The Application Process

General GRE

The GRE (Graduate Record Examination) is a test that virtually all the universities require applicants to take in order to apply. It's comprised of three areas - Verbal, Math and Analytical - that are tested over a period of around 4 hours. The score for each subject is between 200 and 800, and what really counts is what percentile you're in (what percent of everybody who take the test got a lower score).

It can be done.

First off, don't wait with registering for a test. Register enough time in advance, and you'll get to take the test where you prefer, when you prefer. Why make things harder for yourself? I registered a little while after I started studying, when I could estimate that I'd be prepared in about 3 months.

I hate math. Or at least I used to. This was the one part of the application process I dreaded - and I knew I had to get incredible scores on the GRE, to compensate for my BA average. This was probably the single most important thing I did regarding the GRE - I decided I will get the best score I can possibly get, since I knew that without it I simply would not have made it into a good program.

And so I sat down to study.

I chose not to go with a course, since they were too expensive and were very poor value - a huge cost for very few meetings. I studied by myself with two books and one computer program.

The book I studied with was "GRE - Practicing to Take the GRE General Test." I got the most recent edition that was available at the time. The book is published by ETS, which is the organization that actually develops and administers the GRE - and they really do teach you what you need to know. It also comes with a CD that has some simulated tests on it. I think the tutorials there were excellent - as long as I made sure to dedicate the necessary time to study them. I also took the practice tests seriously. I'd generally recommend to take this entire process pretty seriously - I'm sure my scores made a big difference in my application, if only by compensating for the BA average.

The software I used was one that I downloaded from the website: The software prepared me VERY well for the math section (which was the one I feared the most), especially because it uses the same interface as the test - you get to work with the computer, subjected to the same time restraints etc. The program actually teaches you how to work with the time you're given, which is probably the best thing about it. The solutions do have a few mistakes in them (meaning, they sometimes mark your answers as wrong when they're actually right), and the company never answered the Emails I sent to ask them about it - but it's generally a good product, and worth the $26 or so.

The other book I studied with was "Word Smart" (by Princeton Review), which actually did help me improve my vocabulary - although that's probably the hardest thing to improve.

My scores? :-) Here they are:

Math: 780 - 89th percentile.
Analytical: 800 - 97th percentile.
Verbal: 570 - 78th percentile.

STOP! Don't even start to tell yourself "Oh man, I'll never get anything like..." You CAN do it. I promise you, it's not that complicated. Put yourself to work, study hard (2-3 hours every day for a couple of months) until you feel that you're starting to solve exercises easily. Go over the review sections in the book, and take them seriously - they really do contain EVERYTHING you need to know. Or take a course, if you're into that, just remember - your success is determined by YOUR EFFORTS, and nothing else, and nobody else's. It can be done. It's been done before - and YOU can do it.

Okay, let me take my pompoms off, it's getting hard to type :-)

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Psychology GRE

Also known as the GRE Subject test in Psychology, it basically covers all the material anyone could ever hope to go over while studying for a BA in psychology. Not all universities asked that I take it - in fact, Stanford was the only one that required it, and two others recommended it. For a long while, since I wasn't planning on applying to Stanford ("I'd never be accepted" etc) I thought I shouldn't burden myself unnecessarily with this test. At some point I just decided I'm going to apply to Stanford anyway, and since the GRE Psych is also necessary for applying to some fellowships, I decided to go for it.

It's a lot of material. The good news is that there's none of that logic or math stuff in the test. Just regurgitation.

The better news is that if you have some psychology-related education, a lot of the stuff will look very familiar - and you could figure a lot of the answers out (always multiple answers) just using your common sense.

I found one web site that recommended a few books to study with: I actually followed the advice given there, and got the "Arco GRE Psychology" book as my main study book. What can I say, the guy (gal?) was right. The book contained almost everything I needed to know. I put a good couple of months into it, till I felt I was pretty much on top of the material. Then I started reading "Barron's GRE Psychology," just to fill some gaps in. I didn't really have any material from my BA time to study with, which was just as well.

My only piece of advice regarding this test is this: answering questions incorrectly in the test actually lowers your score - if you have no clue, it's better to just leave them unanswered. This is different than the regular ("general") GRE, where you cannot proceed without answering all the questions. My score would've been much higher had I not guessed when I was clueless. It was still high enough, but there was a time when I thought it would prevent me from getting into the better programs - which is just another example of how easy it was for me to doubt myself in the process.

