Get useful experience in your field. If you can, get a relevant internship at a company over the summer. Volunteer in a professor’s lab during the school year if you can – you’ll get the research experience that grad schools are looking for, and it’ll make it easier to get great letters of recommendation!
SUMMER AFTER JUNIOR YEAR
Take the GRE. It’s your average, super fun, 5 hour standardized test. It’s in front of a computer, which is nice because you get your quantitative and verbal scores literally seconds after you hit submit. (See Sally’s guide for more info!)
Figure out where you want to apply. If you are thinking of switching fields, or going from something broad to something more specific (example: biology to immunology), you might need to do some soul searching to figure out what kind of research you’d be most interested in. Once you have a field narrowed down (and have decided on Master’s or Ph.D.), you need to start finding schools. The easiest way to start is to think geographically . Do you want to stay near home, or go somewhere completely new? Then, start googling schools and see what programs would interest you. Be sure to click on professors’ names to find out more about their research, and only apply to schools that have multiple professors that you’re interested in working with. Your undergrad professors might also have valuable feedback on what schools and profs are leaders in your field. Finally, check out the US News and World Report rankings. The rankings are meaningless, but it’s a good way to get the names of schools you otherwise might not have heard of.
JULY - SEPTEMBER SENIOR YEAR
Ask for letters of recommendation. (See Sally’s guides here and here for how to do this professionally).
Start applications. For most schools, you’ll need to send in transcripts, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, one or two personal statements/essays, a CV, and the actual application form itself. (And a fee, which ranges quite a bit between schools – I think I paid between $40 and $100 for each school, so start saving now!)
Work on personal statements. These are really tough to write. Asking professors and your school’s writing center for feedback can really help you to explain who you are as a scientist in a clear and concise manner.
Start applying for fellowships. Although this is not strictly necessary, having a fellowship such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship will not only give you guaranteed income for 3 years, but also will give you an extra “in” to labs that might not otherwise be taking students. The application process is similar to grad school, but the essays are somewhat different., Notably, the NSF requires that you write a research proposal.
OCTOBER SENIOR YEAR
Finish writing personal statements and start editing them. I teamed up with some of my sorority sisters who were also applying to grad school, and we all helped edit each other’s personal statements. Sometimes it’s hard to see the flaws in your writing until you get someone else to read your essay for you.
Submit fellowship applications.
Nag professors about letters of recommendation if they haven’t submitted them. It’s okay to lie about when the deadlines actually are for submitting applications. Tell professors that your applications are due a week earlier than they actually are. One professor who wrote me a letter of recommendation waited to submit my letter until 40 minutes before it was due, and nearly gave me a heart attack. Don’t put yourself in that situation!
NOVEMBER-DECEMBER SENIOR YEAR
Submit applications. Applications are typically due anywhere from November 15th-January 1st. Treat yourself to some ice cream after you submit them. You’ve earned it!
JANUARY-FEBRUARY SENIOR YEAR
Hear back from schools. Some schools will invite their top choice students for interviews, whereas others will admit them directly. Some schools will also take a while to get back to you. This may mean that you didn’t get accepted, but sometimes the program is just really slow.
FEBURARY-MARCH SENIOR YEAR
Go to visit weekends. If you get accepted or an interview invitation, you’ll go on a visit weekend to the school. These visit weekends are fun and usually free (so much catering!!), but they really take away time from your normal classes. Be proactive on your homework so you don’t end up like me, writing a paper due the next day on an overnight, cross-country flight.
These visit weekends usually involve hanging out with the grad students (with free beer and wine), interviewing with professors (pretty chill, informal interviews), going on tours, and listening to people talk about their research. You might even make “interview buddies” with people who end up getting interviews at all the same schools as you.
APRIL SENIOR YEAR
Pick your grad school! You have to decide on grad schools by April 15th. Hopefully your choice is easy, but you may end up liking multiple schools and have a more difficult decision to make.