Applying to Grad School

Where should I apply?  What are my chances of getting accepted?  When are the applications due?  How much do they cost?  What application should I work on first?  Who should I get to write my letters of recommendation?  Is grad school even right for me?  I know all of these questions were running through my mind about two years ago and getting all of the answers was not easy.  In this post I hope to provide some advice on getting through the grad school application process while staying sane.


Ah, this is a very tricky and very personal question.  You need to honestly look at your GPA, test scores (though often subject and general GRE scores don’t matter too much), and research experience and judge what programs are a good fit.  You should not be afraid to apply to schools that you feel are “reach” schools, but unless you have another back up plan be sure to include “safety” schools as well.  Having a discussion with your research adviser can really help you determine what schools would be the best fit academically for you.

After considering this criteria you probably still have an extremely long list.  Now you need to go through every school and look at the individual professors’ research.  Make sure there are at least three professors that you would be interested in working for.  You should also do your best to make sure these professors are still taking students.  Sometimes you just won’t be able to tell, but do a quick Web of Knowledge search or look on their website to make sure they have published papers in the last couple of years.  Hopefully this will help you narrow down your list.  Choose the schools with the research that interests you the most.  Most students I know applied to 6-8 schools.

Many of us have to deal with a two body problem, which can make the already stressful graduate application process even more painful.  Before the process started my now husband and I agreed that we were not willing to have a long distance relationship, so we each applied to the same twelve programs and decided if worse came to worst one of us would take a year off.  If you are in a serious relationship this is something you need to discuss with your partner.  I’ve seen a number of long distance relationships fall apart and a number stay strong through grad school.  You need to know what each other is willing to do and what your relationship can handle.  Also remember that  quite a few cities have many schools (Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.), so although you might not attend the same school you can still be in the same area.

Now that you have decided where to apply you need to…


When I first started the application process I realized that each application was frustratingly different.  Each had their own deadline, essay requirements, necessary transcripts, etc.  The first thing I would suggest is putting together a spreadsheet of all the schools you are considering.  List each one with their deadline, a link to the application, how much the application costs (you may need to budget appropriately, I ended up spending almost $2,000 on grad school applications), how many letters of recommendation they require, how many transcripts are required, where to send them, whether the application is online or snail mail only (expressing a giant stack of papers halfway across the country is not cheap, trust me I know), and what essays you have to write.  In this spreadsheet I would also include the fellowships you plan on applying to (NSF, NDSEG, Hertz, EPA STAR, DoE, etc.)  Often fellowship deadlines are way before graduate school deadlines, so it is important to be aware of when they are coming up.

Okay, completely organized!  Now…


First decide who you will ask.  Anyone that you have done research with should be on your list unless you had a really poor relationship with them.  You should also include faculty that have advised any student group in which you were heavily involved.  If that doesn’t get you to enough recommenders you can ask a professor that you interacted with through a class as long as that professor can speak to something besides your grade in the course.

All of your professors are busy people, so talk to your letter writers early in the semester.  I was applying for four fellowships and twelve graduate programs, so I had to make sure my letter writers knew about numerous deadlines and the requirements for letters.  I sent them a list of all of the applications, the deadlines, submission guidelines, and background information about myself so that they could write a well-rounded letter.  As each deadline approached I also checked the application website to make sure the letters were submitted.  If they weren’t I sent a respectful email reminder.

They are all set, so what next…


I found the NSF application the best preparation for all of my other applications.  They had a few different essays and once I completed those I had the basis for almost all the other essays I would need.  The hardest part is starting, so get going!  Once you’ve completed your essays look for proofreaders.  I had a couple of friends whose writing skills I admire look over mine.  Other students have advisers read over some essays and many schools offer workshops where students can bring in essays to have them edited.

Essays done!


Click through about a million different pages, copy and paste this here and there, enter all of your courses (what a transcript wasn’t enough?!?!) AND their textbooks (For reals? Yes for reals….), check and double check everything, and you are ready to press that all important submit button (or rush to your local supermarket with the 24/7 post office to express a package to California…actually I suggest avoiding this if at all possible).


Check out these other helpful webpages –

Gratuitous plug for the two awesome articles astrobites has on grad school apps and their awesome NSF app article –

What to consider when looking at faculty pages –

The most helpful resource I found when applying for fellowships –


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