GRE Prep Strategies

A number of phone apps are available to help students prepare for the GRE.

Each year at this time, I receive numerous questions from potential applicants about the GRE. No other part of the MPS application process produces so much anxiety. This is understandable, since most applicants to the program haven’t taken a standardized test since their senior year of high school.

While the GRE score is not the deciding factor in the MPS application review process, it is an important component and one that should be taken seriously. We’re looking for students to score at or above the 50th percentile. This may sound low, but it translates to this: of all college graduates who want to pursue advanced degrees, we’re looking for those in the top half. That’s a fairly select group.

The GRE is not an exam most would want to take without some preparation. The Quantitative Reasoning section resembles the corresponding sections on the ACT and SAT and leans hard on algebra and geometry concepts you learned in high school. A review of these concepts will bring them back into focus and boost your chances of attaining a satisfactory score.

The Verbal Reasoning section, on the other hand, is considered more challenging than those on the college entrance exams and requires new learning for many. Some describe the section as “vocabulary on steroids.” Fortunately, boosting vocabulary is something most of us can achieve, as long as we allow enough time for study.

Experts suggest beginning preparation one to three months before the exam. This will allow you time to master the material, but not so much time that you forget what you’ve learned. But how to prepare? That’s the question.

My first suggestion is to take a practice test. If you fare well, you might not need much preparation at all. Lucky you. But if your scores are underwhelming, the practice test will help you identify areas of weakness. This information is valuable, since you can use it to direct your attention to the concepts most likely to boost your scores.

One of the best ways to prepare for the exam is to enroll in a formal GRE prep course; however, these courses can be expensive, and fitting a couple of additional classes into your weekly schedule can be tricky. For those with the resources, Kaplan and Princeton Review offer well-reviewed courses.

Numerous study prep books are also available, as are online prep courses. McGoosh comes highly recommended.

ETS’s Powerprep Software is available on the official GRE Web site. The software is free and is presumed to be effective, since it is produced by the company that develops the GRE. One limitation is that the software only includes two practice exams.

My new favorite prep tool? The phone app. Your phone is always handy and can be accessed whenever you have a few minutes — riding on the bus, waiting to check out of the grocery store, watching the clothes go ’round at the laundromat.

This morning, I played around with an app released by Varsity Tutors, called GRE Prep: Practice Tests and Flashcards. Available in iTunes, the app features numerous online practice tests and study modules. You get immediate feedback on your performance and can quickly identify areas of weakness. Best of all, it’s free (…and no, I’m not going to share my scores, but suffice it to say that I have new respect for all of you who take the real exam!)

The Varsity Tutors app is but one of many GRE prep apps available. A review of several test prep apps, including their pros, cons, target audience, and cost can be found here.

If you’re short on prep time, you might want to read a post I wrote last year offering last minute GRE study tips. The article, which includes a more comprehensive discussion of the exam format, preparation strategies, and planning techniques, can be found here.

A couple of final notes:

  • The 50th percentile we seek translates to numerical scores of approximately Q151/V151/W 3.5.
  • Leave enough time to repeat the exam. If you don’t like your score, you can always take the exam again and submit only your best score.
  • Prepare sufficiently before your first exam so you don’t have to spend another $205 to repeat it!

Good luck on the exam!

For more information about the MPS program, visit or contact:Tom Photo 2015
Tom Johnson, Program Manager
MPS in Dairy Products Technology
(970) 215-3459 cell

MPS Applicants: Here’s what we’re looking for

application“How important is the GRE in the application review process?” an applicant to the MPS program recently asked me.

“If I take a dairy science course before I graduate, will that help my chances of getting admitted?” another asked.

These are great questions, so I thought it would be worth spending some time discussing what it is we’re actually looking for in a candidate — and what you can do to improve your chances of gaining admission.

The MPS program is a bit of an odd duck among Cal Poly’s grad programs. We’re not a traditional research-based masters program; rather, we are in the business of training students for leadership roles in a manufacturing environment. The industry we serve sometimes rewards different skill sets, and as such, our admissions criteria can differ as well.

As an undergraduate institution, Cal Poly has become quite competitive. Last year, the university received close to 50,000 applications for around 5,000 spots. With so many applications, Cal Poly Admissions uses a numerical admissions system that factors grades, test scores, and AP or IB classes to come up with a Multi-Criteria Admission (MCA) score. Applicants who score above a certain number are offered admission, while those below are not.

