Contact potential faculty sponsors directly. For many graduate programs, having a faculty member who is willing to sponsor you is critical to admission. Contacting faculty directly by email or by letter is critical to securing that sponsorship. August or September is a good time to contact faculty in programs with December of January application deadlines. In your initial contact, briefly outline your reasons for wanting to work with a particular professor, your undergraduate training, and the general research themes or questions that you would like to pursue as a graduate student.
Write an excellent essay.There isn't a magic formula for writing a great application essay, but it's important to sound knowledgeable and enthusiastic about your proposed field of study. You don't need to have a specific research project picked out, but briefly discussing two or three topics that interest you provides an opportunity to indicate that you are familiar with the major conceptual issues in your field and that you have been thinking about your graduate career. Essays that are unfocused or too broad in scope generally don't do well. Neither do essays that leave a "gee, grad school sounds like cool idea" impression. Finally, if there are problems with your undergraduate record (e.g., an abysmal GRE score), address that problem head on - don't make excuses, but indicate why that aspect of your record is not typical of your abilities.
Apply for fellowships. There are several nationally competitive fellowships available to graduate students. Sponsors include the National Science Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the US Department of Defense. Check these out and apply.
Be persistent. This statement applies at a number of levels. If you send a letter to a professor and, after several weeks, haven't received a response, it's worth trying again. If you fail to get a response to both messages, though, it's probably not worth pursuing things any further. If you don't get into the program that you want, it is often possible to apply again. Try to find out why your application was denied. Sometimes there just isn't space in a given lab or program in a given year, in which case the situation may be different if you apply again. Or, if you discover that there was a weakness in your application, you may be able to do something to correct that problem. At the same time, though, be realistic. If you have good offers from other programs or you have reason to think that you just aren't competitive enough for a given school, you might as well move on.
Hedge your bets. Even if there is one program that you have your heart set on, apply to a number of schools. Everyone is limited by space and money and thus, even with a great undergraduate record, it may not be possible to gain admission to your first choice of graduate programs. By applying to a number of schools, you increase the chances that you will get at least one offer from a good program.
Advice for behavior programs:
Research experience,in particular field experience, is critical. Try to work as a research assistant while still an undergraduate or after graduating from college. Research opportunities are posted on the Animal Behavior Society website. Others may be advertised locally at your undergraduate university - check with professors in biology or their graduate students regarding such opportunities.
The Lacey lab students have regular need for field and laboratory undergraduate research assistants. Please contact the person whose research you are most interested in and ask about potential research opportunities. Your chances will be especially good if you successfully take one of Eileen's or the MVZ's courses! For tuco-tuco work, please contact Tali.
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