Graduate School Application Tips

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Words to the Wise When Applying to Graduate School

Many students are interested in advanced degrees and are applying to graduate schools across the U.S. However, there is no one place that students can go to find out about this confusing process. I would like to share some of the knowledge I have come across concerning applying to graduate schools.
-Amy Korthank, Former Biology Undergraduate Advisor, The University of Iowa

1. Know the difference between graduate programs.
Study the "course of study", ask questions, and visit with knowledgeable people about programs, so you know what you want and what each school offers. For instance, Biology Ph.D. programs may have the same title, yet they can have very different philosophies on what constitutes obtaining a Ph.D.

2. Apply to several programs.
There is a great deal of competition for admittance into graduate programs, especially programs with good reputations. Selecting several programs to apply to will broaden your chances of being admitted to one. If you are selected by more than one, then you have the luxury of being able to chose.

3. Apply early/complete your application on time!
It takes time to complete a graduate application and as Murphy says, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." Some examples are: waiting months for GRE results; reference people not returning letters of recommendation, or sending them to the wrong place; previous schools attended not sending transcripts; or your failing to complete all of the necessary forms. Most application deadlines are around December 1. However, application deadlines will vary by institution and specific program. Be sure you know the application deadline for your specific program of interest and make sure you have everything completed on the application by that date. Some schools and programs will accept applications on a rolling basis; however, there generally are a limited number of openings. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that you apply early.

4. Check your application regularly.
Incomplete applications sit in a file in the graduate office and no one but you cares about them, unless there is a Support Project recruiting you and keeping track of the application.

5. Prepare yourself to take the GRE.
Many graduate programs require a Graduate Record Exam. Know if the subject test is required for each of the schools you are applying to. Prepare yourself by buying or borrowing a study guide and becoming familiar with the test format, or take a "prep" class like Kaplan.

6. When considering reference people, choose people who can write you a strong letter of recommendation.
If you are uncertain whether the person will write a strong letter, ask them. A recommendation that addresses your academic ability (your ability to write, to conceptualize, and to comprehend difficult concepts), your experiences in research, and your commitment as a student and professional, impress selection committees more than references that only talk about what a fine individual you are.

7. Your Statement of Interest/Purpose is important.
The selection committee uses your Statement of Interest/Purpose to determine if your goals match with the type of training the program is providing and the type of research being conducted in that department. State your goals, intentions, and research interests (if you know them) clearly, rather than in vague generalizations.

8. Sell yourself.
You are competing with many other applicants for a few slots in graduate school, so you will have to convince the selection committee that you are the best prospect. Think of the qualities and experiences that have made you unique and have prepared you to go to graduate school (outstanding grades, research experience, internships, having worked full-time to put yourself through school, etc.). If you have low grades in a particular area, write a supplementary letter explaining what happened, how you corrected the problem, and why you should still be considered. Selection committees understand that people change, grow and mature, and become motivated, so explaining may keep you in consideration. You also need to know that no amount of explaining will overcome poor overall grades, nor poor references. Graduate School is rigorous and no one wants to set a student up for failure.

9. Visit the program.
If you are really serious about attending a particular school, visit that school. Call ahead for an appointment with the program chairperson or the person in charge of graduate students, be familiar with the program and be prepared to ask questions. Your visit will help you get acquainted with your area of interest, the school , the geographical area, as well as allow the faculty to meet you and associate a name with a face.

10. Ask for an opportunity to prove yourself.
If you are serious about wanting to attend a certain program, get to know a faculty member through correspondence, phone calls, e-mail and a visit. Discuss you credentials (GPA, test scores, work experience, reference letters, research experience) with that person and ask about your chances of being admitted. If you have an area of concern, such as a low GRE score, suggesting that you would be willing to prove yourself on a non-matriculated basis may get your foot in the door. An outline of the subjects you would need to complete over one or two semesters and the GPA that you would have to maintain would be specified in a letter and you would then have your chance to prove you can do it.

11. Apply early for financial aid.
There are several funding sources outside of Assistantships (Research or Teaching) from the department. Many funding sources require that a student submit proof of financial need. Apply to several funding sources. Find out the deadlines for scholarships and fellowships, not all will be at the same time. Find out the qualifications for scholarships and fellowships, some are only available to incoming graduate students, some only to minorities, etc. You can always turn down funding if you exceed your limit (this is a nice problem to have!).

Achieving an advanced degree requires a great deal of work and is a major commitment in your life. It will also be the best possible financial investment you can make if you succeed. Approach the process of applying to graduate school seriously and conscientiously, and best wishes in furthering your education.

-By Carolyn Barcus, Ed.D. USU; Edited by Amy Korthank