in part because of funding, but mostly because I felt like I already had a connection to a body of students there (although I knew a few folks from the other school) and because their faculty, mission, and curriculum all align very well with what I want to get out of my doctoral education. I’ve been more and more impressed with FSU the closer I get to starting my program (current PhD students have friended me on Facebook, and the program has a very strong social media presence so I’ve gotten to see all the great things students and alumni are doing) and I imagine I’ll love the program even more once I’m there!

The things I took away from the PhD application process could apply to the MLS too: first of all, know what you want out of your education and only seek out schools that offer that. This was a super helpful approach when I was narrowing down the list of places to apply to. Once I spent more time getting cozy with the places I applied, I discovered that there were a few that I liked a lot but weren’t a good fit. The two that I ended up choosing between were the ones that had missions and curricula that I got excited enough about to corner my friends and talk about for long periods of time. Second, departments want students who show initiative. Even if you’re in another field right now or are unsure what your research goals are, if you are actively engaged in activities and leadership it will help you stand out. I also found that a lot of schools wanted to know about my publications, but were even more interested in my journal editing experience. If you’re able to get on at a peer-reviewed journal as a reviewer or editor I highly recommend it. Not only do you gain some really valuable experience, but it’s experience that schools want to see. At the PhD level, students should be starting to develop interests/expertise in an area (or a small handful of areas.) I do lots of library history research, but I also want to research a number of other areas. Lastly, all students should look at how they can engage with our field in unique ways: are you starting up a project at your library? Blogging or publishing in journals? Any activity that shows you’re looking at our field critically and trying to find ways to get involved that adds lines to your resume but help improve the field as a whole are always good!

Laura S.

I was born and raised in Alabama, but I’ve always longed to travel and live in other places. I moved to Toronto, Canada for a year (long story) then back to Alabama. The semester before I applied to library school, I was working at the University of Alabama part-time in the Writing Center, and part-time for my friend as a babysitter. I knew that the University of Alabama was a great school, and I had heard good things about the SLIS program. But I still had the travel bug (and was missing Canada already), and considered applying to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, UBC, McGill, and others. For my UIUC application, I set out to interview a librarian, and talked to the director of the local community college library. She was really fantastic, and I learned so much from just talking to her for an hour. I also learned that she was an occasional adjunct professor at UA SLIS, and she had only good things to say about UA. I realized that applying to UA meant: in-state tuition, and I already had student loan debt; I already had a job here, and could offset my expenses; my family was here, and I had a brand new nephew; I could start in January instead of the following fall; once I finished my core courses, I could move anywhere and take electives online. Thus, I applied only to UA for the spring semester, and would apply to other schools in the fall if that didn’t work out. It worked out — in a big way. I eventually got a graduate assistantship and student library jobs, and I found a place in the SLIS community. I also got to temporarily satiate the need to travel by studying abroad in London for graduate credit.

Therefore, my tips for applying to library school are: 1. Don’t be afraid to stay local. Your ALA-accredited MLIS is good for any librarian job. 2. BUT – research funding opportunities, as well as student library jobs and internships, at the schools you’re considering. Your MLIS will get you nowhere without experience, and you want as little debt as possible in the meantime. 3. Unless your school choices really emphasize GRE scores, do not stress too much. My quantitative score was horrendous, and it didn’t prevent me from getting into grad English programs or LIS programs. Focus on the whole package – a good statement of purpose, quality references, etc. 4. Speaking of statement of purpose, have someone read over it. I luckily worked in a writing center, and had one of my co-worker friends read over it and offer advice. 5. If you can, get in contact with students who are currently in a program. If you plan to move to a new city, or commit to an expensive online degree, you want to make sure it is a good fit for you. I know us HLS-ers are open to answering questions, and we probably know someone on Twitter who can answer your questions about a particular school!

Micah V. 

I’m pretty sure I’m going to be the odd ball out for this one. My experience with the application to library school was actually pretty different from everyone else’s. If there’s one thing I learned, that is still resonating in my professional life, it’s often not what you know, but who you know.

I did a previous masters degree in American Studies, which I enjoyed very much, and through that degree I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Wayne Wiegand (a name some of you may recognize). I worked with Dr. Wiegand on the Florida Book Awards for the last part of my MA program, and when I was approaching graduation with no plans and absolutely no job prospects, Dr. Wiegand took me aside and said, “Hey, we could use come critical thinkers like you in librarianship.” Little did I know at the time that I would fit so well in this field and have such a passion for it. The actual application part was the simplest portion on my transition once I made the decision to go for it; since I was already a grad student the ‘official’ side of things was a smoothly rolled into the new program, and the details (Statement of Purpose, Letters of Recommendation) were processed quickly, especially with Dr. Wiegand’s stamp of approval (he’s a rockstar here at FSU). Basically, I skated in because I had no plans, the deadline was late in the summer, I’d been turned down by all the PhD (History) programs I’d applied to, and I had one really great, resounding letter of rec.

