The biomedical grad school application timeline

It can seem like the application timeline for graduate school is very long; many applications open in the summer and don’t close until the middle of winter! When exactly should you be focusing on each part of your application and when should you expect to hear from graduate programs about your application? Get some suggested timelines from our admissions committee and our first year students who just finished this process.

When did you start considering grad school and what did you do long-term to prepare?

I started considering grad school while I was studying for the MCAT during my junior year in college. I was not happy with the subjects I needed to know for med school, and it did not make me happy to think about patient interactions. I was essentially on a pre-med track because I really loved science. I worked in research labs throughout my undergraduate career, and that, coupled with my interest in the research aspects of my classes (from reading the literature, not the lab components), convinced me that grad school was the path for me. Considering that I decided on grad school relatively late (compared to how people decide they’re pre-med their first year), I didn’t do anything special to prepare, except to make sure that I kept my grades up.
-Lorena Infante

I first considered going to graduate school when I was a junior in high school. I participated in a summer research program for high school students where I was paired with a graduate student mentor. He inspired me to go to graduate school.
-Cara Schornak

I did not know about the available options for graduate school until I participated in a summer undergraduate research program. This was my first lab experience because I went to a small Liberal Arts school. In order to ensure that I could get into the graduate school that I wanted to I pursued other research opportunities and developed good personal relationships with my summer mentors.
-Christian Marks

Why did you decide to go to grad school? Did you consider other types of programs?

I decided to go to grad school because I realized that I much more enjoyed the research I did in undergrad than the thought of figuring out what can be wrong with humans (in the case of doctors, my previous career choice). I only considered two types of grad school programs: umbrella programs in the biomedical sciences, and direct admissions programs in the biomedical sciences. I briefly considered getting a Masters, though. Before I started researching grad school options, I believed that getting a Masters was a necessity for getting a Ph.D., but when I learned that I could go to grad school for a Ph.D. without one, I dropped the Masters idea. Note: actually, I also considered 2-year post-bac/research programs such as those offered at the NIH, but eventually decided against them.
-Lorena Infante

I wanted to go to grad school because intellectually I was as well as my career development because of my degree. I aspired to have my own projects that explored my ideas. I had also explored the possibility of medical school but I didn’t want a career where I wasn’t driving the generation of new knowledge.
-Chris Hofmann

I considered going to med school while I was in college, but not once I was a technician. I decided I enjoyed working in a lab and wanted to be able to move ahead in my field, and I realized I needed to get my PhD.
-Leslie Roteta

Please provide your grad school application timeline. 

  • Start looking into graduate programs- second semester of junior year of undergrad
  • Finalize list of schools to apply to- late summer/early fall of senior year
  • Take GRE- summer after junior year of undergrad
  • Ask for letters of recommendation- fall of senior year
  • Write personal statement- fall of senior year
  • Submit applications- fall of senior year
  • Hear from graduate programs- December-March of my senior year
  • Interview- January and February
  • Receive admissions decision- March
  • Make final decision- March

-Jacob Ruden

  • Start looking into graduate programs- started casually looking at the beginning of junior year, more seriously by the end
  • Finalize list of schools to apply to- summer before senior year
  • Take GRE- summer before senior year
  • Ask for letters of recommendation- later than I should have! about a month before applications were due
  • Write personal statement- sorta started in the summer before, but didn’t REALLY write it until right before apps were due
  • Submit applications- day before the deadline
  • Hear from graduate programs- anywhere from days after submission to 6 months after
  • Interview- January-March
  • Receive admissions decision- February-March
  • Make final decision- March

-Sarah Poliquin

  • Start looking into graduate programs- June/July
  • Finalize list of schools to apply to- August
  • Take GRE- September
  • Ask for letters of recommendation- September
  • Write personal statement- October
  • Submit applications- November-December
  • Hear from graduate programs- December-March
  • Interview- January-March
  • Receive admissions decision- January-March
  • Make final decision- March

-Claire Strothman

The top 3 things you need to get into grad school

Admittance into graduate school is a whole different ball game from getting into an undergraduate institution. These days, students have to have years of experience and preparation before being competitive for the best graduate programs. With this in mind, how should you focus your preparation for graduate school once you’ve decided you would like to pursue further education? Hear from real admissions committee members on what they consider are the most important factors in graduate school applications.

