My Recipe for Getting In

An application assistance program to level the playing field

I had never considered a PhD until late in my undergraduate degree. Most students in my program were either grabbing one-year master’s degrees or becoming entry-level grunts at consumer goods or biomedical device companies. I remember a career fair where I talked to a recent graduate who was working as an entry-level engineer at Proctor & Gamble. He discussed at length about how riveting it was working on improving the “absorptivity of tampons at the molecular level.” 

Really, dude? That’s riveting?  

No, no. That was not for me. So… PhD?  

Unfortunately, I didn’t know a single other person applying to a PhD program — so I applied to 13 of them (because nobody told me that was an absurd number). The last application I sent in was to MIT, on the last day, because I didn’t think I had a shot. I remember hovering my finger over the submit button, weighing the $75 application fee against 75 one-dollar beers at my favorite college bar. Senior year priorities…  

So, how did I land at MIT? In all honesty, I probably got a little lucky. But I also had a strong research background, I identified professors with whom I wanted to work, and I articulated why in my personal statement. In addition, two of my recommendation writers had personal connections to MIT. Those connections count, a lot.  

It’s really hard to write a strong application, for almost anything, if you don’t have an idea about what is supposed to be included. For graduate schools, the information just isn’t available on application websites. If your school doesn’t have institutional knowledge about how to be a strong grad school candidate or rarely sends students to PhD programs, how can you expect to compete?   

When I became a writing fellow at the Biological Engineering (BE) Communication Lab last year, I got a more formal introduction to the ingredients that make a strong application. It’s actually a recipe: 1 cup of your motivation, 3 cups of research experience, a teaspoon of name dropping, and a dash of personality and honesty. In the end, you really need to show you are qualified, and that you are a match for the program. As a Communication Lab fellow, I continue to conduct workshops for MIT undergraduates on how to write personal statements, and I offer one-on-one coaching. I also edit essays of friends that are applying. 

This work has fueled a broader interest of mine in the graduate admissions admission process for my program. Traditionally, students have not been a part of the decisions, but thinking we could have an impact on the stack of applications that the committee reviews (and knowing that some other programs like this existed already at MIT), I co-developed the Biological Engineering Application Assistance Program (BEAAP). BEAAP is a simple addition to BE’s application website where current students help review prospective applicants’ personal statements or answer questions about the department or application process — a “friend of a friend” for those who don’t have one.  

Our hope is that this begins to level the playing field. We can’t change how much research experience or publications an applicant has, or the name recognition of their letter writers or university, but we can help them mold their essays to address self-identified gaps and highlight why they are a match for the program.  

We rolled out BEAAP this year: 36 students applied to the program, and 30 enthusiastic graduate students volunteered to help. Excitingly, a majority of students who participated in BEAAP reported that participating strengthened their graduate application. Next year, we are planning more targeted outreach to underrepresented groups and colleges, and would love to see other departments create similar programs.

*To learn more about BEAAP, visit this page.

Originally published on MIT Graduate Admissions Blog

Finding great escapes

Take advantage of grad school flexibility and book a bargain vacation

As a 78 degree breeze brushed against my shoulders, I took my first sip of the local cocktail of choice, Ti Punch. I must look like such a local, ordering a Ti Punch and not a mojito, I thought to myself.

The burning sensation of alcohol shot up my nose. Whoa!

Punch was an understatement.

Doesn’t punch imply the alcohol is mixed with juice or something? I was in Martinique, an island in the French Caribbean. And apparently, in the beach town of Sainte Anne, a Ti Punch was literally a cup of rum with a slice of lime in it.

I poured a full packet of sugar into my “punch” and diluted it with as much water as I could fit in the glass. I must have looked like such a tourist.

Living in Boston has many benefits, but my favorite part of living here is the ease with which I can leave. That might sound contradictory, but traveling as a graduate student can be comparatively easy because you have more flexibility than most people. I set my own schedule, which means sometimes I work 3 weekends in a row, but then I can take a long weekend trip. I’m lucky to have an advisor who doesn’t mind (as long as I get my work done). As a result, I can take advantage of flight dates and times that most people would find inconvenient. And having an upcoming trip helps motivate me in the lab and gives me something to look forward to. It also keeps me on track because I know I’ve got to get certain experiments done before, for example, my flight takes off on Friday.

Geographically, Boston is great because it’s close to Europe and the Caribbean. A few hours of flying lets you experience radically different cultures. And Logan International Airport is huge, with many direct flights and lower fares than smaller airports. I recommend taking a look at discount airlines such as WOW! And Norwegian for cheap direct deals.

Last March, I booked a flight to Fort de France, Martinique, for $208 roundtrip through Norwegian Airlines (an unreal deal) during MIT’s spring break. Discount airlines often scare people with their hidden fees, but if you are informed, you can easily avoid them. My biggest piece of advice is to check the baggage policy online so you aren’t surprised when you check in. Norwegian Airlines only allows one small carry-on item (backpack), so my friend and I split the ~$20 fee to check a 40kg bag. We found out on our flight back that 40kg is a tight cutoff — people around us were chugging the rum punches they had intended to bring back in the Fort de France airport in order to decrease the weight of their bags. Luckily, we were able to quickly repack all our heavy items into our backpacks. Our checked bag weighed in at 39.5kg. Whew!

So, how I do I find these incredible deals? Google Flights is about to be your new best friend. It has two features. First, If I’m looking at flights for a specific desination with flexible dates, say Boston to Nashville, I choose the calendar option to see across the next couple months how flight prices change. For example, leaving Friday, February 10, 2017, looks like the cheapest Friday departure option. If I returned on Tuesday, the 14th I could get a nonstop flight for $126. Not bad! In contrast, leaving on Fridays in March is much more expensive. 

Second, if you have specific dates but a flexible destination, you can use the Google Flights “explore” option. Enter a departure airport and something as generic as “Europe” or “Caribbean” as your destination. Google pulls up a map of possible destinations for your chosen dates and displays the cheapest flight under each city. I entered dates for MIT’s spring break this year and see a $359 flight to Copenhagen… I might just have to take advantage of that.

My trip to Martinique last year was rejuvenating. Sainte Anne is a beautiful, lazy, little beach town on the southern tip of the island with peeling pastel paint on quiet street fronts. French sentences fluttered around us, along with the flip-flop noise of sandals. Across the street from our Airbnb, we found a bakery with espresso and freshly baked baguettes. Down the street was a market with spices, fish, jams, flowers, and bottles of bright rum punches. I still dream about the “flan de cacao.” Chocolate flan. SO GOOD.

It can be scary traveling to an unknown place. We got lost a few times, and I made a few language errors (tried to order a salami sandwich but ended up with imitation crab and mustard… yuck), but it was adventurous and a great break from my everyday grad school routine.

I encourage you to go outside of your comfort zone in graduate school. Explore destinations you’ve never heard of. Book a flight on a whim. Discover the world during a period when you can make your own rules and schedules. It doesn’t have to be extravagant or expensive. All in all, the trip cost me about $500 — a steal for international travel. I even brought back a set of the traditional Ti Punch glasses. Sometimes after a long day in lab, I pour myself a diluted Ti Punch and get on google flights and think about my next adventure.

Originally published on MIT Graduate Admissions Blog