Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Mentorship programs for underrepresented applicants strive to increase graduate diversity at MIT

Graduate students from a range of departments and programs at MIT have launched application assistance programs targeting student applicants from underrepresented backgrounds.

The Graduate Application Assistance Programs (GAAPs) are run by volunteer graduate students and recent alumni dedicated to increasing diversity in their programs. Last year, GAAP mentors reached out to as many as 1,000 MIT applicants from underrepresented backgrounds, applicants who identified as LGBTQ+, and those with non-traditional academic backgrounds.

“Over the past two years, GAAPs have seen rapid growth, not only across graduate departments but also in the number of prospective students served,” notes Noelle Wakefield, assistant director of the MIT Summer Research Program and Diversity Initiatives in the Office of Graduate Education.

Applicants and their mentors work closely together through the fall semester to refine key application materials, such as personal and research statements, in order to improve the graduate school application experience and outcomes. As the application deadline approaches, GAAPs also offer webinars and other group interactions to help participants put the finishing touches on their application materials.

“GAAP programs are a great first step toward providing the mentorship necessary for students to feel empowered and confident about their graduate admissions journey — particularly those historically underrepresented in graduate education,” says Wakefield.

The lack of diversity among graduate students has been a persistent problem at MIT and other institutions for many years. Of the 6,893 enrolled graduate students at MIT, only 946 are from underrepresented groups and only 2,578 are women, according to the MIT Registrar.

“Promoting diversity and equity at MIT means supporting underrepresented individuals during the application process,” says Mason Ng, a GAAP organizer in physics. GAAP organizers are motivated to make sure that all underrepresented applicants have access to the resources they need during their application journey. “While we desire GAAP participants to join MIT, we want all participants to thrive and to be scientifically productive in a doctoral program, no matter where they end up,” Ng says.

Mentors in GAAP who are current doctoral students or recent alumni at MIT are given comprehensive training by experts from their respective departments. They are also coached by the School of Engineering Communication Lab and faculty members on their department’s Graduate Admissions Committee.

“During my graduate school application, I was fortunate to receive feedback from several advisors and friends who had gone through the process,” says Viraat Goel, a GAAP organizer and mentor in biological engineering. “This guidance was essential, and helped me express my research interests better.”

After the application cycle was over, Goel’s mentee shared that they found it very valuable to hear about the department, get feedback on application materials, and generally discuss graduate school with a current graduate student. This experience is not unique. “The impact on prospective students is a real testament to the dedication of the student volunteers,” praises Wakefield.

GAAP programs are continually collecting data to understand their impacts and strategizing how best to improve outreach to underrepresented students. In addition, GAAP programs receive support from the Office of Graduate Education, School of Engineering Communication Lab, Institute Community & Equity Office, and General Counsel.

“I think GAAP is a great resource for departments seeking to increase the number of underrepresented applicants,” says Michael Liu Happ, a GAAP organizer in brain and cognitive sciences. “Mentors not only help applicants express themselves in the best way possible, but also try to share the tacit practical knowledge involved in the application process.”