Applying to grad schools

The last year of my bachelor’s degree is quickly approaching, and the time for making decisions is growing nigh.

I’m taking the GREs in a couple of weeks.

I’m having issues narrowing down which schools to apply to. The subject I want to study is apparently fairly rarely offered in and of itself (ancient history) and I’ve eliminated all but 4 American schools and 7 schools in the UK so far, mostly for lack of a possible thesis advisor.

The schools that are left on my list are pretty much all very competitive and selective schools, which kinda scares me as my grades are not THAT fantastic. I’ve heard that my GPA will look a lot better after being weighted as much school has a reputation for grading low, though.

In any case - aaa! I’m stressed! Any advice, stories, commiseration, heck - even hijacks, are welcome.

You can offset part of the low(er) GPA by doing really well on the GRE. Be sure you study well for the GRE. The practice tests are the most important. I bought six of the most popular courses and used them all. While I don’t believe that you can really increase your GRE score after a certain point of studying, you can certainly lose a lot of points by missing questions that you should have known.

You should let us know what type of programs you are applying to. Not everyone that gets into a graduate program has stellar grades. I was a part-time administrative assistant for the Tulane psychology department when I was an undergrad. Part of my job was to key the GRE score and GPA into a database for PhD program applicants. After the admissions commitee decided who they wanted, I had to send out the acceptance letters, I would look at their scores again. Most of the time it was pretty decent but occassionally someone would have a GPA or GRE score (not both) that made me go :dubious: Someone on the admissions commitee just picked up on something like relevant research experience and decided that is who they wanted.

Acceptance rates for masters programs are often pretty high. It really depends on the program and the school.

All the American schools are Masters/PhD programs, while the UK schools are mostly terminal Masters. My GPA isn’t TERRIBLE… 3.5 overall and 3.68 in program. But yes, I hope to do well on the GRE.

I think I’ll study as soon as I’m done work. Yeek.

What the hell. Do you mean 3.5 out of 4.0? If so, that is a perfectly fine GPA for the majority of Masters/PhD programs. At my undergraduate school (Tulane) that put you in the top 5% of your class. A GPA like that is not going to get you in by itself (but neither will a 4.0 necessarily) but it will not prevent you from getting accepted to most places either as long as your GRE scores are good and most importantly, IMHO, you have research experience relevant to the program.

Yes, 3.5 out of 4.0. I’m just worried because the American schools I’m applying to… well… They’re Columbia, Berkeley and Cornell (and Penn State, which I’m not SO intimidated by).

I have taken what is equivalent to a master’s class at my current school and wrote a 30 page research paper/honours thesis on which I got an A.

I guess my issue is that I hang out with SMART people. Plus, a friend of mine who won the medal for highest academic achievement in our program, got really good GRE scores, had a GPA of 3.7 or 3.8 or whatever did not get into a single grad school, and he applied to 7.

You definitely want to narrow down the list a little more. I applied to 9 grad schools (in astronomy), and ended up sitting bolt upright in bed one night, worrying if I’d managed to take all the occurrences of “Berkeley” out of my Caltech application. (That’s funny now, 6 years later, but certainly wasn’t then)

I ended up visiting 7 different schools, and they all started to seem the same by the end, not to mention the havoc that many visits caused in my schedule my last year of undergrad. Moral of story: you might end up getting into more of the schools you apply to than you think you will.

If you can, pick a school where there is more than one faculty member you could see having as your thesis advisor. I didn’t do this, and ended up being very miserable and leaving a PhD program with a master’s degree. The details of that story could only be told in the Pit…

The American schools are pretty much my final list, but the UK schools can definitely use some culling. I doubt I’ll apply to more than 2 or 3 in the UK.

I am applying to my current school (McGill) as a safety. Their program kind of sucks, but getting a Masters is better than sitting on my ass.

LaurAnge, you do plan on visiting the schools that you are going to apply to, right? You need to meet other students in the same program where you want to go and talk to them.

That is a fairly big issue, IMO. You don’t want to pick a school because of location or reputation only to find out that there is no way to accomplish exactly what you want to do. A thesis advisor that you respect and can work with should be your primary concern, again IMO.

My undergraduate GPA was a 2.9, and earlier this year I was accepted to an M.A. program that ‘requires’ a 3.0 or higher. And I didn’t have to take the GRE, either: I just had to submit a goals statement and a literary analysis (which I freaked out about a little because I hadn’t written an academic paper in 10+ years), along with the usual application, transcript, letters of recommendation, etc. Oh, and I needed to take some prerequisite foreign language classes, but I was very optimistic and took them before submitting my application.

