February 22, 2012

Getting into Graduate School

The following post was written by Erika Salomon, one of our contributors, who blogs at A Theory of Mind. Erika  is a graduate student studying social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has an MA in Cognition and Culture from Queen’s University Belfast and a BA in English from the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on religion and self-consciousness, religion as a social identity and moral community, and naturalistic thinking. The guidelines here are quite US-specific, however they are of use to anyone who is considering applying to further their education, and even to those who have already made this decision.

Erika’s work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, and can be freely distributed provided you acknowledge the source.

Getting into Graduate School

If you applying the graduate school, the first thing you should know about is what exactly goes into an application. Generally speaking, a graduate school application (in the US) consists of the following elements:

1. The application form—General questions (address, etc.) as well as possibly some department-specific questions.

2. A statement of purpose—aka SOP. A 500-1500 word essay describing your background, research interests (for research-based programs), career goals, and fit with the department to which you’re applying. It should be customized to each department.

3. Letters of recommendation—aka LOR. Typically 3, sometimes 2; some schools take more or fewer. You want as many of these to come from professors (as opposed to work supervisors) as possible, preferably ones with whom you have research experience or other outside-the-classroom relationships. Generally speaking, if you have 2 very good ones, the third one can be somewhat weaker.

4. Transcripts—from all post-secondary institutions. Some departments care about your overall GPA; others care more about your final 60 credits. If your transcripts look at all like mine [I got a 1.7 GPA (just about failing for anyone not familiar with the US point system) for my first year, had loads of Fs and course withdrawals, and finally withdrew from school entirely before getting my act together], you may consider putting a paragraph of explanation in your SOP, but be sure not to (a) explain weak performance with reference to a psychological or learning disability (prejudices against these are sadly present in graduate school, even in fields like education and psychology) or (b) appear to be whining or blaming poor performance on anyone other than yourself. Instead, focus on explaining why it could never happen again.

5. GRE score reports—(for US-based institutions) the importance of the GRE differs depending on the program, of course, as does the relative weighting of the subsections. If you don’t like your score, you can retake it, but you can only take the test once during a calendar month, so make sure you take the test at the latest in the month before you absolutely need it, in case you decide to retake. The scores are good for five years. Start studying now, and take as many practice tests as possible.

6. Curriculum vitae—aka CV or vita. Your academic resume. I recommend downloading some faculty CVs from the departments you are applying to. This will give you a sense of what these look like and what goes into them.

Some applications will ask for the following:

7. Writing sample—Generally, you should choose something you’ve turned in for a grade or publication. Preferably, it will be related to the field you are applying to. And, of course, take the time to thoroughly revise it.

8. Personal statement—aka PS. For some applications, this is the same as an SOP; however, others will ask for an SOP and a PS. In this case, the PS is generally used in deciding university-wide fellowship recipients, and it should be more personal than the SOP, focusing on challenges you’ve faced in education and/or membership in groups underrepresented in graduate education.

Generally speaking, the key to graduate admissions is fit—which means roughly that your interests are aligned with those of the department. So start browsing department websites. Get a feel for what the faculty are studying and decide if your interests match those of one or more faculty members. For large departments (such as psych and bio), the faculty are often further partitioned into divisions, and your application may be reviewed solely by the division to which you are applying, in which case you will want to focus on that division. Make a long-ish list of schools and faculty you are interested in, and then make an appointment with one of your professors to discuss that list. People in your field may know what departments tend to have good placement (getting people into jobs they want), have advisors whose students never graduate, etc. You want to know as much of this as possible.

Although I applied to 6 schools during each of my two application cycles, most people I know applied to double that number. This process gets EXPENSIVE. Application fees for US and Canadian schools range from around $50 to $100 each. Some of your undergraduate schools may charge for transcript copies. GRE score reports cost $20 each. It’s not uncommon to spend one to two thousand dollars on the applications. Then, some departments will have on-site interviews or visiting student weekends in the spring, for which some will reimburse travel expenses and other won’t. Depending on your geographic constraints in applications and in your luck in applying to wealthy departments, this could add in even more expense.

