How to craft a standout application to graduate school: Biomedical edition


by J. Racquel Collins, PhD

J. Racquel Collins, PhD

J. Racquel Collins, PhD
Assistant Dean, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

We have been recruiting for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences for the past four years, giving us the pleasure of meeting thousands of students along the way. Not surprisingly, the number one question asked by potential applicants to our Graduate School is, “How can I make my application stand out from the competition?” With or without a standout application, you need to be the right person, so we will start our preferences.

We focus on your research experience

Prior laboratory research experience is a minimum requirement to apply to the Graduate School. Some of our current students have been engaged in scientific research since high school, while others found their passion for research during their junior year of college. We aren’t as concerned with how much time you have spent in labs as we are about the quality of the research you have performed. We will assess the quality of your research based on your research summary and layman’s essay, as well as on letters of reference from research advisors or principal investigators familiar with your output.

Tell us a memorable story

Every researcher has had that Aha! moment (or maybe an Aha! semester) when they decided that a career in science was right for them. This happened to me when I was 12, watching a Danny Thomas fundraising telethon for St. Jude. My parents couldn’t answer all of my questions about cancer or explain why other parents were having to say goodbye to their children before they had the chance to live. I knew, right then, that I wanted to be a cancer researcher at St. Jude.

One of our current students, the first in his family to attend college, learned from his father how to diagnose and fix problems in the family’s cars, which led to an interest in solving medical problems.

Demonstrate perseverance and grit

Not everyone has a great transition from high school to college. Many of us are first-generation college students. Some of our families and school systems were unable to provide us with resources, life skills or a sense of direction needed to adapt to college life. My own first pass at college—five semesters in pre-med—ended in failure. Then I picked myself back up and joined the military. I applied the discipline gained from that experience in another undergraduate institution, where I graduated with honors. What challenges have you encountered, and what did you do to overcome those challenges? That is what we want to learn about you from your personal statement.

Your academic strengths, beyond the numbers

J. Racquel Collins, PhD

J. Racquel Collins, PhD, Assistant Dean of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

St. Jude has no minimum requirements for GPAs or GRE scores. While we look holistically at each application, you should explain in your personal statement a GPA that is under 3.0 or GRE scores below the 30th percentile. An undergraduate GPA deflated by missteps during your freshman and sophomore years does not have to conceal your subsequent academic progress. We do like to see As and Bs in your science classes. Also, our current PhD students recommend undergraduate classes in genetics and biochemistry to help your through the first year of PhD course work. Some of us don’t do well on standardized exams, despite solid GPAs and endless test-preps and family pep talks. We get it, and so do you. We will look at all of your other strengths in combination. Keep in mind that we will accept MCAT scores in lieu of the GRE.

Now that you know what we are looking for in an applicant, here are some tips to help you complete your Graduate School application.

Personal statement

This is where we hope to understand you as a person.

  • What drives or motivates you?
  • What made you choose research as a career?
  • What do you want to do with your PhD?
  • What is it about our program that interests you?
  • Are there any St. Jude faculty in particular with whom you’d like to work?
  • What will you bring with you that will make our program better?

Your passion for research is the theme of this statement. Note that we do not want to read about your specific research experience here. You will share that in the next two essays.

Research summary

Write a paragraph about each of your research experiences—and it’s OK for you to have only one. Tell us about:

  • The purpose of that project
  • The hypothesis you were testing
  • What you learned in terms of data and techniques
  • The conclusions of the project
  • What you have added to the body of knowledge for someone else in your field to build upon.
Brennan Bergeron, and J. Racquel Collins, PhD

Brennan Bergeron, third-year graduate student, and J. Racquel Collins, PhD, discuss important work.

Your most important contribution to research, in layman’s terms

The layman’s essay is completely different from the research summary. Please do not copy and paste from your research summary. We want to see how well you convey your research and its importance to a non-scientific audience. Think of it as your three-minute elevator pitch to a billionaire who may agree to fund your research, as long as you can simplify it to a 7th grade level. Let your parents read it and your non-science (layman) friends. If they understand your description, you nailed it.

Reference letters

These letters, written by your professors and research advisors, are the most vital part of your application. They will tell us more about your readiness than any test score or GPA, and there’s research to prove it. In 2017, biochemistry professors from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of California-San Francisco published separate studies that identified faculty recommendation letters as the most accurate predictors for success in PhD programs.

When you ask your mentors to write reference letters:

  • Ask them in person, well in advance of the deadline – at least a month, when possible.
  • Provide them with the following: a description of the program to which you are applying, your CV or resume, your unofficial transcript(s), and a document that describes your strengths, a couple of weaknesses, as well as why you think that the program is a good fit for you. You will re-use most of these items to complete your application.
  • Follow up with a thank-you email, with the same documents attached, and reiterate the deadline date.

Submit your application by December 1*

Be authentic, be passionate and be thorough when addressing each of these application sections, to ensure a stand-out St. Jude Graduate School application. Apply now using our free application. Connect with us at if you have questions along the way. We look forward to meeting more of you on the road!

* December 1 is the Graduate School’s annual deadline. Check for related updates on our admissions timeline.