How to Get Into America's Top Environmental Graduate Schools

by Carol Ruhl
How to Get Into America's Top Environmental Graduate Schools

Graduate school is not for the weak of heart.

It involves countless, long hours for little or no pay. It means squinting into microscopes for days, or sloshing into muddy streams to collect tiny bugs, or wading through stacks of papers in the name of research. It means writing incredibly long theses papers, which are presented to a panel of professors who pick apart your painfully-gathered work.

And that's only after you go through the painstaking process of deciding where to go, what to study, and how it will help you to improve your life and career. There are many possible roads to travel, and there's no guarantee that a seemingly open path won't suddenly close in the form of a rejection letter from a school that you desperately wanted to attend.

Why put yourself though all of this? For some, it's about career advancement and for others it's about personal enrichment and the love of learning. In the end, those who succeed at graduate school do indeed have a chance at a better career.

If you've decided that graduate school is for you, we have some tips on how to successfully navigate the application process in order to sharpen your chances of acceptance. To get the best advice possible, we went straight to the source, surveying 15 admissions staff members and academic leaders at some of America's top environmental graduate programs.

Before you read on, let us be clear that this article is NOT an attempt to say which are the best graduate schools in America, and it is not a ranking of schools - rather, it is about how to get into America's top environmental graduate schools through the eyes of the people who evaluate prospective students every day at some of the most highly-regarded institutions.

Indeed, there are many great environmental programs not included in this article (some were not able to respond to our inquiries this time around). Furthermore, there is a serious lack of a consistent rating system for environmental schools in America. We selected schools to interview based on:

  • The Gourman Report, by Jack Gourman. Princeton Review, 8th Edition. 1997.
  • U.S. News and World Report Graduate School Rankings.
  • Networking, Reputation, and Word-of-Mouth, including schools that were consistently named as among the best through interviews with their peers and environmental professionals on this site. Check out our interviews here.

Please read on to find some great advice, straight from the source, on how to get into America's top environmental graduate schools.

When is the right time for someone to consider attending a graduate environmental program?

Most of our sources agreed that the right time to apply to graduate school is when you feel ready. However, there were some common ideas shared that may be helpful to consider before you begin filling out applications:

  1. Get Some Experience in Your Field of Interest: Experience in the field will be a big plus for you because it more strongly demonstrates to the people reviewing your application that you are certain of the direction that you want your career to go.
  2. Do Your Research, Apply Early: "The early bird DOES get the best reviews," according to Dr. Nick Hild of Arizona State University's Environmental Technology Program. The application deadlines are usually three or four months before the start of the semester, but you should start your research on schools and applications earlier.
  3. Funding Counts: Money is another great reason to apply early. If you'll need assistantships or fellowships to help you pay for your education, Dr. D. Allen Rutherford, Coordinator of Graduate Studies and Research for Louisiana State University's School of Renewable Natural Resources, points out, you should submit your application at least 6-7 months prior to your initial semester.

That said..."There are no hard and fast rules," says Mr. Jose Acosta, Assistant Director for Admission for the Audubon Expedition Institute (AEI) at Lesley University.

And...the right time could be any time, adds Dr. Tom Koontz, Graduate Studies Chair of Ohio State University's School of Natural Resources, "so long as you have thought about your interests and career goals enough to have an idea of (what) you wish to pursue."

What are the top three reasons that students choose to pursue a graduate degree in your program's field of study?

It is important for you to think about the reasons that you want to pursue a particular program. Certainly, it makes sense to you, so you will need to articulate your reasons in your application to each school, possibly including your perspective on what you think makes their program unique, diverse, and interesting.

Here are the top three responses that our respondents cited for attending their program:

  1. Location/Facilities - For environmental students, "location" could mean access to the outdoors, or to excellent lab facilities, or even the close proximity of good jobs. Be prepared for this discussion on your application.
  2. Expertise of faculty members - One of the main things that those reviewing your application are looking for is that you have knowledge of what the program is doing and how this fits into your interests. One way to demonstrate this is to find a faculty member interested in your area, get in contact with him or her, and establish a rapport - by doing so, you may be creating a relationship with someone within the program who will then advocate your admission. "Many students in our program are drawn to particular faculty members who are leaders in their field," says Dr. Koontz of Ohio State University.
  3. Uniqueness or diversity of the academic program - Another aspect that should attract you to a department or school is the kinds of courses and research opportunities available. The best programs tend to be interdisciplinary - meaning that they bring expertise and knowledge from all areas of the university and from nearby research institutions, laboratories, and schools. Good programs are also diverse, so each student can choose a "niche" of the field to research that will be unique and challenging. Be aware of potential niches for you, and articulate them, if that is a part of your educational goals.

