How to get into grad school


Dear (prospective) Graduate Student,

Acceptance to a university at the undergraduate level is pretty straightforward. You apply with all of the required materials, pay a fee, and wait to hear the results. Although there is an application, and an application fee, and a waiting period involved in graduate school acceptance, the process is actually quite a bit more nuanced than that. Interestingly though, there aren’t many resources out there that really explain and demystify this process for undergraduates. While I wish I could share a simple recipe, like how to bake muffins, for how to get in to grad school it just isn’t that straightforward for most applicants. For a majority of applicants, it’s more like making a soufflé where each step requires finesse and ultimately the whole thing might collapse right before it’s finished (a sad soufflé fail?!).

The reason grad school is a little different is that each graduate student is an understudy of a Professor that serves as their graduate advisor. Therefore, every incoming grad student essentially has to be paired with a mentor and there are only so many mentors with the time and resources available for a new student. Furthermore, there must be financial support for each grad student in most academic programs. See: How to get paid to go to grad school Usually acceptance into graduate school is a complimentary, two-part process where a Professor professes their desire to mentor and financially support a student and the department reviews the student’s application and decides whether they meet the criteria for acceptance into the program. Not every admissions process works this way, but many of them do.

So let’s start with the easiest scenario.  Let’s say that you are the best and the brightest with really incredible scores and a solid, responsible personality. You might submit an application to a department you like with no particular Professor/graduate advisor in mind. Departments or graduate programs typically have some funding to offer a handful of students (and I really mean a handful even at very large R1 universities) with a blanket offer of acceptance to their program, full financial support, and the expectation that they’ll find a mentor they’d like to work with in the department. There are so very few of these spots available, even incredibly talented students are often not offered this type of blanket acceptance so you shouldn’t rely on this option alone. This method of acceptance is just a one-sided acceptance based on merits of the application only. The truth is, most smart, enthusiastic, determined graduate students are not entering graduate school under this scenario.

The more common scenario is that a prospective student reaches out to a potential advisor/mentor/Professor they’re interested in working with. See: What to include in your email to a potential advisor  Through this correspondence, you and this Professor develop a working relationship and you should have a solid idea whether they would show support your application. In other words, whether they will speak up and say to the admissions committee “I’ve decided that I’d like to work with this student and I’m prepared to assist them in securing funding and mentor them through the completion of the program.” When you’re corresponding with this Professor, they will look at your entrance exam scores and GPA and have a good idea as to whether the department would agree to your acceptance. You’ll also be able to talk with them about a plan for funding your research, tuition, and monthly stipend.

Now for the most difficult, least common scenario. Let’s say you and this Professor develop a good working relationship but they identify something about your application that they are afraid the admissions committee will not be ok with. For example, maybe you went through a rough patch in undergrad and have a low GPA or maybe you have trouble with standardized testing and have low GRE scores. Grad school is NOT off the table! Keep in mind that although entrance exams scores and GPA do matter, they are often not a good representation of a student’s abilities and Professors know that. In some cases, you may have to work to prove yourself capable before being formally accepted. You might take grad classes part-time or as a non-degree-seeking student to prove you can get good grades, or maybe you work for a lab for a while to prove your scientific thinking and technical abilities, or maybe even work on getting a publication through a lab job or volunteer work. Talk with your Professor about your options. Don’t let worry over low scores keep you from contacting Professors and exploring your options!

Admissions committees are not made of mean-spirited megalomaniacs looking to derail your career even if it may feel that way at times. Their goal is to assess whether you’ll be successful in the program or if you would struggle and likely drop out. Of course, they are making this decision based on what’s on paper only and we know that is an incomplete, and sometimes even inaccurate measure of a person’s ability. That’s why your experiences, your personal statements, letters of recommendation, and support from current faculty go along way to getting accepted.

UPDATE: Check out “Thoughts on Applying to Grad School” by Dynamic Ecology to read some tips on improving your application.

Stay positive.

– R

How do admissions work at your university? I’d love to hear how institutions differ to improve this post. Please comment below!