April Sharp samples for macroinvertebrates in Lake Raleigh.

Advice for Applying to Graduate School

The contents of this page were inspired by and adapted from these pages from the University of Toronto and TUFTS

1) Create a Curriculum vitae (CV)

A curriculum vitae is like an academic résumé. Curriculum vitae is a Latin phrase that translates literally to “the course of one’s life” and is abbreviated as “CV.” Commonly, a CV will begin with your name and contact information and then follow with a section on education, employment, awards or honours, a list of any publications or presentations, and service/volunteer/activism/leadership roles you have held. The biggest difference between a CV and a résumé is that you are supposed to list each thing on your CV as a single line (i.e., without elaboration or explanation) whereas a résumé is usually annotated (e.g., where you might include a few sentences describing your roles or experiences on a work project). Here are some good resources on writing CVs and converting résumés to CVs:  

2) Find a Potential Supervisor

Admission to our programs is based on a student-supervisor match. If you are interested in applying to one of our programs, you must first get in touch with a faculty member that you would like to work with and who might be available to serve as a potential advisor to you. 

Emailing Faculty Members 

This is the most important step before applying to a graduate program. Not all faculty members are accepting students or have funding available for new students, so this email will help save you time on your application before you’ve even started. Information about this may be on the program’s website or the faculty member’s website, but websites are often out of date, so it’s worth double-checking with an email.

This email will get you “on the radar” of the faculty. Most graduate programs get hundreds of applicants, and faculty are much more likely to take a close look at your application if you’ve contacted them in advance.

You also might get other useful information. For example, a professor might write back saying something like “I’m not taking any new students, but we’ve just hired a new faculty member in the same area, and you might consider working with them.” Or, the professor might say something like “When you apply, make sure that you check the XXX box, which will make you eligible for a fellowship that is specifically for people from your background.” Or, if the professor accepts students through multiple programs, you might get information about which one to apply to or whether to apply to both programs.

You might learn the most current direction of a professor’s research. While professors usually have multiple interests, they might have a current priority area.

What Should My Email Look Like?

We recommend a subject heading such as “Inquiry from a potential graduate applicant.” For the main body of the email, your goals are to (a) introduce yourself, (b) inquire about whether they are taking students, (c) make it clear why you are interested in that particular faculty member or lab, and (d) get any advice they might offer. Make sure your CV is ready before sending emails so that you can include it as part of your proof that you would be a good fit for their lab. 

Here’s an example:

Dear Dr. XXX,

I’m in my final year as a XXXX major at XXXX, where I have been working in the lab of Dr. XXX XXX. My research/interests have focused on XXXXX (see attached CV). I’m planning to apply to graduate programs this Fall/Spring/Summer, and I’m very interested in the possibility of working in your lab at NC State. 

[Possibly add a few more lines here about your background and interests.]

I read your recent paper on XXX, and I found your approach to be very exciting.

I was hoping you might tell me whether you are planning to take new students in your lab in the Fall/Spring/Summer of [year]. I’d also be interested in any other information or advice you have on the application process.


[your contact information]

Should I Discuss My Identity?

If you’re a member of an underrepresented/disadvantaged group, you can make this clear in your email or CV if you are comfortable doing so. We recognize that this can sometimes be a sensitive issue, but there are often special funding opportunities for students with particular underrepresented identities, and our faculty and programs are especially eager to support students from underrepresented/disadvantaged groups. Usually, this information can be provided indirectly (e.g., by listing scholarships you’ve received or programs that you’ve participated in), but it can be helpful if you make this information explicit to your prospective faculty mentor and program.

Who Can I Ask for Advice?

No matter what your situation, we recommend having your current faculty mentor(s) take a look at a draft of the email and your CV before you send them. Peers, grad students, and postdocs can also be helpful, but they may not know what is appropriate since they haven’t been on the receiving end of these emails.

What Responses Should I Expect?

You will likely get a brief response that says something like “Yes, I’m taking students, and I encourage you to apply” or “I’m always looking for qualified students.” This indicates that the faculty member will likely look at applications, and you don’t need to follow-up.

You may also get a more detailed response that will lead to a series of email exchanges and perhaps an invitation to chat (usually on Zoom). This will be more likely if you say something about what you’ve done and why you are interested in their lab specifically.

You may get a response like “I’m not taking new students this year” or “I probably won’t take new students this year”. Or you might get something like “Given your background and interests, I don’t think you’d be a good fit for my lab.” In these cases, it is probably not worth putting your resources into applying if you have that specific advisor in mind.

Finally, you simply may not get a reply at all. In that case, no information is no information. There are many reasons why faculty may not respond, and it is not worth trying to figure out why this might be. 

I Found a Supervisor! Now What?

Indicating several potential faculty members’ names on your Personal Statement and in the designated area on the Graduate School application page will flag their interest in your application. See more in How to Apply to Graduate School.

3) Writing a Personal Statement

The goal of the personal statement is to describe the research that you want to do in graduate school and your preparation for it. When writing your statement, it is best to think of the key points that you want to convey and write a few sentences to one paragraph for each point. A good statement of interest should include the following information:

  • Your research interests; either broadly, or specific research questions you’d like to investigate in graduate school
  • A brief summary of your past research or academic experiences that have prepared you to undertake the proposed research, with an emphasis on your roles in projects and the contributions that those projects made
  • A brief summary of what interests you about the research being conducted in the lab(s) of professor(s) whom you identified 
  • Your academic and research skills that you will be bringing with you to your graduate lab from your undergraduate training
  • Any relevant volunteer or work experience
  • Your career vision and/or long-term goals and how NC State, and in particular, the Applied Ecology or Biology Graduate Program, will help you achieve these goals
  • A closing statement that summarizes what you ultimately want to contribute to the world through your research

Personal Statements should be one page of single-spaced text (here is a template). Upload your completed statement as a PDF document in the Online Admissions Application system. More on this over on the How to Apply to Graduate School page.