The Road to Grad School
Last updated 7/22/2022
You’ve made a major decision to go for your master’s (M.S.), professional science master’s (P.S.M.), or doctorate (Ph.D.) degree. Whether you should go is a topic for another article. Now it’s time to apply.
On the face of it, the next few steps are simple: select a few programs, take your Graduate Record Examinations (GREs), complete some application forms (including preparing a tailored personal statement), and submit your applications, along with your transcripts and some letters of recommendation.
OK, maybe it’s not so simple. Here is what it takes to get through the “getting in” part of graduate school.
Give yourself time
Ideally, you should start the process about a year before the application deadline. Most deadlines are between December and February.
Why do you need so much time? There are several reasons. First, you don’t want to rush through the application itself, so give yourself time to collect your thoughts. Second, some parts of the application take time to complete. The general-subject GREs are offered almost any day, but you need to reserve your spot in advance. Your references will need at least one month to write recommendation letters. And your registrar will need time to send your transcript out.
Taking time to find the right programs for you is also important. Candice L. Progler-Thomsen, a recruiter for King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, advises students to consider the application process as a journey of reflection and finding the right fit. “If the student isn’t confident that they meet the program requirements and that the program is a good match for them, it will be difficult to convince an admissions committee that the student is meant to be in the program,” she says.
Look for three to six graduate programs that are right for you. Choose from schools with well-defined programs (whether M.S., P.S.M., or Ph.D.) in your area of interest. Check out professors’ webpages and abstracts of their recent articles to find those whose research interests you. Look for programs with industry connections or extra teaching opportunities, depending on what professional skills you want to develop. Also, consider the location—whether it’s a new city or a new country for you, you want it to be a place that appeals to you.
Many programs have rolling admissions or make their funding available on a first-come, first-served basis. Either way, getting your application in early can only work to your advantage.
If you are a little late getting started, it's not the end of the world. You'll just need to be very organized about your efforts.
You are a busy person, and applying to graduate schools is stressful. Spreading out the workload whenever possible will help alleviate some of the stress.
Tackle the finances
Sure, applying for graduate school can get expensive. The fee to take the GRE General Test is just over $200, and the GRE Subject Test costs an additional $150. You can also expect to pay for official copies of your transcript. Plus, most graduate programs have application fees. Applying to six or seven programs could easily run you $700.
Fortunately, there is help. The GRE Fee Reduction Program provides 50% off the testing fees in certain circumstances. In addition, some graduate programs will waive their application fee. Check with the graduate admissions office to see if you qualify.
If money is still an issue, many schools can help you secure microloans and other resources to get you over this particular hurdle. Check with your financial aid office.
Even better: remember that financial aid is typical for chemistry graduate students. Most programs provide their students with a tuition waiver and a living stipend. The stipend is usually in exchange for teaching in your first year or two, and research after that.
Securing external funding isn’t necessary for graduate school, but it can bolster your application. Leslie Hamachi, a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, recommends applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program simultaneously with your graduate school application. “Winning this can help open doors as far as getting off waiting lists for school admissions and the ability to join the lab of your choice when you get to graduate school,” Hamachi says.
Meet the criteria
There is no version of the Common Application for graduate programs. Each program has its own process, requirements, and deadlines. Review each of the criteria for each program carefully, and make sure you meet them. You don’t want to be rejected from a program on a technicality.
As Melissa King, a graduate student at Wesleyan University in Middleton, CT, says, “Graduate school applications are not generic and should be tailored to each institution to which you are applying.”
Worried about your GPA?
Graduate programs typically like to see applicants with GPAs of 3.0 or higher and in the 60th percentile or higher for GRE scores. If your digits aren’t quite there, make sure your personal statement and recommendation letters clearly demonstrate why you belong in graduate school.
That said, there are some components that are pretty universal:
In general, programs will require official copies of transcripts from every institution you have attended since high school. That includes the writing course you took at your local two-year college over the summer to fulfill your humanities requirement.
