September 8, 2017

Thinking of going back to Grad School? Here’s how to start

Posted by AGU Career Center

As fall approaches, many people considering applying to graduate school should take the beginning steps of the application process. Depending on what your career/academic status is (employed, recently graduated, interning, etc.), you can forgo some of the following 7 steps to apply to graduate school. Although this seems like a lot of work (and it is), you should be excited! You’ve made the decision to pursue further academic endeavors; let that drive you to get these steps done.

  1. Register for the GRE. If you have not yet taken the GRE (your scores are good for five years after you take it), it is important to register for the test well in advance of taking it. This is for two reasons: (1) it is much easier to ensure you get a seat at a desired time and location if you schedule it a few months in advance and (2) it will give you a deadline and goal to study. After registering for the test, you can ask for a day off from work (or class) if necessary do a test drive to locate the testing center and prevent getting lost (or being late) on the day you take it.
  2. Plan your study schedule. If you want to succeed on the GRE, study for it. Going into the examination room without having prepared could lead to a poorer score (and a waste of $200). There is a plethora of free GRE study resources online (listed below), so anyone can access help with GRE preparation. Additionally, there are GRE study books available online and in bookstores, however if you know someone who has taken the GRE, you can reach out to them to see if they would be willing to give/sell you their preparation books. Your study plan could consist of dedicating an hour of study per day or taking multiple practice tests to understand the time limits and length of the exam.

Here are some free GRE practice and resource sites:


Powerprep Practice Tests

Kaplan Test Prep

Vocabulary Flash Cards

Manhattan Prep Practice Tests

Princeton Review Practice Tests

  1. Research and contact potential advisors. The key to getting into a graduate program is connecting with an advisor. This could be done by looking at locations of schools you would like to attend, looking up your chosen graduate department and associated professors, and reading their bio, published work, and current research projects. Once you find someone who you think would be a good match for you, email them. This doesn’t have to be a long email, but it is essential that you reach out to them before even thinking about applying to a graduate school program. In the email, you should include where you received your undergraduate degree (and where you are currently employed if applicable), your academic interests, and why you think you would be an excellent research student in their program. Attach your CV to provide further academic information without taking up space in the email. If they do not have funding, space, or for whatever reason do not think you would be a good fit, they will tell you this before you spend money on an application fee.
  2. Reach out to previous professors and/or employers for letters of recommendation. If you want a professor to write a recommendation, it is considerate to give professors a heads-up that they will need to be writing one for you soon as their schedules will probably be busy at the beginning of the school year. If you are not in an undergraduate program, reach out to mentors, bosses, and previous professors to ask if they would be willing to write one on your behalf. The people you choose should be those who know you well and have worked with you closely; they will have a much wider range of experiences to reference in the letter and speak about you genuinely with your best interests at heart.
  3. Fill out and submit the applications. This is easier said than done. Applications for any program can be daunting, but it is helpful to set goals throughout the fall to ensure that they are completed on time and with minimal stress. Applications are typically due either December or January, so getting a head start is crucial to save yourself stress during finals or Fall Meetings. Most graduate school applications consist of filling out basic personal information, a statement of purpose, professional experience, uploading and sending official transcripts, uploading a resume and/or CV, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, academic history, plans for graduate study, and supplementary department applications. This may sound like a lot of work, but once you have a statement of purpose written, you can generally adapt it to every school you apply for, with some minor tweaks dependent on school-specific items. You can either split the applications up by doing one every week, doing the same sections of every application at one time, or any other method you find helpful to complete them. The earlier you finish them, the less stressed out you will be during the holiday season.
  4. Take the GRE. This could be earlier on the list depending on when you’ve scheduled it. Be sure to adequately prepare both mentally and physically prior to taking the exam. Ensure a good night’s sleep, a filling breakfast, and enough coffee (if necessary) in your system on the day of the exam.
  5. Waiting game. After you submit your applications, congrats! It might be a good idea to send an email to potential advisors with which you had a good rapport thanking them (or notifying them that you didn’t apply if something in your circumstance changed). At this point, all you can do is wait to find out if you receive an opportunity for an interview or acceptance. Enjoy the freedom of not working on applications and take a well-deserved break. You’ve earned it!

Cecilia Hurtado was a summer intern for Talent Pool at the American Geophysical Union.  She recently completed her undergraduate studies with the Department of Geology at the College of William and Mary, and this Fall, she is starting a Geology Research Fellowship in the same department.