I was thinking about how best to advise my clients who are applying to STEM graduate programs. Since I have had many clients who gained admission to their target programs, I decided to send them some questions about their experience. I’ve compiled most of their responses into the following summary.
If you were starting the process now to apply to graduate school, what would you think about or do prior to beginning the applications?
- I would start thinking about applying much earlier as an undergrad – maybe even as early as sophomore year. I made the decision during my senior year, and while everything worked out, I was very anxious and stressed. Also, by starting to think about grad school earlier, you could tailor your undergrad program accordingly. For example, if you are applying for CS [computer science], you can fulfill all the prerequisite coursework, engage in faculty-led or independent research, and publish papers.
- Spend a lot of time thinking about what you want to do career-wise after grad school. Go meditate or whatever you like to do when thinking through ideas. Talk to your parents, but take their words as advice, not orders! Make sure you believe in the programs you are applying to so that authenticity is apparent in your writing.
- Prior to beginning the application, brainstorm how you will tackle each section of the application and write your plan down. Keeping the applications at the forefront of your mind allows you to come up with creative ideas when you’re least expecting it.
What would you do differently (or alternatively, do again) if you were applying now, knowing what you learned from the process:
- Because I applied so late in the process, I completed my applications over winter break. It was not easy to get it all done in such a short time period. I would also have used admissions advising services earlier in the process. I recommend that others use their advisors to formulate concrete ways to maximize their chances for admission.
- I would spend more time brainstorming and refining my personal statement and supplemental questions. This part of the application is arguably the most important. Write an outline, get feedback from multiple sources, write a draft, and iterate as much as possible prior to submitting.
- I would spend more time thinking about the schools I want to apply to and then narrow down the list. I applied to 12. I had friends who only applied to five and ended up not getting accepted anywhere. Also, take time to reach out to professors at your target schools.
How much time do you recommend an applicant reserve for the application process?
- At least 20 hours in total.
- I recommend spending an average of two to four hours per week for three months. You also want to take time to foster relationships with your recommenders.
- After building a template for an essay with my admissions consultant, each subsequent essay and application took about four hours. It doesn’t sound like it’s that much time, but it was mentally draining, and I found it took me about a week per school despite the four hours of actual work.
Which part of the application took you the longest to complete?
- Writing my first statement of purpose.
- Trying to make personal statements personal.
- Read about admissions essays on the internet to understand what schools are looking for. Read articles, watch videos, listen to podcasts. Think about what makes you unique as a candidate and be consistent with that theme throughout your statement. Be succinct – make a point and use a brief story or example to support it.
Any advice concerning letters of recommendation?
- Initiate the process as early as possible. Carefully select recommenders who will be able to provide quantifiable information regarding your strengths as a candidate.
- Doing research with a professor will give you one solid letter.
- Hopefully you developed relationships with a few professors over your four years. Give them the opportunity to say “no” as you do not want a weak letter.
- Choose only those professors or work/internship supervisors who know you well, can speak to your accomplishments with examples, are able to compare you to your peers and vouch for your academic success in your target programs.
How do you recommend approaching the statement of purpose?
- Think about what you want your readers to know. Clearly communicate why you want to pursue your program of choice, how you are the right candidate because of your accomplishments and interests, how you will maximize your potential in the program.
- Hire an expert in admissions to help you with your essays. Figure out how to best communicate who you are and the goals you want to accomplish in school and beyond.
- Discuss how this school and this program align with your interests. Be specific.
Any other advice you would offer a prospective applicant?
- Applying to graduate school can be very anxiety inducing. It becomes much more manageable with professional help.
- It isn’t sufficient to have high grades or a high GRE score. The admissions committee is evaluating you on how you fit in and how you stand out. It is your job to communicate both of these critical factors, mostly through your statement of purpose.
With 30 years of career/admissions experience at four universities, including Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Business and College of Engineering, Dr. Karin Ash has met with thousands of recruiters seeking to hire the best students from leading schools. She has served as a member of the admissions committee, ensuring that the applicants who ultimately enroll are a good fit for the program and prime candidates for employers. Karin has been a Consultant with Accepted for 8 years and has facilitated students’ entry into top engineering, data science, MBA, and other STEM graduate MEng, MS, and PhD programs. Her clients have been accepted into MIT, the University of Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, UPenn, and USC. Want Karin to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!