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Tips for Personal Statement Writing

I am thrilled that at Vandy, our graduate students led an initiative to host virtual workshops on applying to grad school! As part of this workshop, they developed some tips and tricks for thinking about your personal statement, and are happy to share them with you! Read more for how to get started thinking about this statement, and tips for what to include:

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How to pick the best graduate programs to apply to

Your decision for where to apply to graduate school is yours alone. Although it may be tempting, it is a bad idea to simply use someone else’s list or national rankings as the only criteria in deciding what programs to apply to. You should invest the time to do your own searching. The emphasis, strengths, resources, and location for each program are different, and you will only know which programs fit your preferences by analyzing them yourself. This process can be overwhelming, so before you start, get tips from some of our new students here in this post. Having recently finished the process of applying, interviewing, and accepting offers, these students provide fresh insight for how to weed through the huge amount of information available and provide some general advice about what they would have done differently in their application cycle. Also in this post, I contribute my thoughts from the admissions viewpoint (hear my thoughts on this HelloPhD podcast too)!
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Updating your graduate school application through the season

I recently got an email from an applicant asking for advice about updating their application. I realized this is a topic that I haven’t discussed here before, so I thought I’d give my two cents. If you haven’t learned, I’ve got opinions about everything!
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Everyone loves me but who should be my recommenders?

You’ve interacted with a lot of people who know you very well, but your great Aunt Mary’s gushing comments will probably not get you into graduate school. If not everyone is appropriate as a graduate school recommender, who should you ask to write these important letters?
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The Admissions Committee Process

The Admissions committee process is an opaque one. While the way committees approach the review process is entirely out of your hands, it can be helpful to know what goes on behind the scenes. This article highlights the admissions committee process and what that process means for you.

When I applied to graduate programs, I hit submit to then be left eagerly waiting to hear from the institution. I asked myself a lot of questions: Do they know I’ve just submitted my application? Who is going to see it? Do they know how much time and effort I poured into this? What parts of the application will be read? How do I know whether I’ve sent all of the appropriate information? It felt like I was sending my effort into an abyss only to learn the result of my application without fully understanding the process. Here, I will describe how the admissions process is generally handled after submission and explain how committees consider your application.

To start, many programs take note of applications and sort them in batches rather than individually. These may be small batches throughout the application season, checking new applications every week or so. This approach is often referred to as rolling admission if the applications are also reviewed throughout the season. Alternatively, applications may be sorted and reviewed in one big batch after the application deadline has passed. Thus, your application may sit un-reviewed for some weeks or months after you hit the submit button.

Unfortunately, not every application may be read fully by the admissions committee. Some programs in the country receive too many applications to review each aspect meaningfully, so many programs follow a triage during the review process. For example, some programs have minimum criteria, such as GPA or experience cutoffs, that must be reached for the committee to review an application fully. Not every program has cutoffs, but you should make sure you are aware of any thresholds that a program might have so you will only apply to programs where your application will be reviewed. Vanderbilt does not have any score cutoffs.

After applications are sorted, they are then shared with the admissions committee. Committees are largely composed of faculty from the program who teach graduate and undergraduate students, manage their research program, write grants to maintain their lab funding, and squeeze other administrative responsibilities into their packed schedule. Given their busy schedules, the individuals who serve on these committees decide on a reviewed application fairly quickly. During the review, the committee is comparing your application to the dozens or hundreds of other applications they are reading. Thus, each application does not necessarily stand on its own merit but rather in comparison to the whole pool and only the best advance to the next step. Your task is to stand out.

If your application makes it to the committee, it will likely be read in depth by at least three faculty members. Some committee members may put a really strong emphasis on the academics, some may focus most on previous research, and others may pay more attention to your journey and motivations for pursuing graduate school. Highlight your strengths and the experiences that are driving your desire to attend graduate school so they are noticed by the committee. When the admissions committee meets to discuss the application reviews, most applications are discussed relatively quickly. If there is a consensus among reviewers, the details of the application are often not discussed in detail. However, if there are conflicting reviews, then the committee will often review the application as a group at a meeting and make a decision there.

