How to get into graduate school?
Updated: Jan 17, 2019
An admission committee member’s perspective
The New Year typically brings new adventures. Many of you have just finished applying to graduate school in the hopes of getting into your dream program. Here, I provide a perspective of what happens with your application after you hit “submit.”
When I was applying for graduate school (end of 2011), I had very little guidance. I was in the final year of my undergraduate studies in Canada and I already had an informal offer to continue pursuing a Ph.D. at my current university. I applied to a few schools in the US, mostly to see whether I would get in. Out of the four or five schools that I applied to, I only got into Stanford and I ended up turning it down because I received a prestigious Canadian scholarship—Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship—to continue my Ph.D. at the University of Waterloo. (As an aside, during my undergraduate research experience, I knew that I would want a Ph.D. and so I did not bother with a Master’s degree. I did not yet know if I wanted to continue in academia after pursuing my Ph.D.—I will discuss that decision process in a separate blog post at some point).
Fast forward five years (three for Ph.D. and two for a postdoctoral fellowship) and I am now on the other side of the graduate admissions committee. (See details in my previous post about how I got here). I serve on two of the graduate admissions committees: one for my department and another for an interdisciplinary program. Although there are some differences in how the two committees function, the overall approach to decision-making is similar.
Both committees receive about 100 to 200 applications. Each committee member receives about 15 to 30 to review. We are encouraged to use a holistic approach when reviewing the applications, which means that we avoid looking at a single metric alone (e.g. GPA, the college attended, or least of all GRE scores). I spend about 20 minutes reviewing one application.
I am fairly new to the process but I am starting to get better at reviewing applications. Typically, at least two faculty members (the ones closest to your interest or background) will review your application in detail and the rest of the committee will skim over it or discuss it if needed.
Some programs admit directly to a faculty member’s lab (with no rotation) while others offer admission to a program with three to four rotations in the first year and then you join a lab in the second year. Either way, our first priority is to find the strongest candidates and invite them to visit the campus, meet the faculty, and entice them to join us. So, we are recruiting talent.
Have a strong GPA with relevant coursework
The easiest way to sort the students is by their GPA (it gives us a higher probability of finding strong applicants). GPA can be tricky for international students or for students from institutions that do not follow a standard scale (4.0 for American schools, 100% for Canadian schools). For me, calibrating other GPA scales will only be possible once I see enough applicants from different countries. Even within a pool of applicants, we need to calibrate our expectations and our standards for review so that we can make the appropriate call.
Within the transcripts, we also look at which courses you were strong in and which ones you were weak in, to determine whether you are well-prepared for the rigorous curriculum of the program you are interested in.
Domestic applicants receive priority over international ones because they are easier to bring to campus for a visit. The international students typically only receive a Skype interview, because the cost of flying can be prohibitive (in retrospect, I would have been an international applicant when I applied, which probably counted against me).
Build a solid résumé
Résumé is the next document that I pay attention to. Here, I am primarily looking for two things: i) research experience and ii) publications/poster presentations. Within research experience, I look for whether you have spent significant time on research (typically one to two years cumulative) for your available opportunities/resources. I also look for whether the research matches your proposed work/program. While judging the research experience, we keep in mind whether you are applying from an undergraduate degree or if you are partway through your graduate school (Master's degree), and have different expectations for each route.
Publications are the currency of research. My postdoctoral advisor used to say that if something was not published, it might as well not have been done. Seeing publications, especially first-author ones in reputable (non-predatory) journals really makes a candidate stand out. By the time I finished my undergraduate degree, I had five publications: two first-author ones, three middle-middle author ones, and one of them was a review. Anything close to my own performance is impressive. Achieving such results requires commitment (I spent four years—sixteen months full-time—to get my results). If you want to build a strong portfolio, it is best to start research early and stick with it (if you enjoy the work)
We will generally skim over poster presentations. If they are at international conferences where they have to be peer-reviewed and selected, they hold some value. If they are at the local (school-level) symposia, they tell us that you can probably communicate your research. Oral presentations at international conferences are rare, but if they do happen, please list and emphasize them because typically, these are selective. Also, highlight any awards associated with your presentations.
Obtain excellent recommendation letters
The letters from referees are our window into your work ethic and your personality. These are extremely important and they can strongly influence the decision of the admission committee. The best letters are detailed, specific, and clear. They will include a statement in the form of “this student is in the top 5% I have supervised in the past 10 years” or "I would accept this student into my lab." We also look for any specials circumstances and traits that the letter writer might highlight. We definitely want to see letters from your research mentor(s). Letters from instructors are good too but they carry less weight.
