What I Learned Through My Application Experience
Graduate school applications can be a beast. There are multiple schools, multiple advisors at each school and so many different steps for each application. Fortunately, I started my application process early because I was applying for a fellowship that was due a few months before my grad school applications. I started with my personal statement. Every school will require one of these. Because I was working on a fellowship application, I was able to work with the funding coordinator at my university who helped me edit and strengthen my application. I used the summer to polish my personal statement and start researching schools. I will give a full overview of how I narrowed down my list of schools later, but I settled on about 8 schools I was interested in. From here I researched the professors I wanted to work with. I tried to identify about 3 professors at each university that I wanted to work with. It is a really good idea to reach out to these professors before you apply to see if they have space in their lab and funding for new graduate students. I didn’t do this but I did make sure I knew who I was interested in working with.
During the fall, I took the GRE twice and started preparing the rest of my application materials. Some schools will publish average GRE scores of admitted students so you can set a ballpark goal based on this but being below these scores does not by any means indicate whether you will get in. I reached out to the people who would write my recommendation letters (read how to do that in my post The Right Way To Ask For Recommendation Letters), ordered transcripts, and compiled a list of all the supplementary questions the schools required. It was difficult to manage my time as I tried to graduate and finish submitting my applications, but staying organized is what saved me.
So let’s break this down into what you need to know before you apply, what materials you need and the timeline for applications.
Personal Statement – Start a few months ahead of your applications- This is an essay or letter that discusses your experience both personal and professional and why you want to attend the university you are applying to. It is incredibly important to find someone who can help you through this process. This will likely not be an engineering professor, but rather someone in your writing lab or other career center. These people will be better equipped to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your statement and help you navigate discussing any complicated experiences you have had. Your personal statement should vary a little bit from school to school when you discuss why you want to go there. This section should mention a personal connection to the school, how you identify with the university’s values or what research interest you have that this school aligns with.
Resume – This can be done closer to submitting your application – You may have heard that a resume should only be one page. Though this is true for a career fair, your graduate school resume should cover everything you’ve done! Unless the school puts a page limit it is okay to go to 2-2.5 pages. Your resume should include your education including GPA, honors, major and minor, Experiences including class projects such as capstone, undergraduate research, internships, REUs, and work experience outside of school. The “activities” section should include all of your on and off campus involvement. Student orgs, volunteer work, leadership positions, conference attendance etc. You should also include any poster sessions you have done and papers you have written.
Transcripts – Request these at least a month before the deadline – Make a list of every school that needs transcripts and how you are supposed to submit them. Make the transcript requests early because they can take a while!
Supplemental questions -Do these along with your resume. Your resume will remind you of all of your experiences – This is where it gets tricky. Every school will likely have a set of supplemental questions. Make a document organized by school and copy all of the questions over to this document so you can craft your answers there. There is probably some overlap in these questions but make sure your answer matches the question and be careful when copying and pasting.
Lab/ Advisor/ Research interest – Start this research early… you won’t know where to apply if you don’t do this work! Have 2 or 3 labs or advisors you want to work with at each school in mind. Some schools will ask you to list these specifically others may just have you select your areas of interest. Know that this isn’t binding, it is just a way for the school to get your application in front of the right people.
This seems like a lot but if you get organized, come up with a naming system for your files and keep all your due dates in your calendar you can do it! It can be overwhelming and at the time I felt very behind as people around me were connecting with potential advisors. I had a serious fear of missing out as I worried that there were cool programs at schools I didn’t even know about. At the time, I assumed everyone else had it a little more together than I did but I slowly learned everyone else was overwhelmed by the number of schools, programs, advisors and requirements. I won’t go too deep into this now but just know that you will end up where you are meant to be. You don’t have to look at every school and be up to date on everyone’s research. Just put in the work, get organized and listen to your gut when it comes to making the final decision.