What to expect when applying to graduate programs

UC Berkeley Graduate Division website
Celine Bellegarda/Senior Staff

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Graduate school is only one of many options for your next step after the significant accomplishment of graduating from UC Berkeley, and it is not right for everyone. If you are considering the possibility but may not be ready yet, remember that the door is open should you want to take time off to travel or gain experience in the workforce before applying to the schools of your choice. That being said, having just completed my applications for graduate programs, here are a few things that took me by surprise and that you should be prepared for depending on the program you’re looking into.

The essays

You can’t turn the same ones in everywhere! And I don’t just mean changing the name, duh. “Statement of Purpose” and “Personal History” essays are pretty much universal application prompts, but the answers will differ when considering the aspects each school is looking for the most. When you’re researching the graduate programs you’re considering applying to, take a look at these prompts — it might give you a better idea if you align the story you’re telling with the values and morals of that institution. Also, if you are applying to multiple programs, you need to check your essays all the way through before clicking “submit.” I almost sent a heartfelt essay to Columbia University School of Journalism about how I have always wanted to pursue my sociology Ph.D. at Stanford University.

The GRE/GMAT graduate school entry exams

Not all programs require you to take the GRE! Short for the Graduate Record Examinations, these are grueling exams that cost a significant amount of money and time. Do not put yourself through them if your program of interest doesn’t mandate that you do. If your program does, figure out what section of the test is most important and the average scores expected of applicants. Take several practice tests to reach that score. Utilizing GRE prep courses is somewhat time-consuming, yet I found it extremely helpful.

The interviews

This is the step in the process where I got caught off guard, but interviews aren’t actually all that bad. Research the program you are interviewing for, and be sure to identify some attributes of their specific curriculum as your motivation for applying. If you give a general answer that is not necessarily specific to a school’s program, the interviewer will push you further. During my Stanford interview, I got nervous and almost went with, “I like your program because it’s close to my house.” I pulled it together, but don’t get caught off guard as I did!

Letters of recommendation

Many people say this is the most important aspect of your entire application. As a transfer student, I had very limited time to get to know professors and was surprised at how much emphasis was placed on these letters. They can’t be impersonal or overly praising — a little bit of criticism will show that the professor actually knows you and is still recommending you. Also, be sure to waive your right to see the letters of recommendation. I know you’re probably dying to see what the professors or employers had to say about you, but graduate programs don’t value letters the applicant is able to see as much. So trust that your professors know that you have done a good job and want to see you succeed.

One of the most difficult aspects of applying to graduate programs is timing — they are all due in the same few weeks as most finals! Start early and plan ahead. Once again, this was a personal journey and not what everyone’s next step “should” be. This is your time to find yourself and pursue whatever your heart desires, whether it is a Ph.D. or underwater basket weaving. We at the Clog support you and support your dreams, whatever they may be!

Contact Morgan Saltz at [email protected].