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Grad Prep


Graduate and undergraduate school admissions are similar in many ways; they are both competitive and they receive many more applications than available positions. In both cases, applicants provide biographical information, objective credentials and subjective credentials. The objective credentials include grades, work experience and standardized tests scores. The subjective credentials include the personal statement (essay), letters of recommendation and sometimes an interview (virtual or in-person).

Graduate and undergraduate education are quite different despite the similarities with the application process. Undergraduate education provides a broad foundation upon which you will build your education and knowledge. Graduate education is “specialized” and provides the specific training you need to succeed in your career. It is up to you to research the schools and programs to identify those that will provide that training.

Many strong candidates are not offered positions in programs of their choice. This can be due to competition or sometimes due to the applicant’s inability to present themselves properly. The goal of this guide is to provide information that can help you plan and organize our admissions process so that you can present a competitive admissions portfolio to the most appropriate program for you.

To download the full UROC Grad Prep Guide (same text as below).

GRE Requirements are Changing

Many departments that require GRE scores do not rely on them in admissions — they ask for them because the campus requires it. More and more departments are initiating the process of revising departmental and university requirements, and the pandemic has accelerated that process. Visit this website to see if the insitutitons you are intersted in have removed the GRE score for admissions. 


How to Prepare For Graduate School:

Applying to graduate school is time-consuming and demanding. You have to plan ahead, be diligent, organized, and prepared to spend the time it takes to prepare an excellent admissions portfolio for the insitution of your choice. You should begin planning once you decide you want to attend graduate school. In general, you should start looking at graduate schools during the junior year (although the sophomore year is not too early). The students with the appropriate information can prepare themselves to meet the requirements of the school/s of interest. 

In general, you should start looking at graduate schools during the junior year (although the sophomore year us not too early). The student with the appropriate information can prepare to meet the requirements of the school/s they are interested in.

Prepare a 4-year calendar, indicating each semester and each summer. Goals should be set for each semester and each summer. These goals should be reviewed about once every three months, to monitor if you are indeed on track.

  •      Have you taken the appropriate courses?
  •      Have you successfully applied to summer research/internship programs?
  •      Do you need to take a prep course for the required standardized test?

It is important that you include some courses outside your major in the curriculum. This will make you a well-rounded individual who can “survive” in any setting. Of course, you should include some extra-curricular activities, as long as they do not jeopardize your academic record.

Freshman Year

  • The usual introductory level courses (basic science courses, english, reading, writing, research techniques)
  • Develop a curriculum vitae (resume)

Sophomore Year

  • Advanced science courses
  • Advanced research techniques
  • Apply for summer research training programs
  • Take a life-enriching or practical skills course
  • Seriously think about graduate schools

Junior Year

  • Some advanced courses
  • Independent research
  • A prep course in the fall or summer (campus-based or commercial) for the required GRE test
  • Start collecting information on graduate schools and funding agencies (interent, faculty advisors, national science meetings, peers)
  • Include some courses in other fields, such as business
  • Take the required standardized test(s) in the Spring semester

Senior Year

  • Review/request/download informational/application materials in the early Fall for schools and funding
  • Retake standardized tests in the fall semester if necessary
  • Meet faculty members to ask for GREAT letters of recommendation
  • Write the personal statement (this should have been started in the summer)
  • Order transcripts
  • Complete the requirements for graduate school, including advanced courses
  • Include a life-enriching or professional/practical skills course

Summers and Winter Breaks

  • Identify and apply to summer programs (this will give you a preview of the application process for graduate school)
  • Participate in Fellowships/Internships which provide research training and practical experience
  • Talk to senior students and faculty advisors
  • Create an action plan for what you will be doing during academic year
  • Complete and submit the application materials during the prior winter


How to Find Information about Graduate School:

  • Faculty advisors and their contacts and collaborators
  • Internet search
  • Graduate School Fairs
  • Professional Research Conferences
  • Summer internships/fellowships

Once you have gathered information and prepared a list of schools, the application materials should be reviewed/requested/downloaded at the end of the junior year/summer after junior year. This will allow you enough time to develop a thoughtful personal statement and to make the optimal choice of recommenders.


Selecting Schools for Application and One for Matriculation:

You should apply to no fewer than five and no more than ten schools. These should include one “safety” school and one “reach” school. The schools should be selected based on real information, i.e., a realistic look at your qualifications vs. the requirements for admission and the curriculum of the school.  Always keep in mind the following:

  • Do they offer what you are looking for
  • Is this the best program for you
  • Are you academically qualified for that school/program
  • Is there an emphasis on your particular area of interest, i.e., are there enough faculty members in your area of interests
  • What are the opportunities/resources outside the school, in the geographic area
  • What is the reputation/ranking of the school (you should look at the quality of the research and publications, not just the name/national rankings)
  • Are their laboratories state-of-the-art, not only conducting cutting edge research, but well equipped
  • List your criteria for looking at those schools in order of priority: Academics; Faculty Match; Research Infrastructure; Guaranteed Funding; Environment/Atmosphere; Geographic Location

