ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT THE POSTGRAD AGENDA
Applying to graduate school can be a scary and rocky process (trust me, I'm in the middle of it now). Among all of the reading and communicating I've done with others about what it takes to get yourself into grad school, I've noticed four overarching themes. While not the only important factors to consider, these four are certain to get you on the right track:
1. Prepare Early. Do not wait until your senior year to seek out internships, jobs, or begin conducting research in your field. Many graduate programs (especially at the doctoral level) want to see an experienced and motivated applicant who has sought prior opportunities to study, work and learn! When you begin working/researching and how long you’ve been doing it for communicates a lot about you as a student to the program. I began as a Research Assistant in a lab fall semester of my junior year, and volunteered for two separate jobs in a nearby school.
2. Network. Not just through friends and family, but through professors. At big and small schools alike, many professors are surprisingly approachable and wish they would see more students in their office. They are not only a great source of information, but often they can help you in additional ways. You will need letters of recommendation from faculty for most, if not all, graduate programs. Allowing yourself to become a familiar face around faculty will help you greatly come application time. My research professor not only wrote letters of recommendation for me, but also mentored me through the application process, and even got me connected with someone who gave me valuable classroom experience for a year. You also never know if a professors has connections at your graduate programs.
3. Plan your finances. Understand that graduate school can be very expensive. The first thing to consider is if your preferred career requires a higher degree. If it would not benefit your career to acquire a higher degree, take that into consideration before committing yourself. Even so, often a graduate degree can make you a more desirable candidate in today’s job market. Secondly, consider the tuition cost and number of years of each program. Tuition rates vary greatly and it’s important not to assume that a program is in or out of your budget. Find out what types of aid your programs offer. It is not uncommon for programs at the doctoral level to cover some or all of your tuition in exchange for an assistantship or fellowship. About half of the doctoral programs I’m applying to offer some form of financial aid. Two offer full tuition remission.
4. Make a timeline. And stick to it. When you finalize your list of schools, create a table or spreadsheet listing all the deadlines, application materials, etc.. I’ve created a basic template on Google Docs that you can see here. You can create columns for anything you deem important to you. Use this table to figure out which programs might require more time and effort, so you can begin working on those applications sooner. Stick with the plan, but don’t be discouraged if you have to stray a little. It happens! Just stay focused and get yourself applied. Some of my application submissions have come unnervingly close to the deadlines due to setbacks. Avoid this by applying early and laying out a timeline!
These are just four of the many aspects of the application process that I’ve experienced. It’s important that you do more research on the process and (like #2 suggests) talk to people about it! Share your experiences and questions, because people have a lot to learn from one another, and if there's any time to ask for help, it's now!