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Applying is Expensive: On average, applications will cost $100 - $150. This includes the application fee, GRE submission, and transcript submission. Start saving!
How many to apply: As a rule, apply for five to seven places. Why? Pick one or two that are your dream schools. While you might not be accepted, you could. Pick one or two you are mostly confident that the program will accept you. Again, one or two you are certain the program will accept you. These schools become a safety net in case any of the other schools do not accept you. However, keep in mind that you do not want to go to a university or program just because you could not get into anything else. Follow up with the program if the programs of your choice do not accept you. Tell the program thank you for considering your application and ask what areas you can improve on.
Networking is Important: In some instances, if your advisor or some other professor in your current department knows someone in the program you are applying for, the chances of the program accepting you increases. Similar to applying for a job, if the interviewer knows you, he/she will more likely hire you over someone else. Sometimes professors will select an applicant out of the stack if they know them and have the funding. If the department does not have to pay for the student, the program usually accepts the applicant. This happens often.
Fellowships: Apply for fellowships early on. This not only helps you with how most applications processes proceed and give you writing experience, but, if you do win one, you have a leg up on other applicants for graduate school. For instance, if you win the NSF GRPF, you come with your own stipend and money for the university. This becomes very appealing for graduate programs considering incoming graduate students.
Application Materials: Usually, graduate programs look at five parts in applications. The list is in no particular order.
A competitive application will excel in all five areas. However, most people will be weak in one or two. The more competitive and prestigious programs will generally accept an application that succeeds in at least four out of the five. The following suggestions pertain to applying in competitive programs. Keep in mind there is a difference between being an acceptable applicant versus being a competitive applicant. Not only should you meet the following requirements, but you need to stand out. The top programs will have hundreds of applicants. You need to be remember-able in some way. Additionally, most STEM programs will waive your tuition, provide a living stipend (around 20k to 28k), and sometimes health insurance (or at least a subsidy). This means the programs are investing in you, taking a risk on their reputation and finances.
Personal Statement and/or Resume/CV: The personal statement is one part of the applications you must customize to the particular program you are doing. Each program varies on what they want you write. Often, the essay is a one and a half page about "What are your research goals and why you want to be in the program"” There are a couple that require 3,000 words or more. Research ahead of time what the program requires.
Write a generic essay the summer before you start applying: This essay will be the most time consuming part of your application. If you have a program in mind you want be in (i.e. your dream program) find their statement and write an essay based on their requirements. Since most personal statements are the same or at least similar, you can modify the one you wrote to fit to others.
Mention how you are a good fit for the program: Make sure you find a professor you want to work with and mention them in your statement. This says you looked into the program other than just their reputation or other reasons. Of course, do not name drop. Explain how working with this professor meets your goals and how you two will be a good fit.
If possible, contact the professor you are interested. This demonstrates initiative.
Do not mention classes you have taken in your statement: That is a waste of space. You have one and a half pages on average to tell them your goals and why you should be accepted. Transcripts are required. Why should you remind them again what classes you have taken?
Explain why you did not perform well: If there are poor marks on your applications such as bad grades, GRE, etc. your personal statement is the place to mention why you did poorly one semester or why your GRE score is low.
Why should you do this? When you apply, the committee will have no idea who you are other than the stack of paper in some folder with your name on it. If you do not explain yourself, they will automatically make a poor assumption about you.
What are some examples of this? (Keep in mind all these examples are from my personal experience.) One of the top ten physics programs accepted a woman who had a bad GRE score in the same semester her grades plummeted. Everything else looked great. She wrote in her personal statement that her boyfriend died in a car crash before taking the GRE and had a difficult time focusing on her school work that semester. However, do not make your situation sound as if the committee should pity you. Write about how, while this happened, you became stronger or your rose above the situation.
Resume/CV: Sometimes programs ask for a resume or a CV. If it is a resume, make sure it is only one page to one and a half pages. Jobs usually want one page resumes, but when applying for academia resumes can be longer. However, do not submit a resume that is over two pages long. If the program wanted more than one and a half pages, they will say CV instead of resume.
Research Experience: You are applying for an advance degree in STEM, so you should and must have some research experience. If you are a rising senior, you need to gain some research experience soon. If you are applying for anything in STEM, having a publication or conducting research at another university such as a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) will place you above other applicants.
However, this section is not as relevant with those in mathematics. While research experience for mathematics is not as relevant as the other sciences and engineering, if you have research experience while other applicants do not, you have the advantage.
Ask about research in your department: If you are early in your undergraduate career, start asking professors about their research! This shows initiative on your part. Some departments hold seminars on current departmental research. At times, a professor will state he/she is seeking students, but not all. If you are in one of the departments that does not, you need to talk and find research on your own.
What if research at your department does not align with your interests? Look for internships or REU's.
If you do research at another university (e.g. REU), you have someone who can write a letter of recommendation. This becomes a powerful tool in your application, because this research advisor can vouch for your abilities at a different university other than you own.
GRE: This part varies from university to university. Some programs want you to take only the general exam while others want both the generals and the subject test. This also depends on field. For instance, all top physics programs will require both the general and subject test exam. This is because the subject test is a "soul-crushing monster" and helps programs compare students across the nation. On the other hand, some top computer science places do not require the computer science subject test.
General Test is a baseline: For most programs, writing does not matter because you have to submit your personal statement or sometimes an old essay. The old essay is usually one you did for your English or Writing class.
Practice and Research Common Problems: Do a few practice GRE and subject test GRE to become familiar with how the test taken. The test is timed, so being familiar with the test will help with speed. This is the same with finding common questions on the exam. Finding trends in the subject test will help you. How so? On the physics GRE, compton scattering problems are common. Being prepared for the problem, guarantees a correct answer and reduces your time commitment.
GPA: Most top programs will require a minimum of a 3.3 to 3.5 GPA. If your GPA is low, look at the personal statement portion on explaining why your GPA is low (if you have a good reason). In mathematics, since research is not as important, your grades matter more, resulting in a minimum of 3.7 to 3.9 GPA.
General vs. Subject GPA: Graduate programs do look at specific kinds of GPA's. If you did not do well in your ethics class but excelled in organic chemistry, the program will only care about the courses that were relevant to your field.
Letters of Recommendation: Most places require three letters. Some require four. If you have conducted research, did well in classes, and some other extra circular activities, you should have at least three people in mind.
Ask Well in Advance: Ask the three or four people during the summer or early fall. State how you are considering applying to graduate school and would like them to write a strong letter. Also, state who you are to them such as you have taken their class or did research over the summer. Remind them one month before the due date, then one week, and finally the day before. If you do not have enough letters, it is an easy way for the graduate committee to cut your application out.
Whom should you ask? One should be your undergraduate advisor as they can speak to your overall character. The second one should be someone who can talk about your research. If this happens to by your academic advisor, that is great. The third one can be anyone that knows you well. This cannot be stressed enough. Make sure you have a professor that knows you! The committee can tell how well a professor knows you from the letter. This applies to "What if your advisor was only assigned and does not know you?" Always ask professors who ACTUALLY know you! Again and again...this is important.
Play the Game: For instance, you know professors who can write great letters of recommendation and have connections to the program or university you are applying for. These letters are invaluable as the professors can speak about how you will meet the expectations based on how well you did in their class compared to other students they taught at the particular program or university you are applying for. Again, networking is important.
Be wary on who you ask: Most "good" professors will make up an excuse if they know they cannot write a strong letter about you. Others might agree and write a slanderous one. Do not let this happen. If you are uncertain about professors, the best advice is you not only ask the professor to write a letter, but a strong letter.