A while back I posted on my Instagram that I had accepted my spot in the Master’s of Public Health Dietetics program at the University of North Carolina. Now I want to tell you a little about my experience with the application process to both encourage you as well as make you aware of some of the more difficult parts. I am sure you will do great, and get into your dream program, but doing all you can to present the best of you is crucial.
The application process was one of the scariest things for me personally. It brought up a lot of feelings of am I really good enough to get into these programs, and other imposter syndrome thoughts. Thankfully I have a great support system that helped me remember I have gotten myself this far and that with my passion for dietetics I would one day, in some way become a dietitian. I hope you have a community as supportive as mine, and know that I am also here cheering you on!
Required Sections of an Application
Each program will be different when it comes to what they expect for a complete application. Most applications will require the following
- Standardized Test Scores (GRE, MCAT, LSAT, etc.)
- Letters of Recommendation
- Personal Statement
Some applications and programs will also require the following
- Supplemental Information
This is one of the easiest parts of the application in my opinion. As far as I know most universities have online options for requesting transcripts. The easiest way to find this out is probably to just google transcript ordering with the name of your university. Then you can fill out the information of where to send it and pay a small fee.
One of the biggest things when it comes to ordering transcripts is to order them early. Depending on the time in the semester and how exactly the school will send it will determine how long they will take to be delivered. Most of the schools I applied to accepted electronic copies which decreases the time it takes for them to be received. Each university is different and some may want printed copies from your undergraduate university.
Along with your transcript you may have to fill in a form to confirm once again that you have taken all the prerequisite courses required for entry into the program. As someone who was applying to programs this seemed tedious and a bit frustrating. But I understand why they do it. Going through all of those transcripts to find the specific classes would take the admissions office forever. So yes maybe it is annoying to reenter all of that data, but it makes the admissions process faster on their end. Or at least I like to think that because I do like to think positively when I can. If you do not have all the prerequisite courses finished at the time of applying they will more than likely also ask you for a detailed plan of finishing those remaining classes. This was the case for me as I was enrolled in an anatomy and physiology class while applying, and then took two online classes in the spring as well.
Standardized Test Scores
For entry into the programs I was applying for I needed to take the GRE. I ended up taking it twice and being much happier with my score the second time around.
The first time I took the GRE was a total nightmare. I took the GRE the first time in February of 2017. During this time I was a junior at Ohio State with a full class load, and a part-time job. I would say part of my problem this time was not preparing enough, but a bigger part was the stress I had the day of the exam.
I had read all the emails from the testing agency saying that it is suggested to visit the testing site beforehand to know where you are going. But I was like I’ll just GPS it like I always do, leave extra early and I’ll be fine. That was not the case at all. I ended up putting the address for the testing site into my GPS wrong. It was a difference of the testing site being on the west side of the street, and putting it in as east or something to that nature. I forget the actual cardinal directions, but I imagine you get what I am saying.
That part would not have been such a problem, but then I got stuck behind a train. Mind you, Ohio does not have many trains. So I was stopped and thought it would continue on and I could go to the site. And then the train stopped on the tracks for a decent amount of time. This is when I started to freak out. Another thing to note about the emails is that they mention that if you are late you will not be allowed to test and would not be offered a refund. I am never late for anything, like ever. I then thought I could go over a few streets and see where the train ended and cross over. That did not work. Finally I called the testing center almost in tears. Taking the test had been my Christmas present… I know I’m a nerd, but this test is expensive… The guy I talked to ensured that I would be able to take my test, and to be safe, but I was still in panic mode.
After I don’t even know how long the train starts to move and then I get to what I thought was the testing center to find it was not there. I called the center again and the guy knew exactly where I was and said it happens a lot and directed me from there. By the time I got to the testing center I was I think 45 minutes late and so stressed. The guy working tried to help me calm down and gave me a few minutes to compose myself, but still I was not in the best mental space to be taking such a test. I took the test that day and did alright, but knew I would take it again before applying to graduate school.
So if you take the test somewhere you are not familiar with, take their advice and drive or walk to the testing center sometime the week before. Don’t be like me and waste a couple hundred dollars because you are a crazy stress ball taking the test.
The second time I took my test was in 2019. I was much more prepared the second time round. And therefore I did much better. This time I did what was suggested and drove to the test site the week before. I took the test on the University of Texas’ campus, so I even parked and found the building and the exact room. Again if you have never been to the testing center do go and visit it beforehand. It will save you a lot of stress.
Another advantage that I had when taking my test the second time was less schoolwork. I took the test in May when I was taking no classes. In the spring semester before that I had two classes, but not a full course load like before. I know many people will not have the luxury of a semester with such a small class load. But maybe plan it for a semester where some of the classes need less time commitment, or over a break. Obviously you know yourself and your study habits the best, so ultimately you need to decide what will be best for you.
