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Strengthening Your Application for Graduate Admission to UC Berkeley

by Carla Trujillo, Ph.D.

The following is a list of suggestions that if followed closely, will strengthen your application in the competitive field of graduate admissions to UC Berkeley and other programs..

1. Plan ahead

Research the colleges and universities where you would like to apply, focusing on the best programs that are the right match pertinent to your academic interests and personal needs. Find out if any of the faculty are doing research in an area that interests you. Go on-line or call the University for application and information materials. Double check the deadlines (most programs will not accept late applications). Some schools have two deadlines; a fellowship deadline, which is earlier, and a later general application deadline. Make sure you apply before the first deadline if you wish to be considered for university fellowships. In general, you should consider applying to a at least five schools. Ideally, you want to obtain the right match of the departmental program, the university, and the faculty you wish to work with.

2. Letter of Recommendation

For graduate study, letters of recommendation are extremely important. Letters from faculty are usually preferred by admission committees since they believe only faculty can truly ascertain your scholarly potential. You need three letters of recommendation. Try to get all three from faculty with whom you’ve had an upper-division class, or have done research with. Some graduate programs require related work/internship experience, and you may need one or two letters from these entities in addition to one or two from faculty.

Professors will invariably state your class grade in the letter, so use caution when choosing your evaluators. Approach the faculty member and ask her/him if they are able to write a positive letter of recommendation for you. If they hesitate, or say they can only write a neutral letter, approach someone else.

Provide the evaluators with additional material such as copies of your transcript, resume (or C.V.), your statement of purpose, and personal statement (which should provide information about any pertinent personal history). This can strengthen the letter they write for you. Make sure to give them all the proper forms and deadlines. Follow up with a note of thanks..

3. GRE

The test required for entrance into graduate school is the general aptitude (Quantitative, Analytical, and Verbal) component of the GRE. The general GRE exam is offered throughout the year on line. It is strongly recommended that you take this test by November (at the latest) in order to get test scores to the admissions committee on time. (It takes at least 10 days for all test results to be scored and sent to the department.) The test may be taken more than once. Try not to take the test more than two times. It is recommended that you study for the test and take timed practice exams ahead of time. You can buy GRE study guides and old exams at any bookstore or online. Your GRE score will improve if you take the practice examinations in a timed format mimicking real testing conditions. Order the software/practice tests from ETS to better prepare for the computer administered test. Go to Also consider taking a test prep-course to help with test-taking strategies. Do not randomly guess answers. Make calculated guesses that will narrow your choices. The Analytical portion of the GRE is in essay format. You will be asked to write two essays on certain topics. Focus on an analytical response, and try to back up your response with logic and analysis.
The Quantitative section of the GRE is considered of greatest importance to admission committees in science and engineering. The math section is primarily at the high school level. It is expected that scientists and engineers should do well on this section. There is no calculus on this test.

The GRE subject test is not required for the majority of those applying to Berkeley, but it is required by some departments, such as Math, English, Biology and Physics. Make sure you check with the department you’re applying to as to whether it’s required. The subject test is paper based and only offered three times per year. Most graduate programs take the exam results very seriously. Those departments requiring the subject tests will weigh them more heavily than the general exam. Don’t let the GRE intimidate you. Studying ahead of time will prepare you well and reduce anxiety.

4. Your College GPA

The college GPA is a critical component of the admissions process. A satisfactory scholastic average, usually a minimum GPA of 3.0 is required by UC Berkeley for admission, though typically, the cut-off for most departments is higher. (Exceptions can possibly occur depending on circumstances.) Many admissions committees will consider upward trends in grades. However, the better your GPA, the better your chances of getting admitted. Careful attention should be paid to any courses taken at the undergraduate level that are pertinent to the area you are considering for graduate study. If you are admitted to a non-terminal Master’s program you may be able to continue toward the Ph.D. pending you pass the preliminary examination and have at least a 3.5 graduate GPA.

5. Research/Work Experience

During the academic year and/or during the summer, try to gain research experience in an independent study with a professor or through a formal research program. This will give you an edge in the admission process, provide you with insight about your own future research interests, and augment your knowledge and research skills. Professors in all disciplines often regard students as highly motivated when they partake in research as undergraduates.

6. Statement of Purpose

The statement of purpose is one of the most important parts of the application process. It is from this essay that the admissions committee will discern the seriousness of your intentions, your experience, and your motivation for graduate school. Think of the statement of purpose as a composition with three different parts. The first part is a brief paragraph stating the program you want to study and your research focus. The second part should be a summary of your college experiences. Briefly describe what brought about your interest in graduate study. Describe any research experience, clarifying your responsibilities, experimental results, and if you presented the findings at a conference or published them in a journal. You may be as specific as possible, as it is professors in your discipline who are reading this statement. The third and most important part of the essay discusses why you want to go to graduate school, what you wish to study (research), and ideally, whom you would like to work with. Perhaps you wish to address an issue or topic that hasn’t been done before, or expand an undergraduate research project. Professors are looking for students with scholarly potential. Departments seek students who have intellectual passion and serious intention about graduate study.

7. Personal Statement

Make sure you indicate any challenges, hardships or obstacles you may have overcome. (This is regarded as a sign of perseverance.) Let us know if you’ve worked to support yourself through school, citing the average number of hours you worked per week. Indicate whether you’re a first generation college student, took on a leadership position, tutored or mentored underrepresented students, or took advantage of unique opportunities.

8. Financial Support

Make sure you apply for graduate admission by the university’s fellowship (early) deadline. This insures that you will be considered for various university fellowships. Apply for any other private, national, or corporate based fellowships that you qualify for. Fill out the FAFSA to receive consideration for loans and other aid. The NSF fellowship is awarded to students pursuing a Doctoral degree in science, engineering, and certain social sciences. Students in the social sciences and humanities should check out the Ford fellowship (among many others). For more information on additional fellowships, go to our Fellowship Resources page.

9. Suggestions

If you need to submit a writing sample in your application, make sure it’s not only a great paper you’ve written, but one you’ve had someone check for grammar, content, etc. You may also need to submit a C.V. (Curriculum Vitae). Check with your career center, or go online to learn how to prepare one.

If time permits, try to visit the campus before you apply in order to allow some of the faculty at that institution an opportunity to get to know you, while also enabling you to learn more about the university. Once you are admitted, visit the campus if possible. Make sure to speak to current graduate students. Ask them why they chose that particular university.

Be on time; be organized, prepared, and thorough. No application to any university will be processed unless all materials are in by the deadline. Application materials are usually available in September.
Following these guidelines will strengthen your application to Berkeley and any other graduate school you wish to attend. Good Luck!

Last Updated: July 10, 2013 10:53 AM