Using Metacognition as a Tool for Learning

Posted July 6, 2015 by unlmcnair
Categories: Uncategorized

By: Abe Flanigan, 2015 MSRE graduate assistant

Noah has had a crush on Wendy for almost a year. After spending weeks working up the courage, he finally overcame his shyness and asked her out on a date. For their date, Noah picked Wendy up around 7 p.m. and took her to a nice Thai restaurant before taking a walk through the town’s well-known art museum. Fast-forward a few hours, and Noah is driving home after dropping Wendy back off at her place. Noah is anxious. Did the date go well? Did she have fun? Did he talk enough? Were his jokes funny? Should he have worn a tie? These questions and many more like them are racing through his head. By reflecting on how this first date went, Noah is hoping to figure out what went well, what went wrong, and how he could make a second date (if she will go out with him again) more successful.

This self-reflective process is something we’re all are familiar with. Whether it is reflecting on a first date, an encounter with a boss, or our performance in a recent basketball game, everybody has experience thinking about past events. By reflecting on our past successes and failures, we place ourselves in a better position to be successful in the future. The same process of reflection—metacognition—is important when we are trying to learn. Metacognition is the, “Awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.” (Flavell, 1976) In other words, metacognition is the awareness and understanding of how you learn best. By becoming more metacognitive and thinking about our learning experiences, we allow ourselves to identify what types of learning experiences or strategies work best for us, and which ones we struggle with. By doing so, we allow ourselves to become better learners.

The benefits of being metacognitive

Studies show that students who make an effort to be more metacognitive learn more and perform better in the classroom than students who do not engage in this type of self-reflection and assessment. The reasons for this are twofold.

 First, metacognitive students are more likely to know which learning strategies work best for them than students who do not make an effort to be metacognitive. As you know, learning and mastering information is more difficult than simply reading through it once and hoping it sticks in your memory. Information doesn’t automatically get stored into our long-term memories like that. Instead, repeated and meaningful interaction with information is necessary, especially if it’s really difficult material. So, rather than reading through a chapter once and falsely believing they learned everything in it, metacognitive students identify specific learning strategies (e.g., comparing/contrasting the different concepts, creating flashcards, and taking detailed notes) and applying them to that material.

 Second, metacognitive students are more likely to embrace the growth mindset championed by Carol Dweck (1999). If you take time to think about your learning process, then you’re going to feel more confident in your ability to control your learning outcomes. The blog post Perspective is Everything: How Mindset Influences Your Success explained how students with a growth mindset understand that intelligence can be grown incrementally over time and are more motivated, work harder in the face of difficulty, and achieve higher than students with a fixed mindset. When you think about it, metacognition is really just the growth mindset in action. There is a difference between believing that you’re in control of your learning outcomes (growth mindset) and actually figuring out how to take control (metacognition). When students make an effort to be more metacognitive, they experience the benefits of taking control of their learning outcomes, which reinforces the growth mindset.

How can you be more metacognitive?

So, now that you know what metacognition is and its benefits, you’re probably wondering how to become more metacognitive. Fortunately, metacognition is something that can be developed. Outlined below are a couple of learning strategies you can use right now to become a more metacognitive learner.

Retrieval-based learning. Most of our study strategies are geared towards committing information to memory – memorizing definitions, reading a chapter over and over, and taking notes, for example. However, success in school is largely based on our ability to pull information from memory. Yet most students rarely practice, waiting until they take a dreaded test or quiz to attempt to retrieve information for the first time. This routine harms performance! Studies show that the more times you pull information out of long-term memory, the easier recall becomes. This is known as retrieval-based learning (RBL).

RBL is beneficial for two reasons. First, the more times you pull information out of memory, the easier it becomes. Just like doing a push-up or running a mile, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Second, trying to pull information out of long-term memory provides you with an honest assessment of whether or not you actually know something. You’ll know if you have the quadratic formula memorized if you can recite it from memory and you will know if you have a firm grip on the four stages of mitosis if you can describe each of them from memory. So, things like trying to recall as much information about a topic as possible, practicing writing an essay about something, or having a friend create a practice test for you (or making one yourself) would help you practice retrieving information from memory.

