The graduate school application process is arduous, time-consuming and remarkably competitive. To the applicants, it must also seem like a deeply mysterious process. Here are some tips about how prospective students are evaluated by admissions committees.
Good grades convey that you are responsible, that you manage your time well, and that you have an aptitude for the material covered in your courses. However, people who do well as undergraduates are not necessarily well-equipped for graduate school. Graduate school is a wildly different experience, where success is largely determined by how ready you are to take responsibility for your own education. A 3.5 GPA (on a 4.0 scale, so A’s and B’s) is considered good. A GPA below 3.0 would require a student that was exceptional in other more direct measures of research aptitude.
The GRE conveys an imperfect sense of your overall scholastic aptitude. Most of our students coming into EEB have scores of ~320 (verbal + quantitative) or higher. An outstanding score (330+) will earn a closer look at your application. A student with a poor verbal score (as is often the case with international students) can address this in part by being sure that the research statement shines. A combined score of 302 or lower would require a special letter to our graduate school, and rarely are the remaining portions of an application strong enough to merit this.
Like the other parts of the application, the GRE is a limited measure. I try not to interpret the numbers too literally, but use it as one additional piece of data that can complement other kinds of information.
A good letter of recommendation will be detailed, provide insight into who you are, and be written by someone who is in a position to know your merits – preferably someone in the field you want to work. Unfortunately, most letters are either glowing or not very informative. Also, it’s pretty much impossible for you to know with any certainty how good a letter will be. If your prior mentor has a history of placing students in excellent grad programs, she or he is probably a good letter writer. If you have worked with a PI for over a year and you are on good terms. they will probably take the time to write a strong letter. It’s not a bad idea to give a letter writer a way of politely declining by saying, “If you don’t feel like you could evaluate my readiness for graduate school, or if you have reservations for any reason, I completely understand.” They might decline because they are busy, or because they couldn’t write you a strong letter. In either case, a mediocre letter won’t help you much.
Your research experience is probably the most important aspect of your preparation. Successful applicants have often spent a year or more as lab or field assistants. This ensures a very strong letter of recommendation that speaks directly to your aptitudes as a researcher, and gives you time to mature intellectually. It also gives you time to realize what you’re getting into. The admissions committee loves to see authorship on one or more publications. Authorship characterizes the strongest applicants, but is not necessary. Authorship on posters or manuscripts in preparation is important to list on your CV, because it gives the committee evidence that you made meaningful contributions to research.
The “personal statement” goes by many names, one of which is the “personal statement," the “research narrative,” "statement of purpose," or “statement of research interests.” This is the best way the admissions committee has of evaluating your aptitudes directly. Spend a lot of time on it. Here are some tips.
1) Don’t make it too personal. Despite its title, we don’t really need to be convinced of your personal commitment to graduate school. Or maybe we do, but no amount of telling us you are interested is going to help. So omit the stories about the crayfish you kept as childhood pets, or about your father who is a veterinarian. Almost every prospective biologist has some story that reflects his or her childhood experience with animals or the outdoors. The same is true of prospective neuroscience students who have an aunt with dementia, or a cousin with schizophrenia. Sadly, unless your personal story makes for particularly compelling reading, it will probably be a distraction. Worse, it can be read as evidence of intellectual immaturity.
The one personal detail I look for is information that may color how I interpret your numbers. Are you the first in your family to complete college? If so, your GRE and early grades may underestimate your ability. Similarly, if you had to work a lot, that should be evident either in your CV or personal statement. Do you have a mental health challenge protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act? This includes major depression, schizophrenia or obsessive compulsive disorder, and might explain some early issues with your transcript.
All of these issues can be tricky to handle in a personal statement. You want to stick to facts and keep it simple — it shouldn’t read as though you are making excuses. (Alternatively, you might mention your specific circumstances to a letter writer and let them convey the information.) People with mental health challenges can still be subject to discrimination by admissions committees who are uninformed about the ADA or haven’t thought deeply about the nature of mental illness. A conservative approach is to describe a mental illness vaguely as a health problem that was untreated during the time it affected your scholastic performance.
2) Demonstrate sophistication. Want to impress the committee? Demonstrate that you can formulate interesting questions based on your reading of the scientific literature. Indicate the kinds of questions that interest you and exactly why you think they are important. Describe your own research experience in sufficient detail to make it clear that you understood what questions you were addressing — lay-out your hypotheses and summarize your results. Many students who write very well nevertheless are too vague in their research statements. An excellent essay sounds like it was written by a colleague. A mediocre one sounds like it was written by an undergraduate who has done well in courses, but isn’t quite sure about what comes next.
3) Make sure the writing is clear and free of typos. Your sentences should be simple and direct. Keep them free of spelling and grammatical errors. Minimize jargon. You’re writing for professional biologists, but most will not be in your field. In a related vein - a word you learned from a thesaurus while writing your essay is almost always a bad idea. If it rings false, it will sound insincere or arrogant.
4) Start early and revise often.
In addition to your application, whether the lab PI is looking for a student with your interests and skills is also very important. In programs without formal rotations (like most Ecology and Evolution programs), this can be the most important determinant of whether you are admitted. So if you want to come to our lab, write us early -- generally several months before applications are due. Our best applicants often arrive in September of the year before the student expects to begin a graduate program.