Common Components of a Graduate Application and Info on Standardized Tests

Applications to graduate and professional schools are typically highly competitive. Students tend to focus just on their GPA, but that is only one component of a good application. Generally there are three questions the application needs to answer:

  1. Can you apply?
  • yes, this is what your GPA indicates… 🙂 most competitive programs require an overall GPA>3.5
  • BCMP-GPA focuses on biology, chemistry, physics, and math and typically should be >3.0
  • standardized test score: GRE, MCAT or other specific standardized tests
  1. Will you be able to succeed in this career?
  • a personal statement is the most important indicator to evaluate this question
  • documentation of motivation (‘wanting to serve’)
  • documentation that you know what you are getting yourself into (internships, shadowing experience)
  1. Should you apply?
  • no matter how badly you want it, this question is answered by others, e.g. in confidential reference letters from 3-5 professors who know you well, maybe a former employer, a coaches, etc.
  • and finally, admission interviews

 

Why GRE and/or MCAT?

Colleges programs across the country differ – while it might be easy to get an ‘A’ with one instructor, another one proves more demanding. Graduate programs are worried about being able to identify top students as grade inflation muddies GPAs. Therefor they also rely on standardized tests such as the GRE (Links to an external site.) (‘Graduate Record Examinations’), MCAT (Links to an external site.) (‘Medical College Admission Test’), or other discipline specific test (DAT (Links to an external site.), now obsolete VCAT). Which test score you need to show depends on the program you apply to and is listed in the admission requirements.

Generally, taking these test costs money (currently $190 for GRE and $315 for MCAT) and requires serious preparation. While prep courses are big business and cost $$$$, they are generally not necessary. Many free online resources exist (e.g. Kahn Academy (Links to an external site.)) and with a few month of dedicated studying students achieve competitive test scores. Standardized test don’t really require you to know many facts (most don’t suggest more than intro-level college classes), but they test if you can extract and transfer knowledge. A typical question consists of a few paragraphs giving you background, followed by a multiple-choice question that requires you to extract the relevant information and apply it to the question. This is a very different challenge from most of the exam questions you get asked in classes (which more typically test if you studied the material) and hence you need to practice.

If you want to seamlessly apply to a graduate program, i.e. not have a gap year between college graduation and a graduate program, you’ll have to start tackling a standardized test in your Junior Summer! Preparation takes several weeks/month, test dates are not always available, and test results take time to become available. Many of our students decide to use a ‘grade enhancer’ post-baccalaureate program during a gap year to achieve a competitive MCAT score for medical graduate programs.

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