Disclaimer: While this is the consolidation of my advice for anyone interested in applying to graduate school, this blog post does not guarantee graduate school acceptance. My goal is to provide general advice that could be useful to help you plan and organize your application. Like we said in our episode on the same topic, some advice will work, and others won't. Feel free to use what you think will help, and leave the rest! Good Luck!
As a heads up, this blog post will be a bit longer than I usually want for a blog post. However, the process of applying to grad school can be a long process and I have a lot of advice I want to give.
That being said, so you want to go to graduate school! How exciting! Here is a step-by-step guide on how I applied to my doctoral graduate program. This guide can be useful for anyone interested in a research-specific doctoral program but I imagine this will also be useful for anyone applying to a master’s program as well. For a general discussion about how my podcast team applied to and interviewed for our graduate program, listen to Season 1, Episode 2 of our podcast, the Road to the Ph.D. here. This blog post will serve as a written guide, that could be easier to reference and return to than an audio format.
To begin, I generally recommend starting this process around January. Some programs have application deadlines in the spring, others over the summer, and the programs I applied to had their deadlines in the winter. I personally started putting together my application portfolio in the fall, so starting early will give you plenty of time to assemble your application!
Completing step 1 of this guide will give you an idea of how to space out creating your application.
Step 1: Create a spreadsheet
A common tool that I found very useful when applying to grad school is creating a spreadsheet. Google sheets are free and easy to use, especially for this purpose. Take about a week to create a spreadsheet with 10-20 graduate programs that could fit your interests. This is just a preliminary list, so feel free to add any program from your dream school to schools that would just be fine. You should also include the following in your spreadsheet:
Name of the prospective advisor
Their email address
The prospective advisor’s concentration
# of letters of recommendation
If they require the GRE or any other standardized tests
GPA requirement (If applicable)
If they require a personal statement
If they require a diversity statement
Department website link
While this can feel very overwhelming at first, developing a tool for yourself that you can reference at a glance, will be very useful. It will help you judge which programs you will have the best chance of applying to and interviewing for. Creating your spreadsheet in chunks will help the process from feeling overwhelming, so add a few schools to your list at a time. You can always add more schools later!
Step 2: Filtering the Spreadsheet
As you fill out your spreadsheet, you’ll start to get a feel for which programs match your goals and interests. Spend about a week highlighting the schools that you feel the best about, (around 4-5). What schools lie within your area of interest and skill set? What schools have application fees that you can afford to pay? What schools are you able to move to? Consider the cost of living in the area and any moving costs.
The most important consideration in selecting which schools to apply to is to find a program with an advisor that has a concentration that is closest to your interests. It can be very difficult to apply to a program with an advisor that is further away from your interests. Graduate school is all about developing your skill set to research and study a specific domain within a field. The goal is to become an expert. If you spend 5-7 years studying something you’re not interested in, you’ll have a rough time in school.
While I included the GPA category, nowadays, a lot of schools do not weigh GPA as heavily as they do personal statements. The same goes for the GRE, a lot of schools are moving away from even requiring the test! I’ll discuss this more in step 5. So don’t let it discourage you from looking into programs you’re really interested in. I applied to and enrolled in a competitive R1 research program with a less-than-ideal GPA and no GRE because I was able to show my skills in other ways.
Step 3: Reaching out to Prospective Advisors
The relationship between an advisor and advisee is the most important part of graduate school. The advisor is who you will be working the closest with; they will be training you for your future career. You will have weekly meetings, work on multiple research projects, and write manuscripts together. Your advisor will direct your attention to what you need to work on. Finding a supportive advisor and environment will make graduate school much easier.
Now that you have a few programs and advisors identified, send them an email. The email should follow proper etiquette. For more information about recommended email practices see this guide from Perdue. When you email your prospective advisor, keep in mind, that this will be their first impression of you. Start the email by explaining how you came across their lab and the university program. Ask if they are accepting applications for a future graduate student. Then provide information about yourself. Talk about who you are, where you are completing your undergraduate program, your future career interests, and the kind of research you are interested in. I also recommend using this opportunity to ask if you could either set up a zoom meeting or a phone call to discuss the program and their lab more if they are accepting a new student.
Note. you can use the same format and language across the advisors you apply to, just be careful to use the right names of the advisor and university.
