Whether your eventual career goal is to enter academia, government research, or industry, the value of a STEM graduate degree is universal. It’s never too early in your undergraduate education to take proactive steps toward grad school acceptance and success!
Here are 4 steps to help guide your decisions as you plan your academic and extracurricular activities in college.
Get good grades:
Your undergraduate GPA (overall and in major courses) is one of the most important pieces of your application to graduate school. It may seem self explanatory, but attend all classes, optional study sessions, and office hours. Reach out to your professors and/or teaching assistants; they are the ones who determine your grade and can help find the gaps in your understanding. Seek out tutoring resources at your school, even if you are doing well in your courses (these may be free!). Working with a student tutor who has previously taken the class can help you anticipate your professor’s testing style and help you explore topics that you will encounter in advanced classes. Form a study group and take turns explaining tough subject matter. If you have a rough course or semester, make sure to evaluate what went wrong and demonstrate significant improvement the next term. Don’t ignore the courses outside of STEM which can help you learn to write (for example composition or philosophy), search the literature (psychology or history), and communicate your reasoning (speech or business).
Connect with faculty:
Letters of recommendation from professors are perhaps the most important component of your application to graduate school. Professors can attest to your intellectual curiosity, ability to engage with difficult material, and can put any academic setbacks in context. Attend office hours and make conversation with professors before or after class about an article you read or ask questions about their research. Meet with your academic advisor regularly and be open with them about your goals for graduate study. If your school has a capstone or thesis opportunity, this is a great chance to have meaningful connections with faculty.
Find research opportunities:
Starting in your first or second year, seek out research opportunities for the summer and in the school year. Your school may have paid summer internships where you can work with faculty on their research. You can also search out opportunities to perform research at other institutions here: https://stemundergrads.science.gov/. These internships can be found at universities, industry, and government agencies. Earning a letter of recommendation from a faculty member or research scientist who can vouch for the development of your research skills can boost your application greatly. Being published is not a requirement for applying to graduate school, but you may even be able to present your findings at a conference or co-author a research paper. Working in the field can also help you learn the type of career or research topic you are interested in pursuing.
TA or tutor:
If you have the opportunity to serve as a peer tutor or teaching assistant, these roles will allow you to understand the material of your field more deeply and test your interest in teaching science. As a graduate student you will likely need to serve as a teaching assistant and your experience during undergraduate can be a selling point in your application. This can be especially true if English is not your first language, as you can actively demonstrate your skill in communicating STEM subject matter.