I ended up getting 690 (88th percentile), which I wasn't quite sure was good enough. But at this point I was feeling good about my General GRE scores, and was trying to be done with self-doubt. I figured I'll either make it, or I won't, and why worry about it. I was already deep into the application process, and starting to develop some serenity about it :-)

DON'T FORGET to register in time to take the test. You would not believe how long the waiting list is - and they all came there on the test day, and made me feel bad for showing up and not allowing a waiting-list person to take the test.

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I applied to graduate school 5 years after completing my BA, and so had some life experience to talk about. In my resume, I tried to emphasize, well, anything that would make me look good :-) So I spoke about my "managerial" experience, about my educational background, about the research experience, about my computer skills… just about anything that could help.

Here is a copy of the resume I sent out.

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Personal Statement

Here is my personal statement, just as an idea of what one can look like. This probably isn't a standard format, but that's how I wrote it and it was good enough to get me in. When I was writing it, I tried to convery the following points:

  • I'm a thinking person with original thoughts.
  • I'm motivated and spent time and energy to educate myself on my topic of interest.
  • I have research experience and understand the research I was involved in.
  • I want to join the specific program I'm applying to because of specific faculty members there - whose research interests match my own strongly.

It took me a while to decide whether or not to use my statement to explain/justify/make excuses for the less than great parts of my application (my BA average, my General GRE Verbal score). After consulting some friends, as well as a kind professor over the phone, I decided not to justify anything. This is who I am, here are my strong points, I am hiding nothing - let me know when you'd like me to start school. :-) That was the approach I was trying to adopt.

I had a few friends go over my statements, for both grammatical and content-related advice. I didn't automatically accept all the advice I received. I thought about it, very hard, and at the end decided by myself. It took me a LONG time to write my statement, and it started out very different than how it ended. In order to evaluate it, I needed to have a couple of days without looking at it, so I could read it with "fresh eyes" - I would just advise that you give yourself PLENTY of time for this, since this is a crucial part of the application.

Every statement was tailored for the program I sent it to, generally in the concluding part, where I mention the specific faculty members I'd be interested in working with. Here's an example of another statement prepared for a different program.

I would really recommend writing your own statement, and not using some pre-prepared format. Just give yourself enough time to do it :-)

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Application Forms

Each university has different forms. It took me longer than I thought to fill those out. I was doing it in a somewhat rushed manner toward the end, and didn't enjoy it. Just make sure to give yourself enough time to do it, if you can. It's important to be organized about it, since each university has a few forms to fill out, and it can get pretty ugly, pretty fast. I kept a separate folder-thingy for each university, which is also where I stored the recommendation letters that I collected, transcripts, etc. This way, when I was done with everything, I just stuffed the contents into an envelope and sent it off.

There's nothing really tricky about those forms - try to be as anal as the guy who'll be reading them. Follow instructions. I did whatever I could on-line - saves time, postage, paper... why not?

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And the Winner Is...

Once I mailed all of my applications, met with all the professors I intended to, did everything I could... The time has come for me to just relax and let time pass. I knew I had a couple of months to wait before I hear from anyone. All the universities I applied to promised to give an answer back by mid-April - and the application deadline was either December or January.

I tried my hardest not to think about it once my part was done. It was just about waiting for answers, and I don't like driving myself crazy with maybe's and who-know's. When the answers will come, I will know.

The first answer I received was from Stanford, thankfully. You can probably imagine how good that felt, how excited I was.

Two days later, I got a very thin envelope from the University of Eugene, Oregon. They were sorry to inform me. I was able to let that one go almost without any kind of negative feelings, since I already heard back from Stanford. I'm really glad I heard from Stanford first, but even if the order were reversed, I still would've heard from them eventually. It's not over until it's over.

I waited until I had some sort of formal letter from Stanford saying that I was admitted, and that I don't need to worry about money. Only after receiving this confirmation I Emailed the other universities and let them know that I won't be joining their program. I also made sure to Email the specific professors I was in touch with (and not just the administrative coordinators) and thank them again for all their help. As usual, the responses I received were very kind, wishing me luck and encouraging to stay in touch in future years. Here's an example of one.

In case you're interested, I applied to 5 universities: Stanford, UC San-Diego, University of Oregon-Eugene, University of Wisconsin-Madison and NYU.

I was accepted to Stanford and UC San-Diego. It seemed like I was about to accepted to Wisconsin, but I Emailed them to drop me from the applicants' list before they sent a reply.

I was not accepted to the University of Oregon-Eugene and to NYU (the latter taking its sweet time to inform me of the decision - sending the response long after April was a distant memory).

Which just goes to show that even if I'm not accepted to one program, it doesn't mean I wouldn't have been accepted to a different program that's just as good. There are strange considerations and constraints at play - it's never worth it to be shy about aiming high.

Realistic - but high. :-)

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