Congratulations! You’ve just made the exciting decision to apply to grad school! Now, it’s time to think about how to make yourself competitive, and how to prepare a strong application. Since there are many types of programs out there, the specifics will vary. But what we’ll discuss here are some solid basics that nearly all programs want to see. Of course, this is only a starting point; you still should do your research to learn the specifics about the particular program(s) you want.
Things to consider when applying to graduate school
There are a number of things to consider to make yourself competitive. First and foremost, what are the prerequisites? Yes, there are obvious coursework requirements, but do you need to have volunteer hours and experience, clinical hours, or research experience? Without prerequisites, you can’t even be considered for a program, let alone hope to be a competitive applicant.
Although this might not be a hard and fast number, something else to consider is where your GPA falls in the range of accepted applicants. Schools want to see that you can handle the rigor of graduate academics. Getting good grades will certainly set you up to be a good candidate, but it is not the end all be all. If your GPA isn’t where you would like it to be, don’t fret. Benchmarking your GPA merely tells you that other parts of your application may need to be stronger. (NOTE: Some programs do have strict GPA cut offs. If you are worried about your GPA, talk with a career adviser or faculty mentor).
Make a game plan
Use your summers to gain experiences or to fulfill experience prerequisites for the program. If your GPA isn’t where you would like it to be, consider a post-bac program to show you can handle the rigor of graduate work.
If you are hoping to go to graduate school right after graduation, you should start thinking about and making a game plan for your application cycle by midway through your junior year (even earlier for some programs with long application cycles). It’s important to know due dates and if there are multiple rounds of the application process, how they work, and when they occur.
When considering your application game plan, you want to think about a few things. Are there any required standardized tests? Between studying, taking the test, getting your scores, and potentially re-taking the test, you should start this process several months in advance of the application due date.
Plan ahead for your essays
For your essays, you want at least a career adviser, faculty mentor, and friend to read over your writing. Block in a few weeks for reviews and revisions. Finally, you’ll want to know how many letters of recommendations are required and what kind they are. Maybe your program wants a professional, non-academic letter.
Do you have a writer in mind? Do your recommenders want to read your essays before they write your letters? You should give your recommenders at least a month’s notice to write you a letter, and if they want to read your essays for letter content, then you need to plan so that your essays are done in time for your recommenders. While these considerations may seem like a lot, they will allow you to plan effectively and avoid unnecessary stress in an already anxiety-inducing process. Knowing what you need to do and when you need to do it will ensure that you put together the strongest application possible.
Know your why
As you begin preparing for grad school, know your audience and know your why. Why graduate study and why that graduate school?
Put together a cohesive argument, citing your various experiences, about why you want to pursue advanced study. Doing so will strengthen your essays and interviews (if your program has them), and will allow you to make a strong case for why you are a good investment in the school’s time (and in some cases, money).
Nothing is more valuable than talking to a faculty mentor in your intended field of study, doing your research, and meeting with a career adviser. It may seem like a lot, but you can do it! If you breathe, make a plan, and clearly define your goals, then you’re already halfway there.