Tips and Steps for Applying to Graduate Schools

On October 11th, 2018, a group of graduate students got together to host a graduate panel discussion to help undergraduates with applying to graduate schools. Compiled here is a list of tips the group came up with. These are tailored towards geosciences grad schools.

For more information or if you have any comments please contact Susana Henriquez, who coordinated this event.

Step 1: Narrowing your options

• Starting thinking about what field/discipline you want to pursue.
• Do you want to do a PhD or Masters? (It’s ok if you don’t know, but some programs are PhD or masters only, which can help you narrow things down)
• Start reading/skimming the abstracts of papers in the field you are interested in to see what attracts you, just to get a better feel of the current research, and the people who are publishing in the area.
• Ask people around you for suggestions! Your advisor, professors you have worked with, graduate students often will have a good idea of the reputation of various programs, and could point you in a helpful direction.
• Once you have a general sense of direction, start making a list of universities and programs that have what you want. All the information can get confusing very quickly, so think about making a list, chart, etc. You can also start adding deadlines and other application information later on (See Step 4)
• Think about what type of program you see yourself in, some qualities you might want to start thinking about:
 -  some schools are strong in the environmental side of Earth Sciences but not field geology. Strong neotectonics but not geophysics, etc. Strong igneous petrology but not metamorphic petrology...
 -  some programs are more interdisciplinary and collaborative, and others may have a lab group that centers around a single professor without a lot of inter-department collaboration
 -  some are more professional or have a better record of placing graduates in industry; some are more academic and research focused
• Geographic location can help you narrow things down if you have a strong preference (but don’t limit yourself if there’s a great match somewhere you think you won’t like)
• Read through the websites of departments and lab groups: see if they have a section for prospective graduate students, current research, etc. Professors might state that they have an open project and are looking for MS students, or if they are not looking for any students that year at all, etc.

Step 2: Searching for potential advisors

Finding an advisor that you get along with and can easily communicate with is extremely important.
• Reach out to a potential advisor as soon as possible.
• Send them an email! Look for their research interest (visit their website and read some of their work). They are probably busy so be clear, concise (brief) and well organized.
 -  Include your background, CV, why you are interested, why you think it is a good fit.
 -  Highlight your previous research experience.
 -  They want to know that you have some idea about what you want to do. What kind of geology/geophysics you want to do.
 -  Ask about what kind of research project they have and if they are taking grad students next year.
 -  You can offer meeting up at a conference or maybe skype.
 -  Don’t copy/paste things from their website. Rephrase it.
• Talk to their current/past graduate students.
• Getting facetime with your potential advisor before applying is key.
• Here's a useful twitter thread on what to ask potential advisors.
Trust your gut!

Step 3: Decide on the schools

• Some people recommend to apply to 3 "reach" schools, 3 "target" schools, and 3 "safety" schools. This might be expensive so make sure you communicate with your potential advisors ahead of time. This would cut down on expenses/wasting your time.
• Mental health is extremely important; visit campus and pick a place where you can envision yourself being happy and comfortable.
• Talk to other grad students (without your potential advisor there) to get a feel for their advising style, grad student life and how well you think you would fit.
• If your advisor left, would you still be happy there?

Step 4: Make a list of requirements

• All schools will need your transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement
• Most, if not all that you apply to, will want your GRE scores.
• Some schools will ask you to apply to the graduate school and department separately, make sure you read their “how to apply” pages carefully.
• Stay organized with these - make a calendar or checklist of when each requirement is due for each school. For things like the transcripts and GRE scores, send those in as soon as you apply – you can send/order these online so just knock them out right away. Add a reminder to your calendar to check if your letters of recommendation have been sent and be prepared to send some reminder emails (minimum a week from their deadline).

Step 5: GRE scores

• Have an idea what the required GRE score is for your desired school.
• You will have the option when you take the test to send your scores FOR FREE to four schools. Take advantage of this!
 -  Study how to take the test rather than what you think will be on the test.
• The GRE isn’t your regular, run of the mill college exam, and it will be difficult to try to study for everything that might be on it. However, familiarizing yourself with how questions are asked is time wells spent.
 -  Read the directions carefully! A lot of times, people don’t score well because they didn’t read the directions.
 -  Know your weaknesses: If you haven’t taken a math course in a while, brush up on basic math problems. If you’re not very strong verbally, get flashcards of vocabulary words. You can get books/flashcards on Amazon for cheap (not all study guides are good).
 -  Don’t waste time on questions that are tough. Also, don’t rush. Use your time effectively.
• You can always mark questions for review and go back to timely and tough questions at the end of the section. It is better to answer all the questions than to run out of time.

Step 6: Write your personal statements

• Personal statements are a way to show who you are and how well you fit with the advisor/department/school beyond what is represented by your C.V. and transcripts.
 -  If your background isn't explicitly relevant to the program you're applying for, this is the chance to talk about your skills and how they can be applicable to the program.
• Generally, you should make sure to mention your research and career interests (be specific!), what in your background makes your prepared for pursuing those interests and what you can add to the department, and ultimately how the advisor/department/school will get you there (be specific!). • Make sure that the first paragraph is GREAT. You need to catch the reader’s attention.
• Make sure you position yourself in such a way that touts how you will add to the strengths of each school. You need to flatter a little bit. They want to know WHY you want to work with her or him and why you want to go to that school.
• Make sure to ask others to read your statements before you send them out.

Step 7: Letters of recommendation

• You'll most likely need three letters of recommendation, try to get letter writers that can speak to different aspects of your experience so the schools you're applying to get a broad sense of your academic/professional abilities.
• It is completely okay (and encouraged!) to provide your letter writers with key points about their interactions with you, or specific skills you have that you want them to highlight, but they should write the actual letter.
• Follow up with your letter writers a few weeks advance of the deadline to remind them of the deadline and to confirm they can still provide a letter for you (if they haven't already submitted).

Step 8: Transcripts

• Be prepared to spend $5 - $10 for each transcript.
• Some/Most schools are okay with you submitting unofficial transcripts and only require you send in (i.e. pay for) official transcripts if you're accepting their offer, so we should clarify that you'd only have to do so for 1 institution in the end 

Step 9: Revising and sending in your application

• First, make sure you have all the requirements checked off.
• Make sure someone reviews your personal statement, CV, resume, etc. one more time
• If possible, send in your applications at least one month before they're due.
• Most schools will get back to you before April 15th. There are a couple rounds to acceptances, so don't freak out if you don't hear back from them immediately or at the same time as someone else.

These tips were compiled by John He, Anne Billingsley, Alice Chapman, Dervla Meegan Kumar, Emily Rodriguez, and Susana Henriquez

Visit the UA Geosciences page
Visit the AWG page

Last updated 08/24/2018