What’s app: an insider’s perspective on how to optimize your application to grad school

So you’ve decided to apply to graduate school in the sciences. You’ve got all of your deadlines lined up, you’ve added a few new things to your CV, and you’re pretty confident your grades and GRE match the average scores for your program. Importantly, you’ve done research in the field, gotten some experience, and you’re sure that graduate school is your next move. The question then becomes how do you convince the admissions committee, generally a mix of professors with a couple current students thrown in for good measure, that you are ready, willing, and able to succeed in their program? In this post, two student members of a PhD program’s admissions committee will try to give you some advice on what we are looking for in a candidate.

Are you passionate about science? Show it.

No matter how great your GRE scores or grades, if you don’t make it clear that you care about science (and your field in particular), that you like science, that you are willing to give up all semblance of a life and personal hygiene for science (kidding about the last one. Kinda.), you will find it hard to get into a PhD program. Science is going to be the focus of the next 4-6 years of your life: if you are not excited about it, you are going to have a problem. More pertinently, the program reviewing your application, or the person ultimately interviewing you, will have a problem. Not being enthusiastic or failing to show that you care about the subject raises the concern that you may drop out, no matter how good of a student you appear to be. Graduate school is an entirely different cup of tea than undergrad, one that requires much more self-motivation and perseverance in the face of failure. The hope is that your enthusiasm for the subject and a genuine passion will motivate you beyond these failures, and you will persist through the PhD and beyond.

Practically, what does this mean for your application? In my eyes, this is one of the main uses of the statement of purpose (SOP). Here, you can tell your story of why you are interested in science, of what excites you and what you want to do with this excitement. You should illustrate how you went above and beyond your coursework to get involved in science, creating your own opportunities when none seemed to present themselves. Spend a little time saying what got you into your field, how you developed a love for it and what made you decide you want (need?) a PhD. You should include specific details on what exactly in your field interests you, and how the department you are applying to fits in with your interests. Your statement of purpose alone is not enough to show your passion for science: your CV should include extra-curricular activities you did pertaining to the field, and you should make your enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity readily apparent to your recommendation writers.


Address any weak points in your application explicitly

Nobody is perfect and, accordingly, few applications seem perfect (every so often one is, and this freaks us out to no end). Just because you had a bad semester or two, or didn’t take the magic combination of courses in undergrad that will get you into graduate school doesn’t mean you won’t get into graduate school. You can either cross your fingers and toes, hoping that the reviewers won’t see your C in Organic Chemistry (not a great strategy), or explain that you wanted to challenge yourself with Orgo, getting outside your comfort zone, and you were simultaneously involved in an intensive research project. If there were personal problems one semester, or you had to hold down a full time job to put yourself through school, say so. Most reviewers are people too, and will cut you some slack.


Prepare your recommenders for the particular angle of your application

It can be difficult to wrangle three busy people and try to get them to upload recommendation letters for a long list of schools, but you can give some thought to who writes your letters, and how you’d like them to write them.

Generally, your letter writers are faculty members and/or post docs you’ve worked with. As a rule of thumb, it’s better to have a PI write (or at least co-sign) a letter than the post-doc or graduate student, as reviewers will generally trust the more experienced PI’s judgement much more than a student’s. Similarly, reviewers will put more credence in a letter from someone they are familiar with or know (e.g. someone prominent in the field or someone from their institution), although a bad or neutral letter is worse than no letter at all. At least two of your letters should refer to research that is also highlighted in your CV/SOP. If you speak about a research project at length, you should have a recommender who can also validate your claims about that project. In addition, it’s important to have a letter from the place where you are currently working (if you don’t, this will be red flag to the reviewers).

Each letter writer has his or her own style, but there a few things you can do to keep your letter writers happy and informed.  For instance, give them a chart, arranged by due date, of all of your letters due, and to where, with instructions on how they’ll need to upload for each program. Give them plenty of time (let’s say, at least a month) to write the letter, and send a reminder email one week, and if necessary, the day before the due date. To keep them informed about your application, send them your SOP, as well as your CV. It’s best if your letters echo the points you make in your statement, so if you can summarize those points for your reviewers in advance, that will help them write the best letter.


Be explicit about your research experience

Admissions committees need to read through hundreds of applications in a short amount of time – your research experiences should really pop out of your CV and SOP without much work on their behalf. To make your CV easy to interpret, each research experience should be listed separately, noting the primary investigator, university/company, length of experience, and your main project (see below for some more CV resources). You don’t need to discuss each of your experiences in your SOP, just the most significant and most relevant to what you’d like to do in graduate school. All that being said, if you’re applying to a graduate program in the sciences, you most definitely need to have previous experience in a lab.

Lastly, have a friend look over your CV and SOP and try to summarize your application in a sentence or two (this is basically what the committee will end up doing). In an ideal world, that sentence is “this candidate has a solid academic record, excellent research experience in ___the field you’ve highlighted___, and a clear passion for scientific research at our institution.” The same concept applies to interviews: be ready to clearly and enthusiastically explain your primary research story, and don’t hesitate to point out your own strengths!

Grad School Application Resource List

Writing a statement of purpose:

  1. http://grad.berkeley.edu/admissions/apply/statement-purpose/
  2. http://www.princetonreview.com/grad/statement-of-purpose.aspx

Creating  an academic CV:

  1. http://www.careers.utoronto.ca/progServ/CH01/Creating_your_academic_cv_handout.pdf
  2. http://career.ucsf.edu/grad-students-postdocs/career-planning/academic-jobs/applying/academic-samples
  3. http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/01/12/dr-karens-rules-of-the-academic-cv/
  4. http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/nov/01/academic-cv-job-10-mistakes

Choosing a graduate school:

  1. http://www.extension.harvard.edu/hub/blog/extension-blog/8-tips-choosing-right-graduate-school
  2. https://neuwritesd.org/2014/03/20/you-interviewed-now-what/
  3. National Research Council ranking of PhD programs, by subject

General professional development tips:

  1. https://neuwritesd.org/2013/05/31/professional-development-tips/