I talk a little about the GEM fellowship and my experience applying and earning it in the video to the right. I also give out Fellowship application tips in this forum post here. You can also check out some quick tips below.
What is the GRE?
The GRE stands for Graduate Record Examination. I, personally, think it is ****** but it is a standardized exam that many graduate programs require for their applicants. It is made up of a verbal reasoning section, quantitive reasoning section, and analytical writing. I would ask the institutions you are looking to apply to what score you should be aiming for. If you do not score well, I believe you can take it multiple times. However, remember that graduate programs are usually looking for a well-rounded student! So research experience, grades, GRE scores etc. can help make up for each other.
How did you study for the GRE?
I studied for the GRE during the school year with an 18 credit hour course load as well as 2 part time jobs. I would not recommend that at all. I recommend studying during the summer before you take it and doing review every weekend up until you take it. I also suggest working with a study buddy to 1. hold you accountable, and to compare answers to. I believe this test is about endurance. When you study, make sure you learn the types of questions they ask and how to answer them. I do not recommend trying to memorize anything. When you review on the weekend, time your self like you’re taking the test and get used to taking the test on a timer. Here are the study books I used: Official Guide to the GRE, and the Manhattan Prep 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems. However, bear in mind these books change each year so make sure this is up-to-date with the year you take. I was also able to receive 8-hour long GRE tutoring through the McNair's Scholar's program. I also received a free study book. If you are not eligible for the McNair's Scholar program or don't have one at your university, be sure to ask the research or graduate coordinator's department (any department that applies) at your university before paying out of pocket. There may be some resources you don't know about. The worst they can say is no!
Having “Skin in the Game” (research experience) always helps put you ahead of the game. Here are some ways to get research experience as an undergraduate student:
If your university has an office dedicated to this, then go visit them and learn as much as you can. You may be able to start your own project!
If your university doesn’t have this reach out to professors and ask if they need assistance that you can offer. If you don’t already know what research they do, then ask. You can also find out by searching up their names in google scholar or on your university’s website and reading some of the articles they’ve published. (Just read the intros and/or abstracts if its too confusing)
Need help finding a topic you like? Think about what your favorite class is! Talk to professors, and graduate students.
REUs (Research for Undergraduates) which are basically internships where you only do research and they typically take place at universities.
Things that will help your graduate application stand out
Reaching out to potential advisors ahead of time and establishing a relationship/connection/conversation surrounding your research interests and how you may fit in their lab
Poster Presentations included
It is not the end of the world if you don't have any of these things (only the end of the world is the end of the world!). These are just helpful especially if you feel less competitive in other areas of the application package. In my case, my research publications/presentations supplemented my less-than-competitive GPA.
I will not comment on an ideal GPA to get into grad school, because that is something that varies from program-to-program and situation-to-situation. My advice is only to make sure you explain any discrepancies within your application package (e.g. failed class, lower grades, etc.) in your general statement.
Reaching out to Potential Advisors
Here are a few methods I suggest for reaching out to potential advisors.
Reach out yourself. Yes, it may be hard to get the attention of a professor considering how many emails they probably get on a daily basis but it is not impossible and I recommend you try.
Subject: Prospective Student: Firstname Lastname
Body: Informed questions about their research, reference one of their papers or research highlighted on their website, ask what they look for in a graduate student, *concisely* describe your research experience and interests
Attach your CV
Ask a trusted faculty mentor or advisor to reach out on your behalf.
This just leverages their credibility as well as may increase the level of importance in the potential advisors inbox.
Reach out to the graduate school coordinator or chair at the university and ask to be connected/introduced to the professor
A way to find out who this is, is to search the university, school/department, and look at faculty
Components of the Graduate Application
Various programs have different application processes but at the very least they should all include these components:
Address for information
Program of Interest
Request for Financial Support
This publication goes into detail about the various components.
The Princeton Review provides a good general timeline of events. See here.
Masters vs. PhD Consideration
Some universities offer the ability to get a Masters on the way to completing your PhD requirements. I find this valuable in the case you decide halfway that the PhD may not be for you! And that's totally OK. What is beneficial about these programs is that you can walk away from the program with a Masters should you decide against completing the PhD. Now, if that is not an option for the program you're considering, you're probably deciding whether you want a masters or a PhD. Here are the questions I would ask myself.
What are my career goals?
Research & Development jobs typically hire people with PhDs. (it's not impossible to be hired with a Masters)
Some jobs may not hire a PhD because it would over qualify you and they may not be willing to pay you accordingly
Do I want to work at a national lab?
Very typical for these labs to hire PhDs
Am I comfortable spending the next 5 years of my life doing this?
These are just a few considerations. However, there are extra considerations for those with children, spouses, illnesses, dependent family etc.
I hope this provides good insight into the process of applying to grad school. Please remember this is not a one-size-fits-all process and I can only provide input on my own experience. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments or add information.