Meeting with your prospective advisor for the first time
When you reach out to a prospective advisor via email and set up a meeting, think of this as a pre-interview. Before your scheduled meeting, look up their most recent published research on google scholar. Read a few of the papers to get a feel for the kind of research their lab just published. I also recommend reading a few of the papers they cite, so that when you have your first conversation with them, you have some background information to work with. Try to think of a few research questions about their research that you can ask. This shows that you are starting to think like a scientist and are interested in their future directions for the lab. I also recommend asking the advisor what they are looking for in a future graduate student. This can help inform what to write for your personal statement and what to talk about in a future interview. Try to have a genuine conversation about their lab, research, and what they are looking for. At the end of the interview, check-in and ask if they would like you to apply to their lab. This will also help direct your search. I recommend whittling down your list to 3-4 programs that you will ultimately apply to.
Now that you reached out to a few advisors. Work backward from the deadline to identify how much time you have to request letters of recommendation, as well as to write your personal and diversity statements. You will see how many months you have to write your application statements. Give yourself a few weeks to a month or two to write and edit each statement. If you developed your spreadsheet earlier on, in the year, you can comfortably plan your writing. In addition, you can start asking for letters of recommendation.
Letters of recommendation
When thinking about who to ask for a letter of recommendation, I highly recommend asking previous professors, lab primary investigators, and graduate students that you worked closely with to write these letters. They can more easily speak about your skills and work ethic than your Introduction to Psychology professor from 3 years ago, who had 300 other students. People that know you better will write better letters. I also recommend asking two people who work within the field you want to work in and at least one person who is outside. The letters of recommendation within your field can write about your skills from within the field. The letter of recommendation from outside your field can demonstrate interdisciplinary work.
When asking for letters of recommendation, provide information on what you would find useful for your application. This can include the concentration of the program you are applying to. This will help the letters of recommendation writers have something to write about. In addition, provide your writers with the application deadline. This allows your writers to work writing the letter into their schedule if they accept your request. Asking potential writers earlier rather than later will provide your writers with plenty of time to write the letters. If you ask two weeks before the deadline, they are likely to deny your request. If they accept, the letter won’t be as detailed as you need.
For example, if your application deadline is in December, reaching out to potential writers in August is a good idea!
Also, check in with your writers every now and again. People often get busy and some things fall by the wayside. So periodically checking in is a good idea. Be sure to remind them of the deadline about a month out if they haven’t submitted the letter yet. Repeat it two weeks later to make sure the deadline is reached!
Work backward from your deadline to give yourself plenty of time to write, edit, and ask for a peer review of your statements. Create an outline for each statement in August. Take the rest of August and September to write your first draft. This doesn’t have to be a very pretty or polished draft. This is just to get all your ideas down and where you will start to craft your story. Applying to graduate school is all about creating your own narrative of what your skills are, how you will use them to succeed, and why you’re passionate about the area of research you’re applying to. If you work in a research lab and your lab has graduate students, try asking them for example personal and diversity statements or even ask the graduate students for their statements if they’re comfortable with it. Each school should have similar requirements for the statements, so you can reuse the same language across multiple schools’ applications. Just as before, be sure to apply the correct advisor and school name within each statement. Double dipping for this type of statement is generally ok since the statement is all about your passions and drives for graduate school.
Take October to edit your statements to fit the requirements of the schools you’re applying to. As you complete preliminary interviews with each potential advisor, you’ll start to get a feel for which schools you have the best shot at landing an official interview. Focus on these schools. When you are happy with your edited draft of your statements, ask a few people to read them and provide edits. The scientific process requires peer review of manuscripts, so we should utilize the same skill here!
Note. As you complete preliminary interviews and start to get a feel for which advisors will be the best, tailor your statements to hit on specific points you feel the advisor will be interested in. When I was applying to various education research programs, I talked about how I’m a lifelong learner, how my parents are teachers, and how I want to improve how we teach since I have first-hand experience with the nuances of education. In addition, multiple people will be reading your applications, more than just the advisor you’re applying to, so make sure you are genuine about how you tailor your statements so you don’t sound cheesy.
Step 6: Compile the materials and apply!
In the last month leading up to the application deadline and everything is on track, you’ll have all the materials developed and ready to apply. You’ll have letters of recommendation written, some applications require the writers to upload the letters directly to the application portal, so you don’t have to worry about it. You’ll have an edited and peer-reviewed personal and diversity statement written. You’ll have 2-3 advisors and programs you’re applying to and feel good about. All that is left is to upload your documents and pay the application fee. Some schools have programs that can waive application fees, reaching out to the prospective advisor or the school’s financial aid could help give you more information about the program. In addition, there are a few scholarships and fellowships that could provide you with funds for application feeds. Google is a great place to start!
Timeline of how to apply in ~1 year
Reach out to letter of recommendation writers
Email prospective advisors for a preliminary interview
Read prospective advisor’s research
Outline personal and diversity statements
Draft your statements