Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

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Graduate School

The Graduate School Application Process

Why go to graduate school?

Most students who go to graduate school do so because they want to become a professional biologist and do research. Others do so to become a professional in an allied health field or to improve their academic record before applying to medical or veterinary school.

Preparing for graduate school

If you're majoring in Biology, you're already preparing for graduate school and your background will be more than adequate to enter any school in the country. Discussions with your adviser and other members of the department may offer suggestions for specific course work or reading that may make your application even more attractive to graduate schools in your area of intended of specialization. Remember, the fields of graduate study open to you are tremendously diverse: anatomy, biochemistry, marine biology, malacology, molecular genetics, neuroscience, mathematical biology, physiology, entomology, ethology, etc.

Advice from Faculty

The business of developing a list of appropriate schools should be worked out in detail with your adviser, but some points of general information will be covered here.   While compiling your list of graduate schools, we recommend that you consult with the faculty member whose specialty is closest to your career goals. If you're conducting a Bio 490 research project, your project adviser is probably the most appropriate person to talk with. Otherwise, the Department Chair or your academic adviser will direct you to the most appropriate faculty adviser for the application process.

Graduate School Brochures

The Biology Department has received letters, brochures and posters from many schools advertising their programs. These brochures provide, particularly helpful source of information because they often list their faculties and areas of interest. This link can provide helpful career opportunities in the field of Biology.

The school catalog is the most comprehensive source of information about each school. Write for catalogs and application forms from each school in which you have an interest. Helpful catalogs can also be found in the Biology Student Lounge (LSP373).

At large research universities, you may find that the departments of molecular biology, biochemistry, biophysics, botany, zoology, physiology, and microbiology all have faculty doing research of interest to you. Take the time to explore materials from a variety of departments. Seemingly closely related programs may be associated with unexpectedly very different departments. For instance, 'Behavioral Biology' may be in the Ecology and Evolution Department, and 'Biopsychology' in the Psychology Department.

Developing a List of Schools

The three most significant parameters that affect your chances of admission are GPA, GRE scores, and Research Experience. Graduate programs have a GPA and GRE cut off date that are generally the first two parameters considered during the application process. In selecting your schools, be sure to apply to programs whose requirements are compatible with your scores.

The most important rule for school selection is to choose only those schools that have programs in your area of interest and for which you meet the minimum admission criteria as defined in their catalog. Next, select schools representing a large range of admission probabilities, from longshots to safety schools, including schools from the widest possible geographical area and institutions of different sizes. This will assist in placing you in a number of different pools of competition. Don't automatically ignore schools that offer only a Master's Degree. Success in an M.S. program can lead to your being admitted to a better Ph.D. program than directly from undergraduate school. However, many large research universities do not accept students seeking only an MS (or MA), but accept only students who are seeking the Ph.D. A reasonable number of schools to apply to is approximately 10-12. This is based on the assumption that you will have schools all along the continuum from longshots to safety schools and takes into account time and finances (yours and ours) in completing each application.

Making the right choices:

  • For some, choosing a graduate adviser is more important than choosing a school.
  • Graduate School posters and booklets are located in the Biology Student Lounge; website listings are located here.
  • Talk to faculty; if you're doing senior research, start with your adviser or someone close to your area of interest. Check faculty degrees in the Catalog, locating faculty who attended a school of your interest.
  • DO NOT limit yourself geographically unless you have a serious reason to do so; this is not a commitment for life, just for a few years.
  • DO NOT eliminate schools (at this stage) for financial reasons; often the most expensive schools have the most extensive financial aid.
  • Aim for perhaps 5-10 schools on your final list.
  • Match program interests and qualifications with yours; the proper balance of schools is essential.
  • Include at least one shooting for the moon school and one safety school.

Financial Aid

Many of you will need to apply for financial aid. There is a reasonable expectation that if you are accepted to a graduate program it will be with some form of aid, but the probability of this has been decreasing somewhat in recent years. It is not uncommon for some schools to require a separate financial aid application and earlier due date than the admission applications. The most common types of aid are fellowships (student does not have to work for the money), teaching and research assistantships (widely used at public universities), and loans. Students who don't receive financial aid and can afford to attend a school for a year on their own usually receive aid beginning in the second year. You can also apply for support on your own, for example, for fellowships from the National Science Foundation or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The graduate programs themselves are the best sources of information regarding the types of fellowships that support their students.

