GRE Premier 2017 with 6 Practice Tests


Chapter 24. How to Apply to Graduate School

You've taken the GRE and you've researched schools that offer programs you want. Your next step in the application process is to get the application forms from the various schools you've selected. Some schools will require you to complete an online application, some will have PDF downloads of the application documents, and yet others will require that you request applications that will then be sent to you. Once you get the applications, you'll notice one thing quickly: no two applications are exactly alike. Some ask you to write one essay or personal statement, and others ask for three or more essays on various subjects. Some have very detailed forms requiring extensive background information; others are satisfied with your name and address and little else.

Despite these differences, most applications follow a general pattern with variations on the same kinds of questions. So read this section with the understanding that, although not all of it is relevant to every application, these guidelines will be valuable for just about any graduate school application you’ll encounter.

How Schools Evaluate Applicants

Each graduate school has its own admissions policies and practices, but all programs evaluate your application based on a range of objective and subjective criteria. Regardless of which schools you are pursuing, understanding how admissions officers judge your candidacy can give you a leg up on the competition.

Generally, all admissions officers use the application process to measure your intellectual abilities, aptitude in your field of study, and personal characteristics. When you submit your application, admissions officers will evaluate the total package. Most admissions officers look for reasons to admit candidates, not reject them. Your challenge, therefore, is to distinguish yourself positively from the other candidates.


To assess your intellectual ability, admissions officers look at two key factors: your academic record and your GRE scores.

Academic Record

Your grade point average (GPA) is important, but it’s just part of your academic profile. Admissions officers will consider the reputation of your undergraduate institution and the difficulty of your courses. Admissions officers are well aware that comparing GPAs from different schools and even different majors from the same school is like comparing apples and oranges. So they’ll look closely at your transcript. Do your grades show an upward trend? How did you perform in your major? How did you fare in courses related to the program you’re applying to?

Admissions officers focus primarily on your undergraduate performance, but they will consider all graduate studies and non-degree coursework that you have completed. Be sure to submit those transcripts. Generally, the undergraduate GPA of an applicant who is about to complete or has recently completed an undergraduate degree is given much more weight than that of an applicant returning to school after several years.

If you have a poor academic record, it will be tougher to get into a top school, but it is by no means impossible. Your challenge is to find other ways to demonstrate your intellectual horsepower. High GRE scores, an intelligently written personal statement, and strong recommendations will help.


You are already familiar with the GRE and are armed with strategies to score higher on the test. An integral part of the admissions process at virtually all schools, the GRE measures general verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing skills. Some programs, particularly in psychology and the sciences, require you to take one or more GRE Subject Tests as well. In addition to or instead of the GRE, some programs require the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). Be sure to check with the programs you’re considering to see which tests they require.

When admissions officers review your GRE scores, they’ll look at your Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing scores separately, particularly if they have any questions about your abilities in a certain area. Different programs give varying weight to each score. If you’ve taken the GRE more than once, schools will generally credit you with your highest score for each section, though some may average the scores or take the most recent.

Used by itself, the GRE may not be a perfect predictor of academic performance, but it is the single best one available. The GRE does not measure your intelligence, nor does it measure the likelihood of your success in your field. The revised GRE has been designed to predict with more certainty your success in graduate school. As with any standardized test, by preparing properly for the GRE, you can boost your score significantly. The strategies you practice and learn will also help you decipher difficult academic text you may encounter in your future studies.

One thing to note is that your essays from the Analytical Writing section are now sent to the schools to which you send a score report. Previously, schools would only receive your score report. Schools will know that these are GRE essays, completed under time limits. Still, it makes the Analytical Writing section even more important to complete well.

Fellowships and Assistantships

Some graduate programs award fellowships and assistantships partly on the basis of GRE scores. Because most programs have limited funds and therefore limited positions to offer, the awards process can be quite competitive. Not only should you take your scores seriously, you should also confirm the submission deadline with your department. The financial aid deadline is usually earlier than the application deadline.


When evaluating your application, admissions officers look at work experience and other activities related to the program in question. In fields like psychology, social work, and health, your research and practical experience will play a role in the admissions decision. If you’re applying to film, writing, or other arts programs, you’ll be asked to submit samples of your work. And if you’re planning on an academic career, your research and publications will be of particular interest to the admissions committee. The way you present yourself and your achievements should be tailored to the programs you’re applying to.

You can communicate some of your abilities through the straightforward “data” part of your application. Be sure to describe your job and internship responsibilities. Be aware that your job title alone will not necessarily communicate enough about what you do or the level of your responsibilities. If you are asked to submit a résumé or CV, make sure you illustrate your experience and on-the-job training in a way that highlights skills you already have and those you think will serve you well in your future field of study.