My first day of graduate school is 3 weeks from today. :slight_smile:

These are what you should be looking for (in order of importance):

  1. Thesis advisor who does research you find interesting, is well-respected and firmly established OR is well on their way to being such, has a personality you can handle, and has time for you. The last thing shouldn’t be ignored. It’s all well and good for you to find Professor Hot Shot, but if he’s about to retire in three years (or even go on sabatical), it will hurt you.

  2. Department offers courses that will teach you what you need to know in your field. This isn’t something you can always find out by perusing the online catalogue. Don’t assume that a well-respected university will be strong in your area of study.

  3. How the graduate students are treated. Is the department paying graduate students competitive salaries? If not, are there things provided that compensate (like health benefits or student fee waivers, which not all schools offer). What’s the workload like? Does everyone get an equal shot at RA positions? How do TAs get assigned to classes?

Also, you should find out if you’re going to be sharing your advisor’s attention with other grad students. Being the lone grad student is a totally different experience from being part of a large research group. Even if your advisor is the cat’s pajamas in every way, you will learn much more (and have more fun) if you have a circle of grad students you can rely on. And make sure that these grad students are nice and not ultra-competitive.

  1. Location. How is the cost of living? How is the standard of living? What’s the culture of the area like? Will it be possible to live close to school, or will you have to budget in transportation costs? If you’re used to living in the city, are you ready to adjust to suburban life?

You should narrow your choices down so that you can visit each school and spend as much time as you need answering the above questions.

While i don’t do ancient history, i am currently in a history Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University.

I think it’s really important to make sure that you tailor your letters of application as closely as possible to each of the departments that you’re are applying to. Don’t be dishonest about your interests and your goals, but if your interests and goals coincide with those of the department, or of a particular faculty member, then that’s something you need to emphasize.

Make sure that your letters are also realistic about your ideas and intentions. While many schools expect you to have a pretty good idea of what you want to work on, a good school should also recognize that grad school is a time for learning new things. My own adviser says that she is actually sometimes a little cautious of people who apply to grad school claiming to know exactly what they want to write for their dissertation. She prefers someone who has some good ideas, but who is also open to taking on new ideas and exploring additional possibilities. Of course, other schools take a different approach, and expect you to hit the ground running with a topic already decided.

If you have closely researched which faculty member/s you want to work with, this might not be so important, but if you haven’t then being too specific about your interests can be something of a drawback, because you might find that there’s no-one who’s interested enough in your stuff to take you on.

Some people seem to think that the GRE is a really big deal. In my experience, history departments are not as strict as some other disciplines when it comes to the GRE. Of course, a good scroe is never going to hurt you, but it also won’t guarantee your acceptance if the faculty don’t think that you’re a good fit for the department. I’m not sure if the have an actual minimum acceptable score, but as long as you’re above a certain point they don’t actually take too much account of your exact numbers. For example, someone with a verbal score of 700 probably wouldn’t have any greater chance of getting in than someone with a verbal of 650.

My wife is in the same program as me, and before she decided to come here she turned down an offer from the History Department at Berkeley. Her GRE scores were in the range of about 620/620/620 for verbal, quantitative and analytical. That’s a pretty good score, but it’s not right at the top. My own scores were 760/770/800, because i’ve always had a facility for such tests. We’re both in the same program, and she’s doing just as well as i am. Most history departments recognize that getting through grad school takes more than decent GRE grades.

I can’t offer too much advice about your GPA issue. I came from Australia, which has a quite different grading system. On my application, i didn’t even fill in the GPA part; i just sent my transcripts (which had percentage grades) and let them work out the details. My wife had a GPA of 4.0. I do think, however, that your in-program GPA will be the thing they are most concerned with, and 3.68 is nothing to sneeze at.

I’ve spoken to a few professors in my department who have all been part of the admissions process, and they say that, once the quantifiable stuff like GPA and GRE of an applicant has been found satisfactory, the things they pay most attention to are the application letter itself, and the letters of recommendation. In the latter case, it certainly helps if your letters are written by people who are well-known in your field, or at least who are known to the people who will make the admission decision. I assume you have to send a writing sample with all these applications? If so, make sure that it’s polished and clear, and that it truly demonstrates that you can put a sentence together and sustain a complex argument.

