It's hard to believe that a year ago I was sitting and biting my nails, trying to narrow down which schools I wanted to apply to. Now, I'm just one week away from starting my Ph.D. at Boston University! My journey to graduate school has been anything but easy. It's been a 5-6 year journey that has included research, an undergraduate degree, poster presentations, a faculty research appointment and lots - and lots - of sleepless nights.
As a first generation student, applying to graduate school was a confusing time! There are so many questions about the general process let alone how to make sure you have a standout application. So, to help you out as we embark on the start of application season I've compiled my best tips.
Note: Most of my experience is tied to clinical and developmental Ph.D. psychology programs. I hope this information will be generalized, but I apologize if it is not.
This is one test you want to ace. Study up on different programs that you're interested in applying to and get a feel for what the average test score is for their incoming students. Aim to beat that number. Make a habit to study every single day, even if you only have enough time to devote to five practice questions. When studying, I would recommend focusing on practicing questions rather than reading a test prep book. Practice does make perfect.
When it comes to vocabulary, I would have your flashcards electronically accessible. (i.e. on your phone) I studied my flashcards whenever I had a free second. So when I was waiting for class to start, on the bus ride home, or on the elliptical at the gym I had my vocabulary flashcards at the ready.
My secret weapon when it came to test prep was Magoosh. This test prep service is on the pricy side, but for me it was a lifesaver. I took the GRE twice. My first time I was placing average in English and below average in math. After studying with Magoosh for six weeks I was up 11 points! My final scores were 98th percentile in English and 55th percentile in Math. Magoosh comes with thousands of practice questions, explanation videos, practice tests, custom study schedules and more. Definitely check it out if you're looking to boost your scores.
Your transcript goes hand in hand with your test scores in proving that you are ready to take on the challenges of graduate school. Always strive to get good grades in undergraduate. If you do make some mistakes (we all do!) make sure you take time in your personal statement to explain any extenuating circumstances that may have affected your grades (like death in the family, trouble adjusting, etc) Additionally, it's important to make a note that while those extenuating circumstances affected your grades, you persevered and gained new study habits and strategies that set you up for long term success. Make sure that you don't just give excuses, but show that you came out the other side as a stronger applicant.
Arguably more important than your academics and test scores is the quality of experience you would be bringing to the table as an incoming graduate student. When I applied to school I had worked in three labs as an Undergraduate student, had three years of research experience, and completed and published my undergraduate thesis. I then went on to complete a two-year post-baccalaureate position where I got hands on research experience running and maintaining a study, co-published another paper, and completed 3 poster presentations.
The value of experience is two fold. On the one hand, it builds your resume and gives you valuable skills that will help you in your transition to graduate study. It shows the admission committee that you've completed research before and can provide value to their program. This is especially true if your experience might be especially relevant to a new study they are embarking on or related to a new technology they're trying. On the other hand, getting more experience cultivates your own interests. Being able to clearly talk about your research interests in your interview is an essential skill. By getting more experience prior to applying you will have an easier time narrowing down your career possibilities to hone in on what you would like to do long term.
If anyone is considering taking time off between undergrad and graduate study, I highly recommend it. Time off is important to build your resume/experiences and is also important for your mental health, maturity, and overall well-being.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of Rec are so important and cannot simply be acquired by taking a professors class once! A good letter of rec comes from a good personal and professional relationship.
My strategy with letters of recommendation was finding the three professors I was going to ask early on in my undergraduate career. I decided to ask the professors at the two labs I worked at and the professor who oversaw my community outreach class. I chose these professors because they would be able to speak about my work (either research and clinical) and not just about my academics. Truth is, professors don't learn much about you, your work ethic, or your capabilities by staring at your face in a lecture hall. They need to be able to speak about your ability to handle responsibility, your ability to work in a team, how you handle stress, if you're organized, etc. Keep that in mind when scouting potential recommenders.
Once I knew the three people I wanted to ask, I made sure I took extra classes with them (and made sure I got good grades in those classes). I took time to talk to them about the classes. Specifically, I didn't just ask them for help but instead gave them my honest thoughts on the course, what I liked, and what could be improved in the future. (Professors are people too, they get insecure and love hearing student feedback). I sought them out to ask for additional research experiences or additional responsibility. I showed them I was a "go-getter," Then, I let my work speak for myself. I worked hard and dilligently. I made sure I did the things they asked for correctly and efficiently. I proved myself to be hard-working and reliable. One of my recommenders, to this day, still calls me "Old Reliable."
One more note about letters of recommendation... professors don't write them by themselves. They reach out to teaching assistants and lab managers for their thoughts and opinions on the student in question. So always be cordial with your lab managers, don't cause problems, be rude, or take time off work for stupid reasons. (Yes, I had an undergrad take off work at the last second for an away weekend while I was a lab manager. No, I did not recommend her highly.)
Your personal statement is the document that ties together all of these little pieces you've been carefully crafting. It's important to succinctly describe your experiences and what makes you a good fit for the program. Now, a lot of people write a generic personal statement and use that in all their applications. You do not want to do this! You should personalize each statement to the specific mentor, program, and school you're applying to. Clearly describe your experiences, why you specifically chose this mentor and program, and how you can uniquely contribute and advance the program.
Be sure to have your personal statement reviewed by many different people. Send it out to your recommenders, graduate students in your field of study, colleagues and more. The more feedback you can get, the better!
And there you have it! This blog post was a bit longer than my typical one, but I hope it was chock full of helpful information. If you have any additional questions about my journey or applying to graduate school feel free to shoot me a DM @crownsandcoffees
Until next time...