Curriculum and Faculty

  • What is the structure/organization of the program
  • What happens if you want to switch departments/programs
  • Is there a supportive academic advisement in place
  • Is interdisciplinary cooperation among the students and faculty encouraged or discouraged
  • What is the student/faculty ratio/relationship (program size)
  • Are there enough faculty in your area of interest to choose from

The Facilities

  • Where is the campus located
  • Housing – cost and location
  • Accessibility of special facilities/departments to students
  • Are there special amenities/services for students
  • What is there to do – are there cultural/sports events (theatres and arenas) in the area
  • Is it easy to get from place to place


  • What are the career opportunities
  • Is there a career resource center
  • What have alumni done after they complete the program 


The Application Process:

Prepare a spreadsheet to facilitate the application process for you. Include the names of the schools, the application deadline, the requirements, etc. Use this to keep track of your schedule of submission of the application documents and contacts with the school.


  • complete the entire application form
  • make sure all application materials (including test scores and letters of rec) are received
Scores and GPA
  • have transcripts and test scores sent early
  • verify grades on my.ucmerced portal before sending
Personal Statement
  • start early, write a draft, rewrite, and write again!
  • submit the number that is asked for (no more, no less)
  • select academic references--Professors, Research Mentors
  • ask for a GREAT letter of recommendation
  • give as much times as possible, but follow-up
  • who are the interviewers (faculty, grad students, alumni)
  • how many are there
  • what are they looking for
  • are students and faculty readily available when you visit
  • is the atmosphere what you want/need


Deadlines Typically late Fall for the next fall enrollment. Some institutions/programs have October or November deadlines, but most have December and January deadlines. 
  • some programs will have early decisions so you should submit as early as possible.
  • send in all materials as early as possible
  • make sure all application materials (including test scores and letters of rec) are received

How Much:

The App Fee
  • how much is the application fee?
  • is there a fee waiver available/do I qualify?


Follow-up Info
  • does the application go to a central office or a department/program?


Personal Statement:

Why are you unique and why should the school spend its resources on you?

BE HONEST! The personal statement (aka essay, statement of purpose, etc.) is your introduction of yourself to someone who has to be impressed enough to want to meet you. This individual is reading hundreds of these documents (and probably has read thousands in the past) and yours must stand out. This brief document (generally one to two pages) has to communicate your abilities, accomplishment and goals. It must also show your writing skills; your ability to present yourself and your ideas concisely. This is your chance to shine, to stand out from among the hundreds of essays that the reader is reading. The essay should show your commitment to and motivation for graduate school based on your history. The essay should have a positive tone, be honest and professional. It is crucial that you get some honest critique on your essay before you submit it to the school. Although you should not have to rewrite your entire essay for each program you are applying to, it should be tailored to for each program.


  • Answer all specific questions asked (read the application instructions)
  • Who are your and why do you want to pursue graduate education – show your competence, knowledge in your field, and expectations
  • Why are you unique – what would you contribute to that school
  • Present relevant positive and negative life experiences – accent the positive; briefly explain those events which negatively impacted your academics
  • Do not make excuses – explain how those negative events positively affected you in your growth; show your perseverance to continue
  • Why do you want to do what you say you want to do
  • What makes you qualified to follow this path – show your potential and long-term goal
  • Why are you applying to that particular program/school

General Sequence

  • Your goals – degree, field, specialty (if known at this time)
  • Why are you pursuing an advanced degree – what event(s) brought you to this point and what are your qualifications
  • Why are you applying to this particular school – what are its strengths and how will this help you achieve your goals
  • Conclusion – a few sentences to wrap up, showing how graduate school will help you reach your career goals


  • Follow the application instructions
  • Not too long, not too short


  • Clear and simple (no need for big words)
  • Concise (present only necessary detail to get your information across)
  • No repetition
  • Make sure it flows
  • Check spelling, grammar and word usage


Funding Your PhD:

Most research intensive graduate programs offer some sort of funding. Funding typically comes in the form of research or teaching fellowships which cover the full cost of tuition and award the student a monthly stipend. There are some questions that you should ask about a fellowship package, not only from the school, but also for any individual fellowship from other funding agencies:

  • Extramural vs. Intramural
  • Is there help in preparing a grant proposal
  • What is available and how is it awarded
  • Are there payback/teaching obligations
  • Are all fellowships full/partial
  • How are fellowship renewed each year
  • Is the fellowship enough to live on
  • Are there opportunities to supplement the financial aid packet
  • Are there opportunities and help to apply or special individual competitive fellowships
  • What are the extramural funding sources in your field of interest
Don't forget to also apply for external fellowships!  The benefits of matriculating into a program with your own graduate fellowship include:
  • the prestige of winning a competitive grant
  • creative freedom to tailor your own research project
  • shows initiative
  • shows that you are a go-getter who knows what to do
  • alleviates the financial burden to the program
  • increases your competitiveness

For specific information about UC Merced's graduate programs