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Re: publication before PhD?
A decent publication is helpful but, as suggested above, that depends on what you think of as a second-tier journal. I often see applicants (frequently international applicants) talking about publication in a journal that is sufficiently low that it illustrates they don't understand the system.
Also, most working paper series are limited to people with an appropriate affiliation. You can send a paper to SSRN if you want it to be visible, but doing so won't help on admissions.