Xiaoyu Ke

My Education

Washington University

PHD | Philosophy, Neuroscince, Psychology


MA | Humanities, Philosophy

The University of Hong Kong

BA | Philosophy


Sling Health


Microsoft IT Academy

Project Coordinator

Having made her way into five prestigious universities in China (Zhejiang University), Hong Kong (University of Hong Kong), and the United States (University of Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis, Mount Holyoke College) on her own, Xiaoyu gained insights into the differences and similarities of the education systems and application processes across the globe. She offers valuable and useful tips to students applying to graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences. She also earned 1580/1600 on GRE and 115/120 on TOEFL. She is very much looking forward to sharing her experiences, insights, and success tips.

3 tips for getting into a top-tier philosophy graduate program

Xiaoyu Ke, Ph.D Philosophy, Neuroscince, Psychology - Washington University

I’m sharing insider advice on how you can find the right supervisor for your PhD degree. This advice assumes that you already have a good idea about which field you would like to work in and that you are applying directly for PhD labs rather than 4-year (1-year taught + 3-year research) PhD programmes.

Tip 1: Writing Sample is the most important

The writing sample is the most important material in your application portfolio. This is because philosophy PhD programs are aimed at training their PhD students to be full-fledged scholars who are able to publish journal articles, and subsequently securing teaching or tenure-track job positions.

The writing sample should demonstrate your philosophical maturity, such as how well you spell out a complicated concept, how well you situate your view in the current literature (by taking a nuanced position, for example), whether your argument is cogent (or sounds convincing), etc.

Generally, it is more appreciated if you aim small and focused, and use pertinent examples and analogies for illustrating your point. Your argument will turn out to be more substantive compared to if you are writing your arguments in broad-brushes.

Note that for PhD applications, Personal Statement is probably less important in your application package. By this I mean you don’t need a fancy Personal Statement with crafted narrative detailing how you came to be interested in philosophy. It should be straightforward, concise, and reflect professionalism: simply write out your research interests trajectory, and how it paves the way for your interest in the particular department that you are applying to.

Tip 2: Getting strong recommendation Letters

Early Stage: identify at least three professors whom you might want to ask for a letter, and take a course with him/her. (If you can’t take a course, try to find a way to ask him/her to read your writing, such as a term paper, so that the person will be able to make substantive comment on your ability in the letter.)

Asking for the letter: 1. Supply your professors with as much writing materials as you can to provide an accurate picture of your strengths and weaknesses. (Don’t wait for the professors to find out! They might forget you if you take their course a while ago.) For example, a draft of your personal statement, writing sample, test scores, transcript, CV, snippets of moments when you were active in class, a list of schools that you are considering to apply, etc. The more information you offer, the better the letter will be. 2. Write an “instructional” note to your professors about how you’d like them to write the letter. Include things like, “I’m writing to ask if you could write a strong recommendation letter for me…”, “I’d appreciate it a lot if you could highlight…”, and provide reasons for why you think that he/she is the best fit for writing the recommendation letter. Lastly, indicate that you’d be willing to opt to not view the content of the letter, out of respect.

After the letter is sent: Write a thank-you email. Keep him/her in the loop about your results!

Tip 3: Tailoring to your audience

You should read very carefully the “How to apply” or “Admissions” webpages because every philosophy program’s wordings of requirements are different, no matter how minutely they are. This is a really important first step towards tailoring your application materials to your audience, namely, the admissions committee. Make sure that you understand what each requirement means, how they translate into the expectations of the admissions committee, how they implicate the different weights assigned to each part of the application materials. If you are not sure that you are clear about the expectations, email or call the department for more clarifications. You can’t tailor your content to your audience unless you know what they are asking for.

Q: Why are you passionate about your academic field? When and how did you discover your love of your subject?
A: Experiments have limitations when it comes to hard problems about the mind. Philosophy can be short-sighted when limited to the armchair. But being informed of both might lead to breakthroughs. This is why I came to be interested in my current field.
Q: What are your three top recommendations for a student targeting a masters in your field? What if they are preparing to switch their major to your field?
  1. If you are a philosophy student, take some psychology or neuroscience classes, or volunteer to do research in a lab;
  2. If you are a psychology/neuroscience student, take some philosophy courses to hone your philosophical skills;
  3. If you are neither, start from reading about the specific topics that drew you to this field.
Q: What resources can students use to educate themselves on your subject?
A:Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy; philpapers.org
Q: What are your top tips to showcase an applicant’s strength to Admissions Officers?
A: Tailor to your readers’ (admissions committee) interests: focus on what they expect to see, not what you’d like to present.
Q: Any pitfalls or mistakes an applicant should be aware of as they apply to your program?
A: While GRE and TOEFL scores are important, they are never as important as your writing sample. (Speaking of humanities PhD programs in general.)
Q: Why did you apply to your university and program? What other universities and programs were you admitted to?
A: I’m interested in doing research in the intersection of philosophy and cognitive science, especially combining scientific and philosophical methodologies.
Q: What are the common career paths for graduates in your field?
A: Professorship.
Q: What aspects of the campus culture are your favorites? Which aspects surprised you? Which would you change if you could?
A: Favorite: Undergrad Students are really hard-working here. Surprise: The University has strengths in bio and medical researches. Change: More parking spots!
Q: What’s your favorite fun fact about your university? Any special events or traditions or legends?
A: T.S.Eliot’s grandfather founded Wash U.
Q: How did you spend your summer vacation during university? Any advice for making the most of summer?
A: I usually work on my papers and go to conferences. My advice for making the most of summer is plan ahead and then stick to your plans. To prevent procrastination, try segment your tasks in small steps, find an accountability buddy, and commit to designated hours per day on your tasks. And don’t forget to reward yourself when you reach a milestone, so that you keep getting motivated for the next one!
Q: What makes you smile? Share more on a favorite hobby.
A: In my spare time, I love dancing ballet, doing yoga and pilates, running, and hiking.
Q: Why are you excited to mentor Dyad Scholars?
A: Because I think it is really interesting and meaningful to help someone discover his or her own strengths, create a narrative that makes them stand out, and know that these will lead to life changing events (aka. going to a new school!).