Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

I have served on the admissions for two different graduate programs, so I have had a view of what the admissions people think and are looking for when making acceptances. These two programs do things very differently. One accepts straight up, based on the application alone. The other has interviews for people before accepting them. One relies heavily on the results of the subject GRE, and the other does not require a subject GRE at all. Despite these differences, they are both looking for the same thing: Excellent students who will be able to get good grades in the first year of courses, be able to pass their respective qualifying exams, and ultimately be able to conduct new research and write papers for publication. There are many items that need to be included in the packet and each has various weights in the decision to accept or reject.

Each year, I give a little talk at various venues called, “How to get into graduate school” but really it should be called, how to assemble your packet for graduate school. Here are some of the hints I give:

What does the admissions committee want to know? When crafting your application packet, it is best to keep in mind what the committee is looking for, so that you can give them the information they want. We want to know from your packet, “Will this person do well in their graduate courses?” “Will this person pass the qualifying exam?” “Will tis person find a research group?” “Will this person be able to conduct independent research?” “Will this person get a Ph.D?”

What is in the packet? The packet consists of the following, and I will go through the rationale of each part below.

1. Your grades in your academic classes.

2. The scores on your GREs – both general and subject (maybe).

3. Your letters of recommendation.

4. Your personal essay.

Grades. The grades in your science classes are an important indicator of how you will do in your classes your first year of graduate school. All graduate programs have required classes to make sure you have a certain basis of knowledge before you go forward into research. All graduate programs have a minimum grade average or grade in each course that is required to stay in the program. Your grades in your classes will indicate if you will make good grades in your graduate classes. On the admissions committee, we want As, but that isn’t good advise for how to get into grad school. By the time you are applying, most of your grades are already set in stone. Maybe you messed up a few courses? Maybe you overloaded one semester and did poorly. Maybe there is a specific course that you really struggled with. Any booboos in your grades should be explained (not excused) in your Personal Essay. I once saw a personal essay that plotted the student’s GPA over time to show an upward trend. That was very convincing. It also showed that the student knew how to represent data in graphical form – an important scientific skill.

GREs. There are two types of GREs. General GREs and Subject GREs. The General GREs are like SATs. Everyone has to take them. You should do well – especially on the math. Science majors should have very good math scores. If you are foreign, the verbal scores are used to determine your reading and writing abilities. All graduate programs require the General GREs. Even if you are good at math and verbal skills, you need to buy a book on the General GREs to see what the test is like. Don’t go into the test cold.

The Subject GREs are not required by all graduate programs, but it is required by many. For graduate programs that will have a written exam for their qualifying exam, they often use the Subject GRE as a test run for the qualifying exam. They typically have a minimum number they prefer. That number, or ranking, is not a hard line, but merely a suggested set-point. For Subject GREs, I recommend studying very hard. Get practice tests. Use the summer before the fall semester of your senior year to study for the exam. One issue with the Subject GREs is that it is hard to encompass all the skills your need for scientific problem solving in a multiple choice exam. They are not very good at actually testing critical thinking and reasoning skills that we want you to have in graduate school. That being said, there is no other metric.

Letters of Recommendation. You typically need 2-3 letters of recommendation from professors who know you and your work in undergraduate school. The professors at your school are my colleagues.  These letters are the ability for them to talk directly to me about you. As someone else who has gone through the rigors of getting a Ph.D., possibly doing a postdoc, and getting a job as a professor, I trust that their values and judgments for students are valid. Because of these reasons, the letters of recommendation have a lot of weight for getting you into graduate school. Also, you want these letters to actually come from professors. It is not good enough for them to come from graduate students or postdocs you may have worked more closely with. They need to come from the professor you worked with. If the professor cannot speak about your work, have the postdoc talk to the professor before he/she writes the letter.

You want to make sure that your letters come from professor who can speak about you. The Best: Letters from professors with whom you worked closely in research. These letters can tell me about your aptitude in research, which is your ultimate job in grad school. Good: Letters from professors with whom you worked closely in class. This isn’t as good, because most professors have 100s of students each semester. They might not remember you. Even if you have a small class, you will usually be compared to the other students in the class, and there aren’t as many ways to prove your abilities in a class as there are in the lab. Poor: Letters from professor with whom you had very little interaction but did well in class.

Etiquette for requesting letters:

  • Ask for letters with enough time for the recommender to prepare it. Give them at least 2 weeks.
  • Send a complete list of all the places you are applying with the online location link, and the date the recommendations are due. This allows your recommender to check off when they completed one, and it is all in one place. If you just trust that the online systems will send messages to the professor’s email, you are not thinking about how busy your professor is or about how many emails he/she gets each day. The list will help your professor keep track of how many requests you sent to make sure they didn’t miss one.
  • When you request a letter, make an appointment to meet in person. Bring your CV/resume, a 1-pager on your current or past research, and have a talk with your recommender about your goals, so he/she can speak intelligently. Think of this as coaching your recommender, so they can write the best letter possible.
  • Professors are busy! Send friendly reminders via email. Do not badger, just remind. Most professors will appreciate it. If they agree to write the letter, they will want to get it out in time.
  • After you hear back, let your recommender know if you got in. They spent time to write a letter for you. They want you to do well.

Personal Essay. This is your time. It is your time to shine. It is your time to explain. So, what do you write? For the admissions committee, your research is the most important aspect of this essay. Include what you have done in research with enough detail that the professors reviewing it will know that you actually did it. Include examples when you solved a problem on your own. You should have a letter of recommendation from your research advisor to corroborate your statements. Summer REU advisors can write letters – not just your home professors! This is where coaching is important, because you want to make sure you and your professor are on the same page about what you did. Include specific advisors with whom you would like to work (only if you know and are sure, it is OK, if you don’t know for sure). Include subjects on which you would like to do research. They should be subjects that are actually pursued at the school you are applying to! You can use this space to explain any negative aspects of your grades or anything else.  Don’t make excuses and don’t dwell on it.

Here are some Do’s and Don’t’s:


  • Do have someone else read it – preferably your advisor
  • Do address or answer these questions – either directly or indirectly:
    • Will they find a research group?
    • Will they conduct independent research?
    • Will they get a Ph.D.?
  • Do use examples to demonstrate your ability to do research.


  • Don’t start with a quote from something
  • Don’t give your personal reason for wanting to go to graduate school
  • Don’t make it too personal – this is a professional application
  • Don’t include a long list of every person in the program with whom you would like to work. If you aren’t sure, say that you are open to exploring your options
  • Don’t put the name of another institution!!
  • Don’t have egregious typos or errors. Make sure you proof-read and spell-check

OK, so that is a lot of information. Does anyone else have any suggestions for students applying to graduate school? Post or comment!

Comments on: "Applying to Grad School: Admissions View" (2)

  1. […] A number of people responding said essentially what I have said here in the recent past in this post. You should make it about your research, but it should not be too personal about yourself. Online […]

  2. […] more informed letter. It is also the same as when I suggest that you prep your letter writers in previous post. You should always have a conversation and give them written information to help your letter […]

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