Since I have started writing recommendation letters as well, I will tell you the following: as a student, you want to give your letter-writer as much detail as possible. You want the letters to be complementary to each other (instead of repetitive) and highlight different facets of your being. You are the best person to outline your story. So, when I write letters, I ask the students to look through the evaluation criteria (for scholarships, professional schools, internships) and then provide me with specific examples of how they excel at these criteria. I then use these examples to write the recommendation letter. Each letter can take three to four hours to write well, so your advisor may not be willing or able to put that kind of time into it. Make their job easy by drafting the letter for them, and say: “here is a draft to serve as a starting point and please feel free to edit as you see suitable.” Strong letters are at least one page long, typically two pages. They can be longer if the person has known you for longer or if it is a really important position. There have been instances where a single letter has changed the committee's perspective from being lukewarm to inviting for an interview.
International students are at a disadvantage again because often in other cultures, it might be inappropriate to praise the student too much or to write detailed letters. I have had to just ignore some letters because they do not provide any insight. If you are an international applicant, you should certainly pay attention to the advice above.
Convey a story in your statement of purpose
Finally, I will evaluate the “statement of purpose.” Typically, these are one page in length and the best statements provide a story. These have a strong motivational opening that draws the reader in and then build the case for your research experience. They will then provide your specific contributions to the lab of the faculty member that you are interested in working with (if you have a faculty member that you have already contacted and they are interested in interviewing you, they will champion your application and you are likely to get invited). Writing well and writing succinctly is not easy, but it comes with practice. You should spend more time on the revisions rather than on the first draft. Here is one course that I personally found tremendously useful for scientific writing: an online course called “Writing in the Sciences.”
Do not do poorly in your GRE
A growing body of evidence suggests that GRE scores are poor indicators/predictors of the performance of graduate students during their degree. Both the committees that I serve on are decreasing the emphasis they put on GRE scores. Yet, if one section shows a really poor score, it is a red flag that we have in mind while reviewing the rest of the sections of your application.
Outline your program fit
In your application, you will typically list three faculty members that you are interested in working with. Your reviewers may or may not be familiar with these faculty members’ work. For example, I am a new faculty and I often come across faculty whose work I may not be familiar with. So, the best place for me to judge the fit is within your statement of purpose. Hence, it is important to relate your previous research to your proposed advisor’s potential research. You want to show what you can bring to the table and also what you can learn from them.
We also look for information that is omitted and try to read between the lines. Any anomalies (e.g. a rating of top 5-10% in all categories except for interpersonal skills) are a red flag and we will make a note of them to ensure that they are verified during the interview of an otherwise strong candidate. Another example: if your background does not match with your proposed work, you need to ensure that it is clear why you are switching directions or how you are combining your previous experience with something new.
After dealing with the strongest candidates, the program administrators get started on inviting them to campus and set up the visit as soon as possible. The strongest candidates are the first to be admitted and all colleges are trying to recruit them. If you are one of them, try to go with the best fit; especially judge whether you get along with the faculty advisor—the most important component of your graduate experience.
Moving on to the next set of applicants, we see if there are those that are really weak and do not seem to have any strengths that will fit the program. Common weaknesses include poor communication skills (as seen in the statement of purpose), poor GPA (without any explanation for the weakness), or no research experience at all. These applications end up in the deny pile and are no longer reviewed any further.
The most time-consuming applications are those that are somewhere in the middle. These applications will typically have an average GPA (around 3.0 to 3.5), some research experience, and some strengths or special circumstances. We look closely at the recommendation letters to determine whether the person is more than their GPA and whether they demonstrate some significant strengths. We then review these applications as a committee. We will discuss the application in detail and if one of the faculty members makes a strong case for the applicant, they get an interview. If nobody makes a strong case and everyone is lukewarm, the application ends up in the deny pile, which is unlikely to be revisited.
To summarize, the four best things you can do to strengthen your application are the following:
1) Start your research experience early (as early as freshman/sophomore year).
2) Get your research published (ideally as a first author).
3) Get to know faculty members (by doing research with them, visiting office hours, or getting involved in faculty-advised clubs).
4) Practice writing well and prepare drafts of your own reference letters.
As you can see, the application process starts years before the actual application deadline. I hope that this perspective will provide a window into the application review process, which can be quite subjective and difficult to predict beforehand. Since multiple factors are involved, all you can do is prepare your best application and ease the job of the committee members.