Tips for Getting into a Top Graduate Program
As faculty in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, the best BME department in the world, both in terms of undergraduate and graduate schools, I have learned what I and other faculty are looking for in applicants. Before getting into what the most important factors are, I believe it is important to understand our goals, which motivate those factors. From the perspective of the graduate admissions committee, our goal is to estimate whether we believe that BME@JHU is the best place for you to thrive to achieve you ultimate dreams. In other words, we try to ascertain whether the environment that we create at JHU will be maximally supportive of both your strengths and weaknesses. As it turns out, this does not mean necessarily that we accept the best students in some abstract sense (as defined by some arbitrary metric), but rather, we try to accept the students for which we believe that we will be the best mentors for you. Of course, this is a complicated objective function, and one for which we will most likely sometimes make errors. Nonetheless, it is our goal. To make such estimations, we look for the following:
Research Experience: First and foremost, we are a research university. So, the best way for us to determine whether our research environment will support you to flourish is to understand your previous research experience, and in which settings you flourished more than others. Although successful research is difficult to quantify, research artifacts provide some data with which we can evaluate your achievements. Such artifacts include poster presentations, conference proceedings, pre-prints, journal publications, numerical packages, and even patents sometimes. If you are the first (or co-first) author on any of these, we typically assume that much of the work is yours, and thus first author research artifacts are most informative. Middle author works are also informative, especially if you clarify your role in the research in your personal statement. Note, however, strong research experience is not a pre-requisite for admission. Rather, it is an information-rich piece of data for us.
Grades: JHU is not just a research university, we are also a teaching university, and we take our teach responsibilities quite seriously. Moreover, many of our graduate level BME courses are also serious and time consuming. It is important to us that you perform well in them, because they provide the necessary background upon which our research programs are based. It is not important to us that you got straight A’s, very few applicants have. Rather, we care that you perform well in the courses that will be the most relevant for your research during your PhD, typically quantitative and biology classes for us. It is also not crucial that you performed well in every semester. The grades in the most recent semesters, in the most relevant courses, are most important. Aim for getting A’s in them, but GPA alone neither gets students admission nor rejection. We understand that life happens, and certain things are more important than coursework (family, health, well-being, etc.). Finally, we appreciate that not everybody gets the same opportunities, in life, in high school, etc., and therefore not everybody is equally well prepared for our coursework. That is ok, we are trying to estimate whether you will be successful in our program.
Recommendations: While these do not come directly from you, they are quite important to us. BME@JHU is like a big extended family. We work closely with one another, sit near each other (typically), we have been doing so for a long time, and plan to continue doing so for many years to come. Therefore, our community is quite important to us, and our success comes largely from surrounding ourselves not just with the smartest people in the world, but more importantly, really good people. So, the recommendation letters are a way for us to get information about how pleasant it is to work with you. I particularly look for recommendations from other faculty with successful research programs, as they are the most informative with regards to what it takes to have a successful PhD. Recommendations from industry can be somewhat informative, but less so. In other words, the number of PhD students somebody has mentored matters in our assessment. In terms of content, we are looking for recommendations that write that you are pleasant to work with, and amongst the best of his/her previous students along some dimensions, such as productivity, passion, drive, creativity, organization, etc. In other words, you excel in the kinds of personality traits that we think contribute to successful PhDs. Much like research experience and grades, a good or bad recommendation cannot determine your acceptance.
Personal Statement: Your personal statement is your opportunity to express yourself. The most important aspect of a personal statement for me is passion. Success in our field, I believe, is strongly correlated with passion. Even if that is not the case, it is more fun for me to work with people that are passionate about solving some problems. So, express yourself freely and passionately. And be specific. Find a few faculty members in the department that you are applying to, and write about what, in particular, you find most exciting about their work. In this way, we’ll be able to align your passions with ours in the review process. If you’ve reached out to any of the faculty, or anybody else associated with the department prior to application, mention it, and how it has informed your decision to apply. I recommend that you do reach out to faculty in advance, if possible. And don’t forget to spell/grammar check it.
There are a few things that people invest a bunch of energy in, that do not matter hardly at all. First is the GRE. Evidence is building that it is classist, racist, and sexist (see for example, here, though see counter-points here). Several schools have stopped using them, but not all (there are lists online). As it currently stands at BME@JHU, only if somebody does quite poorly on the quantitative aspect of the GRE (say, below 70%), does his/her GRE score even typically come up for discussion. In certain cases, the GRE can be waived, so we encourage you to email and ask. Second, is fellowships. In general, if we have not heard of them, do not understand the criteria for winning them, who applies, or what is achieved, it is hard to evaluate their value. I’ve literally never ever heard them come up in discussing any applicant, and I’ve now been privvy to discussion literally hundreds, maybe over 1,000 applicants across multiple different departments.
My lab, as well as many other successful labs, are always accepting exceptional graduate students. The success of our labs’ depends on the success of excellent students, so we are always searching for and hoping to find people whose passions align with ours, and whose abilities either align with or complement our own.
Finally, we strongly encourage applications from diverse individuals. We try our best to evaluate each individual in the context of his/her/their background. We believe that a more diverse and inclusive academic environment leads to better science, and a better society.
I hope this is helpful. If anybody disagrees with my assessment, or has other recommendations, or further questions, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.