So here we come to the end of the series. I could probably write 50,000 more posts on the topic, but everyone probably wants to get back to reviews of computer software, right? This post contains some miscellaneous tidbits.
The GRE's (Graduate Record Examination) are daunting, stressful, and absolutely necessary to get into graduate school in the United States. The test score is only one part of the whole application process, and different schools give different weight to the GRE's. If you nail the tests, you are in good shape. If not, don't necessarily despair. Consider retaking the exam. Perhaps discuss your score with someone at the program to which you are applying, to see how big of a deal the score actually is. Work on strengthening other aspects of your application. Consider looking at "fall back" schools, if most of your "schools of interest" place emphasis on the GRE. Also, investigate if you need to take a GRE subject exam - it's not usually necessary for geology programs (because a geology GRE just doesn't exist), but some (not necessarily all) biology programs might expect a score from the biology subject exam.
Scoping Out the Program
By all means, make contact with someone (or multiple someones) in a department before applying. The SVP meetings are a tremendous opportunity to chat with students and faculty from graduate programs. This personal contact is important for two reasons - first, it gives you a chance to learn more about the program and get a feel for the personality of the people there. Second, and just as important, is that it gives the program a chance to get to know you. Graduate schools get a whole pile of applicants, and it doesn't hurt if they have a face to go with a name. A second thing to consider is a campus visit. This is also important, but perhaps less essential at the early stages. Campus visits are probably the best way to make yourself known to the faculty, and also the best way to get a genuine feel for the place. But, they can be expensive (particularly if you have to travel a long ways) and may not be the best use of your time early in the game (unless you are really, really, really serious about a particular program). After acceptances are made (or sometimes just before), some schools (but not all) invite a few students out to visit (at the school's expense). If given an invite, by all means accept (but only if you are serious about the program). Finally, if you have been accepted at a program or multiple programs, you absolutely should visit the campus before making any decisions. Never, ever accept an offer sight-unseen (even if you have to pay your own way to visit).
Should You Apply?
For any student, it doesn't hurt to ask a department if they think you should apply. Sometimes you might advised against applying to a program, by a faculty member within this program. Give this sort of advice careful consideration. Sometimes a program might not have funding or space for students - you may have to be willing to wait a year before applying. If it's strictly a matter of money, find out about fellowships or other options that might allow you to apply anyhow. Sometimes, too, a department may end up taking students in the end anyhow (even if this stinks for the students who didn't apply because they were told otherwise). If you are dead-set on a program, it probably doesn't hurt to apply regardless (unless they are absolutely insistent on a lack of money or space). Occasionally, you might be told that you are not a good match for a program or an advisor. This might hurt, but this sort of honesty can save a lot of time and heartache in the long run. Find out why you are not a good match - sometimes it's a very simple issue or miscommunication. And, be aware that different faculty in a department might have different thoughts on the students they want in the department. Some are overly pessimistic, some are eternal optimists, and some just don't care. Every situation is different.
Graduate school is an exciting time, but choosing a program can be a daunting task (whether you're at the application or acceptance stage). Weigh all factors, and don't fall in love with the first program that sends an acceptance letter. First and foremost, do what is right for you! Listen to your gut instincts, and get as much information as you can. Be cautious, but open. Be honest, and be yourself. Talk to a trusted professor, or a graduate student, or a potential advisor. You're not in this on your own, and you'll find what's right for you!