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Getting Into Graduate School - Part II

Improving The Odds

Continuing on from where Part I left off, we should have narrowed our list of potential graduate schools down to a reasonable size. A list of about ten schools would be ideal; not that you will be applying to all ten, but because we will be whittling that number down a bit during the next part of this series.

There are several things admissions boards look at when approving or denying applicants. Most criteria should be pretty obvious such as grade point average, GRE/GMAT scores, letters of recommendation, and essays. I can't offer any help on your GPA, it is either good enough or it is not. Likewise, you are on our own for the essay portion of any application, although I will point out that there is no such thing as an "optional essay" for grad school admissions. The other two common criteria I can offer a little advice on.

First, your GRE or GMAT scores. These are pretty standard tests covering math skills, verbal skills (definitions), and writing skills. You are on your own for the verbal section, as either you have a strong vocabulary or you do not. The other two sections I can offer advice on. The math and writing (quantitative and analytical) sections of the test are based on courses you should have taken by the end of your freshman year; the end of your sophomore year at the latest. The topics are Precalculus Algebra and English Composition. Remember those? The sooner you take the GRE or GMAT after finishing those (types) of courses the fresher it will be in your head and, hopefully, the better you will do on the test.

I tend to recommend taking these types of tests sometime between the beginning of your sophomore year and the end of the first semester of your junior year in college. Everything is still fresh in your head and if you mess up, it gives you plenty of time to brush up on a topic and retake the test. GRE and GMAT scores stay on record for five years, although many graduate schools require tests to be taken within two or three years of your application date. Given that you will be applying to a graduate program sometime in the first semester of your senior year, tests taken during your sophomore year should still be valid for almost all schools.

Moving onto letters of recommendation. This is an area where you can greatly hedge your bets for graduate school admissions, assuming you aren't in your senior year of college already. You will generally need two or three letters of recommendation from either your professors or employers. Unless your employer is a college professor or is world-renowned in the field you are intending to study, you should stick with letters of recommendation from your professors. They carry much more weight, assuming the professor actually knows who you are and is willing to write you a good letter of recommendation.

Of course, not all professors carry the same weight in a given field, so here are some guidelines for what you should be looking for in a letter writer. Your academic advisor should be the first name on your list of references. Ideally, the other two professors will teach upper level courses in your chosen field of study, preferably they will teach graduate level courses in that same field as well. Research professors, who are not too busy, are a great reference. The professors who other students say are "too tough" or "grade harshly" are great candidates as well. Alumni from a school you are applying to is a bonus. If you are lucky enough, Nobel Laureates are the best choice possible.

The simple thing to do is pick out three professors at your college who meet as much of this criteria as possible and enroll in their courses. Enroll in as many of their courses as you can, even if it means taking a class at 7:00am instead of 1:00pm. Make sure you stand out in these classes by asking intelligent questions, offering answers, getting good grades in the class, and going to the professor during his/her office hours for help or advice (even if you do not need it). Tell your professors about your plans for graduate schools and get their advice. If he/she is a research professor, ask him/her if you can volunteer to help with his/her research. These things will help ensure the professor knows who you are and, more importantly, wants to write you a good letter of recommendation for graduate school.

Next up I will cover those things that admissions boards look at that are not so obvious. Until then go take your GRE exam and start endearing yourself to some of your professors.

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