Five Things to Do Before Applying to Graduate School
by Ann van der Merwe
Pursuing a graduate education requires preparation and organization, and it starts long before you take your first class. Below you will find a list of things to do to get you started on the right track!
1. Know your Options
Some career paths require a specific graduate degree, but many do not. Even if a particular degree seems like an obvious choice, you might change your mind as you learn about other programs and options. We recommend exploring a range of options from the outset. You could consider the following paths:
Search similar programs with different concentration options
Research different programs within the same field
Explore complementary programs in related fields
Browse programs by geographic location or format (online vs. campus or hybrid)
Browse programs by institution
Carefully considering a wide range of program possibilities can help you be more confident in your final decision.
2. Figure Out What You Want
The investigation process will help clarify your reasons for attending graduate school. Graduate school often requires an investment of time and money; it may be useful for potential students to have a clear understanding of their goals prior to enrollment. Goals may help motivate you while you are attending school and help you keep an eye on the ‘big picture’ at important decision points. Claire Boge, who served as director of Graduate Studies in Music at Miami University for many years, once polled students about their reasons for earning another degree. The responses ranged from wanting additional credentials and more knowledge, to having a backup plan and wanting to delay “the onset of adulthood." Whatever your motivation, Boge advises, “it is better to go towards something than away from something.”
3. Evaluate Yourself
In order to advance your educational goals it is helpful to have a clear understanding of your current circumstances. Before you start filling out forms and writing essays, consider how your academic and professional profile will look to the faculty members reviewing your application and how it will compare to those of your peers. As Boge puts it, “know your competition…and be aware of where you stand in the pre-professional world.” This kind of self-examination will enable you to address any shortcomings you may have. Addressing your shortcomings may require explaining something in your application essay, taking an additional class, gaining additional work experience, or simply working harder at what you are currently doing. In any case, recognizing your strengths and weaknesses will help put you in a better position to be accepted to and successfully complete your chosen program.
4.Identify Application Requirements
Once you have decided on graduate school and identified a list of programs to which you want to apply, you need to figure out the specific application requirements for each – and recognize they might not be the same. For example, you might need to take a graduate exam (such as the GRE or GMAT) for some programs but not for others. Or, one school might ask for more letters of recommendation than the others. To avoid any omissions in your applications, get organized early in the process.
Also, be sure to customize each application. Boge says, “It seems silly, but I still see people who forget to change the name of the school in their essays.” Making sure you address the right people is important, of course, but you should also pay attention to what you emphasize and include in your required materials. In your essays, Boge suggests you “highlight your interests to best match each institution… [and identify] what about each institution makes you want to go there.”
Completing graduate school applications takes time, and waiting for the outcome demands a lot of patience. The combination can be stressful, especially when other academic, professional, and personal commitments are added to the equation. One of the best ways to deal with this is to expect it – and plan accordingly. Give yourself ample time to organize. Ask for your letters of recommendation early, and follow up with those writing them a week before the due date. Take any required exams well before the deadline. You might still need to finish something at the last minute, but if you complete the bulk of the work without rushing, those final things will not overwhelm you. If you decide to apply to another program late in the game, you’ll have time to focus on it because your other applications will be complete. And if you determine that your essay needs additional editing the night before it’s due, you’ll be less likely to stress out because you won’t also have to finish three other parts of the application.
Last but not least, take a look at your online profiles, especially your social networking content, Boge states, “make sure you are conveying a professional persona.” You’ll want to eliminate anything that might reflect poorly on you, and check for consistency. Ideally, a Google search of your name should reveal the same person as your essay and other application materials.