From time to time, people ask my advice for how to get accepted into Graduate school. Reading the school websites, and talking to professors and administrators isn’t enough. Not to mention you need people skills to get in. In this, the first of a two-part series, I’ll break down the very basics of what many programs require, and give you tips and tricks to help out. The second half will be advanced tips, that show that you really want in the program.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an expert on this subject. I don’t have the best people skills, and I don’t know all there is to know about Grad school, but I do know what worked for me, and my advice has helped a few people to get accepted so far.
I’ll begin with some general questions I get asked. The second part of this series will go into more advanced aspects of Grad school selection and even some tips that may help you get in even if you don’t meet the requirements.
After each detailed section, there’s a “TLDR” notice. This stands for “Too Long; Didn’t Read” and gives just the basics of the section.
This is a pretty simple one. Start Early! If you are interested in starting Graduate school in the Fall, then you should do all your research and apply as early as possible for that program. Another benefit of applying early is you may get your results faster. Many times a Graduate school might accept you into a program, on the contingency that you take some classes to bring you up to speed with their program. If your acceptance has a such a contingency, applying early give you a chance to make it up.
One of the biggest questions I get is “I got my undergraduate degree in X, what do I need to get into a Y grad program?”. The answer I give applies to all degrees, but my answer is going to involve a specific example.
Let’s look at a Bachelors degree student in Electrical Engineering Technologist (EET) trying to get into an Electrical Engineering (EE) program. You would think these two things are very similar, and in many aspects they are, however, there is one MAJOR factor separating the two degrees. Calculus. EEs have to take Calculus 1, 2, 3 and Differential Equations, then the Calc-based Physics classes. EETs on the other hand generally take a class that combines only the topics required for the degree from Calc 1 and Calc2 classes. EETs going for an EE graduate degree are many times in a bad situation, where they are required to take all those math classes Post Baccalaureate before being accepted into a Grad program. I only know of 2 cases in my Grad program that a B.S. EET was accepted. Both of us had first taken our first 2 years of our undergrad in EE, then changed majors. This is critical as we already had the math required. In fact I had to take Calculus 3 the summer before my first Graduate semester to make up the deficiency.
Basically the rule here is try to find what programs your undergraduate degree works best with. For most EETs, Engineering Management is a great choice, and for those that like to program, Computer Science is good. I know people who I graduated with who have done both. Don’t fool yourself into thinking your B.A. in History will help you get into a Biology program or vice versa.
GRE and Acceptance Exams:
Usually, to get into a graduate program, you have to take an exam like the GRE. The GRE is basically like the college version of the SAT. Many schools require a certain score, but this is flexible. If you lack in this area, they will look at other aspects of your college career to decide your Graduate School fate.
There are other Exams, but I only have experience with the GRE.
There are 3 main sections; Math, Reading Comprehension, and Writing. Many programs have a minimum score you must get to be accepted. To check the program or college you are interest in, scour their websites. You can also check some stats at places like GREexplorer. I also highly recommend searching the net on your own. A simple google search yielded a free site, Number2.
When you sign up for the GRE, know that it takes about3 hours straight (a short break between sections) and must be taken at a test center on a computer. The company that makes the GRE has free software called Powerprep with example GRE tests in it that look and feel exactly like the real test. You can go there now, answer a quick survey, and download it for free before registering to see what it is like.
The fact is that you HAVE to study for this test. You cannot just wing it. Now as far as test preparation, There are many schools of thought. You can buy all the books, do all the practice tests in them, and take classes; or you can use Powerprep and the internet. Jessica and I both used the second method and did well. (I did OK, Jessica did pretty well…) I have a friend who tried to wing it the first time, and whiffed miserably. He bought a book in the campus bookstore, studied it and whiffed again. He said the book was useless.
Jessica and I used Powerprep and the internet to find old GRE-like questions. We each made above average on the exam.
There are classes for the GRE preparation, but I didn’t take one. They go over good test taking skills and how they apply to the GRE specifically. You can generally find classes at local Universities. I really likely should have taken a class, and will if I ever need to take another test like this.
