So you’re thinking about applying to graduate school. After attending (and graduating) graduate school myself, here are the tips and advice I have about the application process!
1) Figuring out if you want to attend in the first place
First off, you have to actually decide to attend graduate school or not. I know that this seems like a duh! statement, but you have to think about whether or not graduate school is right for you and vice versa!
Do you want to jump in right after your undergraduate, or would you rather wait a year or too? Do you actually need to get one right away? How are you going to pay for it? What program are you looking at entering and what are their requirements? Is there a research aspect to your program? If so, do you have possible research ideas?
These are all important questions that need answering before you start the rest of the process!
In my case, I needed to have at least a master’s degree to be able to practice forensic anthropology. I knew that if I didn’t go right after finishing my bachelor’s, I probably wasn’t going to go at all (I would have found something else to do). But now I’m here with a master’s degree and I don’t have a job in my field of choice. Which isn’t the worst thing, but because I want to pay off my student loans before I consider going back to school for my PhD, I’ve had to switch gears so-to-speak to have some form of income.
Graduate school isn’t for everyone, and that’s ok! You can always do it later on in life. You just have to be sure you want to do it in the first place.
2) Starting your research
So you decided to attend. Great! Now what?
You start researching schools of course! You need to find schools that have your program and start narrowing them down. Don’t want to move far away? Narrow down your search to your state and possibly neighboring states. A certain size school? Same thing. Figure out what you want out of your graduate program and find schools that meet your needs.
Once you’ve done this, you can start getting details for each school. Each school and program will have their own set of deadlines and requirements for admission. Generally speaking, graduate school admissions will be different than undergraduate admissions. Individual programs may also require specific things on top of the standard graduate school requirements. Find them, read them, learn them.
Don’t forget about international programs either! Coming from someone who attended (and graduated) from a graduate school abroad, I would highly recommend. BUT make sure to do your research first! Not all programs will transfer back to the US, so be careful. And living that far away from home isn’t for everyone, so be sure to consider that as well.
3) The GRE
When I was applying to graduate school, I was required to take the GRE. Some programs don’t require it, while others require a different exam altogether. Carefully read your program’s admission requirements and plan accordingly. I’ll just be going over my experience with it.
Now the GRE may seem scary, but I promise it isn’t that bad. If you buy a prep book, they generally come with an online resource where you can take practice exams, or you can try our luck and search for free ones online.
The GRE costs about $200 to take, and is made up of 3 sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. You can think of the verbal reasoning section as the reading section. It primarily focuses on vocabulary and analyzing reading material. It is important to know that graduate schools will generally focus more on this section’s score than the others as it demonstrates a larger vocabulary and reading ability, but they are all important. The quantitative reasoning section is all about math. Thankfully basic math like algebra and geometry, but since I hadn’t taken a math course in college since my freshman year, I had to brush up on my geometry quite a bit. The analytical writing section is more straightforward. It’s testing your ability to write clearly and effectively.
I won’t go into detail about scoring, as each individual program weighs your scores differently – some programs will focus more on your score while some will put less of a focus on it as a means for admission. This means that for some, a low score won’t impact your admission decision while for others it most definitely would.
4) Recommendation letters
I’ll be honest. Getting recommendation letters was a real pain. I have no problems with the rest of the application process, mainly because if something went wrong, it was all on me. But coordinating several people to submit nice letters about you to multiple places and multiple formats was a real pain in the butt. Generally speaking, schools will require around 3 recommendation letters. I think I had one school only ask for 2, but 3 seemed to be the standard.
Finding people to write your letters might seem a little awkward, but I assure you, most professors (especially those of higher-level courses) have done this many times before. Make sure you find professors in your major, preferably of courses that you actually did well. Aside from that, make sure they know who you are. Email them, sit in front of class, answer and ask questions. Don’t just be another face in the crowd.
I approached professors early on in the semester. That way they have a suitable amount of time to get to know you and write a letter for you. Once I had three or four say they would be happy to do it, I made sure to email them each a list of schools I was applying to and their respective submission deadlines, my resume/CV and a personal letter so they could know a bit more about me, and instructions on how to actually send their letters to the schools.
Most schools allow you to submit them online by entering in your professors email addresses. The school will then get a link to upload it on their own time. In the event a school needs a letter mailed to them, bring your professor a pre-stamped and addressed envelope. That way, they don’t have to run around looking for envelopes, stamps and the send to address.
Make sure you stay on top of their progress. I can’t emphasize this enough. You might feel like you don’t want to bother them, but occasionally approach them and remind them of the deadline. When my professors submitted their letters, I can see that in my application status pages on each school’s website. If I saw that the deadline was coming up and a letter still hasn’t been submitted, I made sure to send them a polite email reminding them that the deadline was approaching and that if they needed anything from me to please let me know. Once all the letters were submitted, I gave each professor a small gift of thanks (a stress relief candle with a thank you card).
5) Actually applying
When I was applying, I purchased a small notebook where I made my application checklist: I wrote down the school, its application deadline, requirements (GRE scores, # of recommendation letters, resume/CV, etc.), and fees that needed to be paid. I made sure to check off the things I completed. This really helped me keep track of the whole process. While it might not sound like a lot to keep track of, when you have 8 schools you are applying to and they each have different requirements, things can get confusing really quick.
Juggling all of the required materials seems complicated, but it really isn’t. You just need to be sure that you have taken or have scheduled to take your GRE when you go to submit your application. Also make sure to approach professors long enough ahead of time so that they can get to know you and see how you do in their course, and still have time to write and submit their letters before the application deadlines.
I know that all of this seems daunting, but it really isn’t. I did this over the course of my last 3 semesters, which is plenty of time to research, plan and arrange everything you need to apply for graduate school. Good luck with your own application process!
Have any other tips you think I should add or anything you want to ask?
Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!