Overall, the grad school application process is capricious. Most excellent departments admit something under 10% of applicants; other departments are less selective. But admissions in any given year depend on such completely unknowable (to applicants) factors such as state budgets, the size of last year’s incoming class, the number of students who are leaving the program, the number of grants won by specific faculty members, etc. So getting in is at least as much about uncontrollable departmental factors as it is about being an excellent applicant. I recommend emailing professors you are interested in working with to inquire whether they are taking on new students in the next application cycle, as finding out ahead of time that a professor is not taking on new students will eliminate work and heartbreak spent on an opportunity that never truly existed.


Now that I am a graduate student, I advise many bright, intellectually curious undergraduates who want to go on to graduate school. Over the last few years, I’ve compiled a fairly large number of resources and points of advice that I offer these students. While some of the advice is biased by the particular field (psychology) and degree-type (PhD at a US research intensive institution) I have chosen, I think that there are some common elements that can be adapted to any field.

Here’s an outline of the advice I typically give:

  • Gain as much research experience possible. Both because it is exactly the kind of training you need and because it is the best source of letters of reference. Working in more than one lab with give you a greater diversity of skills and training, and it will also give you multiple recommendation letters.
  • Read scholarly literature in the field that interests you. This will help you narrow down your interests, make you sound more intelligent and informed when speaking with potential advisors, and help you identify potential advisors of interest.
  • Speak to a professor in your intended field about what his or her job is like and what graduate school in that field is like. Similarly, speak a graduate student in your intended field about his or her experiences. Consult with professors and grad students about the schools/advisors you are considering applying to; ask them about who has good placement and whose students never graduate.
  • Email professors you are interested in working with. Tell them you’ve read some of their papers and share some interests. Ask whether they will be taking on new students and what they look for in a graduate student. Your match to an advisor is one of the most important components of your application and of your experience in graduate school, especially for students pursuing a research-oriented degree.
  • Join professional societies and honor societies and take an active role in them. Subscribe to their listservs. This will keep you up to date on the field, provide you with opportunities for extra experience/CV lines (e.g., reviewing submissions for student competitions, competing in those competitions, departmental service, etc.), and make you look engaged. You might also find opportunities for summer research positions or post-graduation jobs advertised on the email lists.
  • Read academic/science blogs or message boards. These will help you understand and navigate academic culture and give you better insight into the variety of experiences of academics. You can find great science blogs through ResearchBlogging, Scientific American, ScienceBlogs, Scientopia, and other science blog networks. You can also learn a lot about academic life in general by reading GradHacker, The Grad Café, GradLand, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Take the GRE seriously, if you are applying in the US. Study for a long time. Take lots of practice tests. Many US-based programs have unadvertised GRE cut-off points, or combine GRE with college marks (GPA) to create a composite score with which they rank applicants.
  • Seriously consider if graduate school and an academic career is a good option for you. Graduate school is intense. The academic job market is really tough, and the pressure does not end even if you land a great job at the end. You might be a post-doc or Visiting Assistant Professor before landing a more permanent position, and even once you are on the tenure track, you still have years of fighting for tenure ahead. Download CVs of professors you respect. Look at the number of cities they have lived in during their academic careers and the frequency of their moves. Is that a life that you want? If you are not interested in an academic position, understand that your supervisors in graduate school will have had precious little experience outside of academia that they could use to advise you.
  • Apply for jobs, too. You might not get in. Many students put in two rounds of applications or take a master’s position when they really want a doctoral position.
  • You will likely be rejected; it’s not personal, and it doesn’t mean you are not smart enough or capable enough to complete the program. What I’ve listed above are just the things that you can (more or less) control. There’s a lot that you cannot control, such as departmental funding, grants won by faculty members that might support students, the number of other truly awesome applicants who happen to apply in the same year to the same advisor, the number of students graduating from the program that year.

Of course, I don’t think that my opinions are the only ones prospective graduate students should consider, so I always give them links to lots of other opinions, including the following:

General Resources:

Letters of Recommendation:

If, after all of this, you still want to apply to graduate school: great! It’s a lot of work, but it can be a very rewarding choice. If you are a professor or graduate student who has a different perspective, please chime in! The more information applicants have, the better off they will be.


1 reply to “Getting into Graduate School

  1. RaeAnne Wiseman

    Thanks for writing these tips on getting into graduate school! I am currently seeking a program which would allow me to investigate the psychology of religion with a special focus on finding one’s “special purpose” in life. I have been looking into Cognition and Culture at Queens and was wondering if you could recommend anyone I should speak with over there?


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