Illustration by Angelika Manhart
Lab Confidential

How To Apply To Grad School

By Hillary Raab

Remember that stressful time in high school preparing for the SAT, writing dozens of undergraduate admissions essays, and worrying that you spelled your name incorrectly on page one of the application? If you’re applying to Ph.D. programs in the sciences, you’ll likely face many of the same stressors, except now there is no such thing as the Common App. Oh yeah, and many schools don’t require the GRE—the graduate school version of the SAT! This older cousin of the SAT wasn’t predictive of performance in graduate school, anyway. Here’s a short guide to help you feel a bit more prepared as you apply for even more schooling.

Research programs before applying– Unlike undergraduate applications, where applying to 20 or 30 schools is now the norm, I would advise only submitting to a handful of graduate programs. As you refine your scientific interests, there are likely only a limited number of graduate programs with research in that area. Be selective in the schools to which you apply.

Only apply to places you would actually go – Remember, you will have to live in this place for five or more years. Make sure it’s in a city where you would actually wantto live for that long. Graduate school is different than undergrad. Your life isn’t consumed by the vibrant college atmosphere. Most likely you can count the number of clubs you are involved with in grad school on one hand—likely even one finger. Your attitude toward extra-curricular activities won’t begin to compete with your “the more the merrier” attitude you had in undergrad. Why did I decide to join the grilling society or the frozen yogurt aficionado club as a freshman in college?

Make sure more than one faculty member shares your research interests –Have two or three potential advisors at each institution to which you apply. Believe it or not, professors come and go. This happens more than you might think (even tenured professors switch institutions), and it can happen to you. What’s more, you and your sponsor’s advising/mentoring styles might not jive. In this case, you might want to change advisors but not transfer institutions. Both of these reasons are why an “advisor back-up plan” is key.

Be prepared – You will interview with five to seven people at each institution. Let’s say, each professor has published about 40 papers. That’s about 200+ primary articles to read before each interview weekend. Better get to work! Rather than this all-in approach, I would suggest carefully reading a few articles for the primary people with whom you’re interviewing and only an abstract from a recent paper for all other interviewers. During your primary interviews, you should be ready to ask thoughtful questions and draw connections between the work you want to do and that professor’s research program. During the other interviews, you should be familiar with what they study and the jargon they may throw at you during your thirty-minute conversation.

Ask questions during interviews – Remember that the program is not only interviewing you; you are interviewing the program. Ask as many questions as possible. Ask the same ones but to different people. See if you get similar responses. Don’t base your opinion of the institution on one disgruntled student, or even worse, on a student who is overzealous about an institution where everyone else is unhappy.

Be gracious– Be sure to send “thank you” emails to everyone. To your interviewers, of course, but also to the administrators organizing the weekend, your graduate student host, and any students with whom you had a particularly long or meaningful conversation. Basically anyone and everyone you interacted with… even the person who held the elevator door for you. You never know who might be on the admissions committee.

And finally, take advantage of the free food and drinks you are offered during interviews! As you probably know, grad student salaries aren’t so large.


Hillary Raab is a neuroscience graduate student at NYU studying how motivation affects learning in children, adolescents, and adults. Outside of the lab, she enjoys rock climbing and spreading her enthusiasm for brains through science outreach.