Applying to graduate school can seem bewildering. The following is meant to provide some guidance about procedures and strategies for selecting appropriate universities to which to apply. Reading this is a first step in the planning process. You should discuss your graduate school plans and interests with your major advisor during the latter part of your junior year. You should also talk to second semester senior Chemistry and Biochemistry majors who have applied to graduate schools.
The main factor you should consider in selecting a graduate school, of course, is the quality of the program. But how can you evaluate a parcticular program? Begin by asking your professors, especially those whose research interests are in an area in which you plan to continue your studies. Examine appropriate journals over the last five years and tally up which universities seem to be the most active in publishing in your field of interest. The ACS Directory of Graduate Research (available in the Chem Office) is a very useful resource for learning about different graduate programs.
Once you have narrowed your choice of universities, try to visit them. You will learn at least as much from your student colleagues as from the faculty, so try to judge what sort of interactions you will have with them. Ask about graduate student life and the quality of life in the local town or city. Inquire also about the financial situation, parcticularly the availability of research stipends, of teaching assistantships and summer funding. In chemistry, at least, every reputable university should provide some sort of financial aid.
Apply to several programs. There are numerous reasons for being rejected from a parcticular graduate program, many of them out of your control, such as retirement or departure of the most appropriate potential advisor, or the shortage of funds to support graduate students. Increase your odds by sending out more than one application, although don't lower your standards so much that you end up enrolling in a weak program just because you were accepted there.
Graduate schools consider a variety of factors in selecting students. Although undergraduate grades and breadth of course work are important, a strong showing on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) can go a long way towards compensating for a modest grade point average. What is most important is evidence of independent research, especially a successful senior project.
Your application essay should highlight what you have done outside of the classroom. Although nobody really expects an undergraduate to be able to propose a specific PhD thesis topic, you should define your general interests and demonstrate your familiarity with current problems in the field. A prospective advisor will be most concerned about your interest in, commitment to, and potential in his or her field. The best way to give your letter and application substance, then, is to have done something in the field as an undergraduate. During your junior/senior summer or earlier, try to find an interesting summer research job, even if it doesn’t pay as much as ‘normal’ summer jobs. Ask your college professors if they know of summer opportunities at Bowdoin or elsewhere. Read the bulletin board outside the departmental offices for summer job/program announcements. You will discover a wide range of opportunities, stipends, and grants at various institutions across the country.
Letters of recommendation can carry a huge amount of weight. So think carefully about whom you want to write letters on your behalf, get to know them personally, and impress them with your promise. It can be helpful to have one or two of your letters from professional researchers outside of Bowdoin if they know you well. Clearly, your senior research advisor is a key recommender.
During the fall of your senior year, consider applying for a National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship -- don't miss the deadlines! Such fellowships often rely heavily on undergraduate grades and GRE scores.