Mackenzie Spicer '17
earning PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology
University of Iowa
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My biggest advice about applying to graduate or professional school is having strong letters of recommendations (LORs). One of the most important components of applying to graduate or professional school is your LORs; everything else on your application describes you as a number--your GPA, your GRE/MCAT/LSAT/GMAT scores, the years of experience you have in your field, etc.--but your LORs help define who you are as a person. Many students forget about this aspect, directing their focus to studying for standardized tests or for their classes to obtain a competitive GPA. While these components are equally crucial to the graduate application process, it is imperative your professors know you well enough inside and outside of the classroom to be able to write a stellar recommendation to maximize your chances of acceptance into your desired program(s). While it is not uncommon to befriend one or two professors during your time here, there are people who struggle when the time comes to provide three recommenders that know them well enough to speak highly of them. When applying, you don't want someone who can write just a recommendation--you want each of your recommenders to be able to write strong letters about you.
For me, I have solid relationships with a good number of my professors because I spend more time outside of the classroom with them than inside: I'll pop my head in their office each day just to see how they're doing, or to chat with them for a little. I once spent 8 hours in one of my professor's offices, lying on the floor writing my paper, chatting with her, and taking breaks to help her prep the lab. I think it's important to also have a variety of recommenders: a.k.a. don't have them all come from professors in the same discipline. For my three recommenders, I chose my advisor and research mentor (Biology: herpetologist), a Biology professor (developmental geneticist), and my choral director (Music). Each of these individuals knows every aspect of me very well, and can offer a different perspective of my personality. I believe their diverse input allowed admissions committees to better know and understand me as a person, which was crucial to my acceptance.
To have solid LORs, I encourage you to spend time with your professors and be open with them about your life. You don't have to share every detail or deepest, darkest secret with them, but allow them to get to know you as more than just a student. At the end of the day, each professor on this campus wants to see your success and help you attain your goals: they are your biggest cheerleaders, but you have to be proactive. Don't be afraid to ask them for help, don't be hesitant to get to know them, and don't allow yourself to just be another student in their minds. Not only am I grateful to have had such wonderful and invested professors because they helped me get into graduate school, but also because they've impacted me personally by being a part of my Hanover family.