How many REUs should I apply for–and where?

Becky Adams 12/9/2020

First thing’s first: it is great that you’re thinking about applying to an REU! This kind of extracurricular experience is so important to have on your transcript when applying to graduate school (or many other kinds of post-secondary education programs, like medical school). Not only does it demonstrate your interest in getting hands-on experience in generating new knowledge about biology, the experience itself will hugely shape your understanding of biology and how biology is studied. It is also a fantastic way to get outside of your comfort zone, learn from a new group of experts, and potentially travel somewhere else in the country!

So with that, let me first encourage you to apply broadly! When I was a student at Belmont, I really wanted to stay in Nashville, and close to my comfort zone, so I pursued opportunities at Vanderbilt. Don’t get me wrong, Vanderbilt had an absolutely fantastic training environment, and top-notch research, but I realize now that I missed out on the experience to try living somewhere else for a short while while an undergrad–an opportunity that is paid for! Personally, I had a job, an apartment, and a boyfriend, so I didn’t think traveling was even an option. But REUs are only ~2 months, and I realize now that it was actually the easiest time in life to be able to travel. I also missed out on the chance to meet other students with my interests from across the country–colleagues who I could have stayed in touch with throughout my career. Plus, programs are looking for a diverse student body, so you might even be a more competitive applicant for a program in another state (certainly being in-state does not advantage your application). So I want to encourage you to think more broadly than past-Becky did. Absolutely, apply for programs that are close to home–Vanderbilt, UT-K, St. Jude–but also put in an application elsewhere, and make a final decision once you hear back from these programs.

Another reason that applying broadly is important is for when you’re applying for graduate school. To be the most competitive applicant to graduate programs, you’ll want to demonstrate your resilience and ability to transition to areas outside of your comfort zone. Doing an REU in another city / state is a perfect way to do that. It also shows your dedication to training: that you look broadly for opportunities to broaden your experiences and expand your skills. Graduate programs also want to accept students with diverse backgrounds and experiences. You might think, for example, that to get into grad school at Vanderbilt, it is best to work at Vandy first. That isn’t necessarily true. Getting in to grad school isn’t about who you know in a program–it is about what experiences you’ve gained that make you a stronger potential student. And finally, regarding your application to graduate school, getting well-rounded experience will impact how you write your personal statement–one of the essays included in your application. Commenting on your REU experience is one of the most important aspects of this essay, and having a broad experience will make it that much stronger!

Now that I’ve emphasized how important it is to apply across the country, I also want to tell you that another important reason to apply broadly is that getting in to an REU is incredibly competitive. Although there are a seemingly endless number of programs, more and more students apply each year, and <5% of applicants are accepted on average. When I was an undergrad, I thought that with my GPA that I would be a shoo-in for getting into an REU program, so I only applied to one program after my sophomore year. However, I didn’t get in, and my options for the summer were limited because I didn’t apply to many programs. So again, don’t make the mistakes of past-Becky: it is better to have several options to choose from than not to get in to any program.

You might be thinking: “That sounds like a lot of work for me, and for the people who I’ve asked to write me letters of recommendation.” However, for the most part, the essays of your application can be repurposed in subsequent applications–you usually don’t have to write completely new essays for each application. Of course, you’d want to personalize your application for each program (look up the program and speak to details that you find as best as possible), but you can tweak the essays you’ve already written to do that. And the same goes for your letter-writers: we just need to edit a few things to submit a letter for a different program. Personally, I be happy to write 10 letters of recommendation for a student if it meant they had a higher likelihood of getting into a program!

So, now that I’ve (hopefully) convinced you to apply broadly, how are you going to choose the programs out of the myriad of options? Here’s what I would do: pick some cities / states that sound interesting to you (maybe you have family in Florida, for example), look at the options (use the NSF searchable site linked) and search for that city / state that are of interest to you, and look up the programs that you can find in that city / state and determine if the scientific area sounds interesting. That is at least a good place to start. I’d also encourage you to think broadly about what scientific areas you’d be willing to enter. There is so much left to learn while you’re an undergrad (and at any level in your career), and the lab you’ll join understands this (and they are probably excited to teach an undergrad–that is why they signed up to host students!) so use this as an opportunity to explore a field that you might not know a lot about or that might not be immediately of interest.

If you’d like to chat about this, feel free to reach out with questions! Maybe your question will inspire another blog post from me! Best of luck in your applications!

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