Applying and Getting In

In general, I stay away from the "so you wanna go to grad school..." think pieces.

However, I highly recommend this, for its detail, insight, and perspective:
Professor Cottom's Graduate School Guidance

The General GRE

  • Double check that all of your programs actually require the GRE. Some graduate programs in some fields are moving towards making this optional. Many universities are circulating memos to admissions committees that GREs are both poor predictors of grad performance and that they are biased against minorities.
  • Contact your financial aid office to see if you qualify for the GRE Fee Reduction Program (available during your senior year).
  • Ask around for used preparation books / flashcards.
  • Anki is a free flashcard software program with desktop and iphone apps. Deck sharing is encouraged, and absolutely everything is free. Use it for your GRE and for everything else, ever.
  • There are free online practice tests through ETS.
  • There are several free mobile apps that can help you prepare: Magoosh GRE, GRE Vocabulary, etc.
  • The Quantitative Section tests your ability to apply a few mathematical concepts, rules and formulas. More importantly it tests your ability to reason quantitatively, some might say it tests tricks more than math. Learning time-saving strategies and ways to reason will generally be more beneficial than simply crunching numbers.
  • Check with your undergrad institution (and your department) - some programs will pay for your GRE.
  • Princeton Review puts out a book with the words that appear most often on the GRE - it doesn’t change a huge amount, so getting one a few years old works fine - go through this and make flashcards for the words you don’t know.
  • There are also websites that list the most common GRE words:
  • Although reviewing common GRE words is useful, don't ignore test-taking strategies. For example, practice how to manage your time wisely.
  • Here is a google drive full of resources: __GRE Google Drive__
  • Study as much as possible over a long period of time, since it is an expensive test and you may only want to / be able to take it once.
  • Immediately after taking your GRE, you can send your scores for free to 4 schools. Do this, because if you wait, you will have to pay 27 dollars to send scores to each school.
  • If the score is bad don’t send it right away, think about whether you want to try again. Some grad schools will only count your best score.
  • When taking the GRE go to the library and pull out all their GRE test prep books. (They usually have one for every year from each of the major companies - Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc). Then you can use that book to access free GRE practice tests associated with that book through that company. Often you need to prove you've "purchased" the book by providing a specific word in the book or something similar when making an online account. This way you can get tons of free online practice tests from the major test prep players and return the book to the shelves, without ever having to check them out. Many libraries provide access to one of two databases that supply GRE eBooks and online practice tests: Testing & Education Reference Center or Learning Express Library.
  • -Find out if your program has minimum scores for admission. (My program required the GRE but didn’t have minimum admissions scores, they just had to see that you had taken it.)

    -Find out how current your scores need to be and apply with your most recent set of scores. Worst case scenario is they tell you to take it again before they admit you. (My program wanted scores within the past 5 years. My scores were actually 5 years and one month, but they still took them).

Programs You Should Know About

  • Recruitment programs such as __IRT (Institute for Recruitment of teachers)__ help you get into grad school. Through their associates program, you attend a grad school recruitment fair, are paired with an advisor for helping you write your statement of purpose and have waived application fees to several different schools.
  • Many programs can waive application fees particularly if you are a scholarship/ fellowship recipient. Some won’t but it does not hurt to ask, as long as it is well in advance of the deadline.
  • Check to see if your university has a McNair Scholars Program or Mellon Mays Foundation. It’s initiative is to change academia through helping underrepresented students get into graduate school. Most programs across the country help with GRE prep, the application process, and the research process. Some programs will assist undergrads with gaining research experience prior to grad school.
  • There are also some useful articles and books, some general and some specific to a field, like this one, on Technical Communication and Rhetoric programs:

