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Answers to 8 FAQs about doing graduate school applications

Determined to go to graduate school, but not looking forward to all those graduate school applications you have to work on?

Here are answers to 8 FAQs about doing grad school applications, plus an example SOP!

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1. How many schools should I apply to?

I applied to 11 schools. Few Ivy Leagues, few middle tiers, few "safe" schools.

I was accepted at 3 schools. I was an international student applicant (Student F-1 Visa) so it might have been harder to get in.

Why some schools reject you is a big mystery. We will never know.

But all you need is to get into one.

2. How do I decide which schools to apply to?

For this, consider 2 things:

A. Research area

B. Geographical area

If you want to research String Theory, make sure the schools you are applying to have that option. Not every school will, so if you are hell-bent on a particular topic, you have to be careful in doing your homework on the schools.

Don't lie in your statement of purpose saying you will do one thing, when really in your heart of hearts, you want to do another thing. That will not go well, I promise.

If you are willing and wanting to explore different options, and are not committed to a particular research area yet, you are better off choosing schools with big departments that have many options that you can choose from.

Lastly, consider the town or city the schools are located in, and whether you would be OK with spending several years in that geographical area.

Check out the cost of living, housing options, crime rates, transportation options, etc. of that area.

Make sure you can afford to live there with your budget, loans and/or graduate stipend.

3. How much does it cost to apply to graduate school?

Cost me over $1000. What with the application fee associated with each school, which is typically higher for international students, and fees for sending GRE scores to each school, and fees for taking the GRE, it was pretty ridiculous.

Not every school has a ridiculous application fee, though. Ohio State University, which is where I ended up going, cost $5 to apply.

4. What is the GRE like?

Some people are totally fine with it and do awesome. Maybe you are one of them!

Students with test anxiety (like me) hate it, as it can be a poor reflection of our true abilities.

I am glad that there seems to be more awareness of the uselessness of such tests, and how bad they are at predicting anything.

I think, unfortunately, the GRE is still pretty important if you are an international student. So, international students, get your GRE practice books out, study, take practice tests, time yourself, repeat.

For domestic students, an average or even below average GRE score will likely not be your undoing. Still, you should study and take practice tests. Do your best.

5. What kind of grades do I need to get into graduate school?

A's and B's

One C or D won't kill you.
You don't need a 4.0

In my freshman year in college, I got a D+ in a 1-credit hour music class (for my music minor.) I thought the world was going to end. It didn't. It was fine in the end.

I had A's, B's, one C+, one D+ and graduated Summa Cum Laude.

I know plenty of students that got into graduate school with worse grades.

6. Do I need to double or triple major?


I double majored in Physics and Chemistry and minored in Math and Music, and learned the hard way that that was crazy and I should slow down.

You don't have to learn it the hard way.

There is no need to learn *everything* in college.

Learn what you can, while doing your best, and you will have a chance to learn what you couldn't learn later.

Like in graduate school. Or throughout life.

7. What makes a strong graduate school application?

A. Good college grades.

In case of international students that went to college in other countries, unfortunately, your GRE scores.

B. Strong letters of recommendation.

C. A strong statement of purpose.

The SOP should include well-written descriptions of your undergraduate research and/or teaching experiences. See my SOP from a successful application here!

Strong undergraduate research experience is particularly helpful as it demonstrates that you are prepared for the most critical component of your Ph.D.: conducting independent research.

8. Who should write my letters?

Professors that know you well.

Not professors that taught you one class and don't remember you.

A letter from a postdoc you worked with is fine too.

But you need at least one very strong letter from a research professor.

Your chance of getting into graduate school is greatly amplified if you conducted undergraduate research with a professor that knows someone at the school you are applying for graduate school.

If you are part of a collaborative research project involving several institutions, getting into school at one of the other institutions is particularly promising.

Good luck and post your comments and questions below!!

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