You'll want to provide specific reasons why you think a program matches your needs and interests. Pick out little things - for example, did you enjoy the small, tight-knit community feeling of the school when you visited? Point this out! Schools pride themselves on their uniqueness.

When selecting prospective graduate students, what factors are considered by your admissions staff? Beyond the "basics" of good grades and GRE scores and a demonstrated commitment to their education, what makes an applicant stand out?

Every program will give some consideration to the "basics," as defined in this question. After that, though, there are a number of factors upon which your acceptance may balance. What are these factors and how important are they?

We found that the answer varies greatly because each program looks for different things when weighing the merits of future students. Nevertheless, there are several things that nearly all application reviewers look for, including:

  • Recommendations: "Strong letters of recommendation from advisors, supervisors and mentors who know the candidate very well" can stand an applicant apart from the crowd, according to Dr. Lawrence Susskind of the School of Urban and Environmental Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Importantly, added Dr. Rob Swihart, Chair of the Graduate Committee of Purdue University's Department of Forest and Natural Resources, these letters "provide additional insight into the applicant's motivation, experience, and temperament." These letters will mean even more, says Millicent Pinckert of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University if the person recommending the candidate is personally known to the faculty.
  • Commitment and Self-Motivation: Applicants must demonstrate their commitment to the program and consider how their academic and career goals fit into the "big picture" of environmental and social causes. "A strong candidate for our program has a keen sense of inquiry and a dedication to making a difference in the world," says Dr. Eileen McGurty of the Environmental Sciences and Policy Program at Johns Hopkins University.
  • Experience: Again, some admissions staff and graduate faculty are looking for prior work or research experience in the field, and what you learned from that experience. "Experience in terms of internships, volunteering, paid work can help demonstrate sincere commitment to the field," says Dr. Kathy Halvorsen, Graduate Director of the Masters in Environmental Policy program at Michigan Technological University. If you are still an undergraduate, you should try to participate in a good internship, job, or research project. Students who have already graduated should look for a job in their field and be able to demonstrate how it fits in to your long-term career/research goals.

The best way to find out these kinds of critical details is to go straight to the source: "Contact faculty directly and ask what they look for in applicants," suggests Dr. Halvorsen.

What do you look for in a prospective student's background and/or essay (if one is required)?

The top responses included:

  • Commitment to the Program
  • Commitment of the field of study and/or the environment
  • Strong writing and communications skills
  • A connection with program faculty and/or research interests

Perhaps the most important thing is a demonstrated commitment to the program, to its research, and to expanding your skills and knowledge in the field. "The most important aspect of the essay is that the candidate can articulate a particular area of study with a thoughtful sense of inquiry," states Dr. McGurty of Johns Hopkins. "Vague generalities about 'liking the environment,' are not useful. However, the essay must also show a strong commitment to the field."

Application reviewers are looking for a "plan of action" for your research that is clear, concise, relevant, and realistic. The essay is an opportunity to show your enthusiasm for the field. "We like to see passion about the subject area," says Dr. Susan Krinsky, Associate Dean at Tulane Law School.

Leaders are also looking for high academic achievement, including a strong grasp of your chosen area of study and good communication skills. This includes writing your essay well! Mr. Acosta of AEI told us: "Writing ability is key. The applicant must be able to communicate thoughts clearly on paper. Editing is also key, and I mean not just spell check, (but) really re-reading and re-writing the essays if it's called for will get the applicant noticed. When someone's just used spell check and called it editing that gets them noticed too, in a bad way."

And again, if possible, you want to connect your plans to the work of a specific faculty member. "We look for specifics that indicate the extent to which a student has considered how the expertise of the faculty in the program complements the student's interests," says Dr. Swihart.

Does your department interview prospective students before admitting them? If so, what are you looking for in the interview?

Some schools require a personal interview, and others do not. But even if it does not, contact the graduate advisor, and do it anyway!

Most of our sources said that while interviews are not required, they are encouraged, and interviews are a great way to supplement the written materials you submit. Plus, if you are visiting the campus anyway, you might as well schedule an interview with the faculty member(s) you plan to be working with.

"A visit to our university... may assist a student who is weaker 'on paper' in convincing us that they will be successful in our program," points out Dr. Halvorsen of Michigan Tech.

Dr. Susan Gill, of the Earth and Environmental Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania, adds: "The more we get to know each applicant, the better able we are to make a decision on their admission on factors other than simply GPA and GRE scores."

