Posted by: thediygeochemist | January 11, 2009

convincing others that you can handle grad school

Whether or not you believe you can make it through grad school–and I have to admit that early in the process I had serious doubts about myself–you won’t even get to try unless you can convince others, namely admissions committees, that you have a good shot at success.

As I stood in my living room with my just-opened GRE score report in hand, I realized that I would have to do far, far more than earn a good GRE score if I wanted to get admitted to a top-notch (or at least decent) chemistry grad program. The GRE scores might convince people that I was smart; however, I also needed to convince them that I was good at chemistry.  Putting myself in the shoes of the admissions committee, I knew that I would look at an applicant such as myself and say, “But hasn’t she forgotten it all in the last fifteen years?”

No, I hadn’t forgotten it all.  I’d done a bit of tutoring: mostly high school or college freshman level, but also some organic.  But the sad truth was, I had forgotten quite a bit.  Not that this was going to stop me; homeschooling my children had made me into an independent learner, and I knew I could get myself up to snuff in the 17 months before I started grad school.  I knew it, but I also knew I had to convince others I could do it.  There were two ways I could do this, and–given the weakness of my current application–I knew I ought to do both.

The first was to take the GRE subject test in chemistry.  Many graduate programs don’t require applicants to take this test, but I knew that a good showing might be a convincing way of showing that I knew the material.  Of course, this meant that I’d have to know the material before I took the test, but that was a factor that was completely under my control.

The second thing I could do was to somehow, somehow find three people to write me letters of recommendation.  Of course I’d have to do this anyway: letters of recommendation are required by 99% of the graduate programs out there, at least in the physical sciences.  At first, this seemed to me to be an insurmountable task: surely, none of my professors would remember me after 15  years, nor did I have any work colleagues who were chemists who could write such letters.

My sister Chrissy (a tenure-track professor at a big name university) advised me to write to former professors anyhow.  It was a long shot, she told me, but I might find someone.  So I tried.  I focused my search on those professors from whom I’d taken more than one class.  All of them had retired, but I did manage to find contact information for one–a professor who had, conveniently, been one of my favorites.  I doubted he’d remember me, but I emailed him anyway.  In a flash of genius, I decided to include a link to one of my professional pages (with picture) in the email.  When he replied, he told me that the picture was a good idea: the name had only sounded vaguely familiar, but after seeing my face he definitely remembered me.  Yes, he’d be glad to write me a letter of recommendation.  So: one down, two to go.

As I researched  the schools where I wanted to apply, I’d noticed a theme.  Applicants were asked to have a “B.S. or equivalent degree” and I only had a B.A.  I realized now that I could kill two birds with one stone: remedy what the admissions committee would call “academic deficiencies” and earn some letters of recommendation in the process.  It was time to take a few chemistry classes at the local state university.



  1. Pretty similar story here too

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