Sunday, January 22, 2017

Thinking about the GRE?

Thinking about grad school and the GRE?

You'll find some review materials available here.

Up-to-date information about the test itself, the nearest testing center to you, registration for the test, and more is available here.
  • Start preparing for the GRE over winter break of your junior year, at the latest. Take practice tests, to get familiar with the kinds of questions on the exam and the time limits you'll face.

    Prepare more intensively in the months before you take the exam. There are free materials available online, or at your local library—it's not necessary to spend $30+ on a prep book.
  • If you're particularly bad at taking tests, you may want to begin practicing even earlier. Many programs, particularly academic-focused (as opposed to career-oriented) programs, assume as a matter of course that you'll do well on the GRE.

    For certain graduate programs, like a PhD in Creative Writing, your score on the Quantitative sections isn't so important; likewise, your Analytical Writing score holds less weight with a PhD program in Mathematics or Physics. If your goal is to attend a Master's program and enter the workforce directly afterward, the expectations for your GRE score will be a bit lower than the expectations of a PhD program.
  • You'll want to take the GRE before the beginning of your final year in college—if you take it during the year, when you're taking a full load of classes, you'll be too stressed out to do your best. You'll also have to take a trip to the nearest specialized exam center (if you're in the U.S.).
  • More importantly, carefully pick the programs you're applying to. You pay $195 to take the test. On the day of the test, you can select 4 schools to receive your score; know where you want to send your GRE results.

    To send your score to any additional universities, you will have to pay $27 per school (and it may cost more than that now; prices only go up).
How do you know which schools you want to apply to? Pick your particular area of interest, and know which professors you'd like to work with. Think of it less as applying to a particular school, and more as an application to work with a particular professor (or a particular set of professors).

Know the acceptance rate of each program you apply to, and to improve your odds of acceptance, be sure that they're not all top-tier, hyper-competitive programs.

It's often helpful to get some relevant experience in that field, and if you get an interview with one of the professors you'd like to work with, be prepared to discuss your interest—as well as your research ideas—with someone who already has a PhD in the field.
  • A subpar GRE score is not necessarily going to ruin your chances of admission to a graduate program, but it will decrease your odds (especially if you plan to apply to top-tier programs). If you don't do so well, it may be worth addressing (briefly) in your academic statement of purpose or your personal statement.

    If you get a disappointing score, resist the urge to explain it away, even if you have a legitimate reason for your low score (e.g. "I had been sick for several days before the test," or "My neighbors had a loud party that ruined my sleep the night before the test")—it will appear that you're making excuses, and that probably won't go over so well.

    You're better off presenting a poor score in a positive light, for example, "My GRE score may not have been impressive, but a top-notch work ethic, hunger for success, and passion for the field have always allowed me to overcome any limitations I've faced." It won't always work, but if you have relevant experience and a strong GPA, a potential advisor may be willing to overlook a substandard GRE score.
Sound scary? It is. It is wise to start thinking about this process early; it'll make your life a lot easier when you've planned this process in advance. Start preparing for the GRE early, and also go into the testing center knowing which schools you want to apply to.
The part of the grad school admissions process that will take the most time and effort is identifying schools that AREN'T top-tier or very well-known...but that is the research that is most likely to pay off! The chances of admission are much greater at Middle Of Nowhere University than at a school like Harvard or Princeton.

If you think your record is strong enough, you're certainly welcome to apply to top programs in your field—but just remember that if it's a highly-ranked school, everyone will apply there, so the chance that a professor actually looks at your application is much slimmer than at a less-competitive program. Hedge your bets by applying to both types of schools.

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