Graduate Student Representative

What you might not know about applying to PhD programs

Advice for students looking to apply for PhDs.

By Erin Alderson

There are many websites that offer solid advice on applying to PhD programs, but they can't cover everything. There will always be something that you did not consider, missed and have to rush to finish before the application deadline. You cannot avoid application stress by being proactive, but it helps. Here are a few tips:

  • Do your homework. Read the program website, as well as the program handbook. Some schools have multiple programs and different requirements for essentially the same degree. Make sure you are aware of the differences, so you apply to the one that is the best fit for your qualifications. Make sure to contact the graduate coordinator early, because they can offer a lot of assistance and information about the program, but they will be busiest right before the application deadline. Additionally, avoid asking questions that are already answered on the website, and be succinct and organized in the questions that you do ask.
  • Applications usually open Sept. 1, and you should fill in as much information as you can in September, because sometimes there are layers that are not apparent until you have partially completed the application. Discovering that you need to write more essays when you are already close to the deadline means they will be rushed and not well thought-out. Give yourself the time to carefully read application instructions to avoid making mistakes on your application and ensure that the information you provided is correct.
  • Writing about yourself is difficult, especially if you have not done it before. You want to make yourself look good, do not want to come across as conceited and will initially include extraneous details that should be re-moved during revision. Even writing a general statement that can be modified to fit the application requirements will probably take longer than you think. Optimally, you should have three statements ready and reviewed by your mentor before starting applications. This should include a statement of intent, a statement of personal history and a combined statement of intent and personal history, which can be revised to fit the prompts for each application. Do not ignore the prompts or the character count if they have one, because part of the application process is how well you follow instructions.
  • Be prepared to be patient. There will be long periods of time when you will probably not hear anything. It is okay to verify receipt of documents if you have not already received confirmation, but otherwise wait for them to contact you. Some schools invite quickly to interviews while others take more time, but most recruitment weekends occur between January and March. It depends on the school, but most offers will be received within two weeks of the recruitment weekend. However, you may also receive one after April 15, which is usually the deadline for acceptance of initial offers.
  • Transcripts are easily forgotten, and the rush fees can be pretty outrageous. Unless a school specifically requests electronic copies, order physical copies early and have them sent to your residence. That way they can be mailed together if you have multiple schools, and there will only be one tracking number to check for each school. It is also a good idea to have a set of transcripts for personal use, both for filling out application information or for scanning if the application requests uploading of unofficial transcripts.
  • Letters of recommendation are important and should be from tenured professors with recent publications. Give careful consideration to your choices and be prepared to ask early if they are willing and able to write you a strong letter. Your best choices are usually the busiest people, and you do not want them to feel rushed while writing your letter. Be prepared to provide them with a copy of your CV, personal statements and a list of schools with any information necessary for them to submit the recommendation at least a month or more before the deadline. Not only is this respectful, but they are sometimes asked to fill out additional documents or may be directly interviewed regarding your qualifications. Remember that they are doing you a huge favor by writing you a letter, and do what you can to make it an easy process.
  • Check the website before contacting potential mentors. Some schools encourage contact, but some do not. For initial contact, keep it short, provide basic information about yourself and ask if they hope to take students next fall. Do not rely on faculty webpages for research information because they are often outdated, and their current research may have shifted focus. Instead, look up recent publications and ask about their research plans, because someone who was previously a wonderful research match for you may not fit anymore. If possible, arrange to meet them at conference or visit their lab so you both have a chance to meet each other in person. You are planning on entering a working relationship with your mentor, which will last for years, so finding one that is a good personality fit is important.