Tips for Application to and Success in Graduate School

What is Graduate School and What Can I Expect?


Accepted!—Preparing a Successful Graduate School Admissions Package

  • Predicting Admission to the Ivory Towers: Grades, Scores, and Other Flowers: Overview of the Admissions Process
    Aaron Bowman, Vanderbilt University | Slides
  • Selecting the Best Degree Program for You and Crafting an Impactful Research Statement
    Dana Dolinoy, University of Michigan | Slides
  • Personal Statements: Where to Start and What to Include
    Lauren Aleksunes, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey | Slides

Accepted! Tips on How to Get Into a Top Graduate Program | Slides

  • Rebecca Fry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, provided an overview of the graduate admissions process, perspectives on how admissions committees review applications, invite applicants for interviews, and make decisions on admissions offers.
  • Dana Dolinoy, University of Michigan School of Public Health, discussed how students might select the best degree program for them and how to craft an impactful research statement.
  • Pamela Lein, University of California, Davis, reviewed how to write a meaningful personal statement to help an application stand out.

Application Timeline and Preparation

Questions to Consider when Evaluating a Graduate Program

  • What is the reputation of the school?
  • Is the degree accredited?
  • How long does it take to complete the degree?
  • How many students graduate and receive a degree?
  • What types of scores are received on licensing/certification exams?
  • How many students get a job in their field after they graduate?
  • Has the school had any lawsuits or mishaps?
  • What are the rules and regulations of the school, the program, and the faculty?
  • What type of teaching style is implemented?
  • Are the classes interesting and at a graduate level?
  • How often are the courses in the catalog offered?
  • Are the students excited and engaged in classes?
  • What is the reputation of the faculty members? Are they well known in their field?
  • What are the research interests of professors? Is there a professor that has the same interests as you?
  • Are the professors that you wanted to work with available to advise? (You should have more than one professor that you are interested in having as an advisor in case one is not available.)
  • Can you see yourself working with this professor?
  • Does the professor have any research grants or awards?
  • How accessible are faculty members?
  • Is the program designed to help me fulfill my academic and career goals?
  • Does the program relate to my research interests?
  • What is the curriculum of the program? What are the degree requirements?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the program?
  • Can I work with professors on my own independent projects?
  • Does the program recruit and embrace diversity (gender, race/ethnicity, age, etc.)?
  • What types of experiences have current students encountered?
  • Is the institution located in a geographic area and setting where you will prosper?

Application Preparation Timeline

Junior Year

  • Identify programs of interest: review websites, graduate school directories, seek advice from mentors. Find schools that fit your needs and seem to be a good fit.
  • Review the information provided by the programs you have identified; send specific questions to program contacts.
  • Meet with your mentors and discuss your plans.
  • Verify in advance the prerequisites and admissions requirements for the programs you have chosen.
  • Prepare and take the required exams well in advance.

These tests require ample study/preparation.

  • Volunteer for undergraduate research.
  • Visit laboratories on campus.
  • Talk to graduate students about what it is like to do research, be a graduate student, etc.
  • Carry out an undergraduate research project in a lab on campus for credit.
  • If eligible, consider what your university offers for an undergraduate honor research thesis.
  • Consider summer intern programs for undergraduates through various scientific societies or institutions (SOT, ASPET, university-based, federal, industrial).

Senior Year


  • Take the necessary standardized tests.
  • Continue to review graduate program information.


  • Research sources of graduate student financial support.
  • Carefully examine each graduate program application.
  • Write a draft of your statement of purpose and other required essays.
  • Ask a faculty member or the career/grad admissions counselor at your school to read your essays and provide feedback.
  • Ask faculty for letters of recommendation.


  • Arrange for your official transcript to be sent to each program to which you are applying. Request that the registrar hold your transcript until the fall semester grades are in.
  • Finalize your essays and statement of purpose.
  • Apply for fellowships and other sources of financial aid, as applicable.
  • Check and record the due date for each application.


  • Complete the application forms for each program in advance of the deadline.
  • Save a version for your records, with date and evidence of submission.


  • Start planning for the admissions interviews. What questions will you ask? Prepare answers to common questions.
  • Fill out the Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application and any other financial aid forms.


  • Visit schools to which you’ve been accepted.
  • Discuss acceptances and rejections with a faculty member or the career/graduate admissions counselor at your school.
  • Notify the program of your acceptance.
  • Notify programs that you’re declining.

Preparing for a Graduate Admission Interview

Interview questions may range from broad and overarching to very specific questions about your skills and experience, not only relative to your schooling and research, but also your commitment, working style, decision-making, and interpersonal skills. Develop and rehearse answers to questions that might be posed (examples below).

During the Interview

  • Be prepared to ask questions (examples below).
  • Be alert for opportunities to provide perspective for any weaknesses in your application and how you plan to enhance skills.
  • Do not exaggerate or falsify answers.
  • Be professional. Do not make excuses or make negative comments about a previous employer or professor.
  • Do not monopolize the conversation.
  • Listen, as you are also evaluating the interviewers and the institution to determine if it is a good fit for you.

Questions That Might Be Asked

  • Describe your successes.
  • What challenges have you faced and how have you addressed them?
  • What are your most significant research accomplishments?
  • Tell me about your experience in the laboratory. What questions were you trying to answer? Would you use this same approach again? Would you work on this project again?
  • Why do you want to come to this institution?
  • Where do you see yourself in the next 5–10 years?
  • Describe a time when you were in charge of a project.
  • What motivates you?
  • What is your approach when you encounter problems?
  • Do you learn better from books or hands-on experience?
  • Tell me about a situation in which your work was criticized. How did you handle it?
  • How you feel about describing your work and accomplishments in front of a group?
  • If you do not understand something how persistent are you in asking for help?

Questions You Might Ask

  • What are the strengths of this program?
  • Are there teaching opportunities?
  • Do students publish their work?
  • Where are the former students now?
  • What types of financial support are available?
  • What types of experience and test scores are important to the department?
  • Which research questions are you investigating and what methods do you use?
  • Are students accepted to a specific lab or are there rotations to determine who will be the research mentor?