Gleanings from Grad School Applications: unsolicited advice from an undergraduate to other undergraduates

I have been writing this over the course of the past year. After going through this very stressful yet exciting process, here is my advice for other undergraduates that are hoping to apply to graduate schools and don’t know where to start.


  • Make sure grad school is for you. My undergraduate advisor has a great resource on options for students interested in ecology and conservation and how to decide what path is best for your career aspirations.
  • If doing a researched based degree, find your direction. Spend some time with yourself and generate a list of 5-6 research topics that interest you. These can be broad, but it will help you know where to look and which advisors to contact. A list of 2-3 topics you are NOT interested in are also helpful.
    • Mine looked something like this: Restoration ecology, conservation ecology, disturbance ecology, fire ecology, invasive species, remote sensing. I was not interested in genetics, and knew I would be more partial to a project that focused on plants.
  • Do your homework. Once you’ve narrowed yourself down to a field or two (e.g., Ecology, Geography, Geology), etc, look up the top schools that specialize in that study. USNews rankings were particularly helpful.
    • There are different kinds of research universities. R1, R2, and D/PU. They can affect your job prospects and “prestige points” that come with your degree. Wikipedia has a good list of which schools are listed, but you can always look them up in the official Carnegie listing. Spend some time thinking about the competitiveness of these schools and which will best serve you according to your career goals.
  • Know your path. Have at least a vague idea of why you want to go to grad school and what your plans are afterwards. Graduate education is customizable, even within labs so it is extremely helpful to be aware of your goals. You don’t have to know everything, but at least know what you want out of a job/career.
  • Ask for guidance. This is a great stage at which to speak with a professor at your university for advice. I recommend reaching out to someone for advice early .

pile of books
Photo by Pixabay on


  • Study for the GRE, but don’t spend too much time on it. I know plenty of people accepted into competitive programs that bombed the GRE, and a perfect score won’t help a skinny CV. I know it’s scary to see lots of people in your year with rigorous study schedules and study plans, but it’s feasible to study an hour each week for a month prior to the test and do well. Your time is better spent speaking to labs.
    • Also, if you can avoid it, don’t retake the GRE. It’s exclusionary and ETS is profiting off of your insecurity. Don’t let your ego cost you $250. If your score is good enough, it’s good enough.
    • The GRE is not a significant indicator of future success. So if you have a poor score but a fleshed-out CV, you can typically explain these scores in a brief sentence or two in your personal statement.
    • Don’t spend money on prep materials. I did pretty well using old second hand GRE study guides. With a little help from my friends’ old resources and a $3 book at my local reused book store, I managed to get a pretty good score out of minimal resources and agony. Again, don’t let ETS profit from your insecurity.
  • Write a GRFP. In 2018, 1 in 15 applicants, around 7% were awarded funding. You can apply twice: once in undergrad and once in grad school. I recommend applying even if just for the experience and feedback. You can also use the personal statement as a draft for grad essays a few months before they’re due, so you don’t have to start from scratch in November. I wasn’t awarded a 2019 GRFP, but I was so grateful that I had applied once graduate school deadlines rolled around.
  • Contact labs early and often. It’s common to have only 1/5 responses (or less), so you’ll need to contact more than 5 times the labs you want to correspond with. A good friend of mine suggested I should try and collect 10 rejection emails, which is a great way to put a positive spin on a very stressful task.
  • Spend time on your letters of intent. Make sure they’re tailored to the lab and are thoughtful. There are lots of resources on how to write letters and samples online. This really makes the difference.
  • Follow up, follow up, follow up. If you don’t get a response from a lab you really want to apply to, follow up. Two of the five labs I applied to did not respond with the first email.
  • Ask for references early. They’ll need to spend time and thought on your letters, and some may want to meet with you to get to know you a little better. It’s unprofessional to ask for a review less than a month away from any application, especially if you do not work closely with that reference.


three woman sitting smiling inside room
Photo by on


  • Know where your interests lie. There is a lot of advice out there on how to prep for grad interviews, but no amount of googling can tell you what project you’d be interested in within a lab. Look at what past and current research is going on and sketch out some vague project ideas. If the project is already funded, look up who is funding it and what stipulations come with the money.
  • Get personal. Whether talking to professors or grad students, have a list of personalized questions prepared. I’m sure they hear the same “Top 10 Questions for Graduate Interviews” pretty regularly, so spend some time and thought on what you ask them.
  • Talk to grad students, talk to grad students, talk to grad students. 2-5 years is a long time to work with someone, so it’s good to get an honest review of an advisor. Speaking to grad students in a casual setting over the phone is a great way to get a feel for the advisors strengths and weaknesses.
  • Remember- even though they are graduate students, you’re still being interviewed. Many advisors value the input of their current students, so be sure to maintain a professional, albeit casual nature during calls with graduate students.


close up photography wireless keyboard
Photo by Tom Swinnen on


  • Narrow down your list. I applied to 5 programs and it felt like a ton of work. Some people apply to more programs, some apply to less. Do what is right for you based off of who encouraged you to apply, funding, and project preference.
  • Get organized. Make a list of deadlines and materials required for each application. If you want to get extra organized, make a timetable.
  • Get started early and use your resources. Writing application essays is difficult, but there is lots of advice. Some resources at your university may help- your references are probably happy to look over your essays. Professors have to read application essays when students apply to your university, so they may know what the department is looking for. The university’s writing center, if you have one, is accustomed to graduate applications and can help you get started, get organized, or help edit.
  • When you are done, thank your references and those who recommended you and keep them updated when you get accepted. They put in time to help you, so they are invested in the outcome in some way.


woman in brown top
Photo by Quốc Bảo on


  • Waiting is the hardest part. In my case, I was waitlisted for a few schools and found myself still waiting around when other people I knew had already been accepted or rejected. If you find yourself in my shoes, contacting the departments and/or advisors (occasionally ) can help ease your mind. Just don’t overdo it.
  • Try to take your mind off of waiting. I know this is hard, but I cleared my desktop of any application materials and scheduled a time at which I would check admissions decisions (Friday, 6:00). This helped me curb my tendency to agonize.
  • Don’t reread your applications once you’ve submitted them. Why would you do this to yourself? It will only cause you more stress.
  • Here is a great resource for any decisions outcome: acceptance, denial and waitlisting.

Have any advice to add? Comment below what tips and tricks helped when applying to graduate school.

Accepted? If you need help deciding, here is a great resource on how to choose between graduate programs.
Denied? Here are some great resources on how to emotionally and logistically cope with rejection.

A special thank you to everyone who helped me, provided advice, and emotionally supported me through grad school applications.

By K.T. Strain

Katie Strain is a texan, plant enthusiast, and Ph.D. student studying Evolution, Ecology and Conservation biology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s