Graduate School Application Survivor’s Guide

“Do I really have to graduate or can I just stay here for the rest of my life?”

While many of us have probably thought along the same lines as Asher Roth in “I Love College,” we all know that eventually it will be time to receive the most expensive piece of paper you will ever own (a.k.a. a diploma) and move on to bigger things.

For seniors, it is that time of year were we need to decide whether we want to enter the workforce or apply for graduate programs. If you think maybe one day you might possibly get your masters degree, I have some advice for you which I have gleaned from university faculty, internship career panels and friends who are always one step ahead of me (you guys know who you are).

Graduate School

Many people tell me, “I’m not sure what I want to do so I’m going to take some time off before I go back for my masters.” While this statement is logical, it may also be an indicator that you should spend more time thinking about your interests because regardless of whether you go straight to a job or to graduate school, you need to know what your interested in. Realize that graduate school for many research fields like environmental science can be FUNDED which means you can be a research assistant or teaching assistant receiving a stipend (aka paycheck) while having your tuition and expenses paid for.

Think back on all your 120+ hours of college credit, which classes were the most interesting? What subjects really clicked?

For me it was fertilizer runoff and hypoxic zones; I was pretty sure I could give the lecture any time it came up in class after writing about it for every research paper I’d ever been assigned.

Once you have some ideas on what may enjoy doing for the next two years (or if you are one of those people who has always known what they wanted to do), it is time to start looking for graduate advisors. Your graduate advisor is, to use the words of one of my professors, “Your parent, your friend and your boss” while in graduate school. They will fund you, help you with every step of your project, and make sure your alive and doing (relatively) well.

If I can say one things about all graduate school plans it would be START EARLY!! Start researching which professors at schools you would like to attend are doing the research you might enjoy participating in. Do this by going to a university’s graduate homepage then finding your discipline (like environmental science) and scrolling through the list of faculty. Read their current research topics usually listed under their name and then visit their webpage. Read some current publications, make sure they are in fact a professor and not a professor emeritus that means they are retired and cannot be your advisor.

Now it is time to compose your first email.

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Your potential advisors receive hundreds of emails from undergrads hoping to get into their university every year. One of my potential advisors says she on average receives 10 emails from prospective students a week. I say this so you understand why you must start emailing early, the sooner you begin communication, the more time you have to turn your awkward emails into a meaningful working relationship. EMAIL IN THE SUMMER BEFORE SENIOR YEAR!! This is when professors have the most time to consider each hopeful candidate. Compose your Email CAREFULLY double check spelling of their name. Sometimes, a professor might not know their funding situation fully so far in advance, but this give you time to apply for scholorships usually with the professor’s assistance: Many issues can be resolved if you only start early enough. The email should convey that you looked at their website and are knowledgable about the topic of research. Here is a general example of one of mine, 
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Also mentioning specific papers and what you like about their research can add to your likelihood of receiving a reply. Don’t get discouraged from one person who does not respond; professors have busy times when things slip through the cracks like the rest of us. Make sure to be professional, ask your favorite professors about who they know in the field (which is most likely everyone). Which leads me to my last point…

Letters of Recommendation, Personal Statements and Beyond

Start talking to your professors now, like, right now.

I cannot say how many good things in my college career have come from getting to know my professors. Lab jobs, TA experience, you name it, all starting from raising your hand enough in class that the teacher knows you attend. If you decide to ask a professor for advice on researchers in your field, you will then be able to start your emails with “Dr. blankblank recommended I look into your lab because he/she though our research interests were similar.” This makes potential advisors stop, read and often respond to your email. Not only that but then you can begin to get to know said professor and ask him or her for a letter of recommendation later in the year.

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Some closing words of advice -> for programs that require the GRE (graduate records exam) which most of them do, take it in the summer before senior year! You do not want to have to try to study during midterms and time slots at testing centers fill up fast (like are currently booked till January here in Champaign and it is October). Also be sure to study, buy prep materials like Kaplan GRE Prep, make Quizlet flashcards for vocal and equations.

I do not recommend you start your personal statement with “When I was a little girl, I loved catching fish in the lake. Now, I want to be a marine biologist…” It is tempting because it is true for many of us that we loved our field from the beginning, but it is a really common start to your paper.


-Sabrina Kelch (Vice President Illini Soil Judgers)


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