Posted by: thediygeochemist | January 21, 2009

where to apply…

Figuring out which schools I should apply to was probably the hardest part of the admissions process for me.

When I did my research on schools over the summer, I’d made a list of six schools where I thought I’d fit: three MS programs, three Ph.D. programs. In retrospect, all but one of these could have be considered “safety schools”–in fact, the two that remain on my current list are my safeties. I didn’t have a very good opinion of myself then, so having one “stretch” (I thought) school was a big thing for me.

Then SL told me that (1) I shouldn’t bother with master’s programs and (2) I was smarter than I thought and should choose some better schools. So I re-evaluated every school in the country again. This time I knew I could choose to work with profs who would give me the right research tools (as opposed to someone who was doing exactly what I wanted to do), so my list changed quite a bit. I deleted all the MS programs and added three more schools.

At this point I gave my list to SL (he was writing me letters of recommendation, after all). He looked it over and said, “These are all good schools. Some are pretty good. But none of them are really excellent schools. Why aren’t you applying to top schools like Stanford?”

When I told him that I didn’t think I could get in, he waved a hand dismissively. “Look,” he explained, “Your problem isn’t that you aren’t smart enough for top schools. Your problem is that you’re going to have trouble convincing people that you’re smart enough. Most admissions officers will look at your file and quickly put it aside. But you might find a couple who would see your potential.” He went on to explain that statistics could be my friend: if only one in five admissions officers were willing to consider me, then with fifteen applications I would get into three good schools. So I went off, did more research, and compiled a list of places I wouldn’t mind going if I could make it through the admissions process.

The next weekend, my sister was getting married. My dad has a Ph.D. in chemistry; I have a sister with a Ph.D. engineering, a brother with a Ph.D. in economics, and another sister who has a MS chemistry (though she originally applied to Ph.D. programs, and got into some very good ones I might add). So the family gathering meant lots of advice, most of it excellent. I listened and listened and listened and weighed my list of schools over and over. Before I left, my oldest sister gave me one last piece of advice: “Take every bit of advice you’ve heard with a grain of salt.” LOL

In the end, I added three schools to my list. I avoided the top five USNews schools not because I didn’t think I could get in, but because they all seemed to have a strong emphasis on theoretical chemistry, sort of the opposite of the down-in-the-trenches environmental chemistry I wanted to do.

Here is the final list (names removed to protect the innocent):
One top 10 school
One top 20 school
Top 30 school
Top 40 school
Two schools ranked by USNews but not in the top 50
Three schools not on the USNews list

…All in all, not the list SL had envisioned for me, but still far more ambitious than what I’d envisioned for myself.

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