The Grad School Application Process: A Story and Guide

by Jake Sporrer

You’re 21 years old. You spent 3 years studying hard and trying to wake up for all of your classes. Now, it’s time to see if you can convince some schools that you’re worth their investment in you. Some people say that you should start early to apply to grad school, but the truth is you started 3 years ago when you first stepped into a classroom or laboratory at Iowa State. The first step in making your application process easier is making sure you have all of the necessary documents. The big one is the GRE, the Graduate Record Examination. This test has 3 portions: verbal reasoning (out of 170), quantitative reasoning (out of 170), and analytical writing (out of 6). Verbal reasoning is mostly a test of your vocabulary knowledge and context interpretation. Quantitative looks at your ability to use algebra, geometry, and logic. In the analytical writing section, the student must read a paragraph and then write according to the prompt, usually some sort of argument or interpretation is involved. The GRE also has specific subject tests that can be taken. Most of the places I was looking at did not require any so I didn’t take any because they cost more money. The GRE is not complicated to study for; ETS, the creator of the test, has made many study materials available. I used and would recommend this one: http://www.amazon.com/Official-GRE-Super-Power-Pack/dp/0071841814/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1459455655&sr=1-3&keywords=gre . Outside services also make reviews, but I think going straight to the source is the best option. Vocabulary flashcards are also a good investment. The other important test is the TOEFL. This is a test of English language proficiency. I did not take it because I am a citizen of the US and it is not required for American students. Take the GRE in the summer before you apply or early in the fall. I took mine in late October which was kind of risky because it didn’t leave me much time if I needed to retake it (tests must be 21 days apart). Your scores on the GRE can help inform you which schools to apply to. A common idea is that if you score above a combined 330 points, your GRE scores will not limit the schools that you can apply to.

The next step is to decide where to apply. You will be spending between $70 and $120 for each application fee plus $20ish to send your GRE to each place and another $20ish if they request an official transcript. An important note is that you are allowed to select 3 schools to send your GRE scores to for free on the day of your GRE test. Having an idea of where you want to apply before the GRE can be helpful but isn’t required. When you look for schools, make sure you look for professors or research that you are interested in. Sure, Harvard is an incredible school, but if they aren’t working on ultrasonic flux-capacitor levitation and you want to, you shouldn’t apply there. You won’t spend your PhD working with UC Davis, you’ll spend it in a research group. Once you find research or a professor that you find interesting, don’t be scared to contact them. Express your interest in their research and let them know that you will be applying to the program at their school. When you look for a group to work for there are several factors to consider: size of the group, number and quality of publications recently (“they’re the currency of academia” -Dr. Martin Thuo, ISU Materials Engineering professor), university and group resources (money), diversity of background in the current grad students, and several others. These can mostly be found on the internet with careful searching. It is tempting to go to graduate school here at Iowa State: we’re awesome, you have friends here, and you probably already have a great project from your undergrad. Personally, I would advise against getting a terminal degree from your undergraduate institution. Different schools have different teaching, research, and learning ideologies. Advance yourself by going to a program that does things differently than Iowa State, not because we do it wrong, but because there is more than one right. As a PhD, it’s your job to fix the world when it gets broken. The problem is that right now, we don’t know exactly how it will break. Be diverse to be prepared for the wacky, unpredictable problems of the future. I chose to apply to 7 schools. Typically, students will apply to 4-8 schools. I met some students on my travels that applied to 17. This is expensive, time consuming, and your recommendation letter writers will need to write all of those letters. You can do it, but in the end you’re only going to one school.

That brings me to my next point: recommendation writers. These letters are very important and you will need 3 for nearly every application. Professors love to hear from other professors so it’s best to get your letters from faculty. When you’re choosing recommendation writers, look for diversity of experience. A good idea is to get a letter from a professor that you have done research with. Another letter from one that you have worked with in a learning or teaching capacity that can attest to your skill in the classroom. The third letter is a flex letter in my mind. Mine was a combination of some research, volunteer/outreach, and character knowledge. I would recommend getting one of your letters from some place that is not Iowa State to show a diversity of undergraduate education, research, or outreach. Do not request a letter from someone that won’t say nice things about you. Let your letter writers know in the beginning of the fall semester and remind them 2 weeks before, 1 week before, and the day before the letters are due.

