The Grad School Process- Yiyang's Story Part II

In my last
two posts, I will discuss the actual graduate school application process. 

Recommendations:
Graduate programs will ask for three letters of recommendation. Choose people
who can comment on your research potential. This generally means that they
should have a PhD; it's hard for someone without a PhD to comment on your
research aptitude. Professors generally have the highest weight in
recommendation letters since the people making decisions will also be
professors. Olin professors who you did research with for a school year or a
summer are awesome at writing letters because you have had plenty of
opportunities to interact with them. If you did an REU, ask the professor in
charge, who will probably write it in consultation with your direct graduate
student or postdoc mentor. You can also ask your internship supervisor if you
did significant amounts of independent work. If your supervisor does not have a
PhD, consider having a co-worker with a PhD to write the letter together.

It's often difficult to have three recommenders who you did
research with. I only had two, so I asked my academic advisor for a third
letter. He also taught one class I took, taught the class I was a TA for, and
supervised my Olin Self-Study. You do a lot of independent projects at Olin, so
ask a professor from a class which has a significant project component.

Ask your recommenders early; I suggest no later than the
first week of classes in the fall of your Senior Year. An Olin professor
recommends that you ask by email; when you ask a professor in person to write
your letter, you put pressure on them to say yes. If they say they are
uncomfortable writing your letter, you should ask someone else.

 

GRE: This will hopefully be the last standardized test
you have to take in your life. The format is similar to the SAT.  The
math section tests what you learned up to Pre-calculus, so most engineering
students score very high; the verbal seems irrelevant for engineering. I spent two
hours a day for a month preparing, and I spent the majority of my time
memorizing the 500 most common words for the verbal section. I also did a lot
of practice tests; the official Powerprep tests were the best tools. Preparing
for the GRE was not fun, but it helped because I did manage to score well.

By scoring high on the verbal, I showed graduate committees
that I either intrinsically have a rich vocabulary, or that I am willing to do
unpleasant things in order to get what I want (nobody likes memorizing words or
doing practice exams). They can probably tell through my personal statement that
my vocabulary isn't that great, so my high verbal score is more likely a result
of effort. Like studying for the GRE, parts of graduate school can be unpleasant,
and a lot of people drop out. I believe that a high GRE score can show your
desire to pursue graduate school. Other people have different opinions on the
effectiveness of the GRE, but to be safe you should try to score as high as you
can. I suggest taking the exam before the fall semester of your senior year;
you can then focus on other things.

If you apply for math, physics, computer science, and some
other disciplines in the sciences, you will also have to take a GRE subject
exam. There is no subject exam for engineering.

Resume/CV: Most
applications have a place to upload a copy of your resume or CV. PGP typically advises
you to limit your resume to 1 page, but I think that applies more for
jobs than graduate school. Consider this: they are willing to read your
two-page statement of purpose and three letters of recommendation, so it
shouldn't take them much more time to read your resume. Highlight your research
experience and conference presentations/publications.

Contacting Professors Before You Apply: I have mixed feelings about
contacting professors at the target graduate schools before you apply. They
receive hundreds of emails from prospective students. My opinion is that you
should email professors if it takes them less than one minute to read your
email and respond to you, or if you have a contact. Contact professors if your
goal is to get information, not if you're just trying to get a leg-up on the
process. You might ask if they're planning to take new students for their
project. You can also ask to set up a meeting with them as a prospective student.
If you want to set up a meeting, give them the option of referring a student to
talk to you. I wrote "Can I talk to you (or one of your students) about your
research" in my emails.

This is what one Berkeley professor says about contacting
them before applying: http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/~jbokor/index_files/admissions.html.

External Fellowships:
There are a variety of fellowships you can apply for, including the NSF Graduate
Research Fellowship, the National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate
Fellowship, and the Hertz Foundation Fellowship. They have high monetary
prizes, but as an engineering student you will probably have funding from a
research assistantship anyways. Fellowships primarily give you prestige and
flexibility in choosing your research advisor and project, as you are not tied
down to the agency that funded your advisor. Your relationship with your
advisor is the most important aspect of a good graduate education; with a
fellowship, you can work for the person you get along with the best since your
advisor won't have to worry about not having money to hire you.

Even if you don't think you are qualified to receive a
fellowship, you should apply for them anyways. There are two advantages. First, you can say you
applied for fellowships on your graduate school application; this shows
initiative on your part for the admissions committee. Second, the fellowship
essays give you lots of material to start writing your statement of purpose for
graduate school. After spending over two months on the NSF, I cranked out my
first statement of purpose in a week, and nine more in the next two weeks.

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