The Unofficial Guide Book for the Grad School Applicant

If you have no idea what to do, you’re well on your way!
SEP 2019
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

I made the decision to apply for graduate school in mid-September of my senior year of college. With application deadlines only weeks away and the GRE looming in the distance, I spent one month scrambling to familiarize myself with the application materials that some of my peers had been refining for months. Sounds stressful, right? I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. However, as I reflect on the process almost a year later, I have come to a fascinating conclusion – jumping right in with little advance preparation allowed me to put together my best possible application. Here’s what I learned, and how you can put this information to use regardless of where you are in your grad school journey.

Step 1: Take graduate school out of the equation – think ahead instead!

I began the application process without a longstanding grand plan. Ultimately, this proved to be an advantage because it allowed me to think clearly and impartially about what I wanted for the future. I envisioned my life down the road – 3, 5, even 10 years in the future, and asked myself the following questions.

  • What general topics will my work involve? What skills are important in these areas?
  • Will I be working in a research lab, at a desk, or in the field?
  • What impacts could my work have on the world?
  • How do my academic interests tie into my future vision?

If you’re feeling lost or struggling to articulate what you’re hoping to get out of your graduate school experience, it can be immensely helpful to take a step back and focus on these questions instead. It’s okay if your answers are not fully developed, or if there are many of them! In my case, this brainstorming phase helped me reflect on my future goals and get excited about all the paths that were open to me. As you develop your own answers to these questions, you can begin to write a personal statement even if you are not yet committed to a focused research area. I approached this by getting my goals onto paper in the introduction, then explaining how my past research and work experiences equipped me with the qualities of a successful scientist. I added information about my future research interests and each school’s resources after completing Step 2:

Step 2: Map out how graduate school fits into your future vision, and select schools accordingly

After considering your future goals, it is time to create an actionable plan to achieve them. Odds are, at the core of that plan will be a graduate education. The primary questions to consider here are:

  • What do I need out of an education to help me reach my goals?
  • What does my ideal graduate school experience look like?

The answers to these questions can help you identify the resources you are looking for, which can in turn facilitate your search for programs to apply to. As a bioengineering student, I considered research labs, the institution’s industry and clinical partnerships, student employment outcomes, school/department culture, and location. While the Internet is certainly a handy tool to identify programs that might be a good match for you, it is invaluable to speak with professors, TAs, and other students in your department who know you well. I found that these individuals could comment on my fit for particular labs and institutions, and they also suggested programs I hadn’t even considered. (Spoiler: This is how I ended up in HST!)

This individualized and goal-oriented approach can help you ensure that, based on all the knowledge you can collect, you apply to schools that you will be genuinely happy to attend. In doing so, I found that I was much more excited about completing my applications and learning about each department’s research when I didn’t have to worry about ending up at a “safety school.” By maintaining a focus on long-term attainable goals rather than simply being admitted to a certain program, you can steer yourself down a productive path and reapply in the future if your process does not go as planned.

Step 3: Apply confidently

Before applying, you should be able to summarize what you’ve accomplished in Steps 1 and 2. In Step 1, you have taken a step back from your preconceived notions of graduate school to focus on your future goals instead. In Step 2, you have envisioned graduate school as a vehicle to achieve these goals rather than a singular objective. When the time comes to start writing, this background will enable you to put together an application that is focused, fluid, and compelling. You can elaborate on your future goals from Step 1 and program interests from Step 2 to write clear, concise, and confident responses to supplemental essays. You can also use this information to tailor your personal statement for each school and define your research interests in interviews. Most importantly, you can demonstrate your enthusiasm as an applicant and get pumped about what you’ll be working on in the near future!

So go ahead, embrace your uncertainty about all the little details of each application. Revel in the ever-extensive lists of school rankings. And finally, start with a fresh mind. As a last minute applicant, I didn’t have much of a choice –– turns out, there’s no better way to begin.