Attention rising seniors: time to start grad school and fellowship applications


This is a public service announcement for rising university seniors who are applying to graduate schools: time to get started! Yes, it’s summer and you’re probably working hard in labs on your senior thesis. But rest assured every hour you spend now organising your applications and writing personal statements will make your life much easier fall semester. (And trust me, you don’t want to make fall semester of your senior year any more difficult than it needs to be.)

The advice below also applies to applicants from non-U.S. universities (British undergrads, for example). American grad programmes are a bit different than those in the UK, and I’ll write something up soon about this in the near future. Younger undergrads may also benefit from the advice below to help them get a picture of what is expected of them.

Checklist: below are some things that should be on your list of things to do

(1) Chat with faculty advisers

It behooves you to start out by sending out polite e-mails to sit down and have an adviser-advisee chat with your faculty mentors. By “faculty mentor” I mean any departmental advisor you’ve had in any official or unofficial capacity, anyone you’ve done significant (say, a summer’s worth) of research for, or even anyone in your field whom you are on good terms with (e.g. they say hello to you when you bump into them and they know your name).

There are two reasons why you want to start here: (1) your faculty advisers have the broadest view of the field and can tell you which graduate programs you should consider and which faculty you’d want to work with, and (2) your faculty advisers are the ones who can write the best recommendations for you.

Ideally, you’ve been in good contact with you advisers all this time. You’re probably working with one of them this summer. (Undergraduate research is practically a prerequisite for admission to the most competitive graduate programs.) In case you haven’t been good about keeping in touch, send a polite e-mail reminding them who you are. Faculty are busy and nobody but your mother likes reading your life story, so it’s best to arrange to meet with each adviser when they have some free time.

Talk about your research interests and what you’re interested in doing. This requires some thinking before hand about your long term goals and which research projects were exciting for you and which were not. If the adviser you are talking to is in a field you’re interested in working, ask for their advice about which grad programs would fit your interests the best. You should also discuss particular faculty members and their research, and you should be sure look up these professors and their recent papers when you get home.

Do not forget to ask your adviser if he or she would be willing to write you a letter of recommendation, and ask if there is anything they would like you to do to make this process as easy as possible for them (see next item). If you’re close with your adviser(s), keep them in the loop during your entire application process — let them know what developments come up, ask if they’d like to see drafts of your personal statement, etc.

(2) Arrange for Letters of Recommendations

You’ll need up to four (usually just three) letters depending on the fellowships and schools you are applying for. The strongest letters are those faculty who know you and can write personal accounts of how brilliant and competent you are. Don’t worry too much about having a famous faculty member write you a letter — if their letter doesn’t stick out from the masses of other generic letters of recommendations that will be written, then it’s not a letter that does your cause much good.

Here’s what’s really important: it’s up to you to make sure your faculty members get your letters in on time. Make life as easy for them as possible. Look at all of your grad school applications and all of your fellowship applications, and make a packet of letter of recommendation requests for your professors. This way all of your rec-requests are in one place. Be neat, have them collated. (Folders help.) A mini-checklist of what you should include in your packet:

  • Separate materials into mini-packets. Use paper clips or manila folders. This way loose papers won’t get lost or mixed up.
  • For each professor, write a little cover note reminding them who you are and what great things they’ve witnessed you do (jog their memory).
  • Attach a CV
  • For each recommendation request, attach a very brief note with an “executive summary” explaining what the request is for and highlighting any special things your recommender should know. E.g. “Be sure to send through post, not online” or “Don’t forget to fill out the back side of each form.
  • If applying for a fellowship that your faculty member might not be familiar with (such as overseas fellowships), then include another really brief executive summary. E.g. “This is a fellowship for a one-year program in the UK. For more information, visit the fellowship website: ___”
  • Be sure to include stamped and addressed envelopes for recs that have to be submitted by snail-mail.
  • And, most importanly, be clear about the deadlines. Include a master sheet with a list of the rec-requests and the deadline. Arrange ahead of time with your faculty when you should drop off the rec requests — at least a month before and ideally as early as possible. (Again, drop off all of the rec requests together — otherwise it’s more likely for an absent-minded professor to lose some of them.) Be kind and ask if your professor would like a friendly reminder a week before each deadline.
  • Put the entire packet in a portfolio or a big folder marked “your favourite undergrad’s letters of recommenation” or something similar. One big, well labeled portfolio with everything organised is unlikely to get lost no matter how cluttered your mentor is.