The next step is to actually fill out your application. Typically, the application will include a few short essays (500 words to 2 pages): a personal statement, diversity statement, personal achievement statement. Most will also request a resume. Write these essays with your future advisor in mind. What are they looking for? Firstly, they want a student that can do effective, efficient, trustworthy research. You’re being paid by them to do research that will turn into publications, presentations, grants, start-up companies, patents, and awards. Prove that you are the best person to get that job done. Next, they want to know that you are passionate. Anyone can go into a lab, press the correct buttons, and make a few figures of the data. You need to prove that you’re the person that will go the extra mile. You have the drive to do the extensive background literature searches, the passion to better the world through your work. You don’t make enough money in grad school to go there for any reason other than a passion for knowledge and scientific advancement. Show that through your statements. Next, they want to know that you can tackle any problem you run into. Show a diversity of education, background, and research. The bigger your academic toolbox, the more attractive you are. They want to know you won’t fail your prelims and drop out. Show that you have the academic capability and background to handle graduate coursework. Most people will overemphasize this point. Don’t spend much time talking about your grades. Instead, discuss what your degree brings to their lab. (Why is your minor good for grad school?, etc.) Lastly, explain why you want to go to grad school and why the school you’re applying to made the list of places you would be happy attending. Students with clear goals are a safer bet than students that don’t have an end goal. Bonus content includes other passions that are related to graduate school. I talked about TAing, FHP leader stuff, tutoring, peer mentoring, and science outreach/service. It is good to bring your own funding with you to grad school. Apply to NSF GRFP and NDSEG. Don’t think about whether you need to, just do it.

Now the fun bit starts. You wait until Jan-Apr when schools start making offers or rejecting you. I got about a 50% offer rate. I don’t know what a typical one is. With offers come visits. Usually, the school will pay for your travel and lodging and try to impress you. Once a school has made an offer, you go from wanting to get in to being wanted. Most programs only accept students that they have money for. This means that once you’ve been made an offer, the professors at each school are all looking to get the most qualified students in their group. Once you’re accepted, it’s a great idea to email potential advisors that you are considering. This is a great time to ask about group funding, group meetings, advising style, number of students, potential projects, future interests, and freedom of research direction. Talk to as many professors as you can. You’ll never know where you’ll find “the one”. I’ve heard it said that choosing an advisor is as important as choosing a spouse. They get to decide if you get to graduate. Choose a good one. On the visits you will meet with the professors that you are interested in. It’s also very important to meet with current grad students. They are who you’ll work with the most and they have a great, honest perspective on life and research there. Enjoy yourself and meet with other prospective students.

The last step is accepting an offer. Some schools prefer that you have an advisor when you start in the fall, even if you might change later. Other schools don’t require that you choose an advisor. A good idea is to make sure that there are at least 3 groups at a school that you could be happy working in before you accept and that there are professors interested in working with you. All schools have the same decision deadline so don’t let anyone pressure you. Once you have decided to accept a program, let the other programs that made you offers know your decision as soon as possible so that they can make informed decisions about making further offers and plans. Most schools will require a form or an email to make a decision. Declining is not rude, you can only attend one school after all.

Great job! You did it! Now go have a beer with your friends.

Jake will be pursuing a PhD in Electrical Engineering specializing in printed electronics and energy devices at the University of California, Berkeley this fall. Below are pictures from his trip to campus:

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Berkeley, home of the Golden Bears

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Beautiful stream in the middle of campus

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Neat view of campus

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Berkeley campanile

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Most visits will have many catered meals and then one or two super fancy restaurant meals

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These bears aren’t golden, but they sure are cute

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A 15 minute walk east and I’m entering a national park

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They have a Gilman hall. I talked to an ISU alum that is on sabbatical from teaching in Turkey here

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Another beautiful stream on campus

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Picked up a tasty breakfast before I hopped on my flight

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They gave us all some sweet merch

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