So, if I have a tip to offer from my experience, it is to work your connections. There’s probably someone you know that can help you along your path, and getting in touch with them and letting them know your goals can have incredible results. And please don’t be mad at me for getting in easy! I’m working hard to make it worth it!

Nicole F.

For me, going back to graduate school was a big career change.  I was working in banking and ready for a new challenge but I actually thought I was going to get my degree in public policy.  It wasn’t until I was chatting with my dad one day that the whole prospect of library school came up.  I have to be honest, I didn’t even realize the degree existed!  But soon I was in touch with several librarians that were friends of my family and that I knew from growing up and I was hooked on the idea of getting my MLIS.  Since I spoke to mostly librarians who had gone to Simmons, that was the school that went to the top of my radar.  I was also living in London when I applied so part of my application process was influenced by wanting to come back home to Boston, where I lived for 8 years before moving London, and Massachusetts, where I grew up.   I figured that I was already going to be moving back and switching careers- I could probably do so without also having to learn a new city!

I looked a bit at the University of Rhode Island’s program, as well as Syracuse’s, but in the end I only applied to Simmons.  I was fairly confident with my undergrad transcript, my letter of intent, and the fact that I had done a bit of coursework towards my MBA.  I was also pretty pleased I did not have to take the GRE.  It was a bit difficult for me to figure out the recommendation aspect as I wasn’t able to tell anyone at my job that I was applying for school.  However, an old manager of mine volunteered to write one, and then I was able to ask two other colleagues in confidence which I was very grateful for.  I applied at the end of Summer 2008 and did not have to wait very long as Simmons has rolling admissions.  It wasn’t until I had sent everything in, though, that I did get pretty nervous, especially as I had only applied to one school!  However, as luck would have it, I found out I had been admitted the same week that Lehman Brothers went bankrupt.  It all seemed like some fairly wonderful timing!  So I was off to Boston and Simmons; to a campus I had never seen and a program I still had much to learn about…

Paul L.

I actually have two very different experiences with applying for library school–the first time was a year after I finished college, and the second time was over ten years later after I had spent five years teaching college English classes full time. Both times, I only applied to one specific school because I was limited geographically for personal reasons. I would certainly suggest that people apply as widely as possible and be prepared to relocate if necessary or to understand what it means to attend an online program if that is a possible option.

The first school I applied to was UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science (SILS) program. As a recent college graduate, I included some letters of reference from professors who knew me well as well as one letter from my supervisor for the copy cataloging position I held as a student. I also had GRE test scores, which I had taken because I also applied for graduate programs in English (and which I ended up pursuing first). I wrote an idealistic though perhaps unoriginal essay about the power of libraries and books to open doors for people like myself, and I still think it was a pretty good essay though it also revealed how little I really knew about librarianship. In hindsight, I wish I had done a bit more reading into library work before applying for library school so that I could have articulated more clearly what my interests might be. Ultimately, I did gain admission to the SILS program along with some scholarships and graduate assistantships, but I somewhat foolishly did not decide to pursue a library science education at that point, not realizing that many programs do not provide such wonderful financial and work experience assistance.

The second school I applied to over a decade later was St. Catherine University’s (St. Kate’s) Library and Information Science program. After a somewhat disheartening experience teaching college English classes, I wanted to explore a career change, and luckily St. Kate’s library program, the only one in Minnesota, was just down the street from me. I also had a friend teaching in the program, someone I actually met in the context of academic work in Asian American studies, and she had been gently encouraging me to jump ship from literary studies to librarianship since we met about ten years ago. Once I decided to go back to school, I talked to my friend about the program in St. Kate’s and applied for admission. I had colleagues who knew my academic work write me letters of recommendation, and I was able to write an essay about my interests in scholarly communications rather than just abstract, lofty visions of knowledge and libraries. I also took time to look through the curriculum to think about which classes I might like to take, and I also studied the faculty profiles to see which professors I might like to work with in classes or on other types of projects.

My advice for library school applicants is to make sure you can show some kind of experience with libraries–whether it is simply using them in substantive ways (more than just checking out books) that show you understand the circulation of information or having experience working in them. It probably helps to be able to write essays that go beyond expressing a love of books and learning to offer concrete details about how you imagine yourself doing the work of librarianship.

Rebecca H.

