Frequently Asked Questions about the Graduate School Application Process

When should I take the GRE and how should I prepare?

Students should prepare for the GRE by familiarizing themselves with the content and format of the test and by taking a practice test.  See the ETS GRE Test Information web site for more details. 

Some students choose to purchase test preparation materials or take virtual or in-person classes to ensure their readiness for the test, but these steps are not always necessary.  Self-assessment and practice testing well before the intended test date can help determine if extra study materials will be valuable for you.

Plan to take the test no later than August of the year in which you plan to apply.  That way, you can retake the test if you are disappointed with your score.  The GRE will allow you to send only your best score or all your scores, so there is no disadvantage in retaking the test, except, of course, the additional time and expense.

How do I determine which programs would be a good fit for me?

Research faculty in the subject area you wish to explore are the best resources for learning more about specific degree programs, and anybody planning to apply to PhD programs should discuss likely destinations with a research supervisor or trusted professor.  Students who want a master’s degree to secure a job in business or industry should discuss their career goals with people already in the field.  An informational interview is a good way to learn about which programs are especially valued in the workplace.

For more suggestions, see “What School is Right for You?”

How do I reach out to faculty at programs in which I am interested?

Research faculty at any school are busy with their own research and teaching obligations and their current students.  They may not have time to respond to individual queries about opportunities in their program.  To improve your chances of receiving a response, consider writing a very brief email that inquires about opportunities in the program (e.g. “Will you accept new PhD students in the fall?” or “Will your program have an open house or information session in the upcoming months?”) and asks for the name and contact information of a current grad student.  You will always append your current CV to these queries, so faculty can assess your qualifications and advocate for you when your application arrives.  Although it is tempting to write a lengthy email to persuade the professor of your interest, resist that urge and make your case in the application materials.

What is the difference between a resume and a CV?

A resume and a CV both include a carefully organized overview of your education, work, skills, and experiences.  They differ in the way they prioritize information:  a resume, designed for work in industry, will emphasize previous employment and skills that are most relevant for a specific type of job.  A CV will prioritize research and will expand the research section to include details about knowledge of a specific field as well as skills and equipment used during research.  A description of a research project in a CV might include (in a description presented as a bulleted list) details about specific formulas, methods, tools, and protocols as well as an indication of the outcomes of the research—good or bad.  A CV can be much longer than a resume, too, although graduate school applicants should usually not exceed two pages.

How long is a statement of purpose and what details should it include?

A statement of purpose is usually 1-2 pages long, single-spaced.  Its purpose is to reassure the admissions committee (composed of research faculty in the graduate program) that

  1. You are capable of completing the degree and
  2. You will do something meaningful with the degree that will enhance the reputation of the program

You should consider three main ideas as you draft the statement of purpose:

  1. What do you plan to do after graduate school (i.e. what is the impact you want to have with your career?)?  The more specifically you can answer this question, the stronger your application is likely to be.
  2. What steps have you taken so far to prepare yourself for your long-term goal?  The answer to this question will usually include your coursework and research as an undergraduate and perhaps work experience or relevant extracurricular activities.  Please note that graduate programs do not usually need to know that you are “well rounded”: they are most concerned that you can engage in the work of the program.
  3. How will the program prepare you to meet your long-term career goals?  In a paragraph or two you will describe the details of the graduate program that make it a good fit for you.  Referring to two or three specific opportunities or faculty members is conventional in these essays, but you might want to include your open-mindedness about exploring other labs as well.