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Graduate School Application Advice

modified from Sacha Patera and Minnetta Gardinier

What’s in an application? What are admissions committees looking for?

In general, the admissions committee is trying to determine if you are a suitable candidate for graduate school. In particular, it is trying to determine if you are a suitable candidate for their program specifically. The committee will use five components of an application to assess each candidate:

1) Grades and GREs

2) Personal Statement

3) Letters of Recommendation

4) Interview

5) Resumé / Curriculum Vitae / Biographical Information

The personal statement, letters of recommendation and interview are extremely influential components. They can be the “deal maker” that will outshine the basic metrics of your undergraduate transcripts and GRE scores.

1) Personal statements

In your personal statement, you must demonstrate to the admissions committee that you have considered graduate school seriously, and more importantly, their program in particular. It’s your opportunity to summarize your research experience. You must also communicate how that research opportunity is relevant to preparing you for the graduate degree that you will be pursuing. The personal statement is where you highlight your strengths. It’s also where you explain (not apologize for) weaknesses, blemishes, or unusual aspects of your application or academic background – e.g., discrepancies between GREs and GPAs; breaks in your education path; changes in your academic trajectory; impact of working while in school. Items for your consideration when writing the personal statement may include:

a. Why are you applying to graduate school, as opposed to seeking a professional degree or a job?

b. Why are you applying to this program at this university?

c. What are traits of successful graduate students? Which of these traits do you have?

d. Identify your strengths. Provide examples to support your claims.

e. Briefly explain weaknesses or unusual things in your application. Don’t be apologetic, but don’t ignore them either.

f. Summarize your best research experience(s). What was the big project? What was your role in this project? What did you accomplish? What did you learn, and how did you grow as a result of the experience(s)?

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2) Reference letters

Choose your recommenders wisely and thoughtfully. Provide them with your most current information and clear instructions that will increase the likelihood that they will write a strong letter on your behalf. The letters of recommendation should support your claim that you have considered graduate school seriously. The letters must identify your strengths that will exemplify how you will become a successful graduate student. Letters that simply confirm grades received in courses are of no value to an admissions committee – they have your transcripts. Your letters of support should add new information and dimensions rather than be redundant.

  • Prepare the information and instructions for your recommenders:
    • What are traits of successful graduate students? Which of these traits do you have?
    • What examples / situations can you describe that highlight these traits in you?
    • Summarize for your recommender which program(s) you have chosen and why.
  • Who should write your letters? Ideally, you should select mentors, who can speak to your abilities to be a successful graduate student.
    • ;faculty research mentor (most important reference)
    • postdoctoral research mentor (if he/she has worked closely with you in your research)
    • faculty instructor (who can comment on more than simply your grade)
    • academic advisor
  • Letters from these individuals would be inappropriate for your graduate application.
    • family or friends
    • religious advisors
    • graduate students

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3) Interview skills & after the interview

You must prepare for the interview. The interview is your opportunity to demonstrate that you have what it takes to be in the graduate programs that you have selected. You want to show enthusiasm for the research that you have done. You want to demonstrate your understanding of the research that you have done. You want to show your interest in the research of your interviewers and in the research areas of each program that you are interviewing with.

  • BEFORE the interview:
    • It’s OK to ask what is expected of you and how to prepare (e.g., dress, papers).
    • Ask ahead of time whom you will be interviewing with and which faculty you will be meeting. Read about the research interests of the faculty – even read an abstract or two. Prepare at least 1-2 specific research questions for each interview.
    • Review the research that you did. If it is published, reread the paper / abstract / poster. Prepare a 5-minute presentation of your past work. What was the research question? How did you address it? What did you conclude?
    • What questions do you have of the program you are visiting?
  • DURING the interview:
    • Avoid becoming distracted: be on time; organize your papers (e.g., resumés / CVs, reprints, questions); dress appropriately (business or business casual, but be comfortable).
    • Speak enthusiastically about your work. Highlight your research accomplishments and/or professional growth. If asked to speak about a weakness, phrase your answer in a forward-looking manner to demonstrate learning and growth.
    • Avoid excessive enthusiasm, which could be interpreted as naiveté.
    • Listen actively to your interviewer talk about his/her research. Ask a question, perhaps the one(s) that you prepared.
    • What questions do you have of the program you are visiting?
  • AFTER the interview
    • For yourself, write down your impressions of the program you visited. Is it a good fit for you?
    • Send a brief “thank you” to each interviewer – email is fine.
    • Reflect on your interview performance and make adjustments to strengthen your next interview trip.

Graduate school application guide (modified from Patera & Gardinier)

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