 Regulating your environment. As you may remember from the Obstacles to Effective Learning blog post, many factors besides your specific study strategies impact your learning outcomes, such as your study environment. Metacognitive students are aware of this. Not all environments are created equally, which means you should carefully consider how to arrange or select an environment conducive to learning. Think about the things that commonly distract you and make a plan to combat them. Leave your cell phone at home when you go the library (or at least silence it and leave it in your bag). Only bring your laptop if absolutely necessary so you don’t feel tempted to check Facebook once every ten minutes. Or use something like to temporarily block specific websites while you study or do homework. Also, think about whether or not you work best alone or with a group. Studying with a group of friends might seem like more fun than doing it alone. But do you usually end up wasting time talking about off-topic things? Lastly, think about how your lifestyle (sleep and exercise habits, for example) might be impacting your learning outcomes and make adjustments accordingly. Being particular about these sorts of things can help you create an environment conducive to success.

Setting and monitoring goals. You may also find it helpful to get into the habit of establishing specific goals for your study sessions. How long do you plan to study? How many chapters or terms do you want to get through? How many math problems do you want to finish? By setting these kinds of goals, you provide yourself with criteria to assess your studying and homework sessions.

Are you getting the most out of the session? Are you wasting most of your time? Are you moving through the material as quickly as you would like? In addition to assessing the quality of your session, you can also reflect on the obstacles standing in the way of your goals. If you were unable to get through two chapters in American History, then maybe a specific topic is confusing and slowing you down. If so, it’s important to identify the problem and dedicate more time and effort to it. Setting goals helps you stay on track, provides you with criteria for assessing the quality of your homework and study sessions, and also provides you with a starting point for identifying areas of difficulty.


 By making metacognition a priority, you can make yourself a stronger, more efficient learner. For most of us, effective learning strategies do not come naturally. Instead, we need to take time to reflect on our learning experiences. Which study strategies are the most helpful for you? Which topics do you tend to struggle with? Figure out who you are as a learner and tailor your studying and homework sessions accordingly. Just like professional athletes and musicians constantly practice to get better and better, making an attempt to become more metacognitive can advance your abilities as a student, researcher, and life-long learner.

Obstacles to Effective Learning

Posted June 22, 2015 by unlmcnair
Categories: Uncategorized

By: Abe Flanigan, 2015 MSRE graduate assistant

 Study every day.

Pay attention during all of your classes.

Ask questions.

Chances are good you’ve heard these three keys to success during your years of schooling. There’s a reason why your parents and teachers recommended those learning strategies: students do better when they try harder. But how effective is a study session if your friends or the temptation to check Facebook constantly distract you? How well can you pay attention in your American history lecture if you only got four hours of sleep last night? While the specific learning strategies students use receive a lot of attention, we often lose sight of other factors that influence our ability to learn new information or perform well on tests and quizzes.

The purpose of this blog is to share information with you about how your sleeping pattern, exercise habits, and exposure to distractions impact your brain’s ability to learn and process information.

I need my six hours of sleep

 College students are notorious for staying up late to hang out with friends, binge watch Netflix, or study for an upcoming test. Sure, we all like to spend time with our friends, get caught up on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or feel prepared for our Intermediate Stats test. However, most of us fail to consider how maintaining such an unhealthy sleeping cycle impacts our brains and bodies. Dr. James Maas, author of Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program that Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance (1999) and widely regarded sleep expert, has dedicated his career to studying the effects that sleep has on our capacity to learn and perform at our highest levels.

How much sleep do you get every night? Four hours? Six hours? Eight hours? One of my roommates during undergrad always used to tell me, “As long as I get my six hours of sleep, I’m good to go.” If you’re like most college students, six hours of sleep sounds pretty good. But, what if I were to tell you that Maas’ research has found that people who sleep 4-6 hours every night for an entire week and then perform a series of challenging cognitive and physical tasks perform just as well as participants who are well rested, but legally intoxicated? It’s true. A lack of sleep can severely impact how well our brains and bodies perform. Maas suggests the average adult needs between 8-9 hours of sleep every night. Sound impossible? Make sleep a priority. If you sleep every night from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. (or from midnight until 8 a.m.), you’ll get your eight hours. To give yourself a chance to wind down and get more sleep at night, make the most of the daylight hours.

Another reason why sleep is helpful relates to a process known as Memory Consolidation. Throughout the course of the day, we learn hundreds of new pieces of information as we talk to other people, listen to the radio, read newspapers, or scroll through Facebook and Twitter. Our brains process thousands (maybe even millions) of sights, sounds, and other stimuli through our senses. That’s a TON of information. We can’t possibly remember it all! While we sleep, the brain sorts through all of the information from the previous day. This is when the brain decides what was important and what wasn’t, keeping important information and “deleting” the unimportant. This is the process of memory consolidation. If you spent four hours that day studying for your French history class, then your brain is going to identify that information as important and begin the process of storing (or, consolidating) it into long-term memory. The information the brain deems less important (e.g., the information you spent less time paying attention to) is going to be “deleted. This is why it’s difficult to remember what you had for breakfast four days ago – it’s really not that important so the brain removes that information from your memory.