What are admissions staff looking for at these interviews? Here are some ideas, straight from the sources:

  • "During an interview we gauge a student's grasp of current research topics, an ability to think analytically and communicate in an articulate manner, and the level of interest they display," says Dr. Swihart.
  • "Our program is competitive and we look for students that not only want to learn but want to contribute to the classes for their fellow students. An oral interview can sometimes show if that kind of spirit is present (or not)," says Dr. Hild.
  • Dr. Deane Wang, Associate Dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, says that admissions staff and graduate faculty are "looking for appropriate academic background, enthusiasm, and commitment to hard work in prospective students."
  • "We look for... a go-getter in terms of seeking out a willing faculty advisor, finding a thesis project, seeking funding for the thesis project," says Dr. Douglas Piirto, Head of the Natural Resources Management Department at California Polytechnic State University.

What three things can most likely DECREASE an applicant's chances of getting accepted?

The top three responses were:

  1. Poor academic achievement and/or graduate exam scores that are too low.
  2. An unsupported, poorly-written or otherwise unremarkable essay.
  3. A lack of understanding of and familiarity with the program's goals and faculty interests.

By far, the biggest reason that reviewers denied acceptance to a candidate was poor academic achievement, as demonstrated by graduate admissions test scores that were too low and/or poor grades as an undergraduate. "A student who has not demonstrated through grades, essay and/or references his/her ability to succeed in graduate level work will not likely be accepted," states Dr. McGurty.

Another instant sinker is an "unfocused" essay. Dr. Gill elaborates: "Badly written essays and a foggy idea of what they want to accomplish will lower the chances of admissions even if the GPA and GRE scores are high."

Other factors that decrease an applicant's chance of success include having poor letters of recommendation; a sloppy application; or failing to demonstrate enthusiasm for research, the field, and broader goals.

Also, as Dr. Piirto of Cal Poly Tech, put it: "Not showing a positive attitude" could be your downfall. So be enthusiastic!

In this very brief and unscientific survey of graduate environmental programs, there were some common responses, with Yale University, the University of Michigan, and Duke University being the most-commonly mentioned.

Other schools mentioned more than once include Oregon State University, University of California, Berkeley, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).

No one mentioned any specific international programs, with some citing a lack of familiarity.

What percentage of applicants do you accept into your program? In general, how selective are comparable graduate environmental programs?

  • Tulane Law School, Environmental Law Program: Just under 25% of applicants to the JD [graduate/doctorate level law degree] program were admitted. Dr. Krinsky would like to note that these statistics apply to the entire JD program at Tulane, and are not specific to the Environmental Law program.
  • Michigan Tech, Graduate Program in Environmental Policy: 50-75% of students accepted. "I am not sure about the selectivity of other programs," said Dr. Halvorsen.
  • Arizona State University, Environmental Technology Program: Applicants are "pre-screened," because they must already have a good science background and have completed the necessary prerequisite courses. Thus, they are able to accept around 75-80% of qualified applicants. The pre-screening process means that the program is "pretty selective," according to Dr. Hild.
  • Ohio State University, Columbus, School of Natural Resources: In 2003, the School had 47 applicants and 13 of them enrolled. Dr. Koontz estimated that the acceptance rate was probably around 40 to 50%.
  • Cal Poly, Natural Resource Management Department: Dr. Mark Shelton told us that a very rough estimate of the percentage of applicants accepted into the FNR [Forestry and Natural Resources] graduate program would be 60%. "This may be higher than that for other institutions because the majority of our M.S. students were Cal Poly undergraduates who have spoken with their prospective major professors before applying. This greatly increases their likelihood of being accepted into our graduate program."
  • Columbia University, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences: Over the past four years, acceptance rates in the Ph.D. program have averaged about 20%. "In regard to the selectiveness of comparable Ph.D. [programs], I imagine they are just as selective as we are," says Ms. Pinckert.
  • Louisiana State University, School of Renewable Natural Resources: According to Dr. Rutherford, the acceptance rate is around 30%, and their program has about the same acceptance rate as other programs.
  • Purdue University, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources: Dr. Swihart submitted that the acceptance rate is around 20% for applicants whose files are complete and whose interests match at least one faculty member in the department.
  • University of Vermont, Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources: This year, the School is expecting to accept 25 of its 160 applicants, according to Dr. Wang. The School is probably more selective than many comparable graduate programs in the Natural Resource and Environmental Science fields.
  • University of Oregon, Environmental Studies Program: According to Dr. Greg Retallack, Head of Graduate Admissions, the program typically gets 120-150 applicants and admits 6-8.

Do you have any helpful statistics?

Both Dr. Hild and Dr. Piirto reported that a high proportion of their students with a Master's degree had found good, well-paying jobs in the local, national or international arenas. This is because graduate school not only helps you become an expert in your study area; it also helps you obtain the skills needed to be a professional. According to Dr. Piirto, Master's program graduates " that they acquired enhanced technical, written, and oral speaking skills as a result of their MS experience here." Communications skills and other skills are very important to having any kind of successful career. Graduate school is a time to learn how to solicit funding, do effective team work, and present research findings clearly and succinctly.

