Those of you who are seniors have probably given a good deal of thought to where you might like to attend grad school. If this is something you haven’t given much thought to yet, or are an underclassman interested in the process of choosing schools to apply to, give Part 1 to this Astrobite a read. This is Part 2 which will cover more of the application process and deadlines to keep in mind.
SETTING YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS
Applying to graduate school is very much like walking into an interview with a company you would like to work with. Ideally, before-hand you have done your research on what the company is looking for in a candidate and have prepared yourself to answer questions that play of up your strengths that match the company’s expectations of their employees. For graduate school, you look at faculty research, what their graduate students are working on, and talk about how those interests align with your own in your personal statement. Before an interview, you will ask yourself what your appearance says about you and dress appropriately for the station you are applying for. Likewise, make sure you present yourself in a manner you are proud of to the graduate programs. In an application, this means not having an email address like Mclovin@whatever.com or something cute and silly. If you need to, create a new email address with some variation of your name which doesn’t distract the committee from concentrating on your application. In fact, creating a new email just for graduate applications is handy because it separates your contact with your schools from the rest of your emails making them easier to find and respond to.
Most important, when going in for an interview, you don’t show up late or on-time, you show up EARLY! Forgetting the application due dates and turning your materials in late doesn’t do anything to impress the grad committee. An easy thing you can do right now to make this process much easier is to create a giant table of all your schools of choice and add columns for the necessary materials, whether the application is online or by mail, and all important due dates (application/transcripts/letters of recommendation) which may different at each school. Double check and see if your transcripts need to be in before your application. Same goes for the letters of recommendation. If you are applying to any more than two schools, this table will be really handy. Keeping track of everything is tough and it gets frustrating going back and forth to different websites all the time just to check due dates or exactly the length of the personal statement each school wants. Do it now, and thank yourself when you finish.
Here is a list of items most applications include. Some schools want more and some want less, but some form of these appear on every application:
1. The Application: Most schools have gone the convenient high-tech route and you fill the entire application out online. Whether they are online or not, this is all the basic information about you. Probably the hardest part of each application is remembering your GPA and your Physics/Sciences/Math GPA. Some schools will ask you to calculate out your Math or Physics GPA separately which can be a pain, so it’s worth it to calculate those now and have them connected with that handy table you made already! Many applications will have some ~200 word short answer questions about your strengths like experience with computers/operating systems etc. Another thing to have included on your nifty table is the contact information of the people who will be writing your letters of recommendation (full name, office phone, email address, office address) because you will have to list them on your application. With any application, take your time, double check important information, and proofread.
2. The Personal Statement: Crafting a strong personal statement doesn’t have to be difficult. The statement should show the committee that you have an idea of what you want to study and why that’s important, demonstrate that you are familiar with the department and why you want to work there, reflect your motivation to solve problems and your curiosity with “enter interest here”, and finally give the committee a reason to believe you will be successful in the program. This is the core of your application and where you set yourself apart from the other applicants. Rely heavily on your past research experiences and concrete examples of your commitment to the field. It’s important to not only spend time tailoring this to each program, but also let your advisors or people you trust at your university look over it for you. The admission committee is thinking about one thing, “Why should we admit this person,” and your job is to give them every reason to want you there.
3. Letters of Recommendation: Most schools require 3 letters from people who know you well in a professional setting. These don’t have to be all professors at your university, but make sure you choose people who know you well enough to cite specific evidence for the strengths you possess. After you decide on the people you would like, there is a formal way to go about asking for recommendations. Once you have your list of schools you are applying to, formally write a letter to the people you want recommendations from. Then take this letter, a printed list of the schools you are applying to with their recommendation deadlines (which can be different than the application deadline!), a CV/Resume, and addressed and stamped envelopes for each program and hand it/mail it to your recommenders. Make sure you give them AT LEAST 2 weeks, but preferably more time, to write your letters. The more time you give, the better they will be. Sitting down and talking with your recommenders personally so you can talk with them about your goals and what you have listed in your personal statement will also help them craft a more personalized letter. This can also be mentioned in the letter requesting the recommendations. Also be sure to have thank you letters written after your applications go in for your recommenders. They are doing you a huge favor!
4. The GRE: Most schools need your test scores around the time the applications are due, so make sure to register for either the October or November testing dates. Some schools are more laid back about when they get the scores, but you don’t want that to be a determining factor. Study, do well, get it out of the way, and make sure to send scores to all your schools. All astronomy programs I know of want you to take both the regular and physics GRE. You will need to study for both tests. Hopefully this is something you have had time to do over the summer, especially for the physics subject test. While the GRE scores are not the most important part of your application, doing poorly on one or the other can give the committee cause for concern. Again, you want to give them every reason to want you, not reasons to doubt. However, on the off chance you have a terrible day and don’t do well on one of the GRE’s, all hope is not lost. A strong application, praising letters of recommendation, and becoming familiar with the faculty at the graduate programs you apply to will count for much more than a standard test score. Keep that in mind.
5. Transcripts: They are sometimes expensive, but this is the easiest part of the application. Your school can send them directly to the grad programs, so get these done early. Also, some schools want more than one transcript, so pay attention and read carefully.
Deadlines for applications can be as early as December and as late as February. But don’t wait! As mentioned earlier, don’t show up to the interview on time. Make sure your applications are sent in with time to spare in case something goes wrong. Once everything is turned in, an important part of this process is following up with the grad programs. Call or email, introduce yourself and ask if your application is listed as complete (do they have all your materials). Some schools have the ability to track what they from you online which is nice. If you turn everything in early, you have time to correct problems should they arise with the mail or whatever else.
Finally, you reach the hardest part of the application process….. Waiting for the acceptance calls/emails.
They usually start in February and continue through March depending on the program, but most do it somewhat early so you have time to visit the school. Of course, there is always so much that can be said about applying to grad school and everyone has a different experience, so feel free to leave comments or questions you might have, and I, another astrobite author, or even other readers can help you out.