The Graduate School Application Process for Science/Math
(for NASA- PAIR students planning on entering fall 2003)
Choosing to attend graduate school in the sciences
means you must be willing to put in a lot of effort and time during the application
process. A biology professor once told me that it is like taking a
three-unit class for no credit. You must plan ahead, be able to make
deadlines, deal with stressful situations, and be your own personal
cheerleader. I've outlined a timetable and included the steps you
should take during the application process. Of course, you know yourself
the best, and should feel free to disregard or modify the schedule as you
see fit. I'm also including some of my own experiences to serve as
Timetable for Admissions
- Start looking for grad schools: First,
figure out what you think you might like to study in grad school: nuclear
physics, statistical mathematics, molecular biology, etc. Then
start investigating to find good programs in these areas. Start
with people in the field. Talk to your professors, ask them what
schools have a good reputation for training students in these areas.
Find out who are the "experts" in the field and where they teach and/or
went to grad school. If you've presented/been to a conference before,
think of who you've talked to or lectures that interested you, and find
out which institutions they were affiliated with. For example, I
talked to a lot of people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory about where
I should go since I was interested in planetary science. A lot of
them said the typical schools I'd heard of (Arizona, Brown, MIT, etc),
but they also let me know about some schools I hadn't considered.
One person keyed me on to the fact that the University of Colorado was starting
up a program, and was looking for some good students.
- Start an Excel spreadsheet: For those of you who have
used Excel before, a database can be really helpful in the application process.
At this point, just list the schools that you are considering on the
- Email potential advisors: Once you've found out where
the good programs are, get online and look at their departments' web
sites. Take note of faculty with whom you think you might be able to
work. If possible, try and read a recent article they've written.
Then, email them. I know this sounds intimidating, but faculty
who know of you before they get your application will be more supportive
of you during the selection process. In your email, you want to include
a brief biography about yourself, including research experience and your
future research interests. Mention that you are interested in their
research project(s), and how you feel you could contribute to this
work (if you've read an article they've written, mention this as well, highlighting
research problems in the article that were intriguing to you). Ask
if they would be interested in acquiring another graduate student for their
research group. Hopefully, they will respond in a timely manner, letting
you know whether or not they are interested in advising another grad student
in the fall and/or whether that grad student might be you. I
emailed about fifteen people that I thought might be good potential advisors
and about 75% emailed me back. Keep track of whom you contact and who
has responded on your Excel spreadsheet.
- Visit schools: If you can afford to visit grad schools
over the summer, do so. This will be really helpful in determining
whether or not you really want to apply there. Contact the department
secretary or graduate school committee chairperson to see if they can arrange
a tour for you. Over the summer, I visited Arizona State and the University
of Arizona. At Arizona State, I met with one of the people with whom
I'd been emailing, and decided that he wasn't really what I was looking for
in an advisor, and met another person whom I thought might be. Again,
update your spreadsheet to reflect which schools you've visited and which
faculty members you met with. Also, while on your visit, keep a journal
of what you did and your impressions.
- Narrow down the list: You should
now have a pretty good idea where you would like to go. Narrow
down your list to about 6 institutions (remember, each application fee
is going to be between $35-$60, so choose carefully), with two schools
being schools that you feel would be difficult to get into (i.e. Caltech,
Harvard, MIT), two schools where you have about a 50/50 chance of getting
into, and two schools where you feel you would be very competitive in
their application process. Make sure, however, that you would be
content to attend any of these schools. Don't apply to an ivy league
just because it's well-known and don't apply to any institution just because
you are almost certain of being accepted. You should have a genuine
interest in their program and their research. If you don't, it will
show on your application and when you meet with faculty. Again, remember
you will be investing not only money (>$35), but time, as well.
And not just your time, but also those teachers whom you ask for recommendations.
So be prudent about this step.
- Ask for application materials, if you have not done so already
: Don't wait until the last minute to get these. Departmental
offices get backed up processing requests for applications starting around
October, and you want to get a jump start on the application.
- Look into national fellowships.
There are three that I applied for: the
National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship for graduating
seniors/1st-year graduate students (sometimes 2nd-year graduate students)
majoring in all sciences, math, computer science, engineering, psychology,
and history/politics of science; the National
Physical Science Consortium Fellowship for graduating seniors/1st year
graduate students/graduating master's students pursuing a doctorate in
astronomy, chemistry, computer science, geology, materials science, mathematical
sciences, physics, and engineering (chemical, computer, electrical, environmental,
and mechanical); the
Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship for Minorities for minority
graduating seniors pursuing a graduate degree in any field (except biological
fields, there is a separate fellowship for those areas). Also of note
is the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering
- Register for the Graduate Record Examination
(GRE): Don't wait until September to register, like me. You
want to take this test by the last week in October. That way, you
will have the scores by the time you need to submit your applications for
graduate school and national fellowships.