Here’s why sleep is important to memory consolidation: the longer you sleep, the more information your brain can sort through and begin to consolidate into long-term memory. If you only give yourself six hours of sleep instead of eight, then your brain has less time to consolidate information into your long-term memory.

Besides setting an earlier bedtime for yourself, what else can you do to get more sleep? Maas has three suggestions. First, remove as many stimuli from your surroundings as possible. Remember, one of the purposes of sleeping is to give your brain a rest from processing information. So, if you sleep with a radio or television on, your brain picks up on the noise and your sleep rhythm is disrupted. At a speech he gave during the 2010 Great Plains Psychology Conference, Maas described how even the light emitted from an electronic alarm clock is enough to interfere with sleep. Second, if you like to workout late in the evening before bed, there’s a chance you’re messing with your sleeping habits. As you exercise, your body temperature rises. But, in order to go to sleep, your body temperature needs to lower. Working out shortly before bed makes it difficult for your body to cool down, so it’s more difficult to fall asleep. Or, you may be able to fall asleep, only to wake up a couple of times during the night or you feel groggy the next morning. Third, Maas advocates setting up a pre-bedtime routine. Calming activities such as reading a book, writing in a journal, or listening to soft music are all things we can do to help our bodies calm down and prepare for sleep.

 Exercise is for more than getting that “beach body”

 A healthy exercise routine also has positive effects on our ability to learn new information. No, you don’t have to run eight miles a day, do 500 sit-ups, or 100 pushups. Researchers have found that simply doing aerobic exercise (such as going for a jog or riding a bike) for just 30 minutes a day, 4-5 times a week is enough to boost your brain’s learning capabilities for up to 6-8 hours after you finish exercising. How? As we exercise, our brains release a chemical known as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). Simply put, BDNF is a natural steroid. The presence of BDNF positively impacts our cognitive efficiency and makes it easier to process information and store it in long-term memory. The more regularly you exercise, the more regularly you have elevated levels of BDNF in the brain. So, even if you aren’t motivated to get a perfectly sculpted beach body before Spring Break next year, you can use your academic goals as motivation to get into the gym or head out for a bike ride.

 Facebook, texting, and other distractions that hinder your learning

 Getting enough sleep and exercise can improve your brain’s ability to learn and process information. However, simply being well rested and settled into an exercise routine is not enough to guarantee success. You also need to pay attention to how the environment around you may benefit or harm your brain’s capabilities.

Take a minute to visualize the environment you typically study in. Is your cell phone within reach? Do you have distracting Internet sites open (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) on your laptop? Is the television on in the background? Having these distractions present in your study environment increases what educational psychologists call motivational interference (e.g., Fries & Dietz, 2006). Motivational interference refers to the decrease in our motivation and on-task behaviors as a result of the presence of tempting distractions. Unfortunately, students who experience high levels of motivational interference experience diminished motivation to continue studying, produce lower quality homework, and perform more poorly on tests and quizzes than students who minimize motivational interference.

So, you could be well rested and settled into an exercise routine, but that doesn’t guarantee success. Instead, it could all be wasted if you surround yourself with distractions during your study and homework sessions. In addition to motivational interference, research has found that the human brain cannot multitask (Medina, 2008). Most of us think we can switch between one task and another (like switching between studying for a quiz and sending text messages) and still function at an optimal level. Wrong! Instead, asking our brain to switch back and forth between one task and another challenges and makes our brain tired. Trying to multitask reduces the how much information we retain from study sessions. By minimizing the presence of distractions in our study and homework sessions, we can increase the quality of those sessions. So, put your phone on silent, close the Facebook tab on your laptop, and focus on studying. You’ll be surprised by how much easier it is to learn when you don’t have so many different things competing for your attention.

