A More Equitable Graduate School Application
The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences’ online application is the place where most applicants make their first impression on admissions committees. It’s also one of the first places where prospective students get a sense of GSBS as an institution. In short, it’s important for everyone that the application is as good as it can be, allowing applicants to put their best foot forward and not get bogged down in confusing essay prompts or overly complicated form fields.
Graduate school applications are difficult for everyone, but they pose particular challenges to applicants who might not have access to friends or family members with graduate degrees, or counselors who can help them show themselves in the best light. A recent review of and update to the GSBS application by a group of students, administrators, and faculty worked to mitigate some of these challenges, making the application easier to navigate and more friendly to applicants from underrepresented groups.
“I hope the updated application will help us connect and engage more effectively with applicants with different perspectives,” said Najla Fiaturi, Assistant Professor of Medical Education and one of four members of the application review committee. She worked alongside Kristen O’Connell, Assistant Professor of Medicine; Shelley Scheier, Program Administrator, Department of Neuroscience; and Sasha Smolgovsky, a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Immunology program to review and revamp the application to make it more equitable and inclusive.
“The most significant changes made were to the essay questions,” said Beth Storrs, GSBS’s Registrar and Director of Enrollment Services, who led the review committee. Many applicants, particularly those from underrepresented groups who may not have much exposure to graduate education, might not know how to craft an essay that highlights particular aspects of their experience and interests and appeals to an admissions committee.
“The one, general essay question we used to have was split into two: an Academic Statement of Purpose and a Personal Statement,” Storrs said. “We provided much more detailed prompts for both.”
The restructured essay questions allow applicants to elaborate on their life outside the lab, in addition to their academic interests.
“While we want students to demonstrate an ability to handle challenging coursework and research, it’s equally important for applicants to show their personal initiative, which may take the form of leadership, community service, creative pursuits, or other life experiences,” said Dr. Fiaturi. “The old application focused largely on academic rigor and research experience, excluding these other qualities.”
In addition to the major changes to the essay questions, the application review team made a number of other tweaks to ensure the application met the needs of prospective students. The new application contains specific instructions on what students should include in the “Resumé” section; questions about types of research were added to the “Research Experience” section; and application fee waivers can now be requested within the application by simply checking a box.
Of all the changes made to the application, Dr. Fiaturi is most proud of the changes made to the demographic section of the application, including: the addition of a self-identification option to the race/ethnicity question; the updated wording of the question on disability; and the addition of an option for students to identify as a member of a socioeconomically underrepresented group. Other changes to the demographic section included the separation of “Sex” from “Gender Identity,” and updates to preferred pronouns.
Overall, Dr. Fiaturi thinks the application is now more welcoming for prospective students from all different backgrounds. “I hope it leads to more representation across a wide range of traits, backgrounds, and experiences,” she said.