Your first challenge of graduate school is the application process. Applying to grad schools takes time, energy, and organization. Let’s get started right away.
The very first challenge you’ll face as a graduate student is the application process. Applying to grad schools takes time, energy, and organization. Let’s get started right away. After all, you’ve got a lot to do!
The first step, of course, is to select your top grad school picks. You may already have a top choice, a school that offers a reputable program, excellent professors, and an ideal location. Still, it’s a good idea to apply to more than one school. In addition to your top choice, you should select at least two schools that are “safe” choices, as well as one or two that are more of a longshot.
See also: What to look for in a grad school
If your college offers a graduate degree in your discipline, and your undergraduate performance meets their expectations, you would likely be considered a strong applicant.
Equally (or Less) Competitive School
Using your undergraduate 4-year college as a benchmark, consider some grad schools that are equally or less competitive than your undergraduate institution. Presuming you’ve performed well in your undergraduate studies, you would be a strong applicant to schools with comparable admission rates.
Why bother applying to an extremely competitive program that may very well reject you? As the saying goes, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
Requirements may vary from school to school, but there are several common elements to most grad school admission processes:
Be warned that application fees won’t be your only expense. Official transcripts, test scores, reports, and travel will also cost you money.
October—Create your FSA ID and file your FAFSA.
November—Apply for relevant scholarships or grants.
December—Receive your Student Aid Report and use that information, as well as your personal finances and any other grants or scholarships, to determine your overall financial picture for college.
April—Notify the school of your choice that you will be attending.
In order to receive financial aid for the upcoming school year—2020-2021—you will need to file your application by June 30, 2020. You don’t want to wait that long if you can help it. The sooner you can get a realistic view of your financial picture for graduate school, the sooner you can make an informed decision for your future.
Be warned, these tests can be costly. The GRE, for example, costs $160, and it takes several weeks to get your official scores each time. If possible, take your first test at least 18 months before you anticipate beginning graduate school, in order to allow time for retesting if necessary.
Make sure you are prepared for the expense. Don’t let budget constraints saddle you with a lower test score.
Note that transcripts must be official, which means they must be sealed, unopened copies delivered from your institution. If the transcripts are delivered to you directly, do not open them. If opened, transcripts are no longer considered “official” and will not be accepted.
Selection committees go through hundreds or thousands of applications every year. How are you going to stand out from all the rest?
Graduate school admissions are generally more competitive than undergraduate admissions, so it may not be enough to simply have good grades. Most applicants for graduate school are, like you, excellent students who care about receiving a good education.
Your challenge is to grab the attention of a committee that reviews an endless parade of well-qualified applicants. Take every opportunity to make your application reflect who you are as both a student and a person. Emphasize unique life experiences where possible, and demonstrate that, in addition to being an excellent student, you are a well-rounded person who is capable of personal growth.
Simply being an excellent student won’t get you noticed. Excellence is the basic threshold for graduate school. You must compel the selection committee with evidence of your leadership, compassion, boldness, or any other traits that you feel make you an excellent fit for your intended academic community.
In order to speak the language of the selection committee, you must first understand what they are looking for. Try to think of a graduate school selection committee as the manager of an academic fantasy league. They want to build a powerful team with complementary skills and interests.
Selection committees differ from school to school, and even from program to program. You won’t get far by submitting the same essay to every school on your list. Get to know the specific program you are applying to. Find out who the faculty are, what they are looking for, and what they hope to achieve.
The members of the selection committee will have a deep understanding of:
To this last point, you should begin by finding out if the faculty in your field has space for more students. If all the slots in your discipline are taken, this is likely a dealbreaker. Look elsewhere.
On the other hand, if you learn that there is demand for qualified applicants in your department, some preliminary research could tip you off on the best skills and experiences to highlight in your application.
In other words, get to know your audience. You could contact the school directly for more information, or even reach out to current grad students or alumni for tips on how to stand out to the selection committee. Direct outreach is perhaps one of the best, but least used methods, for getting to know what a department is really like.
If you do contact current students, faculty, or alumni, always be respectful of their time. Assume you are reaching out to a busy person. Make contact only if you have something meaningful to say or important to ask.
So again, how do you set yourself apart? How can you shine in what appears to be a somewhat sterile, analytical process? You will have only a few opportunities in your application to share who you are as a person, what matters to you, and what unique skills, abilities, and perspectives you have to share.
You should avoid redundancy. Don’t go overboard with details of your academic or professional experience. That information will be readily available in your transcripts, résumé and CV. Focus on the features that make you uniquely qualified for the intended program.
You’ll also use your personal statement to show the committee how invested you are in attending their school. Identify the reasons you have selected their program, including any influential faculty you aspire to work with, or research interests that align with current projects. Show the committee that you haven’t just chosen their program at random. You have done the research and have concluded that their program can set you on a path to success in your chosen field.
Prepare for your interview by learning more about the program and the department culture. You may interview with just the selection committee, or you may meet with other faculty, or even current students. Your interviewers may not be intimately familiar with the details of your application. Be prepared to discuss your personal background, academic achievements, professional experience, and any challenges you’ve overcome. Show them you have the persistence and tenacity to succeed in their program.
The standard rules of effective interviewing apply here as well. Show up on time, dress professionally, and prepare insightful questions to ask your interviewers. While you are the one being interviewed, this is also a time for you to learn more about the school and your intended program. This is your chance to determine if the program is the right fit for you.
Above all, find a way to be both humble and confident. You certainly want to impress the selection committee with your skills and abilities, but avoid coming across as arrogant or entitled. Also take note that interviews may represent an additional expense. Interviewing schools rarely cover travel costs. Attending your interviews in person is, however, worth the investment. This demonstrates that you are serious and committed, and it gives you the best chance to make a lasting impression on the selection committee.
You have something special that they don’t have, and that thing is you. Your unique talents, experiences, and perspectives have much to add to their program, but they won’t know that unless you show them.
Move to the top of the selection committee’s list by humbly exhibiting the following traits:
Now that you know what to expect from the application process, you’re ready to begin your search for the perfect graduate school. Get started by researching the most influential graduate schools in the world, or begin your search by finding the most influential schools in your discipline.
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