If you are working and applying to a graduate program in the same field, admissions officers will look at your overall career record. How have you progressed? Have you been an outstanding performer? What do your recommendation writers say about your performance? Have you progressed to increasingly higher levels of responsibility? If you have limited work experience, you will not be expected to match the accomplishments of an applicant with 10 years’ experience, but you will be expected to demonstrate your abilities.

Extracurricular activities and community involvement also present opportunities for you to highlight your skills. For younger applicants, college activities play a more significant role than for more seasoned applicants. Your activities say a lot about who you are and what’s important to you. Were you a campus leader? Did your activities require discipline and commitment? Did you work with a team? What did you learn from your involvement?

Active community involvement provides a way for you to demonstrate your skills and to impress admissions officers with your personal character. In fact, many applications ask directly about community activities. Getting involved in your community is a chance to do something worthwhile and enhance your application in the process.


The third, and most subjective, criterion on which schools evaluate you is your personal character. Admissions officers judge you in this area primarily through your personal statement (and essays, if applicable), recommendations, and personal interview (if applicable). Although different schools emphasize different qualities, most seek candidates who demonstrate maturity, integrity, responsibility, and a clear sense of how they fit into their chosen field. The more competitive programs place special emphasis on these criteria because they have many qualified applicants for each available spot in the class.

Who Evaluates Applicants

At most schools, the admissions board includes professional admissions officers and/or faculty from the department to which you’re applying. At some schools, the authority to make admissions decisions lies with the graduate school itself—that is, with the central administration. At others, it lies with individual departments.


Upon reviewing your application, the admissions board may make any number of decisions, including the following:

·        Admit: Congratulations, you’re in! But read the letter carefully. The board may recommend or, in some cases, require you to do some preparatory coursework to ensure that your quantitative or language skills are up to speed.

·        Reject: At the top schools, there are far more qualified applicants than spaces in the class. Even though you were rejected, you can reapply at a later date. However, if you are considering reapplying, you need to understand why you were rejected and whether you have a reasonable chance of being admitted the next time around. Some schools will speak with you about your application, but they often wait until the end of the admissions season, by which time you may have accepted another offer.

·        Waiting list: Schools use the waiting list to manage class size, leaving the applicant with a mixed message. The good news is that you are a strong enough candidate to have made the list. The bad news is there is no way to know with certainty whether you’ll be accepted. Take heart, though, that schools do tend to look kindly upon wait-listed candidates who reapply in a subsequent year. Similar to the waiting list is the provisional admit.  You may be asked to retake the GRE or resend another part of your application in order to gain admission to your desired school.

·        Request for an interview: Schools at which an interview is not required may request that you interview prior to making their final decision. Your application may have raised some specific issues that you can address in an interview, or perhaps the board feels your personal statement did not give them a complete enough picture to render a decision. Look at this as a positive opportunity to strengthen your case.

Preparing Your Application

A key part of getting into the graduate school of your choice is to develop a basic application strategy so you can present yourself in the best light.


When it comes to applying to graduate school, you are the product. Your application is your marketing document. Of course, marketing yourself doesn’t mean that you should lie or even embellish; it just means that you need to make a tight presentation of the facts. Everything in your application should add up to a coherent whole and underscore the fact that not only are you qualified to be in the program but you should be in it.

Many application forms have a comforting and accepting tone. Why would you like to come to our program? they ask. They do want an answer to that question, but what’s even more important—the subtext for the whole application process—is the question: Why should we accept you? This is the question that your application will answer. And with some effective marketing strategies, your answer will be clear, concise, coherent, and strong.

Maximizing the Various Parts of Your Application

Let’s take a close look at how you should approach the specific parts of your application.


Your personal statement is a critical part of your application. The personal statement is where you can explain why you’re applying to graduate school, what interests you about this program, and what your future goals are. The situations you choose to write about and the manner in which you present them can have a major bearing on the strength of your candidacy.

Writing an effective personal statement requires serious self-examination and sound strategic planning. What major personal and professional events have shaped you? What accomplishments best demonstrate your abilities? Remember, admissions officers are interested in getting to know you as a complete person. What you choose to write about sends clear signals about what’s important to you and what your values are. You want the readers to put your essay down and think, “Wow! That was really interesting and memorable,” and, “Wow! This person really knows why he’s going into this program and has real contributions to make to the field.”

Creating Your Statement

Your statement should demonstrate the patterns in your life that have led you to apply to the program. Part of demonstrating why you are right for the program involves demonstrating that you understand what the program is and where it will lead you. A personal statement requires honesty and distinctiveness. If you are heading to graduate school straight from undergraduate school, what has made you so certain that you know what you want to do with your life? If you are returning to school, particularly if you are changing fields, what has led you to this decision? You can use vignettes from your personal history, academic life, work life, and extracurricular activities to explain. If you are applying to a doctoral program, indicate which ideas, fields of research, or problems intrigue you. It’s always a good idea to demonstrate familiarity with the field you want to enter.

You should start compiling information for your statement three or four months before you fill out your application. Write a draft once you’ve narrowed your list of potential topics. Have it edited by someone who knows you well. After rewriting, have someone whose opinion and writing skills you trust read your final draft, make suggestions, and, above all, help you proofread.

General Personal Statement Tips

Once you’ve determined what you plan to write for your statement, keep the following tips in mind:

·        Length: Schools are pretty specific about how long they want your statement to be. Adhere to their guidelines.

·        Spelling/typos/grammar: Remember, your application is your marketing document. What would you think of a product that’s promoted with sloppy materials containing typos, spelling errors, and grammatical mistakes?

·        Write in the active voice: Candidates who write well have an advantage in the application process because they can state their case in a concise, compelling manner. Sentences in the passive voice tend to be unnecessarily wordy. For example:

·         Passive voice: The essays were written by me.

·         Active voice: I wrote the essays.

Strong writing will not compensate for a lack of substance, but poor writing can torpedo an otherwise impressive candidate.

·        Tone: On the one hand, you want to tout your achievements and present yourself as a poised, self-confident applicant. On the other hand, arrogance and self-importance do not go over well with admissions officers. Before you submit your application, be sure that you’re comfortable with the tone as well as the content.

·        Creative approaches: If you choose to submit a humorous or creative application, you are employing a high-risk, high-reward strategy. If you’re confident you can pull it off, go for it. Be aware, though, that what may work for one admissions officer may fall flat with another. Admissions officers who review thousands of essays every year may consider your approach gimmicky or simply find it distracting. Remember, your challenge is to stand out in the applicant pool in a positive way. Don’t let your creativity obscure the substance of your application.

·        Answer the question asked: Schools do not want to receive a personal statement or other essay that seems to have been written generically or perhaps even for another school.

Making Your Statement Distinctive

Depending on the amount of time you have and the amount of effort you’re willing to put in, you can write a personal statement that will stand out from the crowd. One of the first mistakes that some applicants make is in thinking that “thorough” and “comprehensive” are sufficient qualities for their personal statement. They try to include as much information as possible, without regard for length limitations or strategic intent. Application readers dread reading these bloated personal statements. So how do you decide what to include? There are usually clear length guidelines, and admissions officers prefer that you adhere to them. So get rid of the idea of “comprehensive” and focus more on “distinctive.”

Unless they ask for it, don’t dwell on your weak points. A strong personal statement, for example, about how much you learned in your current position and how the experience and knowledge you’ve gained inspired you to apply to graduate school will give readers what they want—a quick image of who you are, how you got that way, and why you want to go to their school. One of the best ways to be distinctive is to sell your image briefly and accurately, including real-life examples to back up your points.

The admissions team wants to know about you, but there is the potential for including too much personal information. Beware of sharing reasons for applying that include furthering personal relationships, improving finances, or proving someone wrong.

“Distinctive” means that your statement should answer the questions that admissions officers think about while reading personal statements: What’s different about this applicant? Why should we pick this applicant over others? Authentic enthusiasm can be a plus, and writing about parts of your life or career that are interesting and relevant helps grab a reader’s attention.


In some programs, an interview with the department is conducted at the applicant’s discretion: if you want one, you’re welcome to ask. In other programs, only the most promising applicants are invited to interview. Whether or not a department can pay your travel expenses depends on its financial circumstances. If you have the opportunity, definitely go to interview at your first-choice departments. There’s no substitute for face-to-face contact with your potential colleagues, and by visiting the school, you can check out the city or town where it is located. You should investigate cost-of-living and transportation options during your visit.

As you prepare for an interview, here are some tips:

·        Review your application: If you’ve submitted your application prior to the interview, your interviewer is likely to use it as a guide and may ask specific questions about it. Be sure you remember what you wrote.

·        Be ready to provide examples and specifics: Professionally trained interviewers are more likely to ask you about specific situations than to ask broad, open-ended questions. They can learn more by asking what you’ve done in situations than by asking what you think you’d do. Here are a few situations an interviewer may ask you to discuss: “Tell me about a recent accomplishment.” “Discuss a recent situation in which you demonstrated leadership.” “Give me an example of a situation where you overcame difficult circumstances.” As you think about these situations, be prepared to discuss specifics—what you did and why you did it that way. You do not need to “script” or overrehearse your responses, but you should go into the interview confident that you can field any question.

·        Be open and honest: Don’t struggle to think of “right” answers. The only right answers are those that are right for you. By responding openly and honestly, you’ll find the interview less stressful, and you’ll come across as a more genuine, attractive candidate.

·        Ask questions: The interview is as much an opportunity for you to learn about the school as for the school to learn about you. Good questions demonstrate your knowledge about a particular program and your thoughtfulness about the entire process.

·        Follow proper professional decorum: Be on time, dress appropriately, and follow up with thank-you letters. Treat the process as you would a job interview, which in many respects it is.

·        Watch your nonverbal cues: Nonverbal communication is much more important than people realize. Maintain eye contact, keep good posture, sustain positive energy, and avoid nervous fidgeting. It will help you come across as confident, poised, and mature.

·        Be courteous to the administrative staff: These people are colleagues of the board members, and how you treat them can have an impact, either positive or negative.

·        Relax and have fun: Interviews are inherently stressful. But by being well prepared, you can enhance your prospects for admission, learn about the school, and enjoy yourself in the process.


Graduate schools will require at least three recommendations. Choose recommenders who can write meaningfully about your strengths. One of the more common mistakes is to sacrifice an insightful recommendation from someone who knows you well for a generic recommendation from a celebrity or a prominent professor. Admissions officers are not impressed by famous names. So unless that individual knows you and can write convincingly on your behalf, it’s not a strategy worth pursuing. Good choices for recommenders include current and past supervisors, professors, academic and nonacademic advisers, and people you work with in community activities.

Many schools will specifically request an academic recommendation. Professors in your major are ideal recommenders, as they can vouch for your ability to study at the graduate level. If you don’t have a professor who can recommend you, use a TA who knows your work well. Similarly, if requesting a recommendation from your employer would create an awkward situation, look for someone else who can comment on your skills. Your recommendations will confirm your strengths and, in some cases, help you overcome perceived weaknesses in your application.

If you wish to submit an extra recommendation, it’s generally not a problem. Most schools will include the letter in your file, and those that don’t will not penalize you for it. You should, however, send a note explaining why you have requested an additional recommendation so it does not appear that you disregarded the instructions. It’s also a good idea to check with the admissions department before submitting an extra recommendation.

Asking for Recommendations

There are two fundamental rules of requesting recommendations: ask early and ask nicely. As soon as you decide to go to graduate school, you should start sizing up potential recommendation writers and let them know that you may ask them for a recommendation. This will give them plenty of time to think about what to say. Once they’ve agreed, let them know about deadlines well in advance to avoid potential scheduling conflicts. The more time they have, the better the job they’ll do recommending you. As for asking nicely, you should let these people know you think highly of their opinion and you’d be happy and honored if they would consider writing you a letter of recommendation. You can help your recommenders by scheduling brief appointments with them to discuss your background; providing a list of due dates for each application; providing any forms required by the program; listing which recommendations will be submitted in hard copy and which will be submitted online; providing any forms required by the program; supplying stamped, addressed envelopes for hard-copy submissions; and following up with the recommenders.

Before You Submit Your Application

When you’ve completed your personal statement and you’re ready to submit your application, take two more steps to ensure that your application is as strong as it can be.

1.    Be sure to read your personal statement in the context of your entire application.

1.    Does the total package make sense? Does it represent you favorably? Is everything consistent?

2.    Have you demonstrated your intellectual ability, relevant experience and skills, and personal characteristics?

3.    Most importantly, do you feel good about the application? After all, you don’t want to be rejected on the basis of an application that you don’t believe represents the real you.

2.    Have someone you trust and respect review your application. Someone who has not been involved in writing the application may pick up spelling or grammatical errors that you’ve overlooked. In addition, because your application is an intensely personal document that requires significant self-examination, you may not be able to remain objective. Someone who knows you and can be frank will tell you whether your application has “captured” you most favorably. Note, however, that some schools prohibit you from using any outside help on your application. A last-minute once-over from a friend or family member is probably within reason, but you may want to directly ask the school what is permissible.

Putting It All Together

There are no magic formulas that automatically admit you to, or reject you from, the school of your choice. Rather, your application is like a jigsaw puzzle. Each component—GPA, GRE scores, professional experience, school activities, recommendations—is a different piece of the puzzle.