I wasn’t able to visit all the grad schools before i decided, because i was living in Australia at the time. I did, however, manage to meet my current adviser when i came to the US on a research trip about a year before i started grad school. I think it’s good if you can meet your prospective professors or adviser before they even see you application, as this allows them to put a face to the application, and also gives you an opportunity to impress on them that you have the seriousness and maturity to undertake graduate study.

Finally, i know that this won’t be much consolation if you don’t get in, but the fact is that grad schools turn away dozens of well-qualified applicants every year. Here at Hopkins, about 12 students are typically chosen from a pool of over 200 applicants. Of those 200, probably more than half are good enough to succeed in the program. Hell, it’s the same at the undergrad level. I read an article recently in which they interviewed the admissions director for one of the Ivy League schools. He said, essentially, that getting into the popular schools is something of a crap-shoot, and that plenty of people who miss out are perfectly good candidates.

Good luck with the applications!

You’re smarter and better qualified for grad school than you think you are. I was, of course, applying in a totally different field than you are, but I thought I wasn’t that great (I think my GPA was of order yours or lower), and ended up getting into schools I was intimidated by.

People tell a lot of stories about how hard it is to get into grad school, but most of the stories aren’t true. For example, one of my friends told me that having a “W” (withdrawn) on your transcript “would keep you from getting into a good grad school.” I made him eat those words- I gave him the choice of admitting he was wrong or saying that MIT and Caltech are not good graduate schools in astronomy :smiley:

Looks like we’re in the same boat! I’ll be receiving my degree in December (Og willing). I’m just swamped trying to write the application essays. I have no idea what to write about.

I just wanted to let you know that if you have any questions about Penn State (though you are probably right to worry more about other schools) you can send them to me via email (my address should be in my profile). I’ve been there for (what seems to be) an eternity and in a few short months will have earned two undergrad degrees (Mechanical Engineering and History) from them.

Ditto on everything that’s been said so far. Grad schools consider pretty much look at the whole deal when considering an applicant. Your GPA is just one part of that, and yours is nothing to sneeze at.

Ditto also on the campus visits. Nothing beats being onsite to get a feel for a place. This applies not only to the faculty and the department, but also the surrounding area. You will, after all, be living there for a few years. The better departments will actually invite you over.

If you decide to come to Cornell for a look-see, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to show you around. Actually, feel free to ask me anything about the university and Ithaca.

Truer words have never been spoken. I enrolled in a PhD program at Dartmouth in neuroscience. I have never endured such abuse and tramua than that my advisor put me through. I quit at the master’s level too because I couldn’t take it. You can see the bitch here. Note the crazy look on her face. That is but a small hint of the hell that she can unleash on a whim.

I know that she chose to have her picture on a public website, but is it really necessary to link to that page and call her a bitch on a public message board?

It would be different if she were a public figure, but this really seems rather gratuitous.

You guys are making me feel very encouraged!

I wasn’t planning on visiting the schools as both time and money are limited, and they’re all far enough away that I can’t easily get there. And as much as I’d love gadding about the globe…

However, after I hear back and before I make my final decision, I think I may, if they’re in reasonable distance.

Point very taken about the advisor.

I’m sorry. I felt kind of bad about it after I did it even though she is not a person that deserves any sympathy.

This is making me feel better too. My undergrad GPA was 3.35, but my GPA in my major was somewhat lower (it could very well be 2.8 or 2.9 - I’ve never figured it out). I’m planning to apply to Tulane next year, to study parasitology, international health, infectious disease epidemiology, or tropical medicine; I need to talk to some people and visit the school before I make my final decision.

I’m a little worried since the admissions catalog says you need a GPA of 3.0 or higher in your major. However, my undergrad major was microbiology, which I won’t be studying, and besides, will they really hold my horrible senior-year grades against me if I do well on my GREs and get good recommendations?

Glad to see we have a Tulane alumnus here, Shagnasty. If any of you know anyone who got a master’s degree in any of the programs I’m interested in, can you put me in contact with them? :slight_smile:

LaurAnge, if you can’t manage to visit the school, still try to arrange a phone conversation with the advisor(s) you want to work with. When my advisor was having one of her bad days (which were kinda frequent), you could tell in her phone demeanor.

You could also obtain email addresses from other grad students in the department and ask them a bunch of questions about their experiences. Hopefully they’d respond honestly.