I am referring to applying philosophy Ph.D. My main support of this statement is based on my own case, so obviously it would a bad induction. My intention, though, is not to generalize anything substantial from a single case. Rather I want to expatiate on some aspects of my application so that some of my fellow students will be able to distill something important for themselves. Let me start from my statistics.
GRE: V 690 / Q 780 / AW 4.0
TOEFL: R 30 / L 29 / S 28 / W 28
Letters: Taiwan * 1, CUNY * 1, Pittsburgh * 1, Berkeley * 3
Writing Sample: "Disjunctivism, Intentionalism, and the Argument from Illusion"
Applying: 18 Ph.D and 3 MA in the U.S.; 3 MA/M.Phil/B.Phil in the U.K.
Results: U.C. Irvine's Ph.D, CUNY's MA, UCL's M.Phil/Ph.D, and Warwick's MA/Ph.D in phil. of mind. Waitlisted by CUNY's and Indiana Bloomington's Ph.D. Attending CUNY's MA.
Now here goes my comments. My GRE score is fine with regard to philosophy application, except the mediocre AW. My issue topic was about commercial stuffs, and that was too difficult for anyone from non-English speaking countries and whose major is in the humanities. My TOEFL is pretty good (to my own surprise), but it plays no weight in the decision, except damping some skepticisms about the English ability of those who do not have English as their first language.
As for letters, I was told by many western professors that it would be a problem if all of them are from Taiwan, so I keep it minimum. I know the CUNY and Pitts professors at conferences and other occasions, and I spent a semester in U.C. Berkeley. They all assure that the letters will be positive. I did not submit all the letters for every application.
I think my writing sample was ill-chosen. I was motivated by the thought that committee members might generally prefer seeing us to analyze a well-known argument, since it shows that the applicant can confront the argument directly (as opposed to make one's point by insinuating others' remarks), and since the chosen argument is well-known, presumably all members will have some rough ideas about your writing. I still believe in this general guideline, but now I think the argument from illusion is no good for this. It is well-known, to be sure, but it is rather unnoticed or downplayed in the present U.S. community. In conducting my discussions, I concentrate on philosophers like A.D. Smith and Tim Crane (I omit McDowell intentionally), and they are pretty U.K. style (Some U.K. philosophers perform U.S. style, and vise versa). I guess this hurts my application to some extent. There is no denying that what's more important is the quality of the paper, but to better the quality is much more difficult than choosing a more suitable topic. I think I will do philosophy of language for this round, and I hope I can do that with the help from Nathan Salmon and Michael Devitt with their two seminars in CUNY in fall 2010.
I applied to 18 Ph.D programs in the U.S., but I over-reached. The main reason is that unlike most applicants in the western world, I have spent too much in my life for preparing this (6 years at least). So I just wanted to give it a shot, but I failed in the end. I was also rejected by Stanford's and NYU's MA. I know they are tough. Columbia's MA decision is yet to come, but I am not going to wait that one. I will definitely change my stance this round.
My GRE score is going to expire soon, and I really don't want to take it again. So if I fail again at the end of this year, I will write my dissertation in the U.K., and I think this is pretty good. I myself is more U.K. style, and it is difficult for me to turn down my offers from UCL and Warwick. I opt for CUNY mainly because I realized that hard-core philosophy of language is very important for my interests in philosophy of mind and perception (I came to see this by reading David Chalmers' recent works). If I go to the U.K. now, I will rush into my beloved U.K. style philosophy of mind, which is also tied to my interests in Kant and some phenomenologists. I want to force myself to do some more down-to-earth stuffs first, and CUNY is better on this score.
I guess I can continue this self-reflection forever, but I shall stop for now. I truly hope that someone will find some bits of this post useful.