Conquering the grad school application process

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Kassi Stein is a senior chemical engineering student hoping to get a PhD. She is interested in bioengineering research and is actively working to connect students across the college of engineering with research opportunities. You can usually find her at the lab bench or in the Capstone computer lab.

Applying to grad school is really daunting. REALLY daunting. Undergrad applications were bad enough, and now I have to go through it all over again? Great. But as I’ve been chugging along, I’ve found that the process really isn’t so terrifying as long as you have a plan of attack. Here are some ideas for how to conquer your application process.

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Research programs ahead of time: You know what’s stressful? Doing things at the last second. You know what’s not stressful? Leisurely browsing websites. Most schools have a pretty extensive admissions site, so go through it. If, like me, you will be pursuing a research-based degree, look at what research is actually happening at that school. It could be the absolute best program in the world, but if they don’t do anything that interests you then you probably won’t be happy there. For example, some of the top ten chemical engineering programs have relatively little research happening in biotech areas, so I won’t be applying there because biotech is the field I want to be in. Good advice I’ve gotten is that you should look for at least three professors you could see yourself working for at any schools you’re considering. If you haven’t the slightest clue where you want to go, some useful places to start might be your professors or colleagues on co-op. You could also think about what part of the country/world you want to be in and see if there are any schools there that offer what you want to study.

Know what materials you need to submit: Every program is different and may require you to submit different documents. Find out if you’ll need to send a hard copy of your transcript so you can get that sent out ASAP. Make a list of what you will need to write, including personal statements, research proposals, resumes (though everyone at NU should already have a nice one of those!), etc. Some of the schools I’m applying to require essays in addition to a personal statement, like an essay on diversity, while others require a statement of intent that is different than the personal statement. Make sure official standardized test score reports (e.g. GRE) get sent if they are required. You don’t want to miss any component or all your hard work will be for nothing!

Start brainstorming: If you’re used to writing lots of essays, something like a personal statement might come easily to you. If you’re anything like me, you feel a lot happier with numbers than with words, especially if those words have to describe your life. Either way, a brainstorm is a good way to generate big ideas that can be the focus of any written work you need to submit. I started by writing down the things that are most important to me in life, what I want to do in grad school, and what I want to do when I graduate to get myself started. Just the act of getting ideas down on paper starts the flow of the writing process, and before you know it you’ll have a draft. If you’re really stuck for ideas, have a conversation with someone who knows you well. Case in point, my best friend was able to point out all the things I’ve done that might make good fodder for a personal statement while I was sitting there panicking about what to write about.

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Get feedback: Have someone else proofread. Get someone else’s opinion. Things that make perfect sense in your head can be complete nonsense to another person, something you won’t catch if you’re the only one reading your work. For example, I can never tell if I’m being too technical, so I have asked non-engineers to read through my work and tell me if they understand it. Also, it’s a rare thing to write a perfect first draft, so other people’s feedback will hopefully help you revise. I’ve revised my personal statement at least ten times at this point, including a total rewrite.

Don’t give up: Feeling stuck on a certain component of the application? Go away and come back later. Clear your mind and refocus. It’s much more productive to come back with a clear head and get to work than to bang your head against the keyboard for hours.

So there it is. Hopefully something here will help you along the way. Remember that this should be about taking your life in a direction that interests and excites you, so keep your chin up and stay positive! Best of luck!

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