I am off to my first graduate school visit on Thursday! Hello, University of Chicago! I've only been to Chicago once, the summer after my junior year of high school when I went to Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan and my family drove nonstop from San Diego for three days to Michigan to pick me up and go on a 12-day cross-country road trip. Good times. I'm excited to be back, although this will be in the Illinois winter rather than the summer...
So I thought I'd talk a bit about how I got to this point, specifically the graduate school application process vs. the college application process for undergrad for anyone who is remotely curious.
A lot of the outline is much the same. You have to take standardized exams for both (makes the state STAR tests or whatever is used in not-California, which we all took in elementary school, look downright easy). This is the SAT or ACT for undergrad, and the GRE general test for grad. The counterpart to SAT subject tests for undergrad are GRE subject tests. The nice thing about the GRE subjects is that most people only have to take one, in the subject that is their major--though this only applies to the sciences and liberal arts; engineering majors do not have a corresponding subject test. The general GRE is a 4-hour exam and unlike the SAT you take it on a computer and receive your raw score right afterward. This will be calibrated in a few weeks as live graders look over your essays. Subject GREs are around 3 hours long and are taken on paper. Scores for the subject GREs, which are notoriously difficult, are getting less important, so as long as you score above the 50th percentile you should be fine. That being said, I've heard through the grapevine that one of the Caltech graduate students only scored in the 30th percentile. They decided to not waste their time studying for the exam that covers all major parts of the field when everyone ends up specializing in just one subfield.
Letters of recommendation are another requirement for both grad and undergrad. In high school, you look for teachers to give recommendations on your character--colleges want to know your potential to be an active member of the community, even though you haven't done too much yet in the real world, so they like character recommendations. Graduate schools only care about you as a member of your field, so for us STEM people it's all about us as researchers. They do not care about character recs, from our English professors or chamber music coaches, as much. For most schools you submit three, although some allow up to 6.
Then there are the transcripts and supplements--and graduate schools like it if you've managed the rare feat of publishing a paper in your undergrad years (though plenty of us have not and still got into grad schools just fine). You also can include a resume.
Finally, the essays. Everyone wants a statement of purpose: why you are deciding to pursue the field you're applying in, what experiences you've had that lead you to this path and make you qualified, what you want to accomplish in graduate school. (You apply as a specific major in graduate school, to a Ph.D. or Masters program.) I've also written personal history statements, which involved expounding more on my path toward chemistry. There are also diversity statements, what you bring to the table, and this doesn't have to be purely academic. In total I've written maybe 5 truly different essays for graduate school apps, way fewer than for undergrad apps. However, they've taken a lot more out of me because there is a lot more work involved into choosing a graduate program than an undergrad program. I looked at specific labs and their papers and the type of work they did, and only applied to the few schools that matched with my niche interest. After skimming so many papers, all of them kind of blurred together.
Chemistry Ph.D. applications are due from December 1st to 15th depending on the school, though chemical engineering I hear is earlier and physics is much later. Then there's a window of waiting till early March. I think this is the most terrifying part. Luckily for me, the University of Chicago called me less than a week after I'd submitted my application and told me that I had been accepted, so the waiting wasn't as terrible as it could have been. And I'm off to visit them in a couple of days, meeting all the profs and touring the labs and talking with the current grad students about whether their professor makes them work 70 hours a week.
Apps are not more fun the second time around, but they are worth the pain for sure. I can scarce believe that I am going to begin my Ph.D. studies next year... Talk about how life speeds up after high school!
Till next time,