The MPS program’s application review process is more wholistic. We truly look at the whole applicant to get a sense not only of whether she has the potential to do well academically, but whether her career goals are well thought out; whether she has the communication skills that go hand in hand with good management; and whether she has an aptitude for leadership.

“The successful manager in dairy production is a
dynamic combination of leader, problem solver, teacher,
and technician who draws from his or her collective skill set
to mobilize the production process.”


A while back, we asked our MPS advisory council to help define the type of student we should admit to the MPS program. Council members (senior-level managers with major dairy foods companies) felt it was necessary first to describe what makes a successful manager in a dairy processing facility. After all, our goal is to produce graduates who can step into leadership roles at these facilities. Here’s what they came up with:

“The successful manager in dairy production is a dynamic combination of leader, problem solver, teacher, and technician who draws from his or her collective skill set to mobilize the production process.”

So what is this collective skill set they refer to? What types of traits should we look for in an MPS student? Accoring to our industry advisors, we should focus on the following:

  • The MPS student should have a unique set of skills, personality traits, and background.
  • Grades, while important, will be less essential to the success of an applicant than other traits that are possessed by successful dairy manufacturing operations leaders.
  • Candidates for the MPS in Dairy Products Technology program should be multitaskers who can quickly process several pieces of information efficiently to formulate solutions.
  • Candidates should be able to take input from those around them and synthesize alternatives.
  • In addition to the ability to think analytically and critically in a fast-paced environment, the ideal candidate should be operationally- and manufacturing-driven.
  • He/she will embrace the opportunities and challenges of the large-scale industrial dairy foods manufacturing environment.
  • Ideal candidates for the program will have held leadership roles in organizations such as college clubs, academic governance, athletics, social groups, volunteer organizations and others.
  • To be successful as leaders in operational roles, candidates will have self-awareness. They will know where their strengths lie and which characteristics and knowledge they need to develop.
  • Candidates will exhibit a strong work ethic with a desire to teach and inspire others.
  • Candidates will demonstrate the ability to be empathetic to the needs of those around them and will respect the value of diverse opinions.

But what about grades? Yes, they’re important. We do ask that applicants achive a minimum GPA of 2.75 over their last two years of study. But for the right candidate, we might bend that requirement a bit lower. The truth is that sometimes, an applicant with a 2.75 GPA, who understands something about agriculture, has fantastic communication skills, is an inspiration to those around her, and was president of her university’s Animal Science club may make a better operations manager than a chemistry major with a 3.8 GPA but who hasn’t taken the time to develop skills outside of his academic domain.

Moreover, an applicant with little knowledge of agriculture, dairy, or chemistry may have the right intellectual traits and personality type to succeed and only needs exposure to the science and technology. We can help this student gain the industry-specific knowledge and experience he needs to be successful. And no, taking a dairy science class before graduating won’t necessarily help him gain admittance to the program — but it might make his path easier once he’s in.

And what about test scores? We use GRE scores as an indication that the applicant is capable of doing graduate school work. We’re looking for students to score at or above the 50th percentile on the verbal, quantitative reasoning, and writing sectionsof the GRE (subject tests are not required). Setting a record on the exam won’t necessarily improve your chances of getting into the program, since high GRE score aren’t necessarily the best predictors of success as a manager in the dairy foods industry. That’s largely because it takes the whole package — academic strength, communication skills, decision-making abilities, leadership aptitude, street smarts, empathy, and humility — to be successful as a manager in the dairy manufacturing arena.

So what can you do to improve your chances of gaining admission?

  • Join a club and take on a leadership position
  • Seek out leadership opportunities, however small, in your part-time or summer jobs
  • Volunteer for an organization that you believe in
  • Do well in any chemistry and biology courses that you take
  • Take a GRE practice test, identify your weaknesses, and then work on them
  • Intern at a manufacturing company
  • Develop a clear sense of purpose: why do you want to enter the dairy foods industry?
  • Meet with your references and help them understand your goals before they write your letters of recommendation
  • Take the time to write a good statement of purpose. Make sure that it is well organized and gramatically correct

If you have questions about your qualifications or would like to discuss your application, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I look forward to seing your application!

For more information about the MPS program, visit or contact:Tom Photo 2015
Tom Johnson, Program Manager
MPS in Dairy Products Technology
(970) 215-3459 cell

Meet Our Director

David Everett serves as director of Cal Poly’s Leprino Foods Dairy Innovation Institute.