Make sure you do not forget to thank your faculty advisers for their time and help during this period and throughout your undergraduate career. A card during the holidays would be nice, but what really makes advisers happy is to let them know how things turn out — drop by their office or send an e-mail when you get into the programs that they’ve written to on your behalf. Let them know on April 15th what program you end up committing to.

Update: don’t be surprised if your faculty just writes one letter of recommendation and has his/her secretary take care of copying and pasting it online. This doesn’t mean that your professor doesn’t love you. However, be sure to politely remind both your professor and his/her secretary to be mindful of applications that have special sections (e.g. specific questions to be answered, check lists, etc.). Also, be sure to give a thank you card to the secretary during the holidays. FYI, in case you haven’t realised it by now, the department administrators have a lot of de facto power in terms of reminding faculty to do things, helping you sort out administrative things, etc. Be nice to them. (I recall spending my senior year living off of cookies from the administrators’ office.)

[By the way, in case you haven’t gotten the point: you cannot be timid as a scientist. Your professors are, probably, great scientists who are role-models and maybe even legendary in the field. But you need to be able to feel comfortable arranging a meeting with them and talking to them face to face with confidence. Some people have more trouble with this than others. Younger students: make a point to go to faculty office hours, even if (especially if) it is just to chat about research interests.]

(3) Chat with current grad students

The people who can give you the most practical advice about the grad application process are the graduate students in your department. Presumably you know quite a few from having them as TA’s, working with them while part of your undergrad research, and perhaps taking a few grad-level courses with them. They can offer encouragement, advice, and highlight some common pitfalls along the way. (Mainly: get started early!)

(4) Grad School Applications

Make a checklist of all of the schools you are applying to. An excel (or Google office) spreadsheet works. In each column, you should list all of the major “action items,” e.g. preapplication materials, printing out anything, asking for a letter of rec, confirming that the letter was sent, submitting materials, submitting transcripts, etc. Be sure to keep this organised and updated. You do not want to jeopardize your application because you were sloppy and forgot to send a transcript on-time.

Update: Some grad school applications are more expensive than others, but you can expect them to be around $100 per pop. This is quite a bit of money, but you have to weigh what’s at stake. How many schools you apply to depend on how confident you are about yourself, but this is where talking to advisers/grad students can help.

Update: It is really useful to have a spreadsheet with all of your courses, the number of units, and your final course grade. Set up the spreadsheet to calculate your GPA (grade point average). Double check the accuracy and save a copy for each application you’re doing. Depending on the particular application, you may need your total GPA, your physics-courses-only GPA, your sophomore-and-junior-year GPA, etc. It becomes a pain to have to recalculate these all from scratch, it’s much easier to just have a spreadsheet that you can modify for each application.

Update: Try to fill in all of the “standard” information for your applications before fall semester starts. Filling out forms online actually takes up quite a bit of time. Don’t be surprised if schools ask you to list every physics course you’ve taken and the corresponding text books. (A real pain for those who are on the quarter system.)

(5) Fellowships

You’re not just applying to grad school. You should also apply for money. (If you don’t get funding, you can still TA… but this is time taken away from research.) Be sure to figure out all of the possible sources of graduate funding — stop by the fellowship office at your university, talk to current grad students, talk to department graduate administrators, etc. If you’re considering overseas fellowships, this is a whole different story that people in your department might not be so familiar with… check if your university has a seperate office with overseas fellowship advice.

Physics students should certainly look into the NSF, NDSEG, Hertz, and anything else I may have missed. Also look into non-specific sources of funding, such as the Jack Kent Cooke fellowships, corporate-funded fellowships, etc. I’ll write a thing or two about overseas fellowships if I get a chance in the next few days.