So what does this process mean for you? First, take the time to inquire about what the committee considers important before preparing your application. Second, if your application makes it to the committee, a decision on your submitted application will be made after several faculty review it in depth, so your effort and care in assembling the application will be noticed. Finally, as much as the process may be perceived as unpredictable, admissions decisions are made with careful consideration, so take the time to detail your experiences and intentions.

Action Items

  • Gather available information about the committee’s decision-making process.
  • Focus on telling a compelling story about why you “fit”
  • Be patient.


What Information Should I Gather?

If you are reading this, you are likely in the beginning stages of applying to graduate programs and gathering information to determine where you will apply. You’ll get personal advice, information on websites, and use your preferences to determine what programs fit you best. This article covers some simple steps you can take to gather and organize this data.

First, be sure to start early! You should be gathering information on your programs at least six months in advance, though nine months to a year in advance is ideal. The moment you start evaluating programs, create a document to organize your thoughts and data. I prefer generating a spreadsheet to organize diverse sets of information in an easily comparable format. Make note of the name of the program, the institution it is in, the application fee and deadline, contact information for the program (main administrator, email, and phone number), the director of the program, city of the institution, how far from home it is (if this is a consideration for you), the structure of the program (departmental, umbrella, interdepartmental, etc.), how many students are in the program, where you heard of the program, national program ranking, and NIH funding (don’t use these factors alone to rule out a program); the research faculty of interest to you (and maybe a brief description of their research), and other considerations. Make these lists early so that you have all of the information at your fingertips, but don’t feel like you have to be comprehensive on all of this information immediately. Fill in the information as you familiarize yourself with programs.

Your first and likely major information source will be program websites. As you look through each site, make a note of anything special about the institution or program, especially if you didn’t notice this on other sites. Note any unique training opportunities, special academic or professional development resources, or courses that stick out to you. Include the relevant links as you navigate because very soon, the programs will all start to jumble together and you will quickly lose track of where you found specific unique features. Don’t be afraid of seemingly random searches through sites. You will be led down the rabbit holes to useful information as you navigate through the many pages relevant to the programs. Take this time to explore while also making organized notes and questions, so that information important to you doesn’t get lost.

Next, approach your mentors to talk through your thoughts. Share a list of programs you plan to apply to, tell them what you like about the programs, and ask if there are any considerations you are missing in your analysis. Talk to MANY advisors, including your undergraduate advisors, research mentors, summer research directors, and even postdoctoral fellows or graduate students in your lab. Every person you talk to provides additional perspective during your search. Take notes! These sorts of specifics will be invaluable to you when you visit programs during interviews!

After searching online and talking to your advisors, turn to the program contacts themselves to finalize your search. Is there anything unclear about the program? Is there a specific area of research you want to learn more about? Are there parts of the application you are unclear about? While these contacts love to get to know prospective students, they get a lot of these inquiries. Make sure you stand out in a good way. Ask specific questions rather than generic inquiries with answers that can be found online.

Each applicant looks for different things in potential graduate programs, but by considering broadly, you can begin to explore what is most important in your selection and make an informed decision. There are many different resources for information as you research programs. Keep track of it all to help you not only in choosing which programs you want to apply to, but also to help you remember why you applied to each program as you travel and interview in person. Down the road, you’ll be grateful that you kept it all straight throughout the entire application season.

Action Items:

  • Organize your information
  • Search websites, talk with graduate students and faculty, check out rankings
  • Keep taking organized notes!

Resources can make the difference in your graduate career

When picking the best graduate school, you should absolutely pick a program that has fantastic scientific training. However, at the same time, there are so many peripheral resources that can make all of the difference in your career. While considering graduate programs, you should ask about these resources. Learn how the Office of Career Development, IMSD program, and Program in Molecular Medicine at Vanderbilt have made a difference to our students.
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