Editor’s Note: I sat down this week with David Everett, director of Cal Poly’s Leprino Foods Dairy Innovation Institute. Originally from Australia, Dr. Everett earned a Ph.D. in Food Science at the University of Wisconsin and then worked on a number of dairy industry projects in Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand before joining Cal Poly in Fall 2015. Below is a transcription of our discussion. – TWJ

TWJ: Thanks for spending time with me today.

DE: You’re very welcome.

TWJ: You came to Cal Poly from Australia, by way of New Zealand. How did that come about?

DE: I grew up in Australia. I did my Ph.D. at University of Wisconsin and had an inclination to come back here at some point. I really enjoy being part of U.S. education system, especially at the graduate level. That was the reason I did my Ph.D. in the U.S. in the first place. I was familiar with Cal Poly, having spent a fews weeks here some years back, and I knew the faculty professionally. I had this desire to come back to Cal Poly, so when the job became available, it was an easy decision to apply.

TWJ: What are some of your favorite things about Cal Poly?

DE: Even though Cal Poly is a teaching institution, we have great facilities for hands-on learning, and we’re really well set up to do dairy research. I enjoy the opportunities to collaborate with other faculty members. I like the approachability that students have here with the faculty. I like the open door policy with students – there’s none of this “ivory tower” stuff.  Students can come in and talk to me about anything.

TWJ: Tell me about your role with Cal Poly’s Leprino Foods Dairy Innovation Institute.

DE: The Dairy Innovation Institute is a compilation of different aspects of dairy production. We have the creamery; we have a research manufacturing facility for working with companies on projects; we have the B.S., M.S., and MPS programs; and we have our symposia and short courses that serve as industry outreach. Those four programs all tie together as the Dairy Innovation Institute. My role is director of the institute, so I have oversight over what happens here.

TWJ: Can you describe some of your plans for the institute? The creamery? The MPS Program?

DE: Building up the MPS program is key. Hiring more faculty is a priority, as is providing industry training. We’ll restart this in 2017 through industry short courses. We have some great plans for industry outreach. We’re working to increase their awareness of what we do here. We can provide fee for service research or blue sky research. (Editor’s note: Blue Sky research is fundamental research that underpins applied research. It doesn’t necessarily have a direct and short-term application.) I want us to have a research niche, like flavor research at North Carolina State or cheese research at University of Wisconsin. I want to build a multi-organizational, multidisciplinary research team, so that when people think of Cal Poly, they think of a holistic view of dairy food science, one focused on the effect of processing on structure, nutrition, digestion, and health. I am talking with people from the National Dairy Council and USDA and want to get them more involved.

TWJ: Do you enjoy the dairy industry? How would you describe it to people unfamiliar with it?

DE: The dairy industry is a tight-knit group of people who are friendly and approachable. They are interested in adding value to dairy products, much more so than in other fields I’ve been involved with, such as chemistry. It’s a really nice bunch of people. The industry involves everything from milking cows to marketing products and everything in between. It’s very multidisciplinary. We need engineers, chemists, nutritionists, microbiologists, marketing professionals, product developers…its great to be part of such a big team of people. I was a Physical Chemistry major and just happened to get a job in dairy research – it turned out to be the best decision of my career. It led me to Wisconsin, and then all around the world, and back to San Luis Obispo. Dairy is a passport to see the world.

TWJ: Any thoughts on where the industry is headed?

DE: In terms of products, we’re heading toward minimal processing and higher fat content. We now know that dairy fat is much healthier than we previously understood. There will be more of a consumer focus on human health.

TWJ: Does your time in Australia and New Zealand give you any special insights into the dairy industry that make you especially prepared for this opportunity?

DE: I bring an international perspective. I have research and teaching experience in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and Canada. I received my education at University of  Wisconsin. Things are done differently all across the world. I think of my role as challenging the thought processes about how things are done here in the U.S. and helping people think outside of the box.

TWJ: Are there any significant differences between the dairy industries of the U.S. and those of Australia and New Zealand?

DE: There’s very much a consumer product-oriented focus in the U.S., whereas it’s more ingredient- and export-focused in Australia and New Zealand.

TWJ: Many students I speak with have never considered the dairy industry. What would you say to them?

DE: Many people don’t understand the industry. They think it’s about milking cows, and than the milk magically transforms itself into products that transport themselves to the supermarket. There’s a lot more to do it than that. All of the different sciences have to come together to make a product. Because dairy manufacturing is hidden from view, people are isolated from it. It happens behind walls and not on people’s radar. Just because its hidden doesn’t mean there aren’t wonderful opportunities.

