Grad School

What Does It Really Take to Get into Grad School?


We interviewed Melissa Bowman, coordinator of academic programs for polymer science at The University of Akron in Ohio, to answer your questions about  masters and Ph.D. programs.


How important is GPA to graduate schools?

Admissions committees typically place a lot of weight on the GPA, especially in math and science courses. The average GPA of students admitted into UA M.S. and Ph.D. programs in polymer science is 3.50. Every part of each student’s application is examined closely by the admissions committee, so there is no single element that would make or break a student’s admission. Even though they are ranked by GPA, all applicants in the 3.0 or higher GPA range are evaluated on an individual basis.

Can other factors compensate for low GRE scores? Or will high GRE scores compensate for low grades?

Many admissions committees view GRE scores as good indicators of success. Successful research experience can sometimes compensate for lower GRE scores. UA’s average GRE scores range from 1000 to 1200, verbal plus quantitative. With international applications, we find that each country typically has trends of certain scores, and the admissions committee keeps this in mind when evaluating these applications.

Are admissions officers understanding of academic obstacles?

Ph.D. programs typically have a very tough first-year interdisciplinary curriculum, and the rest of the program is research-intensive. Admissions committees often feel the best predictors of students’ success are grades and test scores in science and math. Both help predict whether students are able to take on difficult subject matter and succeed. The admissions committee may be willing to take into consideration one or two subpar semesters, but not a pattern of such performance.

Do you expect undergraduates to have first authorship on research papers?

Publications certainly catch the eye of our admissions committee members, but first authorship is not a necessity. Some prior research experience, however, is usually a must.

Do students need to include recommendation letters from research advisors?

If a student has had a research experience, admissions committees typically expect to see a letter speaking about what they did, how they did it, and their outcomes. Letters of recommendation should come from professors who have first-hand knowledge about how the student handles a scientific question and answer. Our admissions committee members look closely at the wording in recommendation letters and often will contact a recommender if they have questions.

What do admissions committees look for in a recommendation letter?

Graduate school admissions committees look for students who are hardworking, innovative, and creative problem solvers who also have a passion for research. They want to see how students attacked problems, what avenues they used to solve problems, and the outcomes. They look for students who can work independently, yet contribute to a group as well. Recommendation letters should be based mostly on students’ performance in the classroom and laboratory, so students should work hard in both. If students have the passion for scientific research it will show, and their professors can write about it.

Should applicants make contact with an institution's faculty during the application process?

We encourage prospective students to initiate conversation with graduate faculty about research topics and ask questions about their research. The best way to initiate contact is by e-mail.

What is the expected ‘netiquette’ when contacting graduate professors?

Send an e-mail introducing yourself and explain why you are contacting them. Let them know what kinds of projects you are working on and if there is any connection to something they are doing. Any questions about the application process, on the other hand, should be directed to the admissions office.