Journey to the East - My GradSchool Hunting Quest (1)

Journey to the East - My GradSchool Hunting Quest (1)

An intro to my journey of applying to grad school, as well as GRE.

These will essentially be a complete series of the challenges I encountered and how I managed to solve the problems. While everyone has a different path, and you probably cannot reproduce my results since we are very different humans, these are just for your information.

Hopefully, my journey can help someone land a better grad school, leading to a brighter career. If that is the case, my time would be well worth it.

The Outcome

Long story short.

Here are the very limited standardized academic metrics I had to apply to the schools:

GRE: 319 (English 151/Math 168/Writing 4.0)
GPA: 3.62 (With a lot of bad (low 2.x) scores in math and science)
Undergrad Degree: Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Visual Art from University of Washington Everything else about me: Check out the “About” and “Vitae” page of this website.

Here are the final results:

I got accepted by Cornell Tech Dual MS Connective Media ($30,000), University of Washington GIX MSTI ($27,270), Parsons MFA Design & Technology(35% Tuition), and NYU ITP ($5,700).

I got formally rejected by UPenn Computer and Information Technology, MCIT Program.

Overall, a pretty good rate. Especially considering only getting formally rejected by just one school. I decided to go to Cornell Tech, as the ultimate result.

The Start of the Hunt

Quite frankly, I was not preparing to apply to grad school until a very late date. I used to have high hopes for UW’s CSE department to reconsider my application to a CS major since I was already working on their capstone and had been TAing their 400 level machine learning class for three quarters. If it worked out, I can delay my graduation and just do a 5th year master at UW, no need for GRE and applying to grad schools.

Therefore, when I got the rejection from UW’s CSE department I was quite surprised and terrified, because there wasn’t much time left. I am not confident with taking standardized tests, and my English language skills has worn out over the years of college because I did not take much literature classes.

So I was in big trouble, and it was mid August. Those who are of the same class as mine already started their prep for grad school since March, some already got a pretty respectful score on GRE, and I had literally zero knowledge about anything related to grad school hunt.

In this post, I will be covering mostly on GRE, and I will write separate posts on other things since it’s quite long.


My First Attempt on GRE

With absolutely no knowledge about GRE, I decided probably the best way to get to know it is just go blind and just take a GRE exam.

Note that I do not recommend other people do this, as it is a waste of money (well, I know because I did), but at least it really gave me an idea of how the GRE exam looks like. I recommend people to know the basic procedure and do a bit of exam prep before going to take their first GRE, since that way it is more likely to get a higher score and become less of a waste of money.

The pandemic provided me a unimagined benefit: Now I can take the GRE exam at home, instead of going to a test site which is one hour bus from where I live in Seattle. I took the exam completely unprepared (In Chinese, we call this act “Naked Testing”), and got a total score of 303 and writing score of 4.0.

Because I had no idea if a score of 303 is good or bad (It’s a terrible score), I felt pretty good and when they asked me if I want to send my scores for free (don’t do it, it’s not a good idea), I gladly sent my scores to UPenn and UW thinking yay that’s my first GRE!

Until my roommate heard about this and started to laugh at me, because usually you don’t send scores to schools until you get a score around 320. I also think this was one of the factors that UPenn rejected me, although there are bigger factors for UPenn to reject me, which I will cover later.

Making matters worse, three months later, this terrible GRE score somehow appeared on my UW official transcript because of my stupid act, and I guess this score will stuck with me forever…

The bad GRE score on my UW transcript The bad GRE score on my UW transcript

Takeaway: Don’t take the exam unprepared, do take it early so you get a good idea what you are facing, and don’t send scores immediately after the test is over, even if it is free.

My Other Attempts on GRE

I have to be honest, even though I did a bad job the first time, it gave me a lot of confidence and knowledge on how to approach to the exam.

I then started to study GRE vocabularies, did a lot of practice problems, and read a lot of literatures. There is no easy way to improve English skills, practice is the only solution. Practice makes perfect!

I took an addition of three exams, and in the end I landed with a highest score of 319 (English 151/Math 168) and a 4.0 in writing. Despite I think my writing improved a lot, I always got 4.0 for writings and I think other people who got pass 4.0 are probably half human half gods.

Since I didn’t even done that good of a job on GRE, I won’t spend a long paragraph in how to prepare for it (You can find plenty online), but a couple things that I thought is important:

  1. Do make sure you take the exams 21 days apart. One of my scores was invalidated and never came out because I took it 20 days after the previous test. The policy is: You can take the GRE General Test once every 21 days, up to five times within any continuous rolling 12-month period (365 days). This applies even if you canceled your scores on a test taken previously.

  2. English problems, even for native speakers, is difficult. Because GRE tests people’s knowledge on vocabularies that are not normally used in the same way they are in real life. Not to mention it is even more difficult for non-native speakers. A surprisingly good way to study them is actually read the book “Pride and Prejudice” word by word. If you can understand all the word in that book with no problem, then you got a big chunk of the vocabularies down. My advice is: If you find English too difficult, skip those problems that you cannot understand anything and just come back later.

  3. Do focus on math more since GRE math is super easy and can make up a lot of points you lose in the English portion. If you are applying to STEM majors, math is more important, anyway. GRE math’s point of difficulty is not about how difficult the problems are, usually it is just confusing wording. Some problems are easy to the extent that they looks suspicious, do overcome that thought and firmly believe questions are that easy.

  4. I did not improve my score on writing, so I don’t have much liability to say here. What I tried was read a lot and copying down some example essays by hand, and I feel it really helps when I am writing GRE essays. GRE essays tend to have a similar structure, if you read a lot of example essays, you will be able to conclude your own.

My Encouragements on GRE English Vocabularies

I hated GRE English problems, since they provide no practical use in real life, and many words are not even used in the same way in the real world as they are in GRE. My roommate was a vocab ninja, and he memorized a huge set of GRE vocabularies.

Here are two fun stories I thought it’d be appropriate to share, just to show and rant on how GRE vocabularies are not that useful in real life.

One day we went out to buy grocery, and my roommate was driving. There was a Toyota Prius in front of us, and on it’s back, there was a label of “Hybrid”. “Hybrid!” he said, “it means crossbreed in crops!” And I was super confused. Any sane human seeing “Hybrid” nowadays defaults it to refer to cars that run on both gas and electric, yet Hybrid in GRE means crossbreed in crops.

The other day we were on our way driving to a park, and there was a truck with a big sign on it, “plumbing”. “I know this word!” he said, “it means a weight, usually with a pointed tip on the bottom, suspended from a string and used as a vertical reference line” (He said it in Chinese, I just copied its English definition from Wikipedia). I was laughing way too hard, and my stomach hurt as the result.

So if you can’t memorize everything, or you are starting to forget the GRE vocabularies you memorized, don’t feel bad! Once you nailed the exam, you can safely wipe everything off your memory.


I will write a separate post on graduate school research, as well as how I applied to them. Stay tuned!

I hope this is helpful.

If you want to quickly say hi just shoot me a message using the contact portal.

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