Sep 23, 2022

8 tips to help your graduate school application stand out to the selection committee

 Overview: I had the pleasure of hearing a talk on graduate school applications given by Dr. Julia Brumaghim, a full professor within the Clemson Department of Chemistry. She has reached the terminal rank of a faculty member (‘full’ professor) due to the large impact she has made on the international scientific community through her technical work elucidating the interactions between DNA and metallic surfaces.  In addition to developing new insights, she also has spent a large amount of time teaching and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students.  During her talk, I sketched out 8 key insights to make your graduate applications stand out to review committees and potential research advisors.

 Post Contributor(s): Drs. Marian Kennedy and Julia Brumaghim, a full professor and graduate program coordinator in the Clemson University Department of Chemistry.



Photo by Kier... in Sight on Unsplash
The application season is always an exciting time for university faculty.  We get to ‘meet’ the next generation of research scientists and engineers through their graduate school application.  In addition, we also get to find collaborators to work on research projects with us for the next 2-4+ years.  We fully expect that some of these applicants may even join us as faculty in 10 years. 


Congratulations!  By seeking out mentoring (reading about the application process for graduate school), you are becoming more competitive for acceptance.  Insight from mentors can help you learn the metarules (unwritten norms) that guide the selection process for graduate programs. 



Brumaghim Tip #1:  If you are applying to a research-based degree program (thesis-based MS or PhD), you should have some research experience. 


Prior research experience in her department has been a good predictor of graduate school success (much stronger than GRE scores).  Therefore, applicants stand out when they have previously participated in a research project.  I really liked this point.  You can highlight research that you did for academic credit, for pay (stipend, hourly, etc.) or as a volunteer.  It can take time to get through all the parts of the research process (from initiation to dissemination), so we always encourage students to start sooner than later.  However, any experience is better than none.  If you just started a position as a research assistant as your graduate school applications are being written – definitely go ahead and list it!  Just be careful to not exaggerate your contribution to the project. 


Brumaghim Tip #2:  Articulate your “why” for going to graduate school and be specific


It is vital that you know “why” you personally are applying to graduate school.  Selection committees want to see that you will be motivated to complete the process even as you face challenges or disappointments.  The process of conducting research can be difficult because we often spend time pursuing a lead that does not yield the results we were seeking.  As a graduate student, you will need to regroup and then move onward. 


Dr. Brumaghim suggested that one way to do this is to identify jobs that you would like to pursue after obtaining your advanced degree.  You can do this by scanning job boards posted by a professional society, a career center on your campus, etc. Once you find positions you are interested in, look at the position description to note the required degrees and experience.  You will want to be specific when describing your motivation in your application.  That is, go beyond “I need this degree to get the job I want.”



Brumaghim Tip #3:  Find a mentor in your field who has an advanced degree (ideally a PhD) and is engaged in research


A mentor is a trusted “guide” (Merriam-Webster).  A mentor can help guide you through the graduate school application process if you meet with this person on a regular basis, and you will gain knowledge and refine your thoughts.  It is important to select a mentor who you feel at ease with, has been through a similar program and understands your discipline today.  This person will help you refine your potential list of graduate programs with their insight, ensuring that you have at least 2-3 faculty at each one whose research you find interesting.  Since you will have been working iteratively with this person, they are also a great choice for writing a recommendation letter on your behalf. 


Brumaghim Tip #4:  Apply to departments who have expertise in your desired research area


STEM departments have different strengths and do not necessarily have faculty that work in all the respective subfields of a given discipline.  In fact, they tend to hire clusters of faculty who overlap expertise and each department is typically known for their strengths in those areas.  For example, the Clemson Department of Chemistry has strong expertise (and many faculty doing research) in areas related to materials, but has fewer faculty doing research in biological areas.  Check departmental websites, review faculty research areas, and ask your mentor if your selected graduate programs are strong in your areas of interest. 


Brumaghim Tip #5:  Understand each department’s process for reviewing applications. 


While not every graduate application goes through the exact same process, most programs have similar frameworks.  When an applicant starts an application, the application can be viewed by the coordinator(s) associated with that program. Until an application is complete, however, an official admission decision cannot be made – this includes recommendation letters, transcripts, and any required test scores, not just the completed application forms. Once all the components of an application are received, the application is released to the department, and a committee of 4-6 faculty from the department review it and decide together whether to admit the applicant.  They are typically checking to ensure that the applicant has the educational background for the department, that the applicant has demonstrated interest in the specific degree or program they are applying for, and that there is a match between the applicant’s research interests and research opportunities in that program that year.  The review committee often knows which faculty are going on sabbatical, joining the department, retiring, etc. that the applicants do not, and this might also factor into a final decision.  Dr. Brumaghim noted that her department accepts cohorts of graduate students with the expectation that they will match with a research mentor during the first semester, and many biologically oriented departments accept students that then do rotations in several faculty members’ groups before they make a decision on a group to join.  In my department, the current trend is to ensure that there is a research match for a PhD applicant prior to acceptance.  To do this, faculty are given access to the applications that have been marked for potential acceptance by the review committee.  Once a decision is made, acceptances are sent out with (or without) a funding offer from the department. 


Brumaghim Tip #6:  Get the attention of potential mentors by mentioning them and their research areas in your application.


Review committees are thrilled to see specific faculty mentors (and their research projects) mentioned by applicants in applications.  It helps them match applicants to potential mentors, especially if students mention multiple faculty in their statements.  A faculty member may not be able to take new students into their group every year for a range of reasons (too many competing commitments, lack of funding or space, sabbatical, etc.).  By identifying multiple potential faculty mentors and explaining how your interests intersect with the research several faculty are doing, you show the review committee how you will fit into their program. 


Brumaghim Tip #7:  Communicate your ability work on something over a long time.

If you have participated in an activity, cause, job, etc. for a long period, and especially if this experience demonstrates your perseverance, time management, and/or leadership skills, highlight this in your application.  Often it doesn’t matter whether the activity was STEM related or not, if you can show that you are committed to a process, can put energy into it, can get through difficulties, etc.  Demonstrating long-term commitment and dedication in your application helps a review committee gain confidence in your ability to complete a (sometimes difficult) graduate program. 


Brumaghim Tip #8:  Fill out the “Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®)”

Some graduate assistantships can only be awarded to students with financial need.   Examples of these would be fellowships awarded through the Department of Education Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) and even fellowships offered in individual departments.   


For many students, their financial status changes when they transition to graduate school.  In almost all cases, graduate students are considered independent students when completing the FAFSA form and are not required to provide parent information. 

Remember, seeking out advice to improve your chances of submitting a winning application is the first step to a successful graduate career, so good luck!