 Closing thoughts

 Remember, specific study strategies are important for your success. Study, work diligently on your homework, and ask questions. Being a proactive student will pay off in the form of good grades, positive relationships with your instructors, and enhanced opportunities for graduate school. But don’t forget that other factors also impact your learning outcomes. By getting enough sleep, your brain has time to rest and consolidate information into your long-term memory. Getting plenty of sleep also helps your brain function at its peak during the day. Exercise releases BDNF in the brain, further enhancing its ability to function at a high level. Finally, minimizing distractions when you’re studying allows your fully rested and BDNF-filled brain to process information more easily. By taking sleep, exercise, and the presence of distractions into account, you can make it easier on yourself to learn new information and perform at a high level.

Perspective is Everything: How Mindset Influences Your Success

Posted June 15, 2015 by unlmcnair
Categories: Uncategorized

By: Abe Flanigan, 2015 MSRE graduate assistant

Students’ beliefs about their ability to learn can have an incredibly positive or negative impact on their college success. Take Alan and Maria, for example. Both are college freshmen taking an introductory-level chemistry class. Alan never felt like he was any good at science. Instead, Alan likes to tell himself, “Tiger Woods was born to be a great golfer and Emily Dickinson was born to be a writer. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I try, I’m just not cut out to be a scientist.” Maria, on the other hand, has a different mindset. Although science has never been her favorite topic, she knows studying and working hard make it possible to do well in those courses. While thinking about chemistry, Maria often tells herself, “I know it might not be my best subject, but I can earn an A or B in this class by working hard.”

Last week, Alan and Maria took a chemistry quiz. Both of them failed. While neither was happy about failing, they interpreted their performances differently. Alan saw his poor performance as confirmation that he’s simply not cut out for science and, no matter how much time and effort he devotes to science classes, he’ll never succeed in chemistry. Maria understood her poor performance as an indication that she needs to devote more time and effort studying, asking questions, and visiting her professor’s office hours. She believes that, by working hard, she can do better on future quizzes, learn the material, and succeed.

Alan’s and Maria’s interpretations of their quiz performance represent two opposite mindsets about the nature of learning. According to educational psychologist Carol Dweck (1999), most students have one of two mindsets about the nature of learning: fixed and growth.

Students like Alan have a fixed mindset. For these students, intelligence is an innate gift. You’re either born smart or you’re not. You’re good at math and science, or you aren’t. Students with a fixed mindset don’t see the value in working hard or taking challenging academic courses because there’s no point. If you were born with natural ability in math, then you’ll always be good at math; if you weren’t born with natural ability in science, then you’ll always struggle in classes like biology and physics. It’s as simple as that and there’s no way around it.

Fortunately, not all people think this way.

The Wright Brothers had to overcome several crashes before successfully flying the first plane. Crick and Watson had to work for over a decade before uncovering DNA’s true structure. Marie Curie only discovered radium after years of intensive work and study. All of these people understood that they needed to persevere and overcome obstacles to reach their goals. People who view intelligence as a malleable quality that can be developed over time through hard work and effort possess a growth mindset. These people understand that sometimes learning doesn’t come easy. In order to succeed, you need to apply yourself, take on new challenges, confront failures, and work hard.

What influence does our mindset have?

Dweck discovered important differences between people who possess fixed and those with growth mindsets. She found that mindsets influence (a) how we respond to setbacks, (b) our beliefs about the importance of working hard, (c) academic performance, and (d) the amount of anxiety we experience during college.

Response to setbacks. If students believe success in school is fixed, that it’s determined by how much natural ability they have in each subject, then their failures or successes will only confirm those beliefs. Alan thought he was bad at chemistry. When he failed the quiz, Alan decided his performance confirmed his belief. He was unable to see how a more concerted effort would’ve helped him boost his performance on the quiz.

Students with a growth mindset view setbacks as opportunities for improvement. Maria didn’t do well on this quiz, but used the experience as motivation. She studied frequently, asked more questions, and visited her instructor’s office hours. Maria believes that, with a more dedicated effort, she can succeed. Setbacks are going to happen; they’re a natural part of the learning process. If your faculty research advisor doesn’t like the way you wrote the first draft of your research manuscript, does that mean you will never be able to write scientifically? Of course it doesn’t. It simply means you have room to improve. Believe me, even doctoral students (and faculty members) receive constructive feedback from peers and advisors.

Beliefs about effort. It’s empowering to know that the ability to learn new information and master new skills is in your hands. Students with a fixed mindset believe working hard is pointless because intelligence can’t be developed over time and natural ability won’t disappear. They are wrong about both of these things.