Outstanding professional experience and personal characteristics may enable you to overcome a mediocre academic record. Conversely, outstanding academic credentials will not ensure your admission to a top-tier program if you do not demonstrate strong relevant skills and experience, as well as solid personal character. Your challenge in preparing your application is to convince the admissions board that all of the pieces in your background fit together to form a substantial and unique puzzle.


You have all of the tools you need to put together a stand-out application package, including a top GRE score. Best of luck, and remember, your Kaplan training will be with you each step of the way.

A Special Note for International Students

About a quarter of a million international students pursue advanced academic degrees at the master’s or PhD level at US universities each year. This trend of pursuing higher education in the United States, particularly at the graduate level, is expected to continue. Business, management, engineering, and the physical and life sciences are popular areas of study for students coming to the United States from other countries. Along with these academic options, international students are also taking advantage of opportunities for research grants, teaching assistantships, and practical training or work experience in US graduate departments.

If you are not from the United States but are considering attending a graduate program at a university in the United States, here is what you’ll need to get started.

·        If English is not your first language, you will probably need to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or show some other evidence that you’re proficient in English prior to gaining admission to a graduate program. Graduate programs will vary on what is an acceptable TOEFL score. For degrees in business, journalism, management, or the humanities, a minimum TOEFL score of 100 (600 on the paper-based TOEFL) or better is expected. For the hard sciences and computer technology, a TOEFL score of 79 (550 on the paper-based TOEFL) is a common minimum requirement.

·        You may also need to take the GRE. The strategies in this book are designed to help you maximize your score on the computer-based GRE. However, many sites outside the United States and Canada offer only the paper-based version of the GRE. Fortunately, most strategies can be applied to the paper-based version as well. For additional paper-based GRE strategies, see Chapter 2.

·        Because admission to many graduate programs is quite competitive, you may want to select three or four programs you would like to attend and complete applications for each program.

·        Selecting the correct graduate school is very different from selecting a suitable undergraduate institution. You should research the qualifications and interests of faculty members teaching and doing research in your chosen field. Look for professors who share your specialty.

·        You need to begin the application process at least a year in advance. Be aware that many programs offer only August or September start dates. Find out application deadlines and plan accordingly.

·        Finally, you will need to obtain an I-20 Certificate of Eligibility in order to obtain an F-1 student visa to study in the United States.


If you need more help with the complex process of graduate school admissions, assistance preparing for the TOEFL or GRE, or help building your English language skills in general, you may be interested in Kaplan’s English language and test preparation for international students, available at Kaplan’s International Centers/Colleges around the world.

Kaplan’s English courses have been designed to help students and professionals from outside the United States meet their educational and career goals. At locations throughout the United States, international students take advantage of Kaplan’s programs to help them improve their academic and conversational English skills; to raise their scores on the TOEFL, GRE, and other standardized exams; and to gain admission to the schools of their choice. Our staff and instructors give international students the individualized instruction they need to succeed. Here is a brief description of some of Kaplan’s programs for international students.

General Intensive English

Kaplan’s General Intensive English course is the fastest and most effective way for students to improve their English. This full-time program integrates the four key elements of language learning—listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The challenging curriculum and intensive schedule are designed for both the general language learner and the academically bound student.

TOEFL and Academic English (TAE)

Our world-famous TOEFL course prepares you for the TOEFL and teaches you the academic language and skills needed to succeed in a university. Designed for high-intermediate to proficiency-level English speakers, our course includes TOEFL-focused reading, writing, listening, speaking, vocabulary, and grammar instruction.

General English

Our General English course is a semi-intensive program designed for students who want to improve their listening and speaking skills without the time commitment of an intensive program. With morning or afternoon class times and flexible Structured Study hours throughout the week, our General English course is perfect for every schedule.


The GRE is required for admission to many graduate programs in the United States. Nearly a half-million people take the GRE each year. A high score can help you stand out from other test takers. This course, designed especially for nonnative English speakers, includes the skills you need to succeed on each section of the GRE, as well as access to Kaplan’s exclusive computer-based practice materials and extra Verbal practice.


Since 1938, more than three million students have come to Kaplan to advance their studies, prepare for entry to American universities, and further their careers. In addition to the above programs, Kaplan offers courses to prepare for the SAT, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, DAT, OAT, PCAT, USMLE, NCLEX, and other standardized exams at locations throughout the United States.


To get more information, or to apply for admission to any of Kaplan’s programs for international students and professionals, please visit our website at