Test Scores

Almost all schools require the Verbal and Quantitative Graduate Record Exam (GRE) aptitude tests. Many schools also require the achievement test in Biology. Your GRE scores are important in selecting a list of schools. If the test is not taken over the summer, plan to meet the mid-September registration date and take the test in mid-October. There are two subsequent testing dates, but these scores will be returned to the College too late for the student to meet many graduate school application deadlines. The GRE registration form allows several schools to be listed, to which results will be sent automatically. Confer with your adviser as to the best schools. Advisers can also suggest a few good books for reviewing the achievement test in Biology. Report scores to your adviser as soon as they are received.

  • Plan to take the test as early as possible
  • Work on the GRE study guides faithfully (learning how to take the tests alone is very helpful).
  • Read your Bio 110, 220, and 230 books again, and review your notes from 110, 220, 230, and 305.
  • Plan to take both verbal and quant general ability and Bio advanced tests.
  • Generally it's fine to wait in sending scores until you have a close-to-final list of schools you may be applying to.

Letters of Reference

In preparing your application, ask two or three faculty members (Biology Department or other science faculty familiar with your work) to write letters of reference in your behalf. They should be able to estimate your potential for graduate work in Biology more accurately than faculty members in other disciplines. When selecting faculty members, be sure to choose people who know you well. In the letter the faculty member must state how well he/she knows you; this determines how much weight is given to the letter.

Approach faculty members individually and obtain permission to use their names as references. A faculty member's commitment should be understood as an agreement to positively support your application. It is not an agreement to say only positive things. Expect balanced evaluations of your strengths and weaknesses. Letters offering only glowing praise are regarded with skepticism. A faculty member's comments, for example, may be that your greatest weakness is a tendency to be a bit too ambitious in undertaking a project, or that you have difficulty meeting deadlines. Or, if it must be said that you had some trouble expressing yourself in writing, it may also be possible to cite evidence of improvement. If a faculty member cannot provide basically positive support for your application, he/she should inform you of this and suggest that you seek a letter from someone else.

At the time you ask a faculty member to write a letter for you, tell them whether you will or will not sign a waiver of your rights to see the contents of the letter in your folder at the graduate school. You will then be required to sign a waiver form for each letter sent by each writer to each school. The content of the letter, as well as the weight placed upon it by the recipients, may depend upon whether or not it is known to be confidential. Consequently, it is to your advantage to sign the waiver, but it is your right to decline to do so. It is unlikely that anyone would refuse to write a letter that was not confidential, but it might be one of less value to your application.

As an aid in preparing complete and accurate letters, you should provide each of your writers with the following:

  • Copy of your transcript
  • Statement of your plans and goals
  • Description of your research activities, extracurricular activities, work experience and future goals (this can be in the form of a CV)
  • List of institutions, departments, and due dates
  • If the letter must be submitted as a hard copy (rather than online), enclose the form and a separate note stating the following in a stamped and addressed departmental envelope: institution's deadline for each letter, exact program to which you are applying, and Intent to apply for financial aid.

Because of the number of students applying to graduate school, it is important to provide this information with ample time for the faculty member to respond.

Responding to Acceptances

Notifications of acceptance are normally given before April 1, especially if there is also an award of financial assistance. The following outlines a suggested decision process:

  • Once two offers are received, decide which is the best and politely refuse the other.
  • Repeat this comparison and decision as each new offer is received.
  • Terminate the process as soon as a satisfactory offer is received from your most preferred school.
  • Accept that offer and advise the other schools of your decision. This opens the way for students lower on the list.
    Most schools allow an April 15 final decision date when financial assistance is involved. The acceptance process may continue throughout the summer as schools work down through their waiting lists and discover that they still have openings, or new government grants are received.

Graduate Program Application Process

Calendar Process:

October: Take GREs and MAT
October/November: Select Schools; process could begin earlier in the senior year or in the junior year
Refine your list of programs with faculty assistance
December-February: Complete applications
January-April: Wait
April/May: Select schools pair-wise and notify loser of each pair

Increasing your chances for admission
  • Get to know a graduate school faculty member.
  • Match your profile to what the school says about itself in its catalog.
  • DO RESEARCH. Research is an important positive component of a successful application, regardless of the kind of program applied to or the subject of the research. Graduates from this Biology Department are especially competent and experienced in this regard, but you should make sure that you (in a personal statement) or a referee (or both) describes the nature of your research involvement.