After going through the entire graduate school application process last semester and successfully hearing back from programs throughout the last few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on the things I wish I had done differently. So whether you’re a sophomore or a junior playing around with the idea of graduate school or a senior considering applying this fall after graduating, here is some advice I wish someone had told me. Whether you’re applying to law school, an MBA program or med school, a lot of these tips overlap.
Letters of recommendation
At countless information sessions, the element of the application that was emphasized the most was the letters of recommendation. Now that I’ve gone through the process, I couldn’t agree more. Some advice I have for sophomores and juniors is that if you’ve connected with a professor through office hours, take another class they offer the following semester or the next year. Or continue going to office hours even if you’re not in the class anymore! I was surprised to see that many professors required that you have taken two of their classes before they even consider writing you a letter of recommendation. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but this is a warning to not be surprised if it is.
There are lots of important elements when choosing the professors to ask for a letter. The obvious requirement is to make sure you’ve done well in their class. However, a second element that’s often overlooked is putting in the effort to get know them outside of class by visiting office hours. One of my professors candidly told our class that him and his colleagues write very honestly in their letters of recommendation. He explained that he writes if the said student has gone to office hours and what types of questions they asked. So make sure you’re asking clarifying questions that were not mentioned in lecture or the readings or textbook — essentially, nothing you could’ve looked up yourself. Some ideas include asking about their research, reading up their publications and demonstrating interest.
Additionally, keep in touch with professors in general. After every semester, I send each professor an email saying thank you for the wonderful semester and for teaching the class. You’d be surprised how one email can go such a long way. If you don’t have them the following semester, email them at least once to share how you are using information you learned from them in your classes you have now. It’s important to get to know all your professors throughout the semester (yes, even if you’re in a class of 200-500 people) and to keep in touch with them afterward. You’re only at UC Berkeley for four years (and for transfers, an even shorter amount of time). So make connections and relationships that you know will push you to grow and succeed.
Research and essays
Researching programs is something many students underestimate. Many students don’t keep track of what each program and school entails and instead scroll endlessly through pages and pages of information. It’s important to write down everything about each program so that when you’re starting to narrow your list, you have elements of each school that you can compare.
But that isn’t even the “research” component I’m referring to. Once you have your official list, do a deep dive into each school. What do I mean by deep dive? Pretend you’re going to the school and that it’s your only option. Know the program you are applying to inside and out. Know the list of classes you would take throughout your time years there. Know what clubs you may want to join once you’re there. Know some of the professors in your department that you’d want to connect with once you’re accepted and what research they do. Don’t turn in a generic essay for any “engineering” program or “international relations” program at any school. Be specific about why you want to attend the school. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to make your essay unique to the school you are applying to — mention which clubs and centers you are eager to get involved with, the professors you are excited to meet and connect with and the classes you can’t wait to take.
Also, don’t forget that these essays are nothing like your undergraduate essays. They’re looking for why you’re qualified for the specific program and what you’ve accomplished during your undergraduate degree. Most importantly, they’re wondering why you need this specific graduate school in order to achieve your future goals.
Standardized tests (GRE/GMAT)
Don’t misjudge the difficulty of these tests and wait until a month before the test. When you’re in the research phase, make sure to jot down the test the school requires for your program and what the average scores are of students they usually accept.
I know these tests themselves are expensive, but I would recommend investing in a book or a prep course in order to try more practice tests and learn the different types of questions and how best to tackle them. I didn’t have time for an entire prep course, so instead I bought a GRE graduate school entry exam book from Barnes & Noble and found an overwhelming amount of free resources online.
Prepare for studying to be time-consuming because even YouTube prep videos are long and take a big chunk out of your day. I was a full-time student with a part-time job and three extracurriculars while I studied for the test, and my biggest piece of advice is to schedule time to study. I would wake up at 6:50 a.m. and study from 7-9am before my classes started and then for another hour as I was winding down for bed that night. Then, on the weekends, I made sure to spend the mornings watching videos online and the early afternoons doing practice problems from the GRE book I purchased before going back to other commitments in the late afternoon and evening. Of course, everyone’s study habits and schedule looks completely different, but if you’re looking for a place to start, I recommend trying out what I did and then adjusting the times to what works for you.
One last thing I wanted to note is that the due dates for applications can be all over the place. Some schools I applied to were due in November; others were due in March. Obviously, start with the ones that are due first, but if a school offers multiple deadlines, try to aim for the first one. If they’re on a rolling admission schedule, your chances are higher the earlier you apply.
If you’re considering applying to graduate school in the future, I hope some of these tips helped and that you start connecting with professors, researching programs and thinking about what study methods you want to use as you begin studying for any required standardized tests you need to take. The Clog knows you can do this and wishes you the best of luck!