Letters and Recommendations

  • Your letters will ideally be from faculty who know you well. At least one should be from someone with whom you’ve taken an upper-level class in your field. You can also get letters from your coach, your boss, a prof from a lower level class if you think they will remember you--really anyone who’s gotten to know you well in a professional or academic setting.
    • not all their instructors are professors and that letters of rec from a well known prof may mean more than ones from a grad student instructor. Mention how they can tell who is a professor by their titles on the school website.
  • It is best to get letters from professors from the same discipline as the discipline you are applying into. Obviously if you can’t - you can’t.
  • This means the earlier you start thinking about letters of recommendation, the better. Help some of your faculty get to know you. Speak up in class. Go to office hours. Pursue research opportunities.
  • Don’t assume that it’s a lot of work to send letters and that you should spread the work around. Once a prof has written one letter, it’s easy to send the same (or similar) letter to several schools. If no school asks for more than three recommendation letters, you shouldn’t need to have letters from more than three profs.
  • Don’t assume that your prof or recommender can write a letter for you in a quick turnaround or short amount of time. They’re busy doing their “real job” -- which is research. Make sure to give them sufficient time, the deadline for when it has to be submitted, and a couple of gentle reminders.
  • And don’t worry about burdening your profs, it’s part of the job. :-)
  • Ask for recommendation letters at least three weeks in advance of application deadlines, in person if possible.
  • Your profs might ask why you are asking them for a letter. This usually isn’t meant to scare you off; it’s just meant to make sure you are getting the strongest letters you can. Be prepared with a reason.
  • It’s pretty rare that a prof will say no. But usually it’s because they don’t feel they know you well enough to write a strong letter, or because you didn’t ask far enough in advance of the deadline.
  • If your prof agrees to write a letter, follow up with a list of the schools you plan to apply to, the application deadlines, and how each letter should be submitted. They will thank you for being organized!
  • Your profs might also ask for an unofficial transcript, a resume, a draft of your research or personal statement, or other materials. (I often ask my students to remind me of all the ways we’ve interacted and any work they did for me that they are especially proud of.) Again, this is all so they can write a strong letter that presents you in the same way that you want to present yourself.
  • A thank you note is always appreciated. Be sure to let your profs know how your grad school search turns out!
  • It is usually helpful to send your recommender a copy of your writing sample and personal statement in the event they need the extra materials.

The Statement of Purpose

  • Some fields require a statement of purpose with your application. Be sure to get your professors to look at this statement well before applications are due. It can be a good idea to seek out newer professors (whose graduate school experiences are less distant in their minds) or professors who have helped other students get into graduate school before. Their feedback can help you to craft a better piece of writing, but having a statement with a clear "professor" polish also shows admissions committees that you understand the value of mentorship in graduate school. It also prevents you from having a statement that is high on enthusiasm and low on content (i.e., tangible project ideas, clear connections to the department you're applying for, etc.), which is particularly important since some committees interpret low content/high enthusiasm statements as indicative of immaturity rather than simply a lack of insider academic knowledge.
  • If you are applying for a research-based program (PhD), you should be able to articulate in general terms what kind of research topics you are interested in. You don't have to have everything spelled out, but being able to state this in the statement of purpose will help the admissions committee figure out whether you are a good fit for the program in general and also which professors could serve as advisors. (It also helps to directly reference professors in the department you would like to work with).
  • Personal statement: have a general, master statement that you can tweak for different programs. Try to find a way to mention what in the program (in concrete, specific ways) will help you achieve your goals. If you're applying to different kinds of programs, tweak the statement to reflect that. Bottom line: make sure to make the case for why that program is a good fit.
  • personal statement: I worked through undergrad (work study). My undergrad adviser encouraged me to highlight as much in my personal statement as it might set me apart (and maybe take the place of other students' volunteer experience, for which I had limited time).
  • Master of Public Policy (MPP) degree program essays: If you are considering applying to MPP programs (specifically UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy), the Students of Color in Public Policy, a student group at UC Berkeley, offers a Peer Advising Program that matches prospective student applicants with current MPP students, to read through the Statement of Purpose and answer application questions. Self-identified applicants of color are highly encouraged to partake in this program! For more information, please see

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