Well-Rounded Experience: Get a variety of experiences that make you a well-rounded student/applicant (e.g. TA experience, internships, leadership in student associations at your university and in national societies, grant writing experience, service/volunteer work, etc.). By having experience in all of these areas prior to PhD admission, you show that you are already actively involved in your future as a PhD student and in academia. Also, the variety of experiences makes you unique and sets you apart from other applicants. Unique experiences will show the committee a perspective that other applicants may lack.
Demonstrate Work Ethic: Show that you are a hard-working student/person. Grades in grad school DO matter. Make sure you can demonstrate research productivity in addition to all the different experiences and commitments you have. This part may be the hardest and most challenging aspect (before and during grad school), but you have to stay strong and focused and believe that you can do it.
Align Your Interests: Find a program that has faculty with research interests that align with your own. Look for the recent publications of the faculty and start to determine which faculty member in the program could be your advisor.
Lay the Groundwork: Make sure that you are known within the department. Contact the faculty member you’ve identified as a potential advisor and see if they have room in their lab and/or funding for you (or they may be willing to help you obtain your own funding).
Fill the Gaps: If there are gaps in your application (perhaps identified with the help of your potential supervisor), then do your best to make sure that they are addressed before applying. Your potential PhD advisor may be able to help you get into the program by filling in the gaps in your application.
Know Your Deadlines: Once you have chosen a program that feels like a “fit” with you, figure out when everything is due. Make a checklist of items they require and the time it will take to get them (ie: transcripts, GRE scores) and then work from that list.
Plan Ahead: Start asking for letters of recommendation early; give your recommenders’ plenty of notice and a deadline before the Program deadline. Asking faculty to write your letters is helpful but also be sure to give whoever is writing your letters a copy of your resume/CV, cover letter and any other personal statements.
Put in the Time: Put time and effort into your application and Personal Statement, especially when applying to Hawai‘i from a distance. There most likely will not be a face-to-face meeting of any sort, so you must present yourself well on paper.
Don’t Rush It: If the application deadline is coming up, and you do not have time to prepare a strong application or determine if the program is right for you, then wait until the next application deadline. A haphazard application of someone that nobody is familiar with (see #2) may be easily overlooked.
Courtesy of recent students and graduates of the PhD Nutrition Program and the book What they Didn’t Teach you in Graduate School by Paul Gray and David Drew, 2nd edition, 2012.