For all of my undergraduate career I was sure I wanted to be social worker and was lucky enough to find part-time employment in the field.  I always loved school and during my junior year decided to complete an Honors thesis.  During the course of writing I because more and more sure that instead of social work, I wanted to pursue a PhD in Sociology (my undergraduate major).  I spoke to my thesis advisor and after submitting many drafts of a statement of purpose for her review realized I had no idea what I wanted to do.  I loved school and wanted to continue learning, but getting a PhD didn’t feel like the right fit.

After graduating I was lucky enough to find full-time employment as an entry-level social worker (one that didn’t require a MSW) but very quickly understood that I had no passion for social work as employment.  I had a bit of a meltdown but started to look into MLS/MIS programs.  I thought public or academic libraries would be a good bridge between my aforementioned interests — learning and social service.  I attended an information session for the University of Michigan iSchool because I was already living in Ann Arbor and walked away feeling confident that I wanted to pursue an MIS.  I decided I only wanted to apply to the “top” schools, which in hindsight is totally absurd.  It is more important to find a school that supports your needs and interests than one that is highly-ranked.  I had a good undergrad GPA and while my GRE scores were lacking, I felt confident in being accepted.  The “top” schools at the time were UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, University of Washington and the University of Texas.  I was accepted to all of them and ultimately decided on UT because they offered me in-state tuition (my parents live in Texas) and my boyfriend was really excited to leave Ann Arbor.

Be ye not so snobbish!  Do your research and find schools that are a good fit for you.  I lucked out in that I absolutely love UT, but ranking of the school should only be one consideration among many — such as types of degrees offered, requirements, financial aid, internship opportunities, etc. — and not the only one.  Once you’ve found a handful of schools you like (or one, for that matter, if you really love it), study for the GRE (if necessary), ask mentors for letters of recommendation, get a lot of feedback on your personal statement, and relax. You’ll end up where you’re supposed to be!

Turner M.

As I mentioned in my Hack Your Program post, when I moved here to Portland I didn’t expect to stay longer than a year. I thought that a year would be enough of a break from school before heading back east for graduate school (I knew at the end of undergrad that I wanted an MLIS). Well, not only did I end up staying in Portland, it took me three years before heading back to school. I spent the time working at Borders Bookstore – and developing my customer service skills – where I discovered a few of my coworkers were enrolled in Emporia’s distance learning program. Based in Kansas, they have a Pacific Northwest cohort based here in Portland. Seeing how it was Portland’s only MLIS program, it was the only one that I applied to. As my undergrad GPA wasn’t anything to write home about and my GREs were just above the minimum, I feel that my acceptance was really based on my letters of recommendation, my statement of purpose and my interview. I feel pretty lucky that I got in, as it was the only place I applied. I should have at least applied to the iSchool’s distance learning program. All’s well that ends well, right?

My advice for folks applying to MLIS program would be to apply to more than one school, and remember: most program directors and admissions officers are going to look at your application as a whole package. So don’t stress too much over one detail, and really put your effort into highlighting your strengths.

Zack F.

I didn’t want to be a librarian until the August  before I applied to schools. I’d been out of school for a while and working as bookseller, and decided that while I liked what I did, I wanted more money for doing it.  My problem was I had no clue what librarians did or what the process of getting a Masters would look like.  Before I even started my application I set out to learn as much as I could about what librarians do. I got in touch with a librarian who had helped me out a lot in college, went to an information session at the University of Washington, and read a few books. The more I learned about librarianship, the more I thought, “this is the career for me.”

I felt like I had a lot to overcome with my applications. I was a poor student as an undergrad and my GPA was fairly low for graduate programs. I had applied to graduate school before (in a different field) but hadn’t gotten in, despite some assurances that I didn’t have anything to worry about.  Because of that experience, I wanted to spend as much time as possible on this round of applications. That decision, combined with a terrible holiday season at the bookstore, led me to apply for some schools that I hadn’t really considered at all. When I got started I looked at the schools who’s had deadlines I couldn’t reasonably make, so I made a list of programs I who’s deadlines worked with my schedule. From there I selected the schools I would like to go, and started working on my applications.  Each program required slightly different things. The first thing I did was get in touch with the people who I wanted to write my letters of recommendation. I checked with them in person, stayed in touch and let them know where I was. I did this before I started filling out paperwork, because I knew that of everything this was the part that was least in my control. Then I wrote a draft of the personal statement that I would use as a template for my other essays and sent it a few people to check. I  filled out as much of the applications online as possible, edited my essay to fit their various constraints, and submitted them. I was 2/3, which I considered really good.  I didn’t complete one application because I had already gotten in to the University of South Carolina and felt that this program would offer me better opportunities.