Applying to graduate school can be quite a stressful time—you’re in the middle of some of your toughest major courses, you’re worried about which schools you will get in to, and you’re probably trying to get a lot of research done all at the same time. Don’t worry, all of us who went through the graduate school application process survived, and you will too. However, I felt that it would be great to share some advice based on my experiences in the process to help alleviate some of the stress you might be having. Disclaimer: all advice I give is based off my experiences applying to PhD programs in chemical engineering, and the expectations of graduate school committees vary from field to field, so take some of what I say with a grain of salt.
- Writing the graduate school personal statement
In all honesty, the graduate school essay is not the most critical factor in your application compared to your GPA and letters of recommendation. However, graduate school committees use it as a means to gauge your writing abilities and how well you can communicate ideas, so it is still decently important. When writing the personal statement, you should keep some important points in mind. First of all, everything you write should be clear and concise—put your main objectives up front and tell the committee exactly why you want to pursue a PhD. Do not obscure your thoughts behind fluffy syntax and fancy words (this is not an undergraduate personal statement). You can be very explicit and say something like “I plan to pursue a PhD in chemical engineering because…” Additionally, your writing should be problem focused. Instead of saying “I did research in so and so’s lab,” you should say “One of the major problems in field X is Y. My research in so and so’s lab adapts a method that combines C and D and provides a unique approach to solving Y.” Problem focused writing flows much nicer and it will readily convey the rigor and impressiveness of your work to the committee. Lastly, once your essay is written, it is vital that you get it proofread by at least two professors. Professors will be able to catch any potential red flags in your writing as well as provide you with useful suggestions.
- Preparing for/taking the GRE
At least for chemical engineering and probably a lot of STEM fields, the GRE will have little to no bearing on your application unless you do extremely poorly. For example, some schools have already begun to phase out GRE requirements. Additionally, there are some schools that still require it but then the individual departments do not even look at the scores. Nonetheless, most schools still require the GRE as of right now, so you will still have to take it. First, I suggest you take the time to look at typical GRE scores of the applicants admitted to the schools you wish to apply. This should serve as a range for the scores you should aim to get. Next, you should invest in an official GRE prep book. This will allow you get an idea for the types of questions you will expect to see on the exam as well as the exam format. If you are absolutely unable to buy a book, there are plenty of online resources you could look at. Additionally, some programs at UCSB offer GRE prep scholarships, such as the Edison-McNair GRE Scholarship. Lastly, after you study up for the exam, make sure you get plenty of rest beforehand, for your intuition will your best friend in doing well. Afterward, if you feel you didn’t do that well, you can definitely retake it, although I do not suggest retaking the exam more than 2 times as it is very expensive. For STEM majors, you should aim to get above 85thpercentile on math, a 4 or higher on writing, and your verbal score really doesn’t matter at all.
- Relax and start early
Preparing graduate school applications will take a lot more time than you think. I highly recommend you write some sort of draft for your personal statement around a month in advance. Trust me, it will save you a lot of stress later on, and it will also give you plenty of time to get it reviewed by professors. Lastly, you should take a step back and relax a bit. Think about it—you’ve come this far, and you should be excited that you are preparing for the next big steps in your career. Everything will work out the way it should, and I guarantee you will be happy wherever you go.
Dorian Bruch is a fourth-year chemical engineering major. He likes to rock climb, play games, and go try new food with friends. He works in the lab of Dr. Glenn Fredrickson on studying the nucleation of block copolymers using computational methods. He really enjoys math, theory, and learning about statistical mechanics and applying it to polymer systems.