Note: PGP has learned that Yiyang will be attending Stanford in the Fall! Congratulations!
In the final of my 3-part post on grad school, I'll talk about the Statement of Purpose, and share some of my final thoughts about the graduate school process.
Statement of Purpose: This is generally a "brief, concise" statement that ties together your past experiences, graduate school research interests, and career plans. The statement of purpose (SoP) is not the warm, fuzzy, life-story essay you wrote for college; rather, it is your chance to describe your past experiences and show why graduate school is the logical continuation of your intended career plan.
Your past research experiences should comprise the bulk of the SoP; remember that you are being evaluated on research aptitude, which you show through your past experiences. Mention any significant results, publications, or conference presentations from your research. Unless they're significant, do not talk too much about coursework, community service, or extracurricular activities; the exception is if you did a significant independent project for a course (like SCOPE or OSS). Don't talk about stuff you did before college (unless you did research in high school). In the end, spend 1-2 paragraphs talking about the intended graduate school, including which professors you might be interested in working with, and 1-2 paragraphs about your intended career plan. If you think you might want to be a professor, this could be a good place to mention any teaching experience (but not too much; a PhD is a research degree).
Unlike your college essays, the SoP does not have to be very school-specific. Just make sure your research interests are consistent with research at the target graduate school. However, try to have some connection between your past experiences and why you want to attend this school. For example, you can wrap up your past research section by discussing the conference you attend, and then talk about how you also listened to an awesome presentation by a professor at that school. I wrote a literature review for my Olin Self Study; on my SoP, I talked about how reading professor X and Y's papers motivated my decision to apply for that school. Having some kind of link helps differentiate you from the other applicants who just looked at their website.
Make sure your essay flows. You should have other people read through it (Olin writing tutors are great), but one tool I found helpful was Adobe's Read out Loud Feature. You can hear exactly how your essay sounds and make changes accordingly.
One thing you do not want to do is propose a research project. You want to make your research interests somewhat broad to ensure there are several professors working in that field, but narrow enough to show that you have a clear goal. I primarily applied for programs in Materials Science and Engineering, and I said I was interested something broad like "nanoelectronic materials and devices," not something specific like "optical resonators in thin-film solar cells." Make sure there are a couple professors who do research in the area you are interested in. Professors can only hire students to do projects they have grant money for, so don't make your field too specific.
I included some photos of my projects in my essays. They could help your application stand out, but if you don't have good photos do not worry about it.
You can view a copy of my successful UC Santa Barbara essay at https://www.dropbox.com/s/yoqsqgy5igqt1rg/ucsb_sop.pdf?dl=0
Interviews: You may have phone or on-campus interviews, especially if you apply for programs in biosciences or bioengineering. I did not interview for any of the programs I applied for, so I'm not a good resource to talk to about interviews; you can also go to PGP for advice. We will have a guest post on interviews by an applicant in bioengineering.
I Got Accepted: Now What? If you get an offer, most schools will pay for you to go visit them. You'll be put in a nice hotel, fed lots of good food, and have plenty of time to know the program. Talk to the professors about research interests and gauge their personality; it may also be a time to line up a research assistantship. More importantly, however, talk to the grad students. Ask them out their experiences, and which professors are nice and which ones to avoid. They are usually brutally honest, if slightly on the rosier side. Make sure there are a couple advisors with funding that you will feel comfortable working with, both in terms of research fit and personality/working style. Otherwise, just get a feel for the school: you'll be spending the next 5-6 years of your life here; make sure you think you will be able to enjoy that time.
I hope these posts have been helpful if you decide to apply for graduate school. As a final word, I urge you to not stress too much. Ask your Olin professors and PGP to suggest schools to apply to based on your academic and research record. Let your professors and PGP know as soon as possible that you are thinking about applying for graduate school; the earlier you start, the better.
Feel free to contact me at any time, at firstname.lastname@example.org , if you want to talk about anything related to graduate school, as well as any feedback you have about this blogpost.
There are plenty of resources on how to get into graduate school. I listed my two favorite ones:
"Advice on Applying to PhD Programs in Science and Engineering," by Philip Guo, a Stanford Graduate Student http://www.stanford.edu/~pgbovine/grad-school-app-tips.htm
"Applying to PhD Programs in Computer Science," by Mor Harchol-Balter's. It's written by a CS professor, but I think the advice is useful for all science and engineering graduate schools. http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~harchol/gradschooltalk.pdf