Since entering Saint Louis University freshman year, I knew that graduate school would be an eventual part of my academic journey. I am a biology major, with aspirations to be an industry microbiology researcher. I’ve recently completed my graduate school application process and while it’s fresh in my mind, I have some tips to share!
Disclaimer: My experience is very STEM-focused, so my tips may not be as applicable to non-STEM fields. I only applied to Biomedical/Biology Ph.D. programs. However, there are some common denominators to almost all graduate school applications, so hopefully, this will be helpful to anyone with aspirations to go to graduate school!
1. Make an Excel spreadsheet with all of your programs of interest.
I began my application process by browsing through my programs of interest and becoming overwhelmed with the various types of applications, application portals, differing deadlines and much more. To combat this mental clutter, I made a master spreadsheet to list every program, a link to informational websites, DEADLINES, GRE/testing requirements, application cost, and a column for additional notes or requirements. I cannot stress enough how much this spreadsheet was crucial to my ability to get all of my application materials in on time.
2. Ask your desired recommenders early and have a CV/resume ready when you ask them.
My programs required three letters of recommendation, although some may require four or have an optional fourth recommender. Be sure to ask your recommenders early and be very clear about when your earliest application deadline is so they can be prepared to submit on your behalf. I asked my recommenders 2.5 months in advance over email (although asking in-person is an option as well). The first thing my recommenders asked of me after agreeing to write a letter was to provide them with a CV/resume so they had access to a concise list of my accomplishments and skills to reference. Before asking for letters of recommendation, have both a CV and resume ready and updated. Letters of recommendation can absolutely make or break any application, so be sure to ask reliable people who can speak confidently on your behalf.
3. Begin drafting a personal statement very early.
For the personal statement, I began with writing the essay for the program I was most comfortable with. I did research during high school at a university near my house and personally knew several faculty members from that experience. For that reason, I felt more comfortable writing my first personal statement tailored to that program because I was able to best articulate my interest in getting a graduate degree and my desired field of study. I was later able to edit that personal statement to be less specific to that program and to serve as a “template” for the personal statements required for other programs. Take my usage of the term “template” lightly, because each program wants to see your specific interest in them, so be sure to personalize each essay as much as possible. However, if you’re struggling to get your creative juices flowing, write to your most comfortable program first!
4. Find several friends, mentors or people you trust to edit your personal statement.
Another reason to not procrastinate writing your personal statement is that you absolutely need others to read it over. My personal statement required several drafts with several editors so you must leave time for people to edit and read over your essay. Find editors who will call you out if a part of the essay is boring, could be rephrased, or if you need to add anything in!*
*Disclaimer: As a person with a STEM background, my editors frequently called me out on my writing being very passive because I tend to gravitate away from first-person pronouns in scientific writing. So STEM writers, be cognizant of your “passive” tone. For example, I wrote a sentence that said, “The [Professor’s name] Lab has taught me to be an organized researcher.” My editors suggested that I emphasize my actions first and revise that sentence to say, “I learned to be an organized researcher through my experience in the [Professor’s Name] Lab.” Emphasize your own actions outright and make yourself the subject.
5. Find out early on if you need to take the GRE or any other assessments.
During the time of COVID, many programs are waiving GRE or assessment requirements. For many programs, this was a long time coming because the GRE provides a barrier to entry for underrepresented communities. All of the programs I applied to waived the GRE requirement, which was the trend for many STEM programs. However, there are many programs that still require the GRE so be sure to give yourself adequate time to take the test and to see your results prior to application due dates.