Once you’ve made the decision to apply for graduate school, it’s important to meet with a staff member in the program to discuss its specific requirements and amenities; doing so helps ensure you’re making an informed decision and you are able to put together a competitive application packet. Prior to your meeting, it’s important to conduct some research and compose a list of questions you have about the program. The following sections offer guidance for preparing for your meeting.
Prior to meeting with a graduate school director, advisor, or staff member, learn as much as possible about the program by visiting its website. The following information is usually available online or by request:
- A general description of the program
- Contact information for the director of the program and/or other key staff associated with the program
- The components of the degree (coursework, thesis or dissertation, oral defense, etc.)
- The number of credits required to complete the degree, and the types of courses and electives students must or can opt to take to complete the program
- The duration of the program given the number of required credits (distinct from the average time it takes students to complete the program)
- The components that must be included in the application (GRE scores, transcripts, writing samples, essays, etc.)
- Application deadlines/semester start-dates
- The cost of the program and types of financial assistance available to students
In addition to finding the above information, try to decipher what type of program it is: is it a program designed to prepare students for a career in a particular sector? Does it prepare students for careers in research and academia? Does it have another specific intention? Knowing the program’s intention can help you determine whether or not it’s right for you and help you put together a more competitive application.
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the program, make an appointment to meet with an advisor or the director of the program. Arrive at your appointment on time, prepared to ask questions and take notes. The following is a list of five questions you may want to ask:
1. What must I do to be academically competitive for entrance into the program?
a. What scores must I receive on the GRE?
b. What GPA must I have?
Many graduate programs require students to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) prior to applying for a program. Determine what types of scores will make you most competitive for the program, and then focus your GRE preparation and studies accordingly. Additionally, graduate programs will want to know your undergraduate GPA. Determine what GPA will make you most competitive. If you don’t have a competitive GPA, determine what you need to do to supplement your lower GPA. Also, be sure to order transcripts as far in advance of the application deadline as possible; applications that don’t include transcripts by the application deadline are typically disqualified.
2. What types of experiences will be most relevant to the admissions board?
a. Will the board want to know about my ability to conduct research?
b. Will the board want to know about my professional experience in a field related to the course of study?
c. Will the board want to know what academic experience has prepared me for the anticipated course of study?
d. Will the board want to know what types of real-world experiences, such as travel or volunteer work, have prepared me for the program?
In order to know what types of experiences will be most relevant to the admissions board, it is important to know the program’s intention. While some programs are based on academia and research, for example, others are based on field or industry experience and career preparedness. Therefore, don’t assume that all of your experience will be relevant—rather, determine which experience will be most relevant and identify your strengths and weaknesses. In your application and/or interview, discuss those experiences that make you most competitive given the program’s intentions. Also, gain more experience in areas connected to the program’s intentions if necessary.
3. How long does it take to complete the program and how much does it ultimately cost?
While you should already have a good idea of how long the program takes given the amount of coursework required, it’s a good idea to determine how long the average student takes to complete the curriculum. It is also important to determine the average cost of the program. Once you’ve gathered these two pieces of information, you can determine whether or not you can actually afford to complete the program, and determine in how many years you’ll need to do so.
4. With what people should I make contact prior to submitting my application?
The reasons for making contact with people connected to the program are multifold. First, it will allow you to become more familiar to the program’s faculty, staff, and admissions board; second, it will allow you to determine with which professor’s you would like to work on your thesis or dissertation; third, it will allow you to become more familiar with the requirements and atmosphere of the program and perhaps put together a more competitive application.
5. What commonly disqualifies applicants?
Knowing what automatically disqualifies applicants may be a great way to ensure you that you yourself aren’t disqualified. Knowing what not to do is often times just as important as knowing what to do. Knowing what will disqualify you will help you determine whether or not the program is truly right for you; and what you need to do to put together a competitive application. Some examples of important disqualifiers are:
- International affairs programs that disqualify students who want to work for non-profits rather than conduct research and work in academia
- Business programs that disqualify students who don’t have at least 5 years of relevant experience
- Sociology programs that disqualify students who don’t have a BA or MA in sociology
Simply ask, “Is there anything that I should know that I don’t know to ask?” Asking this question will give the program advisor or director a chance to give you information that you didn’t know you needed to have. Graduate programs obviously vary school by school, so it makes sense that each program’s expectations would vary. Give the advisor or director a chance to tell you what he or she thinks you need to know.
About the Author: Annie Rose Stathes holds a B.A. in International Affairs and an M.A. in Political Science, both from the University of Colorado, Denver. She is currently an Instructor of Writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango Colorado