If you wait until September/October to register, you'll end up taking the
test the week before Christmas like I did or in a far away location.
There are two types of GRE tests: the General GRE and the Subject GRE.
The General GRE is required by almost all schools. The Subject GRE
may or may not be required, depending on the program. Check the application
packet or call the department to find out if it is. In most cases,
it is recommended. Here is where I'm going to give you some advice,
which you should feel free to ignore. Take the practice test (these
are available in pdf format free for download on the
GRE site) in whichever subject is relevant to your field (the tests
are in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Computer Science, Mathematics, Psychology,
English, and Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology). If you do
well on the practice test, register for it. If you do really crummy
and the test is only recommended, skip it. It will drag the rest
of your application down. If you need the test for only one or two
programs, take it and send those institutions your scores.
- Start working on your applications: First make sure you know
when the deadlines are for applications. For fellowships, most
are in November. For graduate school, some are as early as October,
though most are due by January 15th. Enter these dates in your Excel
spreadsheet. Also enter the application requirements: how many letters
of recommendation are required, which GRE tests ar required and/or recommended,
whether you need to fill out a separate application for financial aid,
how many transcripts are needed, what GPA is required, what the application
fee is, and any additional materials that they request (i.e. resume, departmental
survey, etc.). Also, take note of where things need to be sent.
You may need to send transcripts to both the graduate college and to the
department. Second, start working on your personal statement, also
called proposed plan of study. In this you should address why you
want to attend graduate school, your preparation for graduate study, and
the research problem or field which interests you. If you have been
communicating with faculty at the school (which you should have been),
reference their research as something which you would want to participate
in. Their are many books available to help you in developing your
statement. Also, utilize faculty as a sounding board for your statement.
After all, many of them have served in graduate committees themselves and
know what graduate committees like to see in a statement. Finally,
you should start to consider which faculty members might be good letter
- Study for the GRE: There are many ways to do this.
First, at the time of your online registration, you can download a
practice test. Also, the GRE will be sending you a free CD called PowerPrep,
which is software that simulates the actual computerized General GRE (I have
given Carol two copies of the CD for you to use if you wish). You should
definitely take at least one of the two full-length sample tests before the
actual test, in order to familiarize yourself with the testing environment
and process. Second, there is a free test-preparation website called
Number2.com which is a really great
aid in preparing for the test. It has practice problems and you can
chart your progress and it will focus on areas where you need help.
Third, you can take a course. These are very helpful, but also very
expensive ($300-$1000). Fourth, you can buy one of several books to
help you study. I bought four (I have given them to Carol for you to
use if you'd like), and I think that the best one for overall preparation
is GRE for Dummies. I know you're no dummy, but it's still a
nice introduction. For preparing for the quantitative section, try
the book by Kaplan, which focuses solely on this portion of the test.
It's important to note here that the two critical portions to focus on in
the General test are the Quantiitative, which measures mathematical ability,
and Analytical, which tests your ability to deteremine relationships and
extract information from texts. I've also given Carol a copy of
GRE: Practicing to take the Physics Test (which is just 3 practice tests
- one of which I've scribbled all over), for those studying for the Physics
- Ask faculty members for letters of recommendation. Typically,
applications require between 3-4 letters of recommendation. This means
that you will need to get 18-24 letters for grad school applications, not
to mention whatever else you need for fellowship applications. Don't
be afraid to ask faculty members for multiple letters, especially since you're
following this timetable and asking early. They will need some additional
information, however. First, get all the recommendation forms together.
On each one, make sure you've filled in the necessary information (your name,
SSN, waiver of rights, etc.). Next, put a post-it note on each application,
listing the due date. Third, give the faculty member copies of the
following: your personal statement for each of the schools listed, your transcript
(you can print an unofficial one off of my.csun.edu
), a resume if you have one, any articles/abstracts you've authored/presented,
a list of relevant activities/affiliations (if not listed on your resume),
and any other information you feel may be necessary. Fourth, take all
these things to the faculty member. Ask to see if they need you to
provide stamped envelopes (some schools provide envelopes in which they require
the recommendation to be sent, if so, give them to the recommender).
