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"Luck favors the prepared mind"

( Louis Pasteur )

During the MS degree program or PhD program, it's advisable for a good student to get used to take a look on scientific activities of research groups he want to join, after graduation.

So, if the student decides somehow that he wants to try to join X, Y, Z groups, how should he prepare himself the best for the admission procedure?

What should he do before actually applying for that position in that group?

What should he do before the (formal centralized or informal) admission procedure starts?

Some of my own answers:

Task #0: he must read all the recent papers of the group he would like to join, and know very well those related to his research field.

Task #1: prepare all the admission material (we've already discussed about this)

Task #2...#N... what else?

What would you suggest to anyone to prepare himself to an admission procedure?

Thanks a lot

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I'll start with some steps prior to yours in the interest of making the answer more generalizable:

  1. Determine which universities to apply to. This will involve weighing factors such as ranking, faculty members, student opinions (from online discussion sources like this one or face-to-face discussions), sub-field specialties, and location, among others. You can prepare for this by looking all this stuff up:
    1. US News & World Reports rankings for graduate programs is a good ranking system; there may be better ones I'm not familiar with.
    2. Check the department's faculty page (example) for each university to see broadly-defined research interests for faculty members. Some people will explicitly list whether they're taking on new graduate students or not.
    3. If you know anyone in the field, talk to them to see which universities/professors/labs would be good to check out.
  2. Determine which lab to apply to. This will involve a lot of the above, but specifically it will involve talking to graduate students. This question covers that topic in pretty good depth.
  3. Read up on the fundamentals of the topic you're interested in. I would suggest you be familiar with the field enough to ask a basic question about it. In my field, review papers would be a great resource for this, although I will admit that it may be hard for you to find a good one. Speak with one of the subject matter librarians in your university (i.e., if engineering, talk to the librarians in the engineering library) and ask them to help you find recent review papers on your topic.

    I'll concede this is a difficult task, but being able to ask even simple questions about the field shows familiarity, and will make you look better during the interview. I recall some of my graduate school interviews where I just sat there, almost completely unfamiliar with the lab's research topic, and I felt very foolish indeed.

  4. All the stuff in the question you linked to above.

At this point, most of your work is already set in stone; your undergraduate grades are set, your summer internships are complete, you finished the GRE, and it isn't likely you can do anything for your professors at this point to improve your recommendation letters. Just focus on the labs themselves and learn as much as you can before making decisions.

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The answer to your question also depends on whether you want to apply to a specific group (which I think of as the "European model" of admissions) or to an entire department ("US model").

In the US model, test scores, transcripts, and letters of recommendation tend to be the most important factor, with the statement of purpose being a less weighted criterion, as you tend not to be "locked in" to the area you outline in your statement of purpose. In that case, selecting a group follows admission, and then you need to do your homework on the different groups at the institutions you're interested in.

However, in the European model, selecting a group occurs before the admissions process begins. In that case, everything eykanal mentions in his answer is important. However, the key thing will be to convince me that you are directly and actively interested in applying to my group:

  • Indicate how your skills and background are tied in to the projects available in my group.
  • Show that you've done some looking into the recent work in my group.
  • If you've established previous contact with me, raise a reminder of that.
  • Explain why you would make a good fit in my group.

If you start doing those things, you'll make me want to request letters of reference and call you for an interview. If not, it's likely I'll send your application to the "circular file" without further consideration.

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