First, research has shown how taking more notes, studying regularly, and setting a goal to master course content are positively associated with course achievement. Hard work does matter. Second, ability does decrease over time if you don’t continue to practice and apply yourself. For example, let’s say that Alisha’s high school teachers always told her she was a good writer. When she got to college, Alisha felt that she didn’t need to spend time improving her writing ability because she was already a “good writer.” But if she doesn’t practice the skill and hone her abilities, Alisha will have trouble rising to the more demanding writing tasks in college. After all, it’s much more difficult to write a research manuscript in college than to write a two-page book report in high school. Previous success does NOT always mean that you’ll continue to be successful in the future. It takes effort to continue developing the skills to be successful in college, graduate school, and beyond. Students with a growth mindset are more likely to embrace this reality than students with a fixed mindset.

Academic performance. By using setbacks as motivation to improve and work harder, students with a growth mindset set themselves on the path to academic success. The same can be said for growing as a researcher. Learning how to write scientifically takes work. Exploring relevant literature, designing experiments, and analyzing the results can be draining, time-consuming, and mentally exhausting. However, all of us have the capacity to become competent researchers who contribute to our respective fields. By embracing this truth and working towards it, you will already put yourself ahead of students whose fixed mindsets hold them back.

Anxiety. Finally, students with fixed and growth mindsets feel different levels of anxiety during their academic experience. Sure, everybody feels a little anxious sometimes. In fact, studies have shown that feeling slightly nervous before a test or speaking to a group of people can actually boost your performance! People with a fixed mindset, however, experience what educational psychologists refer to as “invited anxiety” – the anxiety that arises from a lack of preparation and feeling like they can’t learn new skills. Why invite anxiety? You have enough to focus on, so keep a positive attitude towards learning!

What does all of this mean for you?

Now that you know a little more about fixed and growth mindsets, you can begin to think about how your mindset impacts your motivation, behavior, and performance. If you have a fixed mindset, take steps towards developing a healthier growth mindset. If you’re struggling in calculus, talk to friends who took the course before you, learn about their struggles. Find out how they overcame them. Read Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets and learn how mindsets influence the performance of students, people in the workforce, athletes, and more. The more educated you are about the benefits of a growth mindset, the easier it’ll be for you to accept how influential your mindset really is.

As you work to develop your academic, research, and professional skills, don’t forget about the importance of your mindset. If you attend graduate school, you can expect to be challenged. You’ll learn new, complex forms of statistics. You’ll receive feedback on how you design research studies and write reports. You may even receive a teaching assistantship and need to learn how to communicate effectively, develop lesson plans, and design assignments that promote student learning. If you’re like most people, you’ll struggle in some (or maybe ALL) of these areas. That’s okay. By keeping a growth mindset, positive attitude, and putting your best foot forward, you can chip away at the obstacles in front of you and achieve your academic and professional goals.

2015 McNair Recognition Reception Video

Posted April 27, 2015 by unlmcnair
Categories: Uncategorized

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln 2015 McNair Recognition Reception Video honoring the graduating Scholars as well as other current McNair Scholars is available for viewing at:


Ronald McNair Commencement Video

Posted June 2, 2014 by unlmcnair
Categories: MSRE

Tags: ,

To kick off the McNair Summer Research Experience, Scholars watched the Ronald E. McNair commencement address given to the graduates at the University of South Carolina in August 1984.

A South Carolina native, McNair was also awarded an honorary degree at this graduation ceremony. McNair was killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster less than a year and a half later.

Dr. McNair’s message is as inspirational and relevant today as it was in 1984.

Brunelli, J. (2012). Astronaut Ron McNair delivers the commencement at the University of South Carolina [Online Video]. Strategic Marketing and Creative Services, University of South Carolina. Retrieved from


It’s the Little Things That Make the Big Difference

Posted March 26, 2014 by unlmcnair
Categories: Graduate School

As you prepare for graduate school, keep this important piece of advice in mind: It’s the little things that happen along the way that make the difference in your path to becoming an academic. Yes, it’s true, those seemingly little things you do in your interactions with people often make a big difference down the road. Tina Seelig, the Chong Moon Lee Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, offers this advice in the book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World.

Seelig argues that showing appreciation for the things others do for you has a profound effect on how you’re perceived. Keep in mind that everything someone does for you has an opportunity cost. If someone takes time out of his or her day to attend to you, there’s something they haven’t done for themselves or for someone else. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking your request is small. But when someone is busy there are no small requests. Always assume a thank-you note is in order and look at situations when you don’t send one as the exception to the rule. Because so few people actually do this (unfortunately), you will certainly stand out from the crowd.