Make sure you order your transcripts well in advance of the application deadline; your application will be considered incomplete without them. And, because things do happen, it can’t hurt to check with the programs to ensure that the transcripts have arrived on time.
GREs are a lot like the SATs or ACTs you took for college admission. The GRE General Test includes verbal reasoning (two sections), quantitative reasoning (two sections), and analytical writing (one section). The complete test takes four to five hours (including breaks).
If you need to take the GRE Subject Test, it takes about one and a half to two hours and covers all four years of your major, including your senior year. Consequently, it is helpful to take the Subject Test later in the academic year. Don’t wait too long, though! The scores need to arrive ahead of the application deadline, along with the rest of your application.
If you are aiming to start graduate school in the fall, it is ideal to take your GREs no later than September or October of the year before. Taking them even earlier is better, so that you have the option of retaking them if you don’t like your scores. However, in some cases you may find yourself taking them later, especially if scheduling is a challenge. Just do your best and make sure the scores arrive before the application deadline.
As with college entrance exams, preparation helps. ETS, which administers the GREs, has information, testing times, and locations, and—best of all—practice tests at ets.org/gre. You can also find workshops and study guides that will help you prepare.
Graduate school applications require some type of personal statement. This is your chance to show that you are more than a collection of scores and grades. Make the most of it.
Start by knowing what the graduate program is asking for. Some programs simply ask why you are interested in graduate school, while others may have very specific topics to address. Consider what life and school experiences have led you to pursue graduate school and how each specific program will help you on your path. Tell the reader a story of who you are and how you will contribute to science and the world.
Emphasize research, teaching, leadership, and other experiences that will have an impact on your career. Because research is the cornerstone of most chemistry programs, describing your undergraduate research and what you learned from the experience will lend weight to your statement. You should mention specific faculty you are interested in working with, and why. This will help the reader visualize you at the school and demonstrate your interest in the program.
Most importantly, remember to proofread your statement. Spellcheck doesn’t no “best” form “beast”, so ITS easy to right a sentence that is bade but technically spelled correctly. Seriously—spellcheck didn’t catch any of the errors in that sentence. So, proofread each version. Better yet, distribute your statements among some friends for proofing.
Letters of recommendation
Graduate programs usually require three letters of recommendation. These should come from people who know you in a way that is relevant to the program. For example, Ph.D. programs are research-based, so a letter from the professor who mentored your undergraduate research is a must. Letters can also come from your advisor, professors who taught courses in which you excelled, or faculty for whom you have tutored or performed as a teaching assistant. “Ask your letter writers if they feel like they could write you a strong recommendation letter,” King recommends. “It is very important to have letter writers that know you well enough to speak to your work ethic, character, and skills.”
Give your references at least one month’s notice and as many specifics as possible— deadlines, submission information, names of the letter’s recipients, topics to address, and so on. Providing your personal statements can be very helpful to letter writers. And although you don’t need to pester your references, there is no harm in a polite reminder of the approaching deadline.
Hamachi offers one final piece of advice: “Ask current graduate students for drafts of their application materials and to help proofread your personal statement; people will be way more excited to help you than you think.”
Graduate program applications are high-stakes, but, as thousands of graduate students can attest, they are manageable. With a little determination, a little planning, and a lot of proofreading, you will soon be one of them!
Special notes for international students applying to U.S. programs
Most U.S. programs require the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) as part of the application process. Like the GREs, it is administered by ETS. You can learn more at ets.org/toefl. Additional fluency tests may also be required. Letters of recommendation should also mention your proficiency in English.
You will be responsible for obtaining your own visa to attend graduate school in the United States. Most students use an F-1 or J-1 visa, which you can obtain only after you have been accepted by the graduate program and after you have informed them of your intent to enroll. But you will want to start this process as soon as you can.
Finding off-campus housing in a different country can be challenging. Some graduate programs offer on-campus housing for international students to ease the transition. Either way, visit the International Student office and ask about your options as soon as you accept an offer.