I had never considered a PhD until late in my undergraduate degree. Most students in my program were either grabbing one-year master's degrees or becoming entry-level grunts at consumer goods or biomedical device companies. I remember a career fair where I talked to a recent graduate who was working as an entry-level engineer at Proctor & Gamble. He discussed at length about how riveting it was working on improving the "absorptivity of tampons at the molecular level.”
Really, dude? That’s riveting?
No, no. That was not for me. So… PhD?
Unfortunately, I didn’t know a single other person applying to a PhD program — so I applied to 13 of them (because nobody told me that was an absurd number). The last application I sent in was to MIT, on the last day, because I didn’t think I had a shot. I remember hovering my finger over the submit button, weighing the $75 application fee against 75 one-dollar beers at my favorite college bar. Senior year priorities…
So, how did I land at MIT? In all honesty, I probably got a little lucky. But I also had a strong research background, I identified professors with whom I wanted to work, and I articulated why in my personal statement. In addition, two of my recommendation writers had personal connections to MIT. Those connections count, a lot.
It’s really hard to write a strong application, for almost anything, if you don’t have an idea about what is supposed to be included. For graduate schools, the information just isn’t available on application websites. If your school doesn’t have institutional knowledge about how to be a strong grad school candidate or rarely sends students to PhD programs, how can you expect to compete?
When I became a writing fellow at the Biological Engineering (BE) Communication Lab last year, I got a more formal introduction to the ingredients that make a strong application. It’s actually a recipe: 1 cup of your motivation, 3 cups of research experience, a teaspoon of name dropping, and a dash of personality and honesty. In the end, you really need to show you are qualified, and that you are a match for the program. As a Communication Lab fellow, I continue to conduct workshops for MIT undergraduates on how to write personal statements, and I offer one-on-one coaching. I also edit essays of friends that are applying.
This work has fueled a broader interest of mine in the graduate admissions admission process for my program. Traditionally, students have not been a part of the decisions, but thinking we could have an impact on the stack of applications that the committee reviews (and knowing that some other programs like this existed already at MIT), I co-developed the Biological Engineering Application Assistance Program (BEAAP). BEAAP is a simple addition to BE’s application website where current students help review prospective applicants’ personal statements or answer questions about the department or application process — a “friend of a friend” for those who don’t have one.
Our hope is that this begins to level the playing field. We can’t change how much research experience or publications an applicant has, or the name recognition of their letter writers or university, but we can help them mold their essays to address self-identified gaps and highlight why they are a match for the program.
We rolled out BEAAP this year: 36 students applied to the program, and 30 enthusiastic graduate students volunteered to help. Excitingly, a majority of students who participated in BEAAP reported that participating strengthened their graduate application. Next year, we are planning more targeted outreach to underrepresented groups and colleges, and would love to see other departments create similar programs.