TWJ: Some people think of the dairy industry as old-fashioned. Today’s students often favor what they perceive as more “modern” industries, like technology or medical research or finance. How would you respond to them?

DE: Technology, medical research, and finance are great career choices, but they are sometimes difficult to get into due to the large supply of graduates interested in these areas. The dairy industry is short of graduates. Those who work in the industry can expect a career in product development, technology, engineering, marketing, or nutrition, amongst others. The opportunities are almost endless. If you can’t find a career in dairy processing that is professionally rewarding and interesting, perhaps you aren’t looking hard enough! As an added bonus, you can also feel good about feeding the world.

TWJ: I spend a lot of time talking with potential applicants about the importance of leadership. We recruit for leaders, and the MPS program features a leadership seminar the first three quarters. What does leadership mean to you?

DE: Leadership is being able to bring people alongside you in the direction that you think is best; to encourage people to walk with you toward a common goal; to excite and entice them. It’s not all about knowledge; it’s about personality traits, too. Most of us have an innate ability to lead and need an opportunity to develop our potential.

TWJ: How does the MPS program tackle leadership development?

DE: Leadership is something you can hone and develop by working with other people. We provide opportunities for our MPS students to develop their innate leadership potential. We give students boundaries in the MPS program, but we don’t give them the minutiae of how to work on a day-to-day basis. We teach them how to be effective team members and then we let them learn through experience and by making mistakes. Through the MPS program, leadership is developed by working as part of a team in a commercial dairy environment. Our students learn how to anticipate problems and show initiative in developing solutions. I would hope that all of our graduates leave Cal Poly with the ability to communicate and lead.

TWJ: How would you describe the difference between the MS track and the MPS track? How will these graduates’ career paths differ?

DE: In the MS program, we teach research skills, and I firmly believe that every job requires research skills – not necessarily lab-based, but generally speaking. These students learn how to communicate through scientific writing, and they learn the latest developments in scientific methods, whereas the MPS students gain practical experience by working in a commercial environment. They learn leadership skills, and they acquire the knowledge and develop the skills that are directly required by the dairy industry.

TWJ: Can you give me your best sales pitch? Why should a bright, talented student with multiple options enroll in the MPS program and set her sights on building a career in the dairy processing industry?

DE: In the big scheme of things, we always have to eat, and the dairy industry will always be in the forefront. The last jobs that will get cut will be those in food manufacturing. You can feel good about what you’re doing. You’re part of an industry that develops nutritious products that keep people happy. And by joining the MPS program, you will have greater earning potential and a varied career path in the industry.

TWJ: Thanks for your time, David.

DE: You’re very welcome, Tom.

For more information about the MPS program, visit or contact:Tom Photo 2015
Tom Johnson, Program Manager
MPS in Dairy Products Technology
(970) 215-3459 cell

FAQs about applying to the MPS program

Note: this is an updated version of an article published in October 2015.

We hope Cal Poly’s MPS in Dairy Products Technology program is in your plans. If it is, you’ll need to take some initial steps toward applying. If you have questions about the application process or need assistance, I’m here to help! Please feel free to contact me at:

Tom Johnson, MPS Program Manager
Cell: (970) 215-3459

In the meantime, here are the answers to some questions I frequently receive from students considering applying to the program:

csumentor2017I am interested in applying. How do I get started?
The first step is to send me a copy of your resume or curriculum vitae. You can send it to me at

You will also need to complete our online application.

In addition to your CSUMentor application, you must establish an Interfolio account. Interfolio is the online provider that we use for prospective students to create an ePortfolio. Upon submitting your online application, you will receive a prompt to help you get started on your Interfolio account.

  • Through Interfolio, upload your unofficial transcripts and self-reported GRE scores.
  • A minimum of two letters of recommendation (three are recommended) from faculty members or professional references on institutional/company letterhead, addressed to: Thomas W. Johnson, Program Manager, Master of Professional Studies in Dairy Products Technology, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, CA 93407-0358. Interfolio will provide instructions to help your references upload their letters of recommendation directly to Interfolio.
  • See the ePortfolio Guidelines document for a detailed walkthrough of the Interfolio application process.interfolio

Official transcripts from ALL colleges previously attended (except Cal Poly), should be sent directly from your university to Cal Poly’s Admissions Office.You can also have them sent electronically to

Your official GRE scores should be sent to Cal Poly’s Admissions office. Scores may also be sent directly to Cal Poly using institution code 4038.

When is the application deadline?
All applications must be submitted by April 1. You will have an additional 30 days to submit test scores, transcripts, and letters of recommendation.

