Demystifying the Graduate School Application Process for New and Returning Applicants
As the next graduate school application cycle approaches, many applicants will be gearing up to apply in the fall or deciding to reapply if they did not receive any offers in the last cycle.
Many Científico Latino team members have applied to graduate school more than once and we wish to emphasize that rejections should not be taken personally.
"We hope to offer some insight on how graduate school applications are processed, which can be helpful for both new and returning applicants, and encourage readers to utilize the information here to guide their decisions when the new cycle begins."
“What are some common red flags in graduate school applications?”
1. Lack of knowledge on the strengths of the graduate program to which they are applying. This can make it seem as though the applicant is applying “just because”, and can be easily identified by admissions committees (adcoms). For example, if you’re interested in systems neuroscience, don’t apply to programs with little to no systems neuroscience labs (unless you have been keeping an eye on these labs for a while). Also, maintain a focus on the institution’s research and resources (i.e., do not mention the city as your reason for applying if it is not relevant).
2. Not addressing mitigating circumstances in your statement. This can range from illnesses, non-science jobs, taking years off, etc. Not explaining these circumstances may cause more harm than good, as it can raise questions that the adcom would have to interpret and answer on their own. At the same time, (and this can be a fine line to walk) do not feel like you have too much time talking about your weaknesses as an applicant. Your application is an opportunity for you to highlight your strengths. These can be addressed in your statement or by your letter writer. For example, noting graduate courses you may have taken may mitigate a low GPA.
For those intending to reapply, it is never too early to reflect on your experiences when you last applied, particularly when writing these statements.
Were there any programs you were more excited about than others?
Did you have any programs that you struggled to write a statement for?
Were there any trends in the programs you selected?
Determining the answers to these questions will help you gain more insight into which graduate schools would be the best choices for you. Pick each school deliberately and don’t apply to more schools than needed.
“What makes an undergraduate senior applicant competitive, if full-time research is heavily encouraged?”
Undergraduate applicants can stand out if they have stellar letters of recommendation (LORs) from research experiences, which are typically found in the form of part-time research assistantships or summer research experiences. LORs are one of (if not the most) important parts of your graduate school application.
Your time as an undergrad is an excellent opportunity to explore various labs and find the field of science that most interests you. However, when asking for LORs, it is best to ask for letters from labs that you have been in for a substantial period of time. This can be difficult for some applicants who have not found their niche or research opportunities early in undergrad. In these instances, post-graduate opportunities such as post-bacs, working as a technician or research assistant (RA) jobs can be utilized to supplement previous research experience.
“Speaking of LORs, how do I effectively determine if I am asking the right people to write me one? How can I make the most of my gap year?”
The most important way to effectively determine if you are asking the right people to write you LORs is to ask them this directly. Most potential LOR writers will be very honest with you regarding whether they will write you a good LOR.
Gap years give you the opportunity to meet potential LOR writers, as well as help you decide what your area of focus is (or isn’t!) for research.
This is your time to shine without the worry of full-time classes! Be proactive and engaged. Letter writers will notice these characteristics, and this will reflect towards what adcoms desire in grad school applicants and future grad students.
“How can I improve my chances as an international student?”
You can improve your chances as an international student by primarily understanding how international students are funded. NIH T-32 PhD training grants cannot be used to fund international students nor can they apply to NSF or NRSA fellowships. This typically means that the program itself funds international students.
Email program directors early on and ask how many international students they accept. Create and prioritize your program list with programs that have a strong history of admitting more international students. Private universities typically have more funding for international students.
If possible, having your own funding from your home country (such as in the form of a fellowship) can help. Networking can also be a useful tool. Ask PIs you know well from your home country to assist in bridging the gap and contacting PIs overseas. The STEM community is smaller than you think, use this to your advantage.
“What are some tips for standing out in the job market for lab technician and research assistant positions?”
Email PIs during spring and summer since many techs and RAs will leave at the end of the academic year. Make sure to ask if you will have the opportunity to engage in independent research, as opposed to just doing standard lab duties. This distinction can make or break your application as this demonstrates to adcoms that you are familiar with conducting research akin to graduate students. If contact information for current techs and RAs are available, feel free to email them as well.
We understand that the job market for these positions is competitive as gap years are becoming more common. Often, the desire for the ideal gap year job is overshadowed by the need to have a job that will financially support you. Do not hold out for the ideal research experience if you have to pay bills. Fortunately, science is interdisciplinary. For example, obtaining a molecular biology tech position should not hinder your application to a neuroscience, cancer biology, or other similarly related graduate programs. It may actually help you stand out from others in the application pool that have more standard experience from one discipline.
As an added bonus, some institutions give discounted or even free courses to their employees. Use this to your advantage if you are trying to address grade deficiencies.
“Is there a rubric admissions committees use when reviewing applications?”
This is highly dependent on the institution and the program, but typically, rubrics are not used. While adcom members are trained in reviewing applications, there is no universal system in doing so.
This is why the admissions process can feel random sometimes, and why you should never take rejections personally!
“Are there any recommendations surrounding the GRE?”
Fortunately the GRE is becoming increasingly less important for graduate school applications, as it becomes more obvious that a GRE does not correlate or predict an applicant’s success as a graduate student.
The GRE can be a huge financial burden for graduate school applicants, so navigating this depends strongly on your personal situation. The GRE will offer an advantage to students that have more money and time to spend on preparation, and/or can afford to take the test more than once. If you have a more limited budget for graduate school, try to apply to programs that either omit it or do not require it. More conservative fields or programs however may still put stock into the GRE, so if possible discuss the issue of the GRE with a faculty mentor. Generally, it is only recommended to retake the test if your scores are in a low percentile for your field, usually less than the 50th percentile.
For this upcoming Fall 2020 cycle, keep track of how your programs of interest will be responding to the GRE requirement in light of the pandemic.
Yessica Santana is originally from Los Angeles and obtained a Bachelors in Global Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara in 2017. During that time, she was involved in educational and social psychology labs and, later in her undergraduate career, developed an interest in pursuing neuroscience research. After taking a gap year, Yessica did a post-baccalaureate (post-bac) program at the University of Pittsburgh studying retinal-cortical circuit tracing in non-human primates. She is in the process of completing a second post-bac at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), where she studies the role of transcription factors in the neurodevelopment of amacrine cells. She will begin her Ph.D. in Neuroscience at OHSU in Summer 2020. Yessica writes this article to include advice from her post-bac advisor, Dr. Kevin Wright.