Seelig offers a few additional “little things” that can make a big difference:

Read the rest of this post »

I Survived MSRE…Now What?

Posted September 4, 2013 by unlmcnair
Categories: Uncategorized

by Maggie Gossard

You’ve just finished the McNair Summer Research Experience (MSRE), and you’re excited about what comes next. Here are a few suggestions that helped me have a successful post-MSRE experience.

Give yourself a break
You ate, slept, lived, and breathed your project this summer. You went to Berkeley and completely rocked out your presentation. Maybe you want to start on the next project quickly. But don’t forget to relax. All of your hard work has paid off (and will continue to pay off), and now it’s time to do something nice for yourself. Whether it’s going to get a massage, having a night out with friends, or simply catching up on some much needed sleep, do your best to just take a breather. There is more work to come, but creating balance in your life is a healthy habit to get into. The ability to maintain balance in your life will help you during the next academic year and beyond in graduate school.

Continue your research
This fall, take all of the new skills that you learned during MSRE and apply them to your research. Whether you continue work on your McNair project or starting a completely new research project, know that you’re competent and ready for whatever comes your way. If you’re continuing your existing study, consider making it your senior thesis. After all, thanks to your McNair paper, a good bulk of the work will already be done! You’ll perhaps just be adding in some additional results and bulking up your discussion. If you’re starting a new project, use your McNair paper as a template to help you build your next paper and develop it into a senior thesis.

Market yourself
You’ve accomplished so much! You’re not only a fantastic student, you’re now also a scholar. This sets you apart from your peers in an important way, and it’s important to market yourself as an asset. For example, if you’ve worked in one lab and have done a great job, consider adding another lab to the mix. You’ll have a track record of excellence behind you, and you have a lot to offer a new lab. Plus, don’t forget, you need three letters of recommendation for graduate school; adding experience in a second lab is a great way to secure another letter. Additionally, check out any departmental academic or research awards that you may be eligible for. These look great on your curriculum vitae and solidify your reputation as a scholar.

Prepare for the graduate application process
McNair has given you the tools for applying to graduate school. Don Asher has given you some helpful tips and advice. Now it’s time to put everything into motion. The application process is intense, but completely manageable if you make it a priority and stay organized.

  • If you haven’t already done so, study for and take the GRE. Ideally, you’ll want to give yourself 2-3 months to prepare. There’s no magic formula, book, or app to get you through the GRE. There are tools that can aid you in your study, but when all is said and done, it’s about good old-fashioned studying.
  • Begin researching and narrowing down the schools you plan to apply to. Focus on fit.Remember, as Don Asher said, “Fit and match trump grades and scores”. Don’t get hung up on “big name” schools; there may not be any faculty there researching what you’re interested in. Along those same lines, don’t compromise doing what you’re passionate about to go to a prestigious school. It can turn into a very long five or six years in graduate school if you are not doing something you love.
  • After identifying the programs and faculty members that you’re interested in, email the professors to see if they’re taking students. It could be the best match in the world, but if they don’t have an open spot for you, it will be a waste of time applying there.
  • Begin drafting your personal statement. I recommend that for the first draft, you don’t think too much. Sit down and just pour your heart out on paper. Then begin to revise with the help of your mentor or graduate student mentor. Writing your statement this way will ensure that the “uniquely you” part of your statement is present. Remember to address any adversity you have faced in the past as something you have overcome, not something that happened to you. Give your statement a positive, inspiring message filled with clarity of purpose.
  • Begin identifying your letter writers and gathering information for them. They should be given a copy of your cv, statement of purpose, McNair paper, information on each school you are applying to, the faculty you’re applying to work with (and their research interests), and all the information about when and how to submit their letters to each school. Do your best to make writing and submitting your letters as easy as possible for your writers. The less time they have to spend looking for the information they need to submit their letter, the more time they can spend on writing you a strong letter. 

Keep your grades up
In the middle of all of the chaos, be careful not to neglect your coursework. If you are applying in the fall, your fall marks will be the last set of grades that admission committees will see before they make your admission decision. Strategize your course load and make those grades count.Try to take a “light” course load (no more than 12 credit hours) of enjoyable, manageable classes so that you can make the application process a priority while comfortably balancing your classes.

If you follow these steps, you can effectively use your MSRE experience as a springboard to continued success from college and into graduate school. You have proved to yourself that you can do this: you belong in this domain, you are a scholar, and you are on the path to greatness. Work hard, stay organized, be committed to your plan, and enjoy the ride! The future is yours for the taking.


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