Other helpful statistics that were offered include:

  • According to Dr. Swihart, "Successful applicants during the preceding year exhibited average GRE verbal and quantitative scores of 599 and 725, respectively, and an average GPA of 3.59. International students scored 592 on average for the TOEFL."
  • Dr. Gill said that they do not keep statistics on admissions, but she did have something encouraging to say; "[We] look at the applicant's entire application. We give strong consideration to applicants with impressive professional careers, Peace Corps or Americorps service, or other strong indications of commitment to pursuing a graduate degree, even if that applicant's GPA is less than stellar. In other words, we try to treat every applicant as an individual and see if s/he shows promise."
  • "We will have just about 100 MS and Ph.D. students (combined) in the School, which makes us a middle-sized program in Natural Resources. We emphasize the community scale of the School and an asset," states Dr. Wang.

Reading up on a school's statistics is a good way to get some quick facts about it to use in your application. For instance, check out things like class size, student-to-faculty ratios, and the average aid/assistant package sizes. If you like what you see, bring it up in the application when you are talking about how you and the school would be a good match.

Do you have any other advice to offer for students who are trying to get accepted into a top graduate environmental program?

Most of our sources said that if you contact individual faculty members that you want to work with and get to know them well, it is more likely that you will be accepted because you have demonstrated an obvious interest in the work. Dr. Wang suggests: "Actively investigate the programs you are interested in. Contact professors, look at the grants and papers they have been recently been involved in, visit, talk to current graduate students, [and] ask lots of questions."

You should begin actively soliciting funding early on in your graduate school search. See our article, "How to Win a Graduate Fellowship," for information on fellowship awards. You should also contact the programs you are applying to and ask what funding they have available. According to Dr. Rutherford at Louisiana State University; "Unlike undergraduate programs, students may be rejected from a graduate program based on non-academic criteria. These decisions are most often based on lack of funding to support student assistantships and research and faculty work loads... thus it is critical for students to contact each professor in their area of interest about funding possibilities."

You should also have a clear goal in mind for why you are going to graduate school. Admissions staff and graduate faculty want to know that you are committed to their program, and that your education will be a worthwhile investment for both of you. "Be explicit about the skills you want to acquire and be clear about how (and where) you expect to use these skills," advises Dr. Susskind, of MIT.

The next step, after establishing clear goals, is to explain why these goals would work at the program you're applying to. This will require you to do some research. Mr. Acosta of AEI puts it simply. "Do your homework and you'll be more likely to end up where you want to be."

Some of the best advice we can offer is to be true to yourself. Be honest and realistic about what you want, where you want to go, and what you can afford. Don't fluff up your essay or interview with what you think the admissions staff wants to hear. "Be yourself," advises Dr. Krinsky of Tulane. "The better we feel that we know you, the more likely we will be to want you to join us."


It is important to make the decision to go to graduate school based on whether or not it fits your long-term goals, and also whether or not you are ready to devote a very large chunk of your time to it. Many of our educators thought that getting a little experience out in the "real world" between undergraduate and graduate educations was a good idea (but not required). You'll be more prepared to decide an exact field of study; the experience will look good on your application; and you'll probably get some good letters of recommendation and make some valuable professional connections.

Choose a school based on the factors that are most important to you - then you will have found the very best environmental graduate program! Our respondents emphasized several times that applicants need to contact faculty as soon as they decide they might like to go to the school. Find out who is taking on research assistants in your field of interest and whether they have the funding to support you. Get to know the other faculty members, too, so you have several allies on the application review committee.

The most successful applicants display enthusiasm for their subject and the school, as well as a general love of learning and making a difference in the world. This is another reason why some people wait to apply to graduate school; they may further develop their passions and philosophies after they've seen more of their field.

Of course, one of the most important parts of the application is your letters of recommendation. Good letters come from professors, supervisors, and other professionals that can attest to your abilities because they worked closely with you in your chosen field of study. You get bonus points if the people writing your letters know the faculty members of the program you're applying to. The most important thing is that the letter writers know you well enough to write a meaningful and useful letter!

Lastly, don't neglect the obvious stuff. Do well as an undergraduate, especially once you've declared your major. Get plenty of experience under your belt, including internships, jobs and research projects. Study hard for your graduate admissions tests. Carefully review and edit your application and essay, and have someone else go over it, too. You'd hate to be rejected over a few grammatical errors! Get to know faculty members early on.

With the right mix of enthusiasm, academic achievement, and tenacity, you will be able to get into a good environmental graduate program! Best of luck!

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