How to Get Into Graduate School
Applying to graduate school can seem like a daunting task. Unlike in high school when guidance counselors were available to help you through the process, it feels as though there are so many confusing details of the graduate school process! This guide will help walk you through how to apply to graduate school and get in.
Preparing During Your Undergraduate Degree (Years 1-3)
Pick the right classes.This comes before getting good grades and may in fact be more important. You should pick classes that will impress graduate schools. This means choosing classes that are relevant to your field of interest and that are high level or challenging.
- Complete required courses as early as possible. Undergraduate programs typically have "core" requirements within majors and some graduate programs (e.g. medical school) have strict undergraduate course requirements to get in. Getting the basic required courses done in the beginning will avoid schedule conflicts later and allow you to take more advanced classes.
- When choosing electives, try to create a theme. Even if you do not have an official minor or double major (either of which can be helpful!) it's good to have organization to your electives. You should be able to describe how the knowledge you gain in these classes will benefit you in graduate school. Some people advise choosing directly related subjects for electives (e.g. a computer science major might take courses in mathematics) while others advise taking something very different (e.g. a computer science major might take courses in English so that they stand out from the general applicant pool). The important thing is to have good reasoning for how these courses benefited you. Having a general theme will make it easier to do this.
Get to know your professors.This is arguably the most important step. A good letter of recommendation can make all of the difference, and this is the step that people too often put off until it is too late. Cultivating a relationship with people in your field will help you immensely in the graduate school application process. Reaching out will likely also enrich your academic experience (and enhance your grade!). You don't have to be that kid who is always raising their hand in class (no shame in that though) to have a good relationship with a professor.
- Go to each of your professor's office hours at least once. If your professor doesn't have open office hours set-up, introduce yourself at some point after class. Make sure you have something to talk about-asking questions about the course material, possible directions or careers in your field, or the professor's research works great. It does not have to be a long of formal meeting, this is just so that they know your name and face. It also gives you an opportunity to assess if this is someone you want to maintain a relationship with. If not, you don't ever have to meet with them again. However, people are often surprised to find that professors appear and act differently in a one-on-one meeting and are usually eager to interact with and help students.
- Get involved in the department. University departments often host events or get togethers with other students and professors. Try out at least one. It's an easy way to help people remember who you are and for you to make a good impression. Other ways to get involved could be as a tutor or a teaching assistant in the department.
- When you find a professor you like, continue to reach out to them. Ask them questions, discuss your intentions to pursue graduate school, ask them about research opportunities. And yes, a little sucking-up can be helpful. The more often you show up early, raise your hand, and go above and beyond on assignments, the more they will be able to write in your letters of reference later.
Work on your grades. Getting excellent grades will obviously put you in a better position when applying to graduate school. However, it is listed third because doing the above two steps is arguably more important, and both will typically improve your grades.
Try to obtain research positions or internships relevant to your field during your free time.Often graduate schools are looking specifically for research experience. This is where your relationships with professors will come in handy. However, if you are unable to secure a research position at some point, try to get jobs or internships in relevant positions. Don't despair if you do not get a competitive job in your field. At the end of the day it is all about how you spin your experience. Make a note of skills you gained at jobs or times you showed good qualities while working to use in your graduate school letter of intention. Take your work seriously-even if it is in the wrong field. You never know when you will need a good reference!
Do at least one extracurricular activity.The graduate admission process places less emphasis on the "well-rounded" candidate than the undergraduate admission process, but it is still good proof that you weren't spending all your free time partying. You may also be able to use it to bolster your resume and letter of intention.
Planning, Organizing and Taking Tests (Summer Before You Apply)
Consider where to apply.Deciding this early on will help you immensely in staying organized and not missing an opportunity just because of a missed deadline. A good rule of thumb for choosing schools is to have two back-up schools (schools you are almost certain you will get into), two "on target" school (schools where you think you are right at/in the middle of the admission criterion) and two "reach schools" (competitive schools where, realistically, you might not make the cut). If you'd rather take a year off to work or do research than go to a "lower-level" graduate school, you can save some money by not applying to back-up schools.
- Keep in mind that the applications and sending test scores are expensive! At this point, it would probably be a good idea to ask your professors about the schools you are considering. They usually have a good idea of the quality of programs at other schools and what type of experience you will get there. They may know things not advertised by the school, like that they are only interested in people looking to enter academia. They will also have a good sense of how students from your school do when applying to graduate school, and can help you make realistic choices.
Make a list of schools based on the variety of factors that are important to you.Things to consider when making your decision:
- Your interests. This is especially important if you are looking to apply to a PhD or other research based program. Look into work that has been produced in recent years by the schools you are interested in, browse the professors' websites and their interests. If nothing the department is doing excites you, you should look elsewhere.
