This is a email I composed for my brother and sister a couple of years ago, to give them some tips on applying to grad school. These are things I learned the hard way, and wish someone had told me when I was applying. I think they will be helpful to anyone applying to grad school. So, here goes.
Okay. Here’s the list of things you need to do to get into a good university for higher studies – a no-nonsense guide.
1. Have great undergraduate research experience. It isn’t sufficient to say that you’ve worked under so and so for six months. You have to have documented proof that you worked with them. The best case is a publication in a well reputed journal, which takes months and months of hard work in a (sometimes) seemingly hopeless project, which (sometimes) ends in a miracle.
But the normal case is just the Professor’s recommendation. And trust me, it’s hard to get a good one. A recommendation that starts with something like “In the short period of time I have known X for…”, isn’t likely to get you into a single place. To get a good recommendation, you must do consistent, good work, and do 110% of what your advisor has asked you to do. Remember, the professor has nothing, absolutely NOTHING, to gain by giving you a good recommendation. If he’s not responsive, it’s YOUR job to coax him, to goad him, and to convince him into blessing you with a good recommendation. You have to meet with him regularly. It may be months between your working under him and the time you need the recommendation. He will have tens of other students to associate with in the meantime. So, keep in touch. A good way to do this is to send him New Year Cards, Chinese New Year Cards, Christmas Cards, and everything else you can think about, without annoying him. That way, he’ll remember you when the time comes.
2. Recommendation letters: You’ll usually need three letters of recommendation. So better have at least five people ready. Don’t ask for a recommendation a day before the deadline and expect them to do it for you. You need to regularly check is ALL of them have submitted ALL the recommendations. You don’t have any leverage over them, and their lives will be affected by zero amount if you miss an application. So finish your application well before the deadline.
3. Have a great GPA: The median GPA of accepted students in any of the first tier universities is around 3.80/4.00. That’s the median, which means that half the people have a GPA better than that. A good GPA is no guarantee that it’s going to get you in. But a bad GPA is a red flag. Also, if you want to do research in a particular topic, better have A plusses in all the courses you took in that topic.
I shouldn’t be adding this, because if you don’t know this by now, well… you should know this by now. The secret to a good result is – studying. It’s not finding the subject really interesting. It’s not great teachers. It’s not a profound sense of fulfilment that one gets from being enlightened from a lecture. The lecturers are not there to teach you stuff. They are there to stand and give you slides and tutorials. It’s your job to listen and learn, because someone is paying a LOT of money so that you do just that – study. If you can repeat a subject for a better grade, repeat it. And no matter which university you are in, solving past exam papers always helps. Looking at them at the beginning of the term will at least tell you if the questions have any relation with whatever your lecturer teaches in class.
The same goes for good research. When Edison put in a piece of human hair between two electrodes to see if it glows, and when it filled his room with the horrid stench of burnt hair, do you think he was filled with a sense of bliss? No. But he pulled his ass into the lab the next day, and tried again.
Research is not just finding a great idea in your sleep, and then getting instantly famous. It’s doing the same mundane, trivial thing over and over and over again, until something good happens. It’s also about doing the things faster than others, because a hundred other students are probably doing the same thing day and night to finish it before anyone else.
So if you think that you can’t juggle fun and study, either drop fun and just study, or just quit. A university degree is overrated anyways.
4. Have good GRE scores: A lot of good universities don’t ask for GRE scores. But still, it’s an added bonus. But the word list is much harder than the SAT word list. And this need about a few months of practice.
5. Take GRE subject tests: If you want to do a PhD in a different subject from your Undergrad, you’ll need to take the relevant subject test. The tests are hard, and need at least 3 months of full time study, unlike the SAT subject tests.
6. Select the right Universities to apply to: This requires a different post entirely.
7. Contact your potential advisor: This also needs elaboration.
So there. Now you have a succinct, yet comprehensive guide to getting into a good school for PhD.
One more thing. Doing each of these things perfectly, gives you about 10% chance of getting accepted. Because there are thousands of students who will apply, hundreds of whom will do everything perfectly.
So better get moving from this minute.
If you have time, here are some great resources that can help you:
1. A timeline for applications. https://blogs.cofc.edu/gradschool/2011/02/21/applying-to-graduate-school/
2. On getting recommendations. http://bizblogs.nus.edu/the-nus-mba/2013/12/20/getting-grad-school-recommendations/
3. A great read at any stage of your life.