Originally published May 11, 2009

When I decided years ago that I wanted to go to graduate school I had no idea how to go about getting into a good program.  Now that I’ve been through the process more than once (I have my Master’s degree and am currently in a PhD program), I’d like to share some tips.

Why take advice from me?


I really botched things the first time around by not researching the program that I applied to well enough, so I can tell you what to avoid.  Also, I eventually got into one of the top programs in the nation for my field of study (ecology), so I suppose that makes me a good source of information on how to do things correctly as well.

But don’t just take my word for it, check other reference out as well.  For example, I thought the bookGetting What You Came For was an informative and well written overview of the admissions process and how to succeed in grad school.  I actually enjoyed reading it, though I suppose any book read on a beach in Costa Rica is probably inherently enjoyable owing mostly to the scenery.

G.P.A. and GRE tips:

1) G.P.A.:  No surprises here.  A good G.P.A. shows that you work hard and you take your education seriously.  In competitive program, the first round through the application stack is focused on G.P.A. and GRE scores. That being said, you’re not out of luck if you have a bad G.P.A.!

If your G.P.A. is looking a little wimpy (wimpy generally means less than 3.0) you have a few options.

First you can fix your G.P.A.  Sign up for courses related to the field that you’re interested in and make sure you do well in these courses.  After you get your A’s, you can argue to the admissions committee that you’ve learned how to focus, have identified what’s important to you, blah blah blah.  Point is, you can show that you’re capable of buckling down.

Your next solution is to dazzle the committee with other parts of your application so they’ll gloss over your G.P.A. A good way to do this is to have an awesome GRE score.

2) General GRE: The General GRE (Graduate Records Examination) is the graduate school equivalent of the ACT or the SAT. I’ll be honest with you, this test kind of sucks.

The  quantitative reasoning section is filled with math stuff that you haven’t used or even seen since high school.  Don’t get me wrong, it is NOT difficult math, it’s just that you probably don’t remember much of it since it’s been about 5 years since it was last encountered.

The verbal reasoning section was the hardest part for me.  Think back to the ACT and SAT questions that looked like this:


a) shredding: paper

b) breathing: wine

c) trimming: hedge

d) reaping: grain

e) weaving: silk

When I took the ACT and the SAT these types of questions where a breeze.  When I took the GRE, I frequently found myself looking at questions in which every word was new to me.  I thought I had an amazing vocabulary, but it simply wasn’t good enough!


The best advice I can give you is this: STUDY FOR THE GRE.  A good GRE score will make it easier to get past the admissions committee and will make you more likely to get fellowships (and who wants to be teaching when you could get paid to do your own research instead, right?!).

Buy a study guide and spend a few hours with it every day for at least the month before the test.  I used the Princeton Review’s GRE study guide and supplemented it with a book on commonly used GRE vocabulary words.  I copied the GRE vocabulary lists onto notecards and took those darn things with me everywhere I went.  Turns out you spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for stuff to happen (standing in line at the a store, waiting for the bus, etc.).  If you take out your notecards whenever you’re waiting for something else to happen, you can learn a LOT of good vocabulary words.  This little trick increased my verbal reasoning score by 150 points.

Not all study guides are created equally, so do your research and make sure you have a good one.  This probably isn’t the best time to go for a bargain deal.

Make sure you understand the format of the test and have taken at least 2 practice tests.  You’ll thank yourself later.

As it turns out, the test really isn’t so bad if you’ve studied hard enough.  The math is a breeze if you’ve seen it recently and remember how to do it.  There isn’t even any calculus on the exam!  The vocabulary section isn’t so bad if you’re at least vaguely familiar with the words appearing in the questions.  The essay section also isn’t too bad as long as you’re keeping in mind the tips that the guides offer for how to make a good argument and how to deconstructing a bad one.

Also, the test costs $140 to take, so you don’t want to be taking it more than once.

3. Subject GRE tests:  Some schools require subject tests.  For example, I had to take the Biology Subject GRE test, which had three sections (cellular and molecular biology, organismal biology, and ecology and evolution).  These tests are tough too and definitely require some studying.  Check online study guide reviews to be sure that you’re getting a good one.

Not all programs require GRE Subject tests, so figure out which schools you’re interested in applying to and determine what their admission requirements are way ahead of time.

Even if your program doesn’t require a GRE Subject test, you may want to consider taking one if you have a low G.P.A. The test requires a pretty comprehensive knowledge of the field in question, so doing well on this test says a lot.  So if you don’t want to pay to take more classes to bolster your G.P.A., buy a GRE subject test study guide and work on getting a great score.

More tips coming soon!

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