Getting Into Graduate School

Berkeley Connect students learn more about applying for grad school


On October 14th, Berkeley Connect filled the Maude Fife Room in Wheeler Hall for  its first program-wide event, a lecture by Dr. Carla Trujillo, Graduate Diversity Program Director, on “Getting into Graduate School.” Carla’s incredibly dynamic lecture touched on every aspect of the application process for graduate programs, from preparing to apply by choosing the right courses, to getting recommendation letters, taking standardized tests, putting together a writing sample, and above all, staying organized and calm throughout.  She gave examples from her own experience, both as an applicant and as a professor judging applications, that helped to demystify what can be a mysterious and confusing process.

Carla began by encouraging students to apply. “It definitely opens up more opportunities,” she said. For those who were interested, Carla suggested thinking about at least five schools to which to apply. Suggestions she gave on narrowing your search included pinpointing the kinds of programs in which you are most interested and finding faculty whose research parallels your own research interests. She also stressed that there are fee waivers available at most schools for those who might have difficulty paying the application fees; don’t let cost limit the number of schools to which you apply.

One incredibly important component of the application is the letters of recommendation. “These are crucial because faculty review the applications and respect the opinions of other faculty,” Carla told us. The solution? Go to office hours! Another added benefit to getting to know professors better, Carla noted, is that professors will often be able to give advice on where to apply based on your interests or know more about the schools and programs you have chosen. If you don’t know what to say to professors, ask them about their research. “They love it!” Carla said. “Faculty love to have their brains picked.” Have questions prepared and then segue into asking for a recommendation letter.  When asking, be sure to remind them how you did in their class, as well as tell them whether you intend to work for a while after graduation. For students interested in working before applying, Carla strongly emphasized the need to stay in touch. “It is important that there is someone to talk about your graduate school potential,” Carla added, about the recommendation letters.

She also gave students a GRE pep talk, reminding them that it’s normal to have a little anxiety. She then touched on the importance of taking and doing well in classes in your research area. She also encouraged students to take advantage of the many research programs on campus.

Finally, Carla gave advice on the statement of purpose, a critical element of the application. Many statements of purposes will have a page limit (generally two pages) with a scholarly focus and a fact paragraph (the “meat and potatoes paragraph,” as Carla called it). The fact paragraph includes your interests and focus, as well as which faculty member you would like to work with and why. Carla mentioned that programs may not accept students whose focus does not parallel with faculty in the program, so it is especially important to make sure that there are faculty in your field of interest at the programs to which you are applying.  “Above all, be sincere,” Carla stressed.

A few schools require a personal statement in addition to the statement of purpose (Berkeley is one of them). The personal statement is your chance to describe yourself in greater detail, focusing on the challenges you have faced, extraordinary obligations you have shouldered, or leadership that you have shown in your community. For example, Carla recounted that she did not do well freshman year of her undergraduate career, which dragged down her overall GPA – despite having done well afterwards. In her personal statement, she drew attention to the better grades and stated that she did not believe her GPA was reflective of her potential. She warned, however, never to use excuses. Finally, for schools that require only a statement of purpose and no personal statement, Carla suggested weaving in your story into the statement of purpose. Some programs will also require a writing sample, which both Carla and Berkeley Connect Director (and English professor) Maura Nolan stated was often the most important for humanities programs.

Finally, Carla discussed sources of financial support. Although most are generally merit-based on a graduate level, Carla encouraged students to contact the program if they get in and financial aid is not sufficient to ask about additional support. “Any unasked question is always no,” Carla said. She also suggested asking graduate students when visiting campuses about financial support.

Carla then opened up the floor for questions from students. From the number of hands waving in the air, and the crowd of students who gathered around Carla as the event drew to a close, it was clear that Berkeley Connect students are hungry to learn more about the path to graduate school and how to navigate it successfully.


posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant