10~ Tips for Applying to Graduate School and Taking the GRE

As some of you may recall, I recently decided to apply for a Master of Science in Library Science (MSLS) and take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The GRE was required for the university of my choice, and it’s important in getting financial aid there. I posted about studying for the GRE a couple times here and here and how the how process made me feel. I also posted my preliminary scores here, but I never talked about the experience of taking the GRE and what people could expect. It’s a pretty foreign experience. Likewise, I’ve yet to talk about what applying for graduate school is like so, in the spirit of helping my fellow readers more easily navigate these two treacherous fields, I’ve compiled a short list of 10~ Tips for Applying to Graduate School and Taking the GRE.

  1. Firsts things first: figure out if a master’s or PhD will actually help you.
    1. Ideally, you will be fully practical and ask, “Can this graduate degree help me get a job or a better job?” though, given that I’m a useless idealist, I also think the question, “Will this graduate degree substantially improve my skill level and sense of self worth?” is a good one to ask too. If you absolutely need a graduate degree to further your career, then you should go ahead and pursue one.
    2. If you only “need” a graduate degree to help your self worth, mood, and improve what’s essentially a hobby, spend extra time looking into alternative programs like workshops, conferences, and fellowships. Those will all be thousands of dollars less expensive than graduate school and they will be more focused, meaning that you will spend less time on courses that aren’t important to you. If you can’t afford to spend any money, look into free courses like Coursera and Khan Academy. They’re taught by university professionals, are actually college courses, don’t cost a thing, and can help you bridge gaps in your learning (If you’d like to see a short, helpful video about choosing whether or not to go to graduate school, click here.).
    3. For me, pursuing a graduate degree in Library Science was absolutely essential. To advance beyond my job or to apply for my job in any library other than the one I’m currently employed at, I would need an MSLS. There’s absolutely no getting around it. I would also like to do my job better and be paid better, so I really needed this MSLS. Conversely, though I would love an MFA in Writing, I know that unless I’m pursuing a professorship, I don’t actually need I’d be better off practicing on my own, joining writing communities, and saving up for local and online workshops. It makes me sad, but it’s the practical choice.
  2. Figure out what you want to major in.
    1. While this question should have been answered in the first step, things might not be that simple. For example, if you’re the front office manager at an arts nonprofit, would you want to pursue a business degree, an arts degree, or an administrative degree? It honestly depends on what you want to continue doing in connection to that field. Once again, I would recommend being as practical as possible and choosing something that will actually get you a job. Is that arts degree cool or can you use it to become an instructor at your nonprofit?
    2. I went through some waffling myself when I was trying to figure out what to get a graduate degree in. While Library Science was the obvious choice, I wanted to make sure it reflected my actual career aspirations. Would I prefer to be an administrator at a library? Would an Education degree help me more given that I prefer to do arts and literacy courses with children? Did I actually want to pursue Museum Studies because I love making exhibits and displays? Did I want to transition to graphic design? It took a lot of research and conversations to eventually realize that everything I liked doing in my job could be done as a Librarian and that all of the above skills – administration, exhibit development, research, and graphic design – are skills your average Librarian has to employ. So Library Science it was.
  3. Compile a short list (3 – 5) of potential graduate schools.
    1. This doesn’t mean that you will only look at the first graduate schools that come up on a Google search. No, you will probably look at at least a dozen (probably more if you’re research happy like me), and you should take notes, contact the department, and rank them by how best they fit your
    2. There are a lot of factors that go into choosing a graduate school. Does it have the right major with the right tract? Is it expensive or affordable? Does it offer financial aid? Does it offer job placement? Are the alumni active? Will you actually get a good education? Don’t be swayed by US News rankings or claims that, “It’s got the best program in the world!” Do you honestly believe it’s the best? Do you even need the best? Or do you need an affordable, informative degree that will help you get a job/a better job?
    3. To start looking, you can click here, here, or here. These are all search engines that help you find a graduate school that you can customize to meet your major, living, financial, and geographic needs. However, I would start with a Google search of universities in your state first. Public universities will give you in-state tuition, which can be half or even a third as much as out-of-state tuition.
    4. Realistically choose graduate schools you can get into. If you have a 2.5 GPA and no real recommendations or extra curriculars, a school that requires a 3.5 GPA is almost certainly not going to accept you. You will also waste money applying to a bunch of schools that won’t take you.
    5. I was fortunate not to have to go through a great deal of research to choose my graduate school. The University of Kentucky has an excellent Library Science program, it’s in Lexington, and a ton of my coworkers are either attending it or have attended it. Based on recommendations, I was able to narrow my choice quickly, and I would recommend talking to your coworkers too. They can probably help.
  4. Research admissions and financial aid requirements immediately.
    1. Every school has deadlines for admissions, financial aid, and fellowships. They also all have ironclad requirements like taking the GRE, having certain pre-requisite courses, and including portfolio samples. Don’t think that they’ll waive the requirements just for you, and don’t think they’ll accept an application on the 3rd when it was due on the 1st.
    2. You should absolutely call the school and ask to speak to someone in your major department and the financial aid department. They can tell you about web sites and organizations that offer financial aid or let you know if you qualify for a special Teach for America/veterans/etc. scholarship.
    3. I’m running into a bit of trouble with this myself. I had wanted to start graduate school in January (the spring semester), but it turns out there’re almost no fellowships or scholarships for the spring semester. My GPA and GRE are both high enough that I would be competitive for these, so I’m going to defer starting until the fall – which is nine months away! I’m pretty bummed about it, but if it can save me thousands of dollars, I have to try (It’s worth noting that sometimes you cannot defer starting school without going through the whole application process again. Ask about that before making any major decisions. Fortunately, all I had to do was submit an email.).
  5. Ask for recommendations, sign up for the GRE, and submit materials early.
    1. As soon as you know you’re going to apply, you need to ask for recommendations, start gathering application material, and, if applicable, sign up for the GRE. While my GRE testing site has four GRE tests a day, they filled up fast, and the Saturday ones weren’t available for almost two months. If you need to take a specific time, you want to sign up early. Likewise, if you’re worried that you won’t get a good score the first time around and can afford to pay the $195 fee more than once, you’ll want to schedule your first GRE early. You can only take the GRE once every 21 days. It would suck to have to submit a bad score with your application (Some schools will allow you to wait to submit scores if the test is pretty close to the submission date. Ask first though. Don’t assume.).
    2. It is especially important to give people time to write your recommendations. The people you’ll be asking – coworkers, supervisors, and professors – lead busy lives, and you want to make sure they have enough time to write a glowing letter. Recommendations can make or break an admission or financial aid acceptance; treat these people accordingly (And choose people who will actually give you a good recommendation. They need to be your biggest supporters, not just something with an impressive job title.).
    3. Sometimes, schools will expect transcripts or portfolio pieces. Give your undergraduate schools plenty of time to send in transcripts and polish that portfolio. Save the last minute work for when you’ve already been accepted.
  6. File your FAFSA.
    1. If you’re from the US, you need to file your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is a fairly straightforward application that asks things like identification, education, parent’s education, where you want to go to school, and your income. It is absolutely essential if you want to receive any financial aid, even loans. And the sooner you apply, the more likely it is that you can receive grants, which the federal government only has a finite amount of and which go fast. Remember to file a new FAFSA every year as close to January 1 as possible. To file your FAFSA, click here.
  7. Prepare for the GRE.
    1. The GRE is a pretty intimidating test. It takes four to five hours and has six sections, including an hour where you write two essays (analytical), three verbal sections, and two math (quantitative) sections. You have to be able to dissect an argument, write an argument of your own, remember high school and college level math, understand context, and have an extensive vocabulary.
    2. First you’ll want to figure out what scores you need to be accepted into your school or to get a scholarship. Then you’ll need to take a practice test. Try to take a practice test at least twice (though preferably three times). Taking a practice test lets you know what you have trouble with and where you need to work.
    3. For me, the essay and verbal portions weren’t difficult, so I set those aside to work on math. I didn’t even start doing the essay or verbal stuff until about two weeks before my test, and I ended up getting a 5.5 out of 6 for the essay (98%) and a 166 out of 170 for the verbal (96%). However, if you’re really trying to wow a school with a particular subject area, you may want to play to your strengths instead.
    4. Make a study schedule based on how much time you need to learn the core concepts. I spent eight weeks studying, and for the first six weeks, I studied 30 minutes every other day and an hour on the day that fell on Saturday or Sunday. For the last two weeks, I studied for 30 minutes every day. No, I was never able to get a stellar math score (153 out of 170 so 52%), but it was way more than I needed to be admitted. I think the schedule worked well for filling in my knowledge gaps and not interfering with my work schedule, but you do you. Whatever you choose, make sure you stick with it. Repetition and habit are key.
  8. Take the GRE.
    1. The GRE is pretty terrifying. It might depend on where you take the test, but this is what happened for me:
    2. I arrived at the test center about 45 minutes before the test (You need to get there no less than 30 minutes early.). I filled out some paperwork and then had to stow everything in a locker – Fitbit, phone, jacket, wallet, earrings, everything. The only thing I was allowed to keep was my ID.
    3. After that, I was taken into an antechamber of the testing area. I had my picture taken, had to turn out all my pockets and pull up my sleeves and pants, and had a wand passed over me. There was a little bit more paperwork, some instructions, and a sign in sheet. Then I was escorted into the testing room.
    4. The testing room was a series of cubicles with computers and headsets. Everyone had their headsets on and was working on their test. If you had to take off a jacket, you had to leave the room first, and the test wouldn’t stop if you left. You also had only one bathroom break, and you had to sign in and out to take it.
    5. It was really intimidating. Initially, I had trouble concentrating on my essays because there were so many people and they were all clacking away. I worried that I wouldn’t get a good score. I also got progressively more fidgety as the four or so hour test went along, moving, tapping my feet, and chewing on my pencil. The whole thing was an endurance test, and it really paid to take a full-length practice test a couple times.
    6. I got my verbal and quantitative scores immediately but had to wait a couple weeks for the essay scores. It was such a relief to get the verbal and quantitative that my sugar dropped. I spent the ride home with my radio on as loud as it would go and scream singing to All-American Rejects. By the time I got home, I was calmer, but the whole thing was really physically and mentally draining.
    7. Oh, and eat a meal before you go in. If I hadn’t, I probably would have collapsed.
  9. Carefully prepare your application(s).
    1. While you’re waiting on recommendations, transcripts, and your GRE scores, you can still compile your application. Applications will all generally ask for contact information, past education, recommendations, and a personal statement. Work carefully through the application, saving it frequently. Ask people with college and graduate experience to read over your personal statement and portfolio, and check the application multiple times before you submit it. If possible, I would also wait to submit it until you receive all your scores, transcripts, recommendations, etc. because sometimes you need to resubmit requests and you can’t do that after you’ve submitted your applications. Some schools won’t accept an incomplete application, so double-check before submitting.
  10. Respond to all emails in a timely fashion.
    1. Whether that’s submitting official transcripts, accepting an offer, or speaking to your new advisor, do your best to stay on top of emails. Try to answer within 24 hours. Sometimes there are deadlines, and you don’t want an admissions offer withdrawn because you got lazy.

And that, more or less, is it! It’s a lengthy, somewhat frightening process, but it’s fully manageable if you plan ahead and take it slow. Hopefully, this will help some of you out there on your quest for higher education and better job opportunities. Feel from to comment below with addendums, corrections, and questions. Good luck!

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