Lastly I studied more overall for the test the second time. I used the Kaplan GRE Prep Book and went through it all. I read the sections, did the practice exams, did practice questions online, I did it all. Although it was time consuming and sometimes frustrating it helped a lot. Many of the concepts on the test are things I learned early in high school, or even before, so having a refresher was crucial.
If you are someone who may not be as motivated to study on their own, I know many of the companies that sell books also offer classes. I personally did not take any of these classes so I cannot speak on what they cover and how helpful they are. With the books I would say most of them are probably pretty similar to one another between companies. My only suggestion would be to get one that is within the last two to three years just to make sure nothing major has changed since the book was written. And on test day just give it your all, do any stress relieving activities that work for you the days leading up to the test and know that whatever the score you are worthy of reaching your goals and making your dreams come true. I believe in you and hope you believe in yourself too.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are so important in the application process. Getting a bad letter will hurt your chances of entry very much, and a letter that is just ok won’t do much for you either. So you need a great letter, and this can be a difficult task, or at least it was for me.
When starting my application process I knew I needed to reach out to potential recommenders early to give them time to decide and write a well thought out and honest letter. One of the big problems for me was that I was not close with really any professors. My undergraduate degree is in biology and the biology department at Ohio State is enormous. Most of my core classes had 350+ students in the lecture and recitations were led by graduate students. Despite this there are many ways to make connections with professors, I at times was scared to when I should not have been. Or felt I did not need to for some classes, and I should have any way. So if you are still in undergrad and have opportunities to go to office hours with your professors, or get into a lab for experience do it. Not only will you gain valuable experience, but you could also gain a professional letter of recommendation.
Thankfully I was able to find three recommenders who were happy to help me reach my goals. The professor I had write a letter was not from my department, but knew me better than any professors in my department. I had taken her study abroad class, so we spent a good chunk of time together back in the spring of 2016. My other two recommenders were not professors, but I had worked with them both before and believed they would also give great recommendations.
Some tips for asking for letters of recommendation include asking in person if at all possible. I know this is not always possible, and sometimes a bit awkward, but it is the best way to politely ask. If you cannot for whatever reason ask in person, write a personalized email. Do not copy and paste the same email to everyone you are asking for recommendations. People really can tell when you do this.
After someone has agreed to write you a letter of recommendation give them your application materials. This includes a copy of your statement of purpose, and any other information they ask for. You will also need to give them instructions on how to submit their recommendations for each program you are applying to. Do all of this in a timely manner so as to look as professional as possible. They are doing you a big favor, make sure it looks like you are appreciative.
As I mentioned before, reach out to your recommenders early. Giving people enough time is essential to obtaining a great letter of recommendation. And it is more likely that you will be able to find people that have time to write a recommendation if you give them ample notice. Asking close to the deadline puts the recommender in a terrible spot, they may want to help you, but not be able to commit the time. Once you have decided you are going to apply start considering your options for recommenders and reach out plenty early in the application process.
After your recommenders have written their letters and sent them to the appropriate schools do not forget to write them thank you letters. Each thank you letter should be personalized to the specific recommender. Do not send them a generic thank you letter, they deserve much more than that. And when you hear back from schools make sure to keep them in the loop. Tell them where you got accepted and where you plan on continuing your education.
For me writing my personal statement was the hardest. I had a hard time focusing my statement and felt a lot of imposter syndrome while writing it. It took a lot of effort, and many revisions to get my final draft of my personal statement. Along with that I had some awesome friends who took their time to edit my personal statement. And I am grateful for them for sure.
One of the biggest things I learned while writing my personal statements is to not focus on the things you wish you did better, or are ashamed of. Nobody is perfect. We all have some class grades we wished were higher, or think we should have been more involved in extracurriculars. But if we focus on the negatives instead of the positives we give the wrong message. My first draft I talked a lot about my not so great chemistry grades. And although they helped me come to the realization I probably would not get into veterinary school, it made me seem insecure. On top of that the admissions committee had my transcripts. They could already see those grades. Talking so much about my negatives took away from all the positives about myself. And there are so many positives about you I am sure, so talk those up!
One thing that is frustrating about personal statements is that the schools you apply to will not always ask the same questions. Some schools give specific questions they want you to answer in your personal statement, others will give a more general prompt. This means you cannot use the exact same statement for all of the schools you apply to. The way I tackled this was by doing one of my statements that had a more general prompt. I edited it until it felt like a great piece of writing. From there I used that as a sort of template. It had some of the basic information I needed in all the statements, like why I want to be an RD, and why an MPH program. Then I changed it up answering some of the more specific questions the other schools had given as prompts. This seemed to be the best way in my mind to handle this situation. If this does not work for you, just do what does work you. From there I edited more, made sure I was in word count limits, and finalized my statements. This process took me a while. I had writers block many times, could not find the motivation even when I am so excited to start my career and more. So I suggest starting this early. Giving yourself time will help you write a better statement in my opinion. I am not a crammer, and never plan to be. If you are, I do not suggest cramming for this, there is too much on the line.