- Financials. Does the school provide funding or support for your program? What is the cost of living where the school is located? Will there be dorms?
- Size of the program.
- Length of the program.
- Program structure. Is it all courses? Mostly research? Thesis optional? Opportunities for work training?
- Geographic location. This is one of those things that people sometimes downplay too much but you should be honest with yourself about where you would and would not be willing to study. Maybe you need to stay on the West coast to be near a partner or maybe you are only willing to go to school in a city. If you program is only a year or so, it's more advisable to put less weight on this but for a longer program this could be a major factor in your happiness and therefore success. Besides your preferences, there may be reasons to go or avoid going abroad. For instance, in Canada and other countries it is common for masters students to receive funding-something unheard of in the US. On the other hand, completing a medical degree outside the country you intend to practice in can be extremely detrimental.
- Researchers or professors who you may want to work with. Applicants often plan too far ahead with who they will or will not work with in graduate studies. The truth is, students often find that personalities end up clashing unexpectedly or their own interests change. However, knowing that there are at least 2 people doing research in an area of your interest at any school you are applying to is important.
- Prestige or ranking of the school/department. Too much emphasis is often put on this as rankings are typically variant and unreliable. Still, nobody was ever hurt by graduating from an Ivy League school.
Investigate grants or scholarships that require applications.Many looking to apply to graduate school skip this step. Some because it seems like too much extra work on top of all the other graduate school application mayhem, some because the rejection rates are high for incoming students, some because they do not have a research proposal ready. However, even if you do not win an award, applying can be beneficial. On graduate school applications they always ask if you have applied for any scholarships. Typically, the school actually makes acceptance decisions before you hear back from these scholarships/grants. That means that all they really want to know is, did you put in some effort to get funding.
- External funding can save the school or department money, making you more valuable. Many of the pieces of scholarship and grant applications are things that you need to prepare for graduate school applications (e.g. CV, personal statement, recommenders,transcript). Even if you do not have a stellar research proposal, you will at least gain some experience in writing a proposal.
Get organized.Put all of the deadlines for the schools and scholarships you are applying to in your calendar. This includes when test scores and transcripts must be sent by, when recommendations must be received, and when all final application materials are due.
- Make a list, organized by school/scholarship or required materials. There are many variations in application requirements between school from length and content of personal statement to`required test scores.
Take all required standardized tests.Make sure that you are done with the GRE, MCAT, GMAT, LSAT, etc. For some tests, such as the MCAT, it is recommended to actually take the test earlier, before your third year of university. For other exams, taking them by the end of the summer before you apply to graduate school will give you a small buffer zone where you may be able to retake the exam in early fall to get a better score in time. Keep in mind that seats in these exams sometimes fill up quickly-book well in advanced!
Decide who will be your recommenders.This is where those relationships you built with your professors will come in handy. For most masters and PhD programs, having professors as your recommenders is ideal. For some programs, such as business school, it may be more beneficial to have at least one work-related reference. The most important thing is that the recommenders bare people who actually know who you are. You might have got an A in Organic Chemistry, but if the professor doesn't even know your name, they can't write you a good recommendation.
- Remember that the school you are applying to will get hundreds of applications-they can tell the generic ones from the ones with personality. It helps if your recommender is someone well known in the field-but only if they know you and will put in the effort to help you! It is generally not advisable to ask a TA or other student for a recommendation (the graduate school will have no idea who they are!). If you know your TA well but not the professor, consider asking them to co-write a letter with the professor that is signed by both of them. The same thing applies for faculty members who do not hold professor positions-sadly the university you are applying to may not recognize them or give them credibility.
Ask for your recommendations.Doing this in the summer or September ensures that your recommenders will have plenty of time to write your letter, and you won't be asking them in October-December when many other students will likely ask. They will appreciate your politeness and advanced warning-just make sure to keep reminding them as the deadlines get closer. Some professors strongly prefer students to ask them in person though many don't care if they are asked over email. You should know your relationship with your recommenders will enough to gauge which is more appropriate. An easy and natural way to ask them is to ask for a meeting to discuss graduate school. After seeking advice on where and how to apply, asking for a letter is very simple.
- Never ask a someone for a recommendation in front of others, it can make them uncomfortable or put them on the spot. A polite way to ask for a recommendation is "Would you be willing to write me a strong recommendation?" Phrasing it this way will give the person an option to decline if they don't really feel like they can write you a strong recommendation. A graduate school receiving a weak or generic letter of recommendation will be able to see right through it. Don't worry though, most people are happy to help students as they have likely been helped themselves!
