Graduate school application checklist
(Maryse Thomas / McGill Tribune)

Tips for applying to grad school

a/Science & Technology by

With summer ahead, it’s the perfect time to start planning your applications to graduate school in science and engineering. Whether or not you’ve decided that you’re ready to apply, read on to learn more about what the application process entails and what you can do to improve your chances of getting in.

Before applying:

Seek out research experience:

The number one thing you can do to show grad schools that you are ready to undertake a graduate program is to get some research experience. While there are different types of graduate programs, most of them are research-based with just a few required courses. Having previous experience demonstrates that you are capable of doing research and that you know what it entails. It’s also the best way of finding out whether or not you will actually like graduate school.

If you don’t have any research experience yet, start now! Ask professors if they need volunteers in their labs, find a job as a research assistant this summer, or do a semester-long research project to fulfill requirements for your major. If you have the option to apply to an honours program, this is also an excellent opportunity to spend a year working in the lab. In any case, having some experience is a must if you want your graduate school application to be successful.

Decide where to apply:

While undergrad programs are relatively broad, graduate programs are more specialized, and the research that you undertake will be extremely specific. For this reason, you should begin your search by deciding what research topics you are interested in and then look for schools that have professors doing research on those topics. Instead of trudging through a maze of university websites, ask professors and graduate students what the best institutions and programs are for your field.

Once you’ve decided on several programs to apply for, write down all the deadlines and all the requirements for each school. Do this early in May so that you won’t be caught by surprise by application deadlines that can fall as early as September.

Find a supervisor:

A supervisor is the head of a lab or research group who mentors graduate students throughout their degree. Some programs will require you to find a supervisor before you are accepted, while others will only ask you to list supervisors that you would be interested in working with. Finding a supervisor you work well with is important because you will be working with them for several years depending on the length of your degree, and their research interests will dictate the type of work you end up doing.

The best way to find a supervisor is to ask for recommendations from professors you already know, and then to read several of their most recent papers. If you can see yourself working on projects similar to those already published, then it’s a sign that you may enjoy research in the lab. If there is more than one professor that you are interested in working with at a university, don’t be afraid to suggest a co-supervision. This type of collaboration can result in really unique research projects, and provide the opportunity to work on a close basis with multiple researchers.

Although having a great supervisor is important, it’s not the only thing that will determine whether or not you will enjoy your graduate student experience. You will be spending most of your time in the lab or students’ office, so try to meet other students in the program and get a feel for the environment before you make your final decision.

Apply for funding:

The best part about pursuing a graduate degree in the natural sciences, health, or engineering is that you can often receive funding to support you financially as you complete your studies. Funding can come from internal or external sources. Internal sources of funding are your program and your supervisor, who may pay you an annual stipend in addition to covering or subsidizing the cost of tuition. External sources of funding include scholarships, fellowships, and grants, which must be applied for separately from graduate applications.

(Maryse Thomas / McGill Tribune)
(Maryse Thomas / McGill Tribune)

While it may sound easier to rely on finding a program that guarantees internal funding to all of its students, it is always better to obtain your own, external funding. Doing so makes you extremely attractive to application reviewers because it saves them money, it makes it easier to get more funding later, and it shows that you are capable of writing a successful research grant.

Deadlines for external funding are often much earlier than deadlines for graduate schools (September to October), so make sure you plan early and add these dates to your master list. Funding applications usually ask for a one-page research proposal, copies of your transcript, and a short description of your research experience. If you haven’t decided on what grad programs to apply for yet, apply with your undergraduate research supervisor or professor. If your application is successful, you can always transfer the money to your new project. Well-known funding agencies in Canada are the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Completing the application:

Although graduate programs will differ in their individual application requirements, nearly all programs will require the following basic components.

Transcripts:

Most schools require an official transcript sent directly from the registrar’s office, so order these from Minerva early and make sure that they are received. You don’t want your application to be rejected because your transcript was late or never arrived.

GRE and subject GRE:

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test used by graduate schools to compare students from different universities on a normalized scale. This is the grad school equivalent of the MCAT or LSAT. Most programs only require the general GRE, which tests students on quantitative reasoning (math), verbal reasoning (vocabulary and passage understanding) and analytical writing (essay writing). However, some programs may also ask for the subject GRE, such as the Physics, Psychology, or Biology GRE. A test centre in Montreal offers the general GRE twice a month, but subject tests are only offered once in September. In both cases, it’s best to register early because test dates will sell out.

The best way to prepare for the GRE is not necessarily to learn the material, but to learn how to take the test. The same types of questions will come up very often on the GRE, so if you learn how to do those questions, you will be more at ease on test day. Workbooks or preparatory courses are highly recommended to help you prepare.

Curriculum Vitae:

Adapt your CV to highlight your research experience. Separate “Research Experience” from “Work Experience” and put research at the top. Include any information that would show your interest in research like conferences you have attended, presentations you have given, and publications you may have. Don’t forget to list any funding or awards you have received.

Letters of recommendation:

Graduate schools usually require two or three letters of recommendation. The best people to ask for a reference are those who are familiar with your capabilities as a researcher, namely previous supervisors. Make sure that you ask for letters at least a month in advance, and don’t hesitate to send a reminder email when the deadline is two weeks away.

Personal statement:

The personal statement, also called the statement of purpose, is the most important part of your application. This is where you can demonstrate to reviewers that you weren’t just entering data that summer you worked in a lab. The personal statement asks you to describe your background, research experience, and your reason for applying to graduate school in one to two pages. Focus on your research experience and elaborate on specific things that you did to move a research project forward. Link this experience and your future goals to your background in order to create a cohesive statement. Finally, mention specifically why you chose to apply to the program in question and which supervisors you are interested in working with or plan to work with. Once you have written one personal statement, it will be easy to modify this section for subsequent applications.

Resources:

Visit McGill’s Career Planning Service (CAPS) website for more resources about applying to graduate school: mcgill.ca/caps/students/gradschool