Be sure to thank the recommender. Also, make sure you keep track of
who is doing recommendations on your Excel spreadsheet.
- Finish up your applications. You should have finished your
personal statements by now. Fill in the applications (many applications
are now available online) and double check for accuracy. You should
hold on to them if you are still waiting for information (i.e GRE scores
or fall semester grades, if required), but enter these as complete into
your Excel spreadsheet, and make a note that you are waiting for this info.
- Take your GRE(s). Get a good night's sleep (which you ideally
have been doing the entire week - cramming does not help)! Show up
at least a half an hour before your test time. Have the names of your
six schools where you want the scores sent. Bring number 2 pencils
for scratch work. Have a positive attitude. Good luck!
- Submit your applications to grad schools. Go through the
Excel spreadsheet to make sure you've completed the application. You
should receive your General GRE scores as soon as the test is over, so
that you can include this information on your application. Make sure
that if you are sending mail to anyone, you get delivery confirmation (available
at the Post Office). Don't mail Priority Mail, there is no gaurantee
of delivery and your contents are not insured. Either go for the
Express Mail or just send it regular w/delivery confirmation. To
send transcripts, you must go to Admissions and Records (in the lobby of
the Student Services Building) and request that they be sent to a location.
Alternatively, you can ask for the official copies yourself and mail them
with the rest of your application materials. Make copies of everything
November 2002 (Deadlines for most fellowships occur in this month)
- Check that your application has been received and that nothing is missing.
Use delivery confirmation to make sure your application got there.
If the department notifies you that something is missing, mail them a copy
(which you should have) and fax another copy so they have it ASAP.
If you still have not submitted your applications, do so this month!
- Send a reminder to recommenders. Email the faculty members who
have agreed to write a letter of recommendation for you that you have completed
and submitted your application, and remind them to send in their recommendations
in advance of the deadlines (which you should mention again for their benefit)
so that if it is not received they will have time to submit another copy.
Thank them again.
- Study for finals. Don't let your grades slip up, as grad
schools might ask to see fall semester grades before making an admissions
- Enjoy winter break. Relax, most of the hard part is over,
since you've done everything early on! Have fun watching other people
who are applying to grad school.
January 2003 (deadline for most grad programs - 1/15)
- Submit fall transcripts if required. Some departments
ask to see fall semester grades, in which case you should mail them an official
copy of your transcript which includes this and fax them an unofficial one,
- Call your faculty recommenders to be certain that they have
sent out your letters.
- Last chance to submit any application materials.
Keep your eye on the mailbox. Most departments
will notify you in this month if you are a definite yes or no. If they
are trying to find funding for you, or if they aren't certain about admitting
you, decisions may not come until March.
- Receive rejection/acceptance letters. Most acceptance letters
will ask you to notify them by April 15th of your decision to attend/not
attend. Some may ask you to visit (most likely they will pay for this
visit - but call/email them and verify this). If they ask you to visit,
please see this page on how to
prepare for the visit and what to do while there.
- Begin to make decision. Factors to consider are (in no particular
order, you must weigh them yourself): 1) Financial aid - what are they
offering you (if anything) and will this enable you to fully pursue your
studies without supplementary income (i.e. extra job, students loans, etc)?
Most departments offer three types of aid: Fellowships (which are like scholarships
and have no requirements as far as teaching or research, though may have
GPA requirements), Teaching Assistantships (which require you to teach between
1-3 classes a semester, generally freshmen/sophomore level courses or labs),
and Research Asisstantships (which require you to participate in a research
project directed by a faculty member in the department). 2) Your interests
- is this school doing the type of research which interests you? 3)
Faculty advisor - is there someone with whom you have connected/met that
you feel would be a good/appropriate advisor. 4) Alumni - where have
people who have graduated from this department gone to? Have they gone
on to PhD programs (if so, where?)/ do they land the type of job you are
- Finalize your decision. Deadline for this is April 15th.
Inform all grad schools in writing of your decision and thank them for
their interest in you. In addition to a written response, call the
grad school which you have decided to attend and let them know personally
that you are accepting their offer of admission.
- Inform your recommenders of your decision. Inform all your
recommenders of where you have decided to go to grad school and thank them
for their support. Let them know what their efforts have meant to you.
Congratulations! You've made it!
This document was written by Arwen Vidal, for the CSUN NASA-PAIR program.
Last Updated: 04/19/2002