What can I do in my undergraduate program to help me get into a top PhD program?

The top PhD programs in virtually all subjects are exceptionally competitive. Therefore, it is essential that you begin preparing early in your undergraduate years to build the knowledge, skills and experience that will help you stand out when application time comes around. As you near the end of your undergraduate career, you must begin thinking about graduate school entrance exams, letters of recommendation and a statement of purpose for your PhD application. Until then, however, focus carefully on building your undergraduate résumé by carefully selecting your coursework, performing well in your classes and taking advantage of opportunities to conduct research.

Planning Your Coursework

It is essential to plan your undergraduate coursework with your PhD goals firmly in mind. While PhD degree programs tend to be very specialized, in most cases you will benefit from knowledge and skills acquired in undergraduate courses both inside and outside your favored subject. You will also benefit greatly from a challenging course of study that highlights your abilities and dedication.

To learn about the best undergraduate courses for your PhD subject, speak to your professors early in your undergraduate career. Professors, especially those who earned a PhD in your field, are best equipped to offer advice about the courses to pursue as an undergraduate. You should also begin to study admissions requirements at top PhD programs.

For a good example of how important it is to develop a strong course plan for your undergraduate career, consider the demands of a PhD program in a business subject like marketing or management. While most undergraduate business degree programs require some coursework in mathematics and statistics, PhD programs in business prefer students who are well versed in higher mathematical and statistical techniques. The Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business goes so far as to advise prospective PhD business students to consider earning a second undergraduate degree in mathematics alongside a degree in their preferred business subject. If you don’t plan ahead, you may not think of developing such skills.

Maintaining Grades

Most PhD programs take a holistic approach to evaluating student applications, looking at undergraduate grades, test scores, letters of recommendation, personal statements and other factors. With that said, strong undergraduate academic performance is exceptionally important. Good grades, especially in courses related to the PhD program subject, indicate the potential for success in PhD level coursework.

Most PhD programs have a minimum grade point average requirement for admission which is usually 3.0 on a 4.0 scale, but sometimes higher. In practice, however, the students actually admitted into a given program typically have much better grades than the minimum. For example, the University of Pittsburgh’s PhD in psychology, which is ranked 30th in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, requires an undergraduate GPA of 3.0, yet most applicants admitted to the program have a GPA above 3.4.

It is important to understand that most PhD admissions committees will look carefully at your undergraduate transcripts. A student with a very challenging undergraduate course load and a lower GPA may fare better in the admissions process than a student with a very easy course load and a high GPA. It is up to you to choose challenging courses and always strive to perform as well as you can. Keep in mind that while your GPA is important, it only makes up 1 part of your overall application.

Writing a Senior Thesis or Conducting Research

A senior thesis and undergraduate research are among the best ways to stand out in the PhD admissions process. These undergraduate activities show PhD admissions committees that you have experience in conducting original scholarship and research. They also indicate that you have the motivation, maturity and commitment to carry out and complete long-term research projects independently, which are important skills to have in a PhD program. A senior thesis is a significant written paper based on original research.

While some undergraduate programs require all students to complete a senior thesis, other schools offer it as an optional honors program, called an honors thesis. A thesis usually takes the whole of a student’s senior year to complete. A faculty advisor will work with you during this time, which is an invaluable experience in itself. Undergraduate research is another great option for developing experience for a PhD application. The best way to conduct research projects as an undergraduate is by joining a professor’s research team as an assistant. Research opportunities are typically available in a wide variety of disciplines, from computer science to the natural sciences, and even the humanities. Perhaps the most difficult part of engaging in research as an undergraduate is finding a project to join. Many students begin by volunteering as laboratory or research assistants on campus. By developing relationships with professors and graduate students, your chances of joining a proper research project will improve. With the right contacts, you may even become involved in original research that gets featured in academic publications.

Volunteering and Extracurriculars

While other aspects of your résumé may ultimately be more important in the admissions process for a PhD program, volunteering experience and extracurricular activities help to show that you are well-rounded person. Since most PhD programs train students for a career in research and teaching, extracurricular activities in these areas may prove valuable. Teaching and public speaking experience can show that you are ready to do the public work of an academic. In fact, most PhD programs require students to begin teaching as graduate assistants as early as the second year of the program. If you have relevant experience, it would certainly be valuable. Other types of experience and activities that will improve your chances of acceptance depend on your favored PhD subject. It is important to do some research into your discipline to learn what kind of apprenticeships, internships or volunteer activities may help your PhD candidacy. If you are interested in a PhD in public health, for example, you might apply for internships in public health organizations like the American Cancer Society or the World Health Organization.