Written by Jared Goff
Preparing for Graduate School is much like planning for any big event in one’s life. After all, graduate school consumes at least 2 full years that will be formative for future interests, education, and a life-long career. Graduate school can be the culmination of many years of preparation or a total shift of one’s academic direction. It can become a choice for the purpose of advancement after 20 years in the workplace or the realization of a childhood dream. Needless to say, preparation for graduate school is going to look different for each person.
Taking this into account, general qualities are most all-encompassing when thinking about what it takes to get into graduate school. Schools are looking more and more at the qualities that make a great long-term student as well as the enthusiasm that brings new life to their programs.
Becoming a Good Fit
There are the rare people who are born to be a good fit with their area of expertise. Like Mozart to music or Einstein to physics, these exceptional people are born knowing what they love and take to their subject like fish to water. The 5 w’s never come into question with these rare individuals. However, most of us have to look and work a little harder to find our vocational calling. Some gifted persons have a variety of interests and narrowing down their vying subject fields is a challenging process while others have a hard time becoming deeply interested in anything.
It may be one of the biggest challenges of preparing for graduate school that one must narrow or choose an interest. Although the majority of students may have made this decision before attending an undergraduate program, the nature of most undergraduate programs makes the bachelor’s degree slightly more versatile. Whereas a master’s degree is often the beginning of real specialization.
Any given graduate school will be looking for students who are a great fit with their program. In order to identify which graduate programs to apply to, it would be a good idea to first determine what level of commitment one has to the focus of the program being pursued. Enthusiasm for one’s subject is easily portrayed in the very important personal statement that is part of one’s application, but that enthusiasm comes through all the more when specific interests are aligned with a school’s program.
Determining one’s commitment to a program also helps one to choose which programs to apply for at the outset. Perusing graduate school programs may be a way to make a decision about what is interesting or exciting. It could be that a certain program’s emphasis is exactly what an aspiring graduate student is looking for. Building on this discovery, honing one’s interest and narrowing down which school is a good fit will make a graduate application much stronger.
Becoming a good fit for a graduate school may take a little tweaking of what’s most important. Location of the school, cost, size, and many other factors may have either conscious or sub-conscious ranking for applicants. Deciding which of these factors is most negotiable and keeping an open mind will strongly affect which graduate schools one applies to.
Take some time to write down all of the influencing factors of graduate school choice, then rank them according to importance. Some students may find that attending a rural school, as they always imagined, doesn’t carry as much importance as they thought or that a quality faculty is more important to them than the size of the school. Separating negotiable factors from non-negotiable ones can help applicants to become a better fit with their prospective graduate school.
Gaining as much experience as possible in a field of interest will always look better on a graduate school application. Not only that, but it will give any student more confidence while working through their education. Rather than just trying to gain information, a student with prior work experience in their field will be able to apply first-hand knowledge to the facts making them an asset to any institution.
Take a Gap Year?
For those who haven’t had the opportunity to gain work experience before applying to graduate school, taking a gap year may be a good option. Although working for a year between undergraduate and graduate school prolongs the educational process, it may be worth the experience gained before applying to grad school. It can also enhance the chances of getting into the grad school of choice.
Taking a gap year can offer more than just additional experience in a work field. Princeton Review suggests 6 – 10 months of research before narrowing down graduate schools of choice. That translates to a big chunk of a student’s senior year as an undergraduate that will be spent researching graduate schools. Taking a gap year can give prospective graduate students the ability to research while taking a break from education for a year.
Some graduate schools may require a certain number of years of work experience. Although this isn’t common, it can be a prerequisite in some graduate business schools. More commonly, especially among business schools, is the strong recommendation of 1 to 3 years of business work experience. Any work experience, however remotely related to a chosen field of study, should be included on one’s work resume.
Of course, some academic success is necessary in order to get into graduate school. But not all graduate schools are the same. Some schools may accept students with a lower GPA than others. Usually, the more prestigious a graduate school is, the higher the academic requirements. Generally, at least a 2.5 GPA is required to get into graduate school with some schools expecting up to 3.5 for admission.
Raise the GPA
Although graduate schools are now taking a more holistic approach to graduate applicants, displaying glowing academic transcripts can only help one’s chances of being accepted. Some ways to raise a GPA while still an undergraduate are to stay in close communication with professors, take advantage of all support staff and tutoring services, as well as to speak often with advisors. Attending all classes and lectures as well as turning in homework on time and preparing well for exams can help to bring a GPA high enough to apply for graduate school.
Take Extra Classes
Some applicants may choose to take a few stand-alone courses, perhaps during a gap year, that show proficiency in classes that highlight their abilities. Gaining a couple of As in higher-level literature classes, for instance, may show the English department of a graduate school that a student is willing and able to complete higher-level coursework effectively.
Signing up for prerequisites during undergrad years is a great way to prepare for grad school. Most prerequisites for graduate degrees can be taken as part of undergraduate core curriculum requirements. However, if a student finds themselves with a lighter class load, they might consider adding a class that would put them into good stead as a graduate school applicant.
GRE Prep and Scores
Scoring well on the GRE is an important factor when looking to apply to grad school. The myriad of study guides and online aids available for GRE preparation may be a bit overwhelming. Sources that are approved or edited by credible institutions will be more trustworthy as study guides. Also, checking with friends or fellow students who have scored well on the GRE is a good way to discover which study methods work best.
Usually, a GRE score of at least 300 is expected by graduate schools. More prestigious grad schools will look for a higher score that is over 315. However, if your GRE score ends up being less than you had hoped, there are ways to boost the other aspects of an application. Because the GRE score is often weighted as less than half of an application’s strength, other aspects could be emphasized such as work experience, community efforts, research projects, or one’s undergraduate GPA.
The same principles that apply to the GRE also apply to taking the LSAT, MCAT, or GMAT. All standardized tests should be given careful study time and taken as early as possible to allow for the ability to retake the test if necessary as well as make the process less stressful.
Get To Know Professors
An applicant’s letters of recommendation are an important part of a graduate school application so it is always a good idea to gain the confidence of professors while still an undergraduate.
Having stellar letters of recommendation is definitely not the only reason to get to know the professors and mentors that assist one throughout the undergraduate years. There are many other reasons to get to know and assist professors and teachers, not least of which is the fact that these individuals have dedicated their lives to teaching an area of interest and expertise, often for less pay than they have could have garnered elsewhere. This makes teachers a valuable resource since they are invested in the success of their students.
Letters of Recommendation
When compiling letters of recommendation, choose professors or experts who have the most expertise in the field which you are entering. Also, be sure to give them plenty of time. Although many professors will be understanding of a request for a last-minute letter of recommendation, there is no guarantee that they will have the time to fill such a request.
When requesting a letter of recommendation, be sure to include your resume in order to provide a professor with all of the information needed in order to outline your best qualities. It may also be a good idea to let him or her know what is most valuable to the school you are applying to so that they can concentrate on those aspects of your character and education which would be highly regarded.
Sweat the Small Stuff
After a year or more of preparing for graduate school, it may be tempting to neglect the little details that make for an excellent grad school application. Although starting as early in the process as possible gives prospective students the potential time to revise and polish an application, procrastination can still prevent one from finishing applications well.
Taking the time to prepare well for a final interview, revise essays and personal statements, polish resumes, compile a portfolio or take the GRE a second time may be tiring in the short term but pay dividends once safely ensconced in one’s grad school of choice.
Making a list and checking it twice will be of great help in the final process of completing a graduate application in order to make sure nothing important was overlooked.
Check out these tips regarding the application process: