Admissions to the graduate/professional school of your choice depends on your application (including references, test scores, essay, etc.) and possibly an interview. Admissions committees not only look for people who have the ability to complete the academic work, but hope to find candidates who are thoughtful, mature, articulate, and well-prepared. They will determine whether you possess these attributes by readings your references and essay.

Faculty References

  • Give faculty plenty of time to write your reference. Make your request for a letter in your junior year or early senior year.  If you intend to take a glide year or two, talk to your faculty references before you leave campus about the fact that you intend to go to graduate school. Then stay in touch after you leave, keeping them up to date on what you've been doing/learning. 
  • Provide your professor with all the information they need. Give them:
    • your application essay and your CV/resume
    • a list of the relevant courses you've taken (and the grades you obtained in them).
    • a paper or lab from class (hopefully one on which you did well).
    • information regarding the programs to which you are applying.
    • an occasional prompting or gentle reminder.

Writing the Essay

(as paraphrased from Asher's "Graduate Admissions Essays — What Works, What Doesn't and Why")

Self Assessment

  • As you write the first draft, you will want to start by assessing yourself. How did you become interested in your field of study? Why do you find this field interesting?
  • Remember who and what influenced you intellectually. What writers have had the greatest impact on your development of thought? Who were your favorite professors, and why? How has each influenced you? What is the single most important concept you learned in college.
  • Write "from the heart."
  • Your essay will involve many rewrites. Allow time for this process.
  • Get feedback from trusted faculty and friends.
  • Answer the question, "Why should the school invest in me?"

Essays for Ph.D. Programs

  • The essay counts 50% once you are past the qualifier or grades and test scores.
  • Watch grammar and punctuation.
  • Emphasize your passion and sense of mission. Don't list accomplishments; you can refer to attached documents (resume, CV, etc.) which describe them.

Strengthening Your Essay

  • Use a strong opening.
  • Substantiate your interest in that program.
  • Substantiate your preparation and ability to perform, by referring to attached documents.
  • Show a vision of your future contribution. If you want to be a professor, emphasize teaching experience.

Emphasize Your Research

  • Use titles of your work.
  • If possible, publish in student publications or start an appropriate student journal to get your research published.
  • Get on an "et al." list in a professor's publication.
  • Submit a paper to a journal for publication just before applying to graduate school. Have a professor help with publication.

For more detail on writing your essay, and examples of strong essays, stop by my office in Chalmers Library to review "Graduate Admissions Essays — What Works, What Doesn't and Why" by Donald Asher.