Update: `Psudonym!’ has pointed out in the comments that the NSF application isn’t available until August. But don’t worry — there are plenty of NSF resources available online (if you search) that provide a breakdown of what’s asked of you. What’s especially nice is that you can find the NSF assessment rubric online, this should help you focus your two mini-essays. By the way, if you neglect the `broader impact’ essay, you will probably not get the fellowship… even if your application is otherwise flawless. If you can find similar resources online (usually at other universities’ fellowship resource websites), make good use of them.

Update: Also, for the fellowships that have interviews (e.g. the Hertz, some of the overseas fellowships), it really pays off to talk to grad students in your department who have done these interviews.

(6) GREs

There are always apocryphal stories of students who were so good that they applied to grad schools without bothering to take the GREs. To the best of my knowledge, these are urban legends. If you haven’t taken the GREs yet, shame on you.

The general GREs are relatively easy to arrange. It’s a computer-based exam that’s similar to the SAT. (Well, I’m an old man and took the SAT when it was graded out of 1600… so maybe it’s no longer like the SAT. Both the current GRE and current SAT have multiple-choice math, multiple-choice verbal, and essay sections, so I assume they’re similar.) You can schedule an appointment at a testing site somewhere `near’ you and take the exam any time during the year.

The subject GREs, on the other hand, are only given at particular times during the year. I’ve written a rough guide for the Physics GRE, so you can look at that for more details.

Update: If you are a non-UK/Canada international student, you will probably have to take an English examination (TOEFFEL, I think). I’ve heard that these are somewhat annoying and expensive. I know of continental students who did their undergrad in the UK and were forced to take the English exam. Sorry.

(7) Personal Statements

Now this is what I really wanted to get to. If you haven’t already, you should start writing personal statements right now. Unless you’re secretly a writer (… or perhaps a blogger?), you probably cannot write your best statement in a week. What you should be concerned about is sending out sub-par personal statements to the schools with earlier due dates. Spend a time “thinking deeply” about how to present yourself. Your statement should contain a little bit of personal information, a lot about how you’ve demonstrated research potential, and a bit that’s specific to each school/fellowship. E.g. “At ___ University, I’d like to work with Professor ____ on ____. I have some background in this subject based on previous summer research…

There are plenty of books out there about how to write a good grad school essay, but ultimately “to thine own self be true.” You should plan on spending a little bit of time every other night writing/revising your statement. (I ended up with over 25 different drafts of my personal statement by the end of the summer.) Start by writing bullet points about what you’d like to say. Be open minded and plop out anything you can think of. Over time, rearrange these things, group them together, and start forming coherent thoughts and sentences. Take your time and let ideas simmer in the back of your mind overnight. It is much better to spend an hour every night (or every other night) than to spend 5 hours in one sitting. This way you keep you force yourself to reevaluate your thoughst daily and you get the most “revision cycles” out of the summer.

The best way to refine your essay, once you have a working draft, is to have everyone you know read it. For general essays (e.g. overseas fellowships where you won’t necessarily have a scientist reading it), this works rather well. For science-specific essays (grad schools and science fellowships), have your faculty advisers and any grad students you know read it. If your school has a writing center or fellowship center, see if they have resources where someone will look over your essay and give you constructive criticism. You’ll get a lot from having a fresh pair of eyes read your essay.

So don’t slack off and get writing. Use your time and resources wisely. You don’t need to spend every hour of your day working on your applications (indeed, this would be counterproductive), but (1) spend a little bit of time as often as you can and (2) use every pair of qualified eyes to give you feed back.

This has been a public service announcement.

6 Responses to “Attention rising seniors: time to start grad school and fellowship applications”

  1. 1 pseudonym!

    thanks for the advice, mr. tomato. now i actually went from feeling like an over-achiever to a slacker, but i think that a little sense of urgency is required.

    so far, all i’ve done is take the subject gre and some studying for the general gre, but i plan on getting started on my personal statement in the upcoming week. (the reu i am attending will have an information session about it on monday.)

    good advice on contacting faculty already. need to send a few emails.

    *sigh* let the fun begin…

    (btw, the NSF will open its application form for its fellowship in august. maybe some readers would like to know about that.)

    thanks again.

  2. 2 Steffen

    Oach, now I’m going to be a PhD student and I still haven’t taken my GRE! Dammit!

  3. Ah, Steffen… here you are propagating the myth that students don’t have to take the GRE! 🙂

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