What am I looking for in an undergrad applicant for grad school?

Oct 25 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

As part of my duties in my department I have undergraduate advisees. Lots of them. Around this time of year many of the senior students are completing their graduation audits and have to meet with me. A popular topic during these meetings is "How do I get into grad school".

Now if you are just asking that question at this point in your academic career and you want to apply for grad school right after your undergrad, there is not a whole lot you can do that is going to make you stick out as an applicant that isn't already in the books. That is not to say you can't get into grad school if you decide late in the game, rather that you won't have much time to enhance your CV.

So what do grad advisors look for in the applications they receive? That depends on the type of school that you are applying to and whether or not they have a rotation program, etc. If you are applying to a program, then your stats (GPA, GRE) are going to be the main determination of whether or not you get in. My experience, however, mostly lays with the lab recruiting model, where PIs make the admission recommendations based on the individuals they would like to join their lab. In this case, PIs are evaluating the pool of candidates with the specific intention of accepting someone into their lab. Both the rotation and direct systems have pluses and minuses which are not the point here.

As someone who directly recruits, I am probably looking for slightly different things from someone directly out of undergrad. I want to know what they did that got them interested in research.

Unless a candidate's GRE scores are notably bad, I pretty much disregard them. GPA is also fairly useless, as a lower GPA in important classes can be masked by A's by a minor in Underwater Basket Weaving. I look at the transcript and check how a student did in courses related to what they need to know for the work we do. But all of that is pretty basic.

More importantly, in an ideal world I am looking for evidence that a candidate has gotten involved in actual science. Sometimes this is as simple as seeing research credits on a transcript, but even this can be deceiving because "research" in some labs is equivalent to washing dishes. Also, a lot of students don't take research for credit, getting paid or exploited simply experience, instead. Even a semester at a field station where science is taken outside of the classroom can be some indication that an applicant has gotten their hands dirty, so to speak.

So the reference letters, to me, are extremely critical when I am evaluating an applicant. I want to know whether a student has been involved in a lab and whether they showed any aptitude for the work. There are plenty of students who are great in the classroom but just can't cut it in a lab environment. They might be great for some branches of scientific research, just not the one I live on. I want to know what the referees think of the student's potential in the lab based on their past observations. A reference from a classroom prof caries much less weight for me than someone who has seen the student work and interact in a research environment.

Once I have screened the applicant pool for students that have gotten involved in research, have demonstrated an aptitude for it and have the academic background they need to succeed in my lab, those go on the top of the pile and I work back from there until I get a group I am comfortable interviewing. I often end up interviewing candidates who don't have research experience, so it is not as though it is an inflexible selection criterion.

One of my biggest fears in bringing in an individual that will upset the fairly happy lab culture, so interviews are another critical step for me. I have seen a lab group really torn apart by a single individual, and my main focus of an interview is to do everything I can to ensure an applicant would add to, or at least not be a negative influence on, my group.

By the time everything is taken into consideration it is generally pretty easy to narrow things down to the people who I want to focus my recruiting effort on, and so far this "system", for lack of a better term, has worked out well.

Oh, and DO NOT start your personal statement with a tale of your childhood. I'm not kidding. Don't.

13 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    "Oh, and DO NOT start your personal statement with a tale of your childhood. "

    WORD, brother Prof-like. Word.

  • biochembelle says:

    Oh, and DO NOT start your personal statement with a tale of your childhood. I'm not kidding. Don't.

    You might also add, "Don't write a novella - profs don't care that much." No kidding - I saw one a while back that was four pages long.

  • DoctorB says:

    Good advice! I've been thinking about this too lately because I just started advising an undergrad who is currently in her junior year in a non-scientific (but vaguely math-based) major. She's really interested in the science, very motivated, and now she says that she really wants to go to grad school. But now that I've learned more about her program, I suspect that she would have a really hard time getting in. People come into my field from other disciplines fairly often, but not without a really solid science background... so now I'm trying to figure out how to talk to my student about this. Have any of you ever had a student like this?

  • Liz says:

    What would you like to see in a personal statement?

  • odyssey says:

    Things aren't so different in programs with rotations. At ours we very, very rarely take someone who has no prior research experience. And the reference letters count for a lot.

    As far as personal statements go...

    Oh, and DO NOT start your personal statement with a tale of your childhood. I'm not kidding. Don't.

    This +1,000,000,000,000. Also, no expressions of a desire to cure cancer because your dear old great-aunt twice-removed had a mole.

  • geeka says:

    Random question: I've been asked by numerous student of whom I've supervised in a lab situation for recommendations for grad/med school. When I supervised them I was a post-doc and felt like it may have been better for them to get a letter from my boss. Thoughts?

  • BugDoc says:

    Our program never admits students without meaningful research experience as indicated by the reference letters. Washing dishes in the lab is insufficient. A stellar reference letter from a faculty mentor is essential (it's great if the postdoc's comments are included with the faculty mentor's assessment, but the letter has less weight if it does not come from the faculty mentor). I also look at the quality of the statement of research experience to see if the applicant is a decent writer and has a reasonable understanding of their project. Good example, "The goal of my project was to investigate the rate at which bunnies hop during conditions of stress. To measure stress-induced bunny-hopping, I first learned how to handle bunnies, and then developed a quantitative assay for hopping a defined distance. My work on bunny-hopping has broader implications for how mammals respond to environmental stress." Not so good example, "I worked in a lab because I LOVE science. I learned all these cool techniques like PCR, that will help me do graduate research. Research is really important for creating knowledge to help cure diseases". These are not real examples, of course, but represent the ends of the spectrum of writing that we commonly see in applications.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    "The goal of my project was to investigate the rate at which bunnies hop during conditions of stress. To measure stress-induced bunny-hopping, I first learned how to handle bunnies, and then developed a quantitative assay for hopping a defined distance. My work on bunny-hopping has broader implications for how mammals respond to environmental stress."

    Damnit, I wasn't worried about getting scooped until now.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Geeka, yes the bosses letter is better, for sure. However, if you can weigh in as a postdoc, that's not a bad thing if the student didn't really get to know the boss. At the same time, when a student that has asked me for a letter, I have asked postdocs or grad students who worked closely with that student to provide me with a summary of their interactions. I have then used this information (not in a cut and paste sense) in writing my own letter, thereby giving the student the benefits of both the insight from someone who worked with them and the relative weight of the PI letter.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Liz, your answer is here.

  • BugDoc says:

    "Damnit, I wasn't worried about getting scooped until now."

    Be very afraid...(mwahaha). Our manuscript pwning your widdle bunnyhopping project is being reviewed at GlamourMagz right now.

  • GREs. GREs. GREs. And the verbal is a much better predictor than the quantitative. I'll take any 800 verbal applicant in my lab any day, regardless of lab experience, personal statement of love of science, or whatever.

  • azileretsis says:

    Love the bunny hop.

    I have met people with perfect GRE scores that I wouldn't near my lab since they lack the social skills to function at all in the lab.

    I would like to make the case for a student like me whose professor took a chance on a CV that included a considerable amount of time outside of Biology. I agree that one way to measure inner motivation in a student is to assess their past experience.

    I once heard a grad student share that their adviser allowed them to pick new students based on how well they got along in the group. I don't know if it is the best means to keep diversity in the lab.

Leave a Reply