- Recommenders will appreciate you being able to give them a list of schools and scholarships you will need for them to write recommendations for (though it's fine if this changes a little with time). You should also ask if your referees would like anything from you. Sometimes they want a list of your accomplishments or interests to help make your letter more personal.
- Offer to give any additional information they require. Giving your recommenders your resume and a list of things you think they did well in their class, at your job, etc. can help them write a stronger, more personal recommendation
Applying (Fall Before Applying)
Start brainstorming for your personal statement or letter of intent.You may need more than one of these or different variants depending on the requirements for different schools (or grants/scholarships).
- Make some bullet points for why you want to go to graduate school and why you are passionate about the field you are in.
- Make a list of qualities that you think you have shown and that you believe graduate schools will be interested in. For instance, hard-working, goal-oriented, self-motivated, independent, passionate...
- Make a list of things that you have done related to the field you wish to go into. From courses, to jobs, this will also help when creating your resume/CV.
- Make a list of your accomplishments. Now is not the time to be modest, think of every award you have won, every competitive position you have been given.
- Make a list of any other activities or events that may interest an admissions committee.
Write your statement.There are many possible ways to write a graduate school statement. Look online for some inspiration and to get a sense of the different styles. How you write your statement should depend on how you think you can write most strongly and portray yourself in the best light. You should emphasize the first two bullets above, while showcasing the other three. For instance, people often start with a "hook" or anecdote about why they are passionate about the field. Creating a "theme" to your statement by choosing one of the items from the list in the second bullet, will help make you memorable.
- Write a first draft.
- Edit it yourself. Printing out the statement and marking it up on paper is often more helpful than re-reading it on your computer.
- Have others read it. If your university has a writing center that you can seek help at, do! If not, consider switching statements with another friend who is applying to graduate school or asking someone else in the field to read your letter. Hearing someone's reaction to your statement can be invaluable.
- Re-read your statement at least once a week until the deadline.
Reach out to professors at the universities you are applying to.This is more important for programs that require you to be admitted with an advisor or lab group. Some universities actually strongly discourage you from reaching out to individual professors. Look on the department's website for information for graduate school applicants to see if they have a policy on this. It is always a good idea to reach out to people you may want to work with in the future but if you aren't sure who to contact, the graduate chair is usually a safe bet. You should explain that you are applying to graduate school, that you are very excited about the opportunities available at their university, and think of a few questions to ask.
- In many universities the acceptances are put to a vote by faculty, so having someone already familiar with your name is beneficial. If you need to be accepted to a research group for admittance to the program, more consideration and discussion will be necessary at this stage.
Organize your resume or CV.Make sure it is up to date and formatted correctly. Have at least one other person look over it for formatting and possible typos.
Ensure that all materials and recommendations are submitted by the deadline.Typically an unofficial pdf version of your transcript can be used for the application, but ensure that this is true for all of your applications before submitting.
Following Through After Your Application
Visit schools that you are admitted to.This is very important to get a sense of the culture in the department and the structure.
Reach out to students and professors at the schools that you are admitted to.Students are often given contacts in the universities that they are accepted to, but don't always take advantage of them. Getting perspectives from within the department is very important so don't be afraid to ask a lot of questions! Some good questions for current graduates students might be:
- What is the course load like?
- How important is the research component in your first year?
- Are you friends with others in the department or is it a competitive atmosphere?
- Do you need to come in with an advisor or research topic in mind?
- Does the department put a preference on whether students remain in academia after the program?
Make a decision!This is one of the hardest steps, especially if you end up with many good options. The same considerations as in your decision to apply to graduate school should be made again. Often people feel after visiting schools that one is a better "fit" for them. Continue talking to the schools and people who have supported you in this process until you are ready to make a decision.
- Although it is kind to decline offers that you are not seriously considering early to allow people off of the wait list, don't feel bad about taking your time! No matter what decision you end up with, you should feel proud. You made it
Submit all final transcripts and any other forms (e.g.medical documents) that the school requires. Congratulations-you have now gotten in to graduate school!
- Creating a theme to your personal statement can make you more memorable to the admissions committee, especially if it leaves one positive word in their mind associated with you. Choose one quality you would like to convey and structure your skills and experiences around this. The committee will read hundreds of statements listing various accomplishments and activities-you want something easy to be remembered by.
- Creating contacts in the field, whether professors or professionals, who you can turn to for advice and help is immeasurably helpful.
- Give a thank you card to anyone who wrote you a recommendation or gave you help in this process!
- Do your best to always be polite to your professors and colleagues. We've all had a boss or professor who we feel is a jerk. But they are jerks that may affect your references and grades if you aren't careful. You don't have to like someone to not be rude to them.
Video: How Important are GPAs and GREs for Getting into Graduate School?
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