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Grad School 101

Candice Chapman and Cindy Bennett

Applying for college is always a bit tedious whether it is for an undergraduate or graduate program. Graduate programs, however, have a few more nuances that you might not have considered. Keep reading to find out about parts of the graduate school application process that are mildly important.

Selecting Programs: First, you need to select programs that fit you. Just because a university is recognizable does not mean that they have a graduate program that fits your interests. Talk to the faculty at your alma mater, or look on the websites of professional organizations within your field to find graduate programs that fit your interests. For example, if you are interested in becoming a clinical psychologist, it is probably in your best interest to look on the American Psychological Association’s website for a list of accredited clinical psychology Ph.D. programs. If you are interested in becoming a licensed clinical social worker and you plan to work with clients, you should probably find programs with internship programs that fulfill at least a majority of the supervision hours required before you can sit for the licensure exam and practice unsupervised. Beyond that, graduate programs within a discipline vary greatly. For example, if you are interested in genetics, be sure that graduate biology programs you apply to have faculty with strong backgrounds and research interests in genetics. Sure, you won’t know exactly what you want to research or focus on, or which population you want to work with in grad school, but make sure that the programs you apply for provide options for you that you are fairly confident you will be happy pursuing.
Try to learn the culture of the departments you apply for. This can be difficult without visiting, but there are a few things you can do. If your program is research intensive, it is very important that you peruse the research interests and research publications of the department’s faculty. Sometimes, the prompt for the personal statement/letter of intent will ask you to indicate which faculty you want to work with and why. You should read the web pages of each faculty member and contact the professors you are interested in learning more about. It is important that you personalize these emails and format them as formal correspondences. Professors can easily pick out who is spamming the entire department. They can also figure out whether you read their website. Often, if a faculty member detects that you are serious about the program, they will reply. Sometimes, it takes a couple of email attempts to get a reply. You should not be offended by this as faculty members’ first responsibilities are with their current students, courses, and research projects. If I have not heard from a professor, I email them the exact same message. I do not insert any clauses about attempting to correspond before or about the delay in hearing from them. Often, they will not have even seen the message, but seeing the same recipient and subject line pop up again in their inbox will trigger that they did not get a chance to respond the first time. Contacting faculty ahead of time can be good for networking purposes but also for learning snippets about the department’s culture. It is important to learn the admission process for each department. For example, some departments only admit qualified applicants whose research interests align with a faculty member who has room to take students. this means that you not only need to make sure your program has faculty members researching work relevant to your interests, but that they are actually taking students for the upcoming academic year. Other programs admit qualified students despite faculty interests and students choose an advisor a short time after joining the program. Finally, learning the culture of a department can be important for funding reasons. Some departments offer Research Assistantships with the intent that you work on a faculty member’s project. Other departments are open to students choosing their own project that does not exactly align with the faculty member’s interests. Both situations can be advantageous, but it is important to know. If the culture of a program is such that you can work on your own project, you may need to be more proactive in getting the mentorship from faculty that you need. Vice versa, if a program is such that you are tied to a professor’s project, it might be in your best interest to obtain outside funding so you can work on your own projects, or be proactive in connecting with the professors whose projects you want to work on and start building those relationships so you are more likely to get an opportunity to work on a project that you want to work on. In any case, graduate programs differ depending on their faculty and culture and it is important to consider the differences among programs within a discipline to learn what fits you best and which program will nurture you to become a master in your field of study.

Application: The application for a graduate program can be long and multi-layered. Make sure that you not only check with the main graduate school but also your specific program. Details that may be unique to your program can sometimes only be found there. Deadlines, additional documents, and pertinent faculty information is exclusive to each individual program. Cover all your bases and check all possible outlets for application information.

Graduate entrance exams: The majority of graduate programs require an entrance exam. This can include the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), the GMAT, or the LSAT. The general GRE is sometimes all that is required, however some Master’s programs and Doctoral programs require a little more. In addition to the general GRE, there are also subject area tests such as Psychology. You’ll want to be sure to find out from the program you’re applying to whether or not you’ll need to take the subject test or not.

Statement of Purpose/Letter of Intent: This is the center point of your application. This letter or statement will tell the selection committee why they should admit you to their program. This is your time to shine! Think outside the box on this one. The committee already knows their program is awesome. You wouldn’t be applying for it if it weren’t. I advise you to do what most people won’t; get a little personal with your letter and tell the committee why you’re passionate about what you want to do, and how getting this degree will help achieve those passions. You’ll definitely still want to include all of the things your program dictates you should, but hook them with something unique, interesting, personal, heartfelt, funny; anything that will set you apart from the hundreds of other applicants. Don’t forget to litter your essay with buzz words your program includes on their website, on the application, and especially on the prompt for the statement.

Letters of Recommendation: Your letters of recommendation are second to your personal statement/letter of intent. It is paramount that you get faculty from your alma mater or work supervisors to write good letters about you. One rule of thumb taught to me by a previous professor was to get real. Talk to your recommenders in person. Their letter is serious, and if you are serious, you should meet with them in person If possible. Further, don’t just ask them if they can write you a letter. Anyone can write you a letter. Ask them if they will write you a good letter of recommendation. You might want to send them drafts of your personal statement/letter of intent so they know what the program wants to know about you. They can reiterate the same themes you are highlighting in the rest of your application. Insuring that a common theme of passion ties your application together will make your packet of materials more easily memorable. Oh, and ask your recommenders well in advance—at least a month—before the due date. It is your responsibility to remind them and to make sure they have all of the materials they need to write your letter whether it be a copy of your CV/resume, your personal statement/letter of intent, or a copy of the essay prompt. I always sent recommenders a copy of the paragraph accompanying that section of the application indicating what the committee wants to learn from recommenders.

CV/Resume: There is no way your personal statement/letter of intent can include everything you have ever done. And realistically, your CV/resume shouldn’t either. However, your CV/resume allows you a limited opportunity to highlight other parts of you that shine. It is well worth your time to format your CV/resume to fit as much material about you as is appropriate. You should also format each CV/resume, and each application as a whole, to fit the program. If in one program you want to work with a faculty member who focuses on genetics that research experience should be near the top. If you are applying for a counseling program, your practicum should be near the top.

Talk to The Experts: Grad students are resourceful. After all, we did write this article because we got in to grad school. Ask to read current grad students’ essays. Trust me, we save them! Current grad students are passionate about graduate school and want to assist others with the process. Even if the grad students you know are in a different program, the structure and sophistication of their personal statement/letter of intent will be something to pay attention to. Of course, if you can network within your desired department ahead of time, or get advice from graduate students in similar programs, that is always ideal. When you learn new concepts in class, you always read about examples before attempting the material on your own. So, why not look at successful graduate students’ applications?

Outside Funding: Wait, what? I thought scholarships were for undergrads! False. If your desired program is affluent enough to grant you funding, outside funding can bolster your experience by funding at a higher rate than your Research Assistantship. But if you live in the real world, your program probably can’t afford you, at least not fully. There are plenty of scholarships designed specifically for graduate students. Two notable fellowships are awarded from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. You should be proactive about finding outside funding. Often, these programs are available for current grad students, but why not start applying for them before you are in graduate school? Applications for graduate fellowships should be taken as seriously as your grad school applications, so all of the above advice is completely applicable.

Please keep in mind that all this wonderful information is generalized. You’ll still want to do your research thoroughly on what your program requires. Think of this article as a checklist once you’ve begun your research. Best of luck applying to grad school! We hope you get in!