Applying to grad school? Here’s what you need to know: Part I

I put together my grad school applications when I was studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, which meant that they were cobbled together in a string of internet cafes, fueled by little more than espresso and impatience. I dashed off emails to professors in hip anti-cafes with unmarked doors and killer espresso, asking for recommendation letters and moral support. I wrote my statement of purpose over weak instant coffee (but fast Wi-Fi!) on the top floor of a mall. While I love a coffee-shop crawl as much as the next person, I was anxious to have my applications out of the way so that I could explore St. Petersburg and get to know its quirks and its grandeur.

And I did. The circumstances of my application-writing meant that I was efficient: I got things out of the way as early as I could, and as a result, I wasn’t racing to meet deadlines come December – instead, I was out and about, exploring my temporary home. On the other hand, I was not as thoughtful as I might have been in putting together my applications, and in considering what my grad school experience might look like.

While I relish the memories of my whirlwind semester abroad, here’s some advice to make your grad school application process a little less hectic­­ ­– and a little more organized ­– than mine. This is the first part of a two-part post; Part II will be posted next month.

First things first: know why you’re applying to grad school and what it’s all about. To a college senior, grad school can seem like the logical next step in life, the most natural sequel to a successful college career. If I’m being completely honest, I applied to grad school in part because it was a well-defined, familiar path: more schooling (a known quantity), followed by a career in academia, which I imagined would be full of fulfilling teaching interactions and, importantly, blissfully free of business-wear and rigid 9 am start times.

Ultimately, though, a PhD is a research degree. It’s not an extension of college, or an easy career path for people who excel in school. What it is is a fulfilling path for those who love striking out on their own intellectual journeys, who relish both the uncertainty and the thrill of exploring the unknown.

The question that I should have stopped to ask myself at some point during my semester in St. Petersburg was: Why do I want to get a PhD in math? If I could give myself one piece of advice regarding the grad school application process, it would be to consider that question carefully – not least because it would have made sitting down to write my statement of purpose a smoother process.

So, particularly if you’re currently an undergraduate, I suggest that you take out a sheet of paper and write down all the reasons why you want to go to grad school, from the obvious (“I want to pursue a career in academia”) to the personal (“Ever since I took that trip to NASA when I was ten, I haven’t been able to imagine doing anything else”). Be as specific as possible. When you’re done, do some research (including chatting with your college professors) to make sure that your motivations match up with the reality of going to grad school. This exercise will ensure that you know you’re going to grad school for the right reasons and will also set the tone for your statement of purpose and the remainder of your application.

Once you’ve explored your motivations for applying to grad school, begin gathering your application materials – starting now. One downside of studying abroad during my senior year was that I didn’t have time to take the GRE subject test, which significantly limited my options for where I could apply. I’m happy with where I ended up, but my experience underscores the point that it’s important to plan as far ahead as possible.

Though individual program requirements vary, most math graduate programs require the following: the GRE (and often, a GRE subject test), three recommendation letters, undergraduate transcripts, a CV/resume, and a statement of purpose. Scheduling the GRE and requesting recommendation letters are two simple but time-critical steps that can save you a huge amount of hassle down the road. GRE spots fill up quickly, so to avoid having to take it at an inconvenient time or location, sign up as soon as possible. Similarly, professors get busy, so requesting letters well ahead of time ensures that no one is left scrambling at the last minute. Knock these items off your to-do list now, and you’ll be on your way to submitting your applications on-time, and with minimal hassle.

Next, update your CV and sketch out a timeline for preparing for the GRE. Everyone has a different approach to studying for the GRE, but what worked well for me was to spend a few days with a prep book right before the exam, memorizing the various formulae (particularly for the essay section and the math section). Any more than that would have been overkill; any less, and I would have put myself at an unnecessary disadvantage. The subject GRE is, by many accounts, harder, and will probably require more preparation.

Another important application material is, well, money. Graduate school applications can be expensive: GRE registration fees, travel to GRE centers, and application fees add up quickly. Be sure to budget for the cost of applying to grad school, and if that’s not feasible, look into resources at your institution or elsewhere that can help with these costs. Many graduate programs have application fee waivers available for eligible students.

First steps: explore your motivations for applying to grad school, begin gathering application materials, and research possible programs and fellowships.

Next, do some research to decide which programs provide the best fit with your personal and professional goals. If you’ve planned ahead then, unlike me, you won’t make your decision about where to apply based on which schools don’t require subject GRE scores. Hopefully, you’ll instead consider the focus of the program, the professors’ research interests and their similarity to your own, the culture and diversity in the department, and other factors, like location. Much of this information can be determined by looking at the programs’ websites.

Some, however, can’t. One thing that I did do right in deciding where to apply was talking to my college professors – particularly those who wrote my recommendation letters. Because they’re plugged-in to the academic network, they knew professors whose work was similar to my interests, and departments that had a particular focus or culture, information that I wouldn’t have been able to find out online. Their insider knowledge helped steer me toward a program that was a good academic fit.

The other helpful step that I took was to contact the professors I was interested in working with. I sent each of them a quick email indicating interest in their research and their graduate program, and asking if they were accepting students. If they were, I set up a time to talk with them. Much like a job interview, it gave me a chance to determine whether I would enjoy working for them, and it also allowed the professor to assess whether I would be a good fit for their group. I suspect that having direct communication with professors also gave me an edge in the application process, as I was more of a known quantity after a simple phone call.

At the same time as I was deciding which programs to apply to, I also decided that I would apply for the NSF fellowship. It seemed overwhelming to add another application (with an additional research statement, to boot) into the mix, but I’m glad I did. The benefits of having extra funding in grad school are well worth the time it takes to put together an application.

After learning about the programs and fellowships that you’re applying to ­– and maybe even making an excel spreadsheet with their deadlines and requirements – it’s time to return to your application materials. Begin by requesting transcripts and submitting GRE scores.

At this point, you’ll have a solid head start on your grad school applications, leaving you free time to enjoy the last days of summer. Check back next month for part II of this post, in which I’ll focus on crafting a statement of purpose and advocating for yourself throughout the application process.

About Susannah Shoemaker

Susannah recently earned her M.A. in applied math from Princeton University. She is interested in the mathematical foundations of structural techniques in biophysical chemistry.
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