1. GRE- The Exam.
How to prepare? How much time to devote? Where to concentrate? Where to get the study materials? How to improve?
I’ve already discussed what worked for me in my previous post. How much time to devote is something that you alone can decide. This should be based on your strengths and your weaknesses, which you can judge best. What I’d recommend is you take a few sample CD tests and keep a track of your scores section wise. This should be done before the main preparation starts, so that you know how much time to devote where. I have known people who have prepared in a span of 2 weeks. But then again I know people who have been preparing for the last two years. It took me precisely one month. Lots of practice from as many CDs/books as you can gather is what I’d suggest.
What is the cut off? How much would secure me an admission? What is the break up scores needed?
Trust me, there is no score than can admit you or not admit you. Your application depends on a number of other factors, your GRE scores being one of them. From what I have seen, a bad score can seriously hamper your chances, but a good score may not necessarily accelerate your chances. It’s better for science students to do well in math and for people from humanities to do well in English. I myself got a 1370/1600. However I have seen people with as low as 1100 making it with a full scholarship, while people with a 1500 have been unable to get full scholarship. It’s a lot to do with luck. All you could do is give your best and score as much as you can. But in case you get below 1000, just forget it.
3. Final Year Project/Published Papers.
Is it necessary to have a published paper? Is it necessary to do your project related to your field of study? What if that is not the case? Would it hamper your chances?
Look buddy, they are looking for an application that reflects proper planning career wise. Which I am sorry to say is not the case many a times even for the best of us. You might not necessarily have done your final year project on the same topic that you are going to specialize on. Not all biotechnologists aspire to be biotechnologists from the beginning. If your final year thesis complies with your research interests, nothing better. If not, try to trace a pattern in your statement of purpose that would show how did you begin to grow an interest in so and so matter. Be honest and simple. Don’t be bombastic with your words in your Statement of purpose (which many of us make a mistake in, after cramming those 3,500 words from Barron’s). You are obviously not expected to have done your thesis on Shakespeare when you are going to specialize on sociology. Even if there isn’t a link, try and find a link. The field I am going to specialize in is the one which I had never studied before my last semester. Big deal.
Sometimes it so happens that you have a year in between you complete your academics and your date of admission. If possible, get in touch with a professor in the related field and get a few notable works done. Then add it in your CV. It might not necessarily pay you, but remember you are being given a chance to work in his lab, which should be incentive enough.
Having a published research paper is not mandatory as far as I believe. But if you can go publish something, nothing better. If it is not related to your interests, please don’t bother.
4. GRE vs CAT.
358Which is easier? Which has higher prospects? Is studying for CAT enough to prepare me for GRE?
Buddy, use your brains. CAT is for an MBA. GRE is for higher studies in the US. What more, they don’t even have the common pattern of examination. If you are suited for a career in management, go write the CAT. If you want to pursue higher studies, take the GRE. Simple. I myself had taken both the exams. Frankly, I did terrible in CAT. But then I’ve known people who did terrible in GRE but have excelled in CAT. As far as my opinion goes, exam-wise GRE is far easy. CAT is tough that way. But post-CAT, you complete your academics in 2 years, whereas a PhD (in case you are not doing an MS) is another 5-6 years. Why not ask yourself which option would suit you better?
Am I suitable for this University (they call it schools)? Would that be better for me? How many places is it safe to apply to?
People apply to as less as three places and make it. Frankly a lot of luck is involved here and there are no formulae you could apply otherwise. Talk to seniors in the same field if that helps. I would personally ask you not to stress too much on rankings (we all know that the top five are always good, but what are the parameters you use to judge the rest?). Also, some of us hesitate to apply in hi-fi schools.
Just put yourself in the shoes of the selections committee and try to analyze what you are (you are the best judge). Remember, a lot of things screw up here and a lot of luck is involved. Take my example. I wanted to be doubly sure, so I applied to 13 schools. This included schools from all the three tiers (top, middle, not so good). Until the last month, I got just 1 admit. Then I got 5 more in the last month. 6 out of 13 is almost 50%. But wait. What happened to the rest seven?
You would be surprised to know that some very good schools selected me while some very mediocre schools rejected me (God knows why). Of the 6 schools that selected me, 3 were extremely good and the rest 3 were not so good. 4 out of 6 offered me full tuition waiver and financial assistantship. The rest 2 which did not provide me with financial aid are amongst the highly acclaimed schools. What went wrong here?
On the other hand, 3 of the not so good schools offered me good financial aid, one going as high as 24,600 USD per year (trust me, it’s very good). So the whole process is very garbled. Sometimes good schools accept you while the not so good reject you. Sometimes the not so good pay you better than the good schools. How to decide then?
Just apply to as many schools as you want and keep your fingers crossed. That’s it.
I hope this helps. Do write to me if there are more questions. Someday, I was in your shoes, totally clueless. I’d be glad to help you out in any way.
And a word of advice: Dream big. Don’t reject a few schools just because you think they are too good for you. Have a positive attitude, and let it show on your statement of purpose. Don’t dither. Let your confidence show in every part of your application. After all, a positive attitude is half the battle won.