Applying to Graduate School? Learn Secrets From an Insider

As a senior at Kent State University in 2019, Ya’el Courtney recalls well the advice she was given about applying to graduate school – some was helpful, but a lot missed the mark. 

Now, as she begins the fourth year of her doctorate program at Harvard University, Courtney returned to campus last week to take part as a presenter in the 10th Annual Neuroscience Symposium, hosted by Kent State’s Brain Health Research Institute on Oct. 27 and 28. 

Courtney’s presentation laid out the perfect blueprint for undergraduates applying to graduate school in the biomedical sciences. She is now one of the graduate students at Harvard who helps to review applications to the university’s doctorate programs and offered plenty of insider information on how to survive the application process and succeed. 

Foremost, she encouraged students to take every opportunity to present their work during their undergraduate years, including poster competitions and any research programs and projects. 

“Take every opportunity you can to present your work and get comfortable with discussing your research,” she said. 

Interviewers, she said, will want to hear about a student’s undergraduate research and their hopes for future research and experiments. 

At Kent State, Ya’el applied to seven graduate schools and was accepted at all seven, including Harvard, Stanford University and Duke University. Her experience and her time as a graduate assistant at Harvard have given her great insight into the application process that she shared with students.


2019 Kent State graduate Ya'el Courtney talks about how to best apply to graduate schools programs in the biomedical sciences.


Here are some tips from Courtney for applying to graduate school biomedical sciences programs: 

  • Ask for letters of recommendation from your professors often and early, and make sure they understand that you are seeking “a strong, positive letter.” 

  • Grades are important, but not as important as your research. Graduate schools want to know that students have a passion for research and already have a plan for the experiments and research they want conduct in graduate school. Universities will be flexible with a bad grade or two if the research is solid. 

  • Many schools no longer require graduate school entrance exams. 

  • The deadline for applying to graduate programs is Dec. 1. Do not assume that applying early means you have a better chance of getting accepted. Most schools do not look at any applications until the deadline passes. 

  • All applications will require a personal statement or essay about who you are. Devote a lot of time to making this statement as thorough and exceptional as possible. You can reuse it for multiple applications by tailoring it to each university to which you are applying. 

  • Know the research laboratories at the university where you are applying, know which ones you are excited about the prospect of working in and be able to articulate why you want to be part of that research lab. 

  • If you get called for an interview, you already are likely to get accepted by that university. The visit and interview are an important process for the university to review students in person, but also for students to decide where they will best fit for their advanced education. 

  • Most applications come with a fee of $60 to $100. This can add up when applying to multiple schools. Don’t be afraid to ask the university to waive this fee. Most will and there are no detrimental effects to your application. 

Kent State junior Aidan Wade, a neuroscience major from Barberton, Ohio, listened intently to Courtney’s presentation and said he had a much better understanding of what is expected of those applying to doctoral programs in terms of the research candidates are expected to have already conducted and the research and experiments they hope to be able to conduct as graduate students. 

Wade hopes to one day obtain a doctorate degree in neuroscience and would like to become a researcher in the study of addiction because he witnessed firsthand the effects of addiction while in high school. 

Courtney’s presentation, he said, made him realize that he has plenty of work to do before he applies to graduate programs. 


Cleveland Clinic employee and recent Ohio University graduate Nicole Cobb asks questions during a session of Kent State's 10th Annual Neuroscience Symposium.

Nicole Cobb, a native of Findlay, Ohio, graduated from Ohio University earlier this year with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She currently is working at the Cleveland Clinic as a research technician in an animal lab that examines how rewards determine decision-making by our brain, and how those same processes work in brains where autism, multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s disease is present. 

Cobb said she has been considering applying to graduate school and came to Courtney’s session to learn more about the process. Cleveland Clinic is a member of Kent State’s Brain Health Research Institute, which is how Cobb learned of the symposium. 

“It was really helpful,” she said of Courtney’s presentation, noting how the timeline for applying to graduate programs that Courtney distributed was an excellent tool that she planned to save and use. 

Michael Lehman, director of the Brain Health Research Institute, said this year’s symposium was specifically designed to celebrate Kent State alumni as presenters, not only to show their contributions to neuroscience research, but to help current students develop a pipeline of professional alumni contacts who can become mentors and advisors throughout their careers. 

As part of the symposium, Lehman announced plans that the institute would be forming an Alumni Advisory Board, to create a formal network for alumni and students. 

POSTED: Monday, October 31, 2022 02:23 PM
Updated: Monday, January 30, 2023 01:40 PM
Lisa Abraham