Ok, now that you have heard my thoughts on personal statements, go draft your first draft. Take your time, talk yourself up like you have never talked yourself up before. Do it like your dream career depends on it because if you are going to graduate school I imagine it does. Don’t forget to answer the questions given fully. And have friends, peers, and mentors edit it as often as they will without you becoming a burden. Constructive criticism is beneficial and should be used as a tool to leverage yourself and your application.
Before starting my grad school applications I had never heard of a CV. In many respects a resume and a CV are relatively similar. They both are a way to present experiences you have had that could help you succeed in the job, or school you are applying for. A CV is more geared toward individuals in higher education. I also learned when trying to look them up that they are also more common in Europe fun fact. In a CV there can be more pages which is used to shine light on research positions, publications, internships and externships. And with all of that you can give more detail about the work than you would in a resume.
Most of the schools I applied to used the SOPHAS application portal. This is used for public health programs. The requirement said you could use either a resume or a CV. Each school you apply to will specify which one they want. Although I could have done just a resume I went ahead and made a CV. This way I did not have to worry so much about it being too long, and I could highlight more of the extracurricular activities I participated in during my undergrad at Ohio State. I never participated in research due to having a part-time job my whole college career. But I did have a sort of lab internship helping prep a veterinary level lab class. I was also involved in a few student organizations and sat on the executive boards of each of them for at least a year. I was able to capture all of this and more in my CV. Had I written a resume I would have had to cut a bunch of important information. Some of which was not in my statement of purpose due to word count limits.
I found it somewhat frustrating that with all the resources my undergrad has, and even how many resume workshops I attended I never was taught anything about a CV. And unfortunately there is not much information about it on the internet. I suggest reaching out to a mentor who may have written a CV or two in their time for advice. They probably had a lot of the same questions you do now. And similar to in your personal statement focus on the good things, and your achievements.
So the only school I had to interview for was the one that I was not accepted into. There are probably many reasons for this, but some of it I would say had to do with my interview. The interview was over the phone which was something I had never done before. Most interviews I have had before were in person which I prefer. I do talk on the phone with friends and family, but not all the time.
I also think I could have prepared more. I did look up some questions they might ask and made notes on some answers I would give. I think I personally should have done more of this. For me at the point of this interview I was pretty set on North Carolina anyways. The idea of moving all the way to the west coast all by myself seemed very overwhelming. And I had visited both UW and UNC’s campus and I thought UNC just felt more right for me. UW is a gorgeous school, the buildings are old and beautiful and Seattle is wonderful. Despite all of that it did not seem like it would be the right choice for me. In some ways I did not give the interview my all. I think had I gotten in I would have been conflicted because Seattle is such a cool city, and a place I could see myself fitting in well.
On top of all of that the UW program is amazing, but has a small cohort and therefore is super competitive. When it came down to it my application in the admissions committee’s eyes was not competitive enough.
My advice is to give the interview your all. Do the research. Prepare answers and practice them. If you are not great on the phone and it is a phone interview ask friends or family members to call you and do a mock interview. I know some interviews will be in person. If this is the case and you have to travel for the interview, get in early. The interviewers will not be happy if you are late because your plane was delayed, and it won’t make you look like the best candidate.
Other than practicing a lot one last piece of advice would be to do some stress relief activities the days leading up to the interview. Interviewing is stressful and you want to put your best foot forward. Going in while super frazzled and showing how stressed you are makes you not seem as confident. Confidence and believing in yourself is crucial. If you do not believe in yourself why should the strangers interviewing you believe in you and essentially invest in you and your future? The truth is they probably won’t if you don’t believe in yourself and your potential. So show them that you believe in yourself and your dreams. Make them believe you are the future of whatever career field you are going in to study.
Now go and practice those interviewing skills. I believe you have it in you to give a great interview!
The last part of most of the applications I completed was supplemental information. This varied between programs, but was common. This is just another way for the admissions committee to learn more about you. Most of the programs that had supplemental information asked for more pieces of writing.
Some prompts given to me for supplemental information included…
- Why do I want to attend the school I was applying to
- Explanation for a bad grade/withdrawal, time off school, or other personal information that may be important for the admissions committee to understand
- If you were planning on using loans
If the supplemental information is more writing use some of the same tips as given above for the personal statement. Be honest, answer the questions fully and shine a light on the positives. Maybe you took some time off between undergrad and grad school. Talk about why and what you learned. Or maybe you withdrew from a class after overloading your schedule and that was the best option for your mental health. We all have our own lived experiences and the admissions committee just wants to be sure you can handle the workload and demands of higher education.
Putting yourself in situations you have never been in before can be extremely scary and overwhelming. When we do this we challenge ourselves to grow and learn. Applying to graduate school is no different. It is a stressful process, especially when all you can imagine is the end goal of being a professional in your dream career. My best advice is to give yourself enough time, believe in yourself, and edit edit edit.
I wish you the best of luck in this process and hope learning from my experience helps you in some way. You deserve to make all of your hopes and dreams come true. I believe in you, now go kick butt on that application!