Tips for Applying to Graduate School

How do I apply? A Timetable for the Application Process

You can never start too early is likely the best advice. But here is a suggested timetable for you to follow. I have geared the dates for a student coming directly out of undergraduate study who desires to start the fall semester after a spring semester graduation.

Junior Year (1.5 years prior to desired start date)--Spring semester

--Get started familiarizing yourself with potential graduate programs

1) Talk with faculty about what programs are appropriate

2) Use the Career Services office, this website, and the internet to learn about programs.

3) Review articles in journals and note schools/people of interest

--Contact departments/download information on programs from the Web.

--Plan test date and register for the GRE

--Study for the GRE exam over summer

Senior Year--September and October

--Compose a letter of inquiry and a statement of your career goals

--Request letters of recommendations and ask your writers to review your letter and statement

--Utilize the Career Services office to review your letter of inquiry and statement of goals. The Writing Center can also be very helpful here--the more comments the better in helping you to craft the very best letter possible

--Take the GRE or other standardized exams

--Visit your Career Services office to learn more about strategies for financing your graduate school experience. Consider applying for a a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship that will help get you started in the graduate program that you eventually join.

--Send out letters of inquiry to faculty members with whom you are interested in working. Respond to all letters that you receive in response to your inquiry. Send a follow-up letter if you do not receive a response from people with whom you are very interested in working. Faculty are very busy or may be on sabbatical or out of the country--don't necessarily read too much into a slow or no response. Be tactful in your second contact

Senior Year--November and December

--Request copies of transcripts be mailed

--Submit your applications early to maximize your competitiveness for financial aid/fellowships/assistantships.

--Send a thank you note to prospective advisors that reaffirms your enthusiasm to join their graduate program and alerts them that your application is on the way.

--Discuss potential fellowships that you might apply for with your prospective graduate advisors

Senior Year--January through March

--Contact potential advisors or programs about visiting and interviewing. Be sure to meet with other current graduate students to get their impressions.

--Be certain to send a thank you note to those that helped you on your interview

--Complete the GAPSAF form available at your university's Career Services or Financial Aid office or via the schools to which you are applying.

Senior Year--April and May

--If you are accepted, rejoice! Discuss options with your undergraduate advisors/professors to determine which option is best.

--Once you have made your final selection, inform all of the schools to which you have applied. For schools that you have not yet heard from a letter will suffice. A personal phone call is appropriate to the individuals with whom you have been accepted to work but opt to go elsewhere.

--Contact the professor with whom you decide to work and ask what you might do to prepare for the fall.

--Prepare a bibliography on topics of interest so that you can hit the ground running and know the literature when you arrive in graduate school.

--If you are not accepted, contact the people with whom you have corresponded and obtain feedback on your application and assess what you can do to increase your competitiveness for the next round of applications. See the next category below for general hints.


How do I maximize my competitiveness for admission? A few hints:

1. Remember to keep your curriculum vitae (resume) active by gaining as much experience as possible even with short duration volunteer experiences. Check with local government agencies, parks, zoos, museums, universities, clinics, bio-oriented businesses and school systems for opportunities to keep active in biology. While on campus, try to gain experience working or volunteering on research projects of your professors even if this initially means washing dishes. Also, positions associated with the writing center, computer center, library, bio/chem lab preparation room, grounds crew, etc. can provide good experiences that demonstrate a commitment to a science-oriented career. Consider a position as a paid or unpaid research assistant to increase your experience in research. If you have corresponded with a potential graduate advisor, you should ask if they have any such positions available this will give them a chance to get to know you and also give you valuable experience.

2. Choose your courses carefully to demonstrate a rigorous undergraduate career--solid coursework in biology/environmental science is assumed but supporting courses in chemistry, math, physics, and computer science not only increase your academic breadth but also demonstrate to your potential advisor that you have had a rigorous undergraduate experience. Also, consider taking meaningful support courses in speech/media/rhetoric, writing, geographic information systems, geology/geography, sociology, psychology, anthropology, politics, etc. These courses will provide a more well-rounded appearance to your academic career and help you demonstrate to graduate schools that you are a serious developing professional. Be sure to take courses that provide a solid foundation in biology in the broad sense.

3. Obtain as much research experience as possible--any experience that you can be it paid or volunteer will be helpful. Not only will this experience enable you to speak with authority when you discuss your future goals in a letter or interview but it will also help solidify your goals and allow you to convey your interests with conviction. Choose courses that have a significant research component in them so that you can gain experience and further substantiate your interest in conducting biological research. Conduct a research-oriented senior thesis or independent study project that is focused on your area of interest. Attempt to publish your research findings.

4. Join a professional society/organization--each subdiscipline of biology has a least one and often many journals associated with it. Many of these journals are supported by a professional society. Members of that society get the journal and newsletter. These publications allow you to keep up with changes in the field and also job openings while demonstrating that you are in fact interested in the field. Most societies have a special student rate as well. Ask your professors which societies are the most pertinent and 'student/recent graduate friendly'. Attend society meetings and participate in student chapter activities etc.

5. Take the GRE very seriously and study accordingly--while graduate schools look at the entire application package, solid GRE scores will open doors that might otherwise be closed to you. Use a good introductory biology textbook and study it from cover to cover. Study guides and practice tests available for purchase or through the GRE On-line are very helpful and will enable you to take the exam and feel comfortable with the style of questions and the breadth of material. Oh...and did I say study--I cannot say this enough. Put the time in to give yourself the best possible chance of doing well and flaunting your stuff. I would recommend a minimum of 6 weeks of high powered, full-time studying. If you are taking classes simultaneously then you should adjust accordingly.

6. Carefully craft your cover letter and curriculum vitae to demonstrate a logical progression in your growth as a professional.--remember first impressions can be last impressions. Your letter should be the very best that you are capable of writing. Be certain to have a number of people who you trust to give you a brutally honest review look over and comment on your cover letter. Make use of the writing center and career services office.


How do I finance graduate study?

Graduate study can be expensive and a visit to your institution's financial aid office and career services office will enable you to assess different possibilities to fund your continued study. However, the vast majority of graduate programs in biology offer teaching and research assistantships at the time of acceptance (or soon after).

In exchange for teaching labs or working in a lab, graduate students typically receive a stipend that will enable you to cover living expenses and also pay your tuition so that you are only responsible for general fees, health insurance, etc. Discuss financial aid options with prospective graduate advisors.

Unless you are only moderately competitive, you should expect to receive an offer similar to what I have just described and graduate school in biology should not make you wealthy but you will be able to cover your living costs and break even.