A Letter to Grad School Applicants

Dear Applicants,

It’s the fall semester, which means many of you will not be paying attention in class because not only do you have senioritis, your thoughts are on the 12 grad school applications waiting for you. And after you finish not paying attention in class, you will be asking your professor for a letter of recommendation. To make this process easier for us all, I’ve compiled a list of tips derived from my experiences 7 years ago as an applicant, and my experiences during the last 2 years on a graduate school admissions committee.

General Advice:

  • Have an actual plan. Know what degree you want and why. Grad school is not for you to find yourself; that’s what college was for.
  • Research careers associated with your intended degree. You may discover that you don’t need an advanced degree to do what you want to do. Or you may find you need a different degree.
  • Research the program, not the school. Pay close attention to funding options, graduation rates, graduation timeframes, faculty research and teaching interests, internship opportunities/requirements, and course scheduling. These details are the ones that make or break your graduate school experience
  • Only apply to programs in cities in which you would like to live long-term. You can’t predict the future so you truly don’t know how long it may take for you to finish the program or what may happen after. What if you get a job offer through the internship? What if you meet the love of your life and he/she lives in that city?
  • You may consider talking to current students and graduates of the program. They will have insight you can’t find online, in brochures, or by talking to faculty.
  • Drop your ‘I know it all’ attitude at the door. Grad school is a whole new world. You have no idea.

Letters of Recommendation:

  • Please pay attention to deadlines. If your completed application is due October 31st, do not ask for recommendations on October 15th. Give your writers a minimum of 4 weeks (I gave my writers 6).
  • Choose your recommendation writers very well. You need someone who has worked with you beyond merely being your professor. We see a lot of students every day. There is no guarantee I will remember that one witty thing you said one time in my course 16 months ago.
    • Be sure to include a professor whose courses are relevant to the work you will do in graduate school. Committees want to read about your applicable knowledge and skills. Not what you learned to do in Basket-weaving 101.
    • If you got below a B+ in a class, you may not want to choose that particular professor (unless you have a strong personal relationship that extends beyond that course)
    • Present well-rounded letters. If you have 3 letters, have 2 professors and 1 supervisor or coach. If you can include a personal reference, do it. But don’t choose your bestie from way back; choose an upperclassman, a family friend, or the person with whom you volunteer. Just be sure that person is literate and actually likes you.
    • If your program requires 3-5 letters of recommendation, try to send 4. That fourth letter may be the tie breaker between you and another candidate. Or it could be the letter that pushes you into the ‘accept’ pile.
    • Please provide your writers with a portfolio of pertinent information to aid in their writing process. This includes but is not limited to: your transcript, a resume, your personal statement, information about the program, a stamped and addressed envelope in which the writer can place your completed letter, a cover page with clear instructions and due dates.
    • Feel free to send your writers reminders about due dates. Be sure to phrase these emails or conversations graciously. And please do not send them a reminder every 3 days. If you allot them 4 weeks to write the letter, check in after 2 weeks. Then give them the 5 day reminder if necessary.
    • Please don’t be rude and ask to read the letter of recommendation. If you don’t trust the person to write a good letter, don’t ask them.

Personal Statement

  • Read the instructions!!! Every personal statement does not ask for the same information. Practice those middle school skills and number each detail of the prompt to be included in the essay.
  • WRITE AN OUTLINE. I can’t express this clearly enough. No one wants to read the hodge podge mess of ideas you threw on the paper with no prior thought.
  • Provide specific, relevant examples. Don’t just say ‘I loved science as a kid, so my interest in the field is long lasting.’  Instead, give examples of ways you demonstrated your interest in science from high school and beyond (or college and beyond if applying a few years removed from college). No one cares that you held a magnifying glass over ants when you were 6.
  • This is your opportunity to tie together disparate aspects of your resume. Explicitly state how your internships, volunteer work, major courses, independent study, and extra curriculars relate to one another AND to the knowledge and skills you’ve developed that will help you be successful in that program.
  • Please write your essay specifically for each program to which you apply. Committees recognize a ‘form essay’ after two sentences.
  • This is not creative writing class. No one wants to read fiction or your autobiography. You are not telling a story; you are advocating for yourself with the use of honest evidence.
  • Proofread your work. Microsoft Word is not your editor; you are. Have a friend read it. Read it aloud to yourself. Send it to a parent. (do all of this before you give it to your recommendation writers)

Test Scores

  • Unless you are genius, it would be a good idea to take a refresher course before you sit for the actual GRE/MCAT/LSAT/GMAT. If you’re anything like me, you haven’t looked at geometry since 9th grade. If you can’t pay the ridiculous prices for the review courses (first off, decide if you truly can’t pay it or if you’d just rather spend your little bit of money on shoes, alcohol, clubs, and clothes), find sample tests online. It’d be best to look for these on the test publisher’s website.
  • Taking a review course is not enough. You need to actually study for these tests. In silence, with notes, regularly. Try to create the testing conditions when you study. When you encode information the same way you are required to retrieve it, retrieval is faster and more accurate.
  • If the tests are entirely electronic, please take practice tests in this format. Time yourself using the same time allotted during the test.
  • Know to which schools you will apply before taking your test. Sometimes, they send your scores for your (included in the testing fee) to the schools. If you don’t know where you are applying, you can’t choose the schools on testing day.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Applying to graduate school is a serious decision that should be given more thought than I myself gave it. I am one of the fortunate few for whom it all worked out well. ‘Don’t trade places with where I been’ (Miss Sophia, Color Purple).

Good luck!


One comment on “A Letter to Grad School Applicants

  1. Reblogged this on theotherclass and commented:

    Day 2 of my reminder to college students as they begin another year. While yesterday’s post was for all students but especially freshmen, this one is for the seniors who will be knocking down electronic doors asking professors for letters of recommendation. Though it is only August, most graduate school deadlines arise in October. Following these steps will keep you ahead of the crowd and perhaps put you in the ‘first glance’ pile of applicants. Good luck!

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