As far as materials selection, go to Amazon or some other site with a lot of reviews and read the reviews for books you are considering. People have likely found that only certain sections of a book are relevant to the test, or that a particular book was completely useless for reviewing.
You can take the GRE multiple times, but there are a few rules. You can only take it once per month. Depending on your grad school they can choose to either take a single score, or the average of your scores. You have to check with them to see what they accept. If you take it more than once, they will only send the scores of your last 3 recent tests to the schools you choose. I took it more than once and it improved my score a good bit.
Since you can take it multiple times, some people study really hard for one section, then the second time they take it they focus on another section. This may get you an overall cumulatively higher score however, Grad schools will look at what makes up the parts of your score too if memory serves. Whether or not they do this, I personally find this method of testing unethical and therefore cannot recommend it.
Find out what test your college or program requires, study hard using good materials and take it more than once.
Find out if the Grad program you are interested in accepts multiple GRE scores.
Two kinds of GPA?:
Some schools have a minimum GPA requirement. They might post this online to scare off lazy and timid people. Using the tips in the second part of this article might help you convince them to waive this requirement. But in many cases, if their minimum is a 3.0, and you have a 2.8, you may still be able to get in. These rules are not always written in stone, the decision is in the hands of the Graduate Director and the Graduate Committee. More on these people later, but for now just know, its usually a flexible requirement just like GRE scores.
In lots of cases, cumulative GPA is not taken as seriously as “in the major” GPA. Cumulative GPA counts in stuff like English 101, College Algebra, Calc, Physics, etc. These classes include everything you’ve taken from that art class you never attended to Senior Design. The classes you did poorly in because you hated the material haunts you here. My cumulative GPA is below 3.0 from my undergrad studies. What made up for it was the fact that my “in the major” GPA was higher.
“In the major” GPA comes form the classes that define your major. These are mostly taken your last two years, but can come all the way from freshman classes in certain programs. Since you specialize your knowledge more in Grad school, they look to see that you excel in your field more than in general classes.
There’s not too much to say about this aspect of the process. Here they simply want to know what your motivations are to be in their program. They are also checking to see that you are a competent writer (in English usually.) Don’t make it too long and don’t make it too short. I think my statement was about 3 pages.
Make sure to personalize it to their program. They HATE to read something that sounds generic, and they can tell when you’ve used the same statement for every school you applied to. Change it up a bit and if you’ve met with the professors there, mention something you talked about. Mentioning their research is helpful as well. Again the people who read this will be the Graduate Committee of the program you are applying to. If you follow all my tips in the second half of this article, you’ll likely have met some of them already.
They like to get a sense of your experience so far, as well as possible research ideas. Throw in some neat ideas you might have for your field. Don’t make promises, and don’t go crazy with the ideas.
I stressed out more than needed about writing the statements, but a just keeping these things in mind will make it easier to know what they are looking for.
Don’t stress over this.
Write in proper English with good grammar.
Personalize the statement to the school.
Why do you want to do (whatever field you study?)
What is your motivation for continuing your education? ( mention life-long learning, improving concepts/projects/ideas/the science of <whatever>, etc.)
What kinds of ideas do you have for research topics? (Robots for space exploration, sensor fusion, etc.) Don’t B.S. too much here or make your projects too fantastical. They are looking to see that you have ideas, and that you can make reasonably reachable goals.
Letters of Recommendation:
Usually you’ll need a couple recommendations from professors in your undergraduate program. This isn’t bad. Simply ask a few (you should have made friends with a couple of them if you got the most out of your time with them.) Most will be glad to help you if they believe in you and your potential. Its usually a simple process of printing out a PDF, and having them fill in some blanks, write a bit about you, and mail it in. Most schools nowadays offer this service completely online, and the professor can enter it at their leisure.
These are the basics required of most Graduate program admissions. International students may be required to take a few additional exams to show proficiency in English, or to for placement in the program.
Check out the second part of this article for additional tips on getting into grad school.