by Carla Trujillo, Ph.D.
The following is a list of suggestions that, if followed closely, will strengthen your application in the competitive field of graduate admissions.
1. Plan ahead
Research the colleges and universities where you would like to attend, focusing on the best programs that are the right match pertinent to your academic interests and personal needs. Find out if any of the faculty are doing research in an area that interests you. Go on-line or call the University for application and information materials. Double check the deadlines (most programs will not accept late applications). Some schools have two deadlines; a fellowship deadline, which is earlier, and a later general application deadline. Make sure you apply before the first deadline if you wish to be considered for university fellowships. Ideally, you want to obtain the right match of the program, the university and faculty you wish to work with. In general, you should consider applying to at least 3 schools you believe would be a good match with your future goals.
2. Letters of Recommendation
For graduate study, letters of recommendation are extremely important. Letters from faculty are usually preferred by admission committees since they believe only faculty can truly ascertain your intellectual and graduate student potential. You need three letters of recommendation. Try to get all three from faculty with whom you’ve had an upper-division class, or have done research with. Some graduate programs require related work/internship experience, and you will need one or two letters from these entities in addition to one or two from faculty.
Professors will invariably state your class grade in the letter, so use caution when choosing your evaluators. Approach the faculty member and ask her/him if they are able to write a positive letter of recommendation for you. If they hesitate, say they can only write a neutral letter, approach someone else.
Provide the evaluators with additional material such as copies of your transcript, resume, your statement of purpose, and personal statement (which should provide information about any pertinent personal history). This can strengthen the letter they write for you. Make sure to give them all the proper letter of recommendation forms, addresses, and deadlines. Ask them how they'd like to proceed regarding sending out multiple letters. They may prefer an electronic submission format provided your university.
Note: The GRE changed its format starting August 1, 2011. The test required for entrance into graduate school is the general aptitude (Quantitative, Analytical, and Verbal) component of the GRE. The general GRE exam is offered throughout the year on computer. It is strongly recommended that you take this test by October (at the latest) in order to get test scores to the admissions committee on time. The test may be taken more than once, but only every 60 days. All scores will be reported to admissions committees. Try not to take the test more than two times. It is recommended that you study for the test and take timed practice exams ahead of time. You can buy GRE study guides and old exams at any bookstore. Your GRE score will improve if you take the practice examinations in a timed format mimicking real testing conditions. Order the software/practice tests from ETS to better prepare for the computer administered test. Go to http://www.ets.org/gre/ to register for the GRE. Many students suggest taking the practice exam on the computer first as it improves preparation for the actual test. Also consider taking a GRE Prep course. Don’t randomly guess answers. Make calculated guesses that will narrow your choices. The Analytical portion of the GRE is in essay format. You will be asked to write two essays on certain topics. Focus on an analytical response, and try to back up what you’re “arguing” with logic and analysis. You will need to be focused and succinct.
The Quantitative section of the GRE is considered of greatest importance to admission committees in sciences and engineering. The math section is now more challenging than the previous GRE designed to reflect the skills of competitive graduate and business school programs. It is expected that scientists and engineers should do well on this section. For students in the humanities, the verbal section is very important. For students in the social sciences, public health, and education, all three sections are important. The GRE is 4.5 hours long, and the grade scale for the Verbal and Quant. sections is 130-170 in 1 point increments. The Analytical writing section grade scale is 0-6 in .5 increments.
The GRE subject test is required by some departments, such as Math, English, Biology, Physics, and Psychology. Make sure you check whether it’s required at the department you’re applying to. The subject test is paper based and only offered three times per year. Those departments requiring the subject tests will weigh them far more heavily than the general exam. Don’t let the GRE intimidate you. Studying ahead of time will prepare you well and reduce anxiety. Most graduate programs take the exam results seriously, though this is slowly changing.
4. Your College GPA
The college GPA is a crucial component of the admissions process. A satisfactory scholastic average, usually a minimum GPA of 3.0 is required by most departments for admission, though typically, the cut-off for many departments in top schools is higher. (Exceptions can possibly occur depending on circumstances.) Many admissions committees will consider upward trends in grades. However, the better your GPA, the better your chances of getting admitted. Try to repeat courses with poor grades to improve your GPA. Careful attention should be made to any courses taken at the undergraduate level which are pertinent to the area considered for graduate study. If you are admitted to a non-terminal Master’s program you may be able to continue toward the Ph.D. pending you pass the preliminary examination and have at least a 3.5 graduate GPA.
5. Research/Work Experience
During the academic year or summer, try to gain research experience in an independent study with a professor or a summer research program. This will give you an edge in the admission process, provide you with insight about your own future research interests, and augment your knowledge and research skills. Professors in all disciplines often regard students as highly motivated when they partake in research as undergraduates. Try to participate in more than one research experience.
6. Statement of Purpose
The statement of purpose is one of the most important parts of the application process. It is from this essay that the admissions committee will discern the seriousness of your intentions, your experience, and your motivation for graduate school. Think of the statement of purpose as a composition with three different parts. The first is a brief paragraph introducing yourself, the program you want to study, and your research focus. The second part should be a summary of your college experiences. Briefly describe what brought about your interest in graduate study. Describe any research experiences, clarifying who you worked with, your responsibilities, results, and if you published the findings or presented them at a conference. Be as specific as possible, as it is professors in your discipline who are reading this statement. The third and most important part of the essay discusses why you want to go to graduate school, what you wish to study and ideally, one or two professors you’d like to work with. This should be a fully developed paragraph addressing an issue or topic that hasn’t been done before, or expanding an undergraduate research project. Professors seek students who have intellectual passion, scholarly potential, and serious intention about graduate study. Scholarly endeavors undertaken beyond degree requirements will be positively noted by admissions and fellowships committees.
7. Personal Statement
Make sure you indicate any challenges, obstacles, work/family obligations you may have overcome. (We look at this as a sign of perseverance.) Let us know if you’ve supported yourself through school, if you’re a first generation college student, took on a leadership position, tutored or mentored underrepresented students, or took advantage of unique opportunities.
8. Financial Support
Make sure you apply for graduate admission by the university’s fellowship deadline. This insures that you will be considered for various university fellowships. Make sure you apply for any other private, national, or corporate based fellowships for which you may qualify. You should also fill out the FAFSA to receive consideration for loans and other aid. The NSF fellowship is awarded to students pursuing a Doctoral degree in science, engineering, and the social sciences Students in the social sciences and humanities should check out the Javits and Ford fellowships (among many others). For more information on other fellowships for which you might qualify, visit our Fellowship Resources page.
If you need to submit a writing sample in your application, make sure it’s not only a great paper you’ve written, but one you’ve had someone check for grammar, content, etc.
If time permits, try to visit the campus before you apply in order to allow some of the faculty at that institution an opportunity to get to know you while also enabling you to learn more about that university. Once you are admitted, visit the campus if possible. Make sure to speak to current graduate students and ask them the positive aspects and challenges of attending that particular university.
Be on time; be organized, prepared, and thorough. No application to any university will be processed unless all materials are in. All application materials are usually available in September. Following these guidelines will strengthen your application to Berkeley and any other graduate school you wish to attend. Good Luck!Last Updated: October 1, 2011 7:34 AM