Should I wait until I have GRE scores to submit my application?
No – there is no reason to wait to submit your application. We review applications as we receive them, so it is in your interest to submit your application before the class fills.

GREIs the GRE always required? Can I submit other test results instead?
We require that all applicants submit GRE scores.

How important are GRE scores?
We use GRE scores to ensure that our students have a level of proficiency that suggests they will be successful at the graduate level. That said, GRE scores are no more important than other factors, such as grade point average, recommendations, career objectives, and leadership experience.

Is there a minimum GRE score?
We look for students to score in the upper 50th percentile of all GRE test takers.

Is there a minimum GPA requirement?
We require that students have a minimum GPA of 2.75, with above-average performance in science courses. However, we have made exceptions for students who exhibit significant leadership potential or other attributes the program seeks.

I am an international student. Do I need to submit TOEFL scores?toefl-exam
We require TOEFL or IELTS scores from all international students unless the last degree they receive was instructed in English. The TOEFL must have been taken within the last two years, with a minimum score of 550 (paper version), 213 (computerized version), or 80 (internet-based). The minimum score for the IELTS is 6.0.

Will you require an interview?
We may request an opportunity to interview you, either in person (if you’re on campus) or by Skype (if you are not). This will help us get to know you and better understand how the MPS program will help you reach your career goals.

How soon will I know whether I am accepted to the program?
We use a rolling admissions process. Once your application file is complete, we aim to get you a decision within 30 days.

How should I submit my letters of recommendation?
Please have your references address their letters to Program Manager Tom Johnson and upload them through Interfolio (see above for instructions). The program manager’s address is:

Tom Johnson, Program Manager
Master of Professional Studies in Dairy Products Technology
Cal Poly State University
1 Grand Avenue
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

Where should I send my transcripts?
Official transcripts from all universities attended should be sent via email to or by mail to:

Cal Poly State University
One Grand Avenue
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407

transcriptsDo I need to submit transcripts for classes I completed in community college, junior college or summer school?
Cal Poly requires submission of transcripts for all college-level courses taken. Failure to request transcripts from all schools you attended may delay your admission to the program.

Is food or dairy science experience required?
We do not require applicants to have prior experience in food or dairy science. It is important that you have have had at least some college-level biology and chemistry in order to prepare you for the concepts you will be exposed to in the MPS program. If you would like to discuss whether you are sufficiently prepared for the program, please contact me. There may be time to take “refresher” courses prior to beginning the program.

Do you welcome older, “nontraditional” students?
We welcome students of all ages and backgrounds. We strive for a mix of students, including some who are returning to school after gaining experience in the military or in the workplace.

What is the cost of the program?
Tuition and fees for the 2017-2018 school year will total $28,000. Tuition and fees are billed in three equal payments at the beginning of each of the first three quarters. No tuition is due during the fourth quarter internship. A breakdown of estimated expenses can be found at

Does the program offer scholarships or assistantships?
The program does not offer scholarships or assistantships. All MPS students must pay the full tuition amount, regardless of residency or nationality. The program qualifies for typical student loan programs, as well as Post 911 GI Bill Benefit funding. Students can offset a portion of their tuition with the money they will earn during their internships. Grants can also be applied toward tuition and fees.

I’m ready to apply. Where do I find the application?
You will find the online application form at

For answers to other common questions about the MPS program, please visit our FAQ page at We hope to see your application soon!

Tom Photo 2015
Tom Johnson. Program Manager
MPS in Dairy Products Technology
(970) 215-3459 cell


New MPS Video

video-imageThe MPS program this week released a short video that provides an inside look at the program and the industry for which its students train.

The video, which can be seen at, features interviews with David Everett, director of Cal Poly’s Leprino Dairy Innovation Institute, and Tom Johnson, MPS program manager. Everett and Johnson discuss the purpose and various aspects of the program, including goals and expected learning outcomes. They also describe attributes the program seeks in applicants.

In addition, the video features a rare glimpse inside of an actual working facility in the dairy manufacturing industry. The footage was shot at Leprino Foods’ Lemoore West plant, where the company produces more than a million pounds of mozzarella cheese each day. Leprino helped Cal Poly develop and launch the program and continues to provide guidance, resources, and student internships and employment.

Also included are scenes featuring students working in Cal Poly’s own commercial creamery.

Questions about the program or the application process should be directed to:

Tom Photo 2015

Tom Johnson. Program Manager
MPS in Dairy Products Technology
(970) 215-3459 cell