Getting Into Graduate School: 101

Graduate school applications. The bane of any social science or humanities student’s existence. For you undergraduates pursuing a degree that more or less mandates an additional two to four years of graduate education, pull up a chair and grab a drink, because this is for you, and let me tell you – it isn’t going to be fun or easy.

Before we get into this, let’s talk about my qualifications. For one, I am not a college advisor or academic counselor. I am merely a senior in college who managed to get into a flagship ACC doctorate program in Organizational Behavior with my out-of-state tuition fully paid for and a generous assistantship stipend, and my funding is guaranteed for four years (as in, money’s in the bank and it has my name on it.) So, I think I did something right in this entire process, and I want to share that with my fellow P’neers who are interested in pursuing an education at the graduate level.

If you’re going to graduate school, or are at least thinking about it, the time to act is now. When thinking about this column, I broke down the graduate school application process into five steps:

  • Preparing during undergrad (1. Academics, 2. Extra curriculars)
  • Researching schools
  • Taking the GRE/GMAT/LSAT/MCAT/whatever
  • Applying
  • Interviews

And honestly, that first one? Preparing as an undergraduate? Is the most important part of the entire process. Whether you’re only considering it or definitely planning to pursue a graduate degree, you need to start now. If you change your mind, the actions you took in preparation for building up a great record of achievement to make you a good graduate school candidate will make you an awesome job applicant; therefore, there is no reason to not prepare as though you’re planning to go to graduate school, even if you’re not positive about that decision.

Also, you’ll notice this first step, preparing during undergrad, is broken into to categories: academics and extra curriculars. This week I’m going to talk about the academic side of your undergraduate career, and next week I’ll be talking about all the extra stuff.

The first thing to do is tailor your academics to your preferred area of study. While you might not be positive about the exact program you want to go into, you should at least have an idea of what you want to do – communication studies, psychology, sociology, history, etc. Obviously, pick your major in one of those areas, but also select a minor or a concentration, and if you think you have the constitution to do so, consider a double major. In my undergraduate university, it’s completely feasible to graduate in four years with a communications studies and a political science degree. These are things you could definitely talk to your advisor about, as they would have a better idea of how strenuous the course loads would be for your selected majors.

Along with that goes considering your classes. When I was a freshman, I wrote out my ideal schedule for my entire undergraduate career with my course catalog and degree requirements. Obviously things had to move around based on class availability and such, but overall I stuck to the same schedule. I was sure to select classes that would teach me theory and skills related to my preferred graduate study. While Abnormal Psych would have been super-interesting, it was not relevant to my preferred field of organizational behavior; so, I took Personality Psychology instead. Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t take courses just because they’re interesting, but if your schedule looks anything like mine did, sleep and free time sounded a whole lot better than doing work for a class that was supposed to be fun.

Everyone in the entire world ever is expected to take general education classes and electives; these are things a lot of students don’t think about when considering graduate school, but they can actually be pretty important. When selecting your general education classes, pick ones that relate to your major. If you’re a sociology major, don’t take British Lit for your upper-level English class, take business or technical writing (because you can expect to be writing a good number of research and scientific papers), or take something related to your research interests in your major, such as Latin-American Literature or a class on female writers.

When selecting your electives, pick classes in your minor or major that aren’t necessarily required but would add to your body of knowledge. For example, I’m a human resource management minor and I’m only required to take six particular management classes, some of which I can choose from a list, but there are about twenty I can take with my minor. I used up my elective credits taking those classes, because they would add to my knowledge and skill set, as well as give me more interaction with professors in my field, thus more time to build a relationship with them.

I know we have quite a few Persephoneers who have gone to graduate school, are in graduate school, or teach at the graduate level. What say you all about the academic side of undergraduate education and its relationship to graduate school? Also, if anyone has any questions about graduate school that you’d like for me to address in this series, feel free to post them and I will try to get to them in my next columns!

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43 replies on “Getting Into Graduate School: 101”

Can you provide some more information about your major and where you went to/will be going to school? Your advice is good but appears to be specific to your field. For example, not all schools/majors require interviews at the application level, or ever.

Ok, so I know this is a little late, but I was wondering how screwed I am. I’m just finishing up my sophomore year as an undergraduate Anthropology major with a Theatre minor, and I’m hovering around a B-C GPA. Which is bad because I’m capable of A work and I need to go to graduate school. However, I also just got diagnosed with ADD, which makes total sense and should help with getting my grades back up once I get all the medication and the coping skills down. Right now I’m looking at being a five-year senior and I’ve got two years of messing up my GPA to fix. I’m kind of terrified that these first two years will make grad schools pass over me for other students with better starts and more obvious motivation. What can I do damage control wise and how screwed am I exactly?

The Bs and Cs will not hurt your chances of getting into grad school unless those courses are in your major, and the ADD is neither here nor there; if it’s preventing you from getting better grades in undergrad, it will provide the same obstacles in grad school. Try not to mention it to advisor-types if you can.

I completely tanked my first semester – to the tune of a C average – and I managed to improve my GPA to magna cum laude. Many schools, while your cumulative GPA is important, also consider your major GPA and your upperclassmen GPA, which is your GPA from your junior and senior years, which is your GPA after 60 credits.

My poor first semester was due to me not liking my first major, and this was something I explained in my personal statement, but I mentioned it because there was an obvious disparity in my grades that semester and the other semesters as well as the classes I took that semester versus others. I think, if I were you, I would not mention it unless you’re personally asked about it. And then, if you are asked, I would be honest. You’re better off telling them about your struggles up front so they know you’ll need help than being halfway into your first semester and you’re floundering and they don’t know why.

Relevant to my life!
I’m a junior with a triple major in neuroscience, child development, and psychology. My biggest problem right now is that while I love neuroscience and have research advisors that think I’m awesome, I’m so-so in my general science classes. (I’m retaking one class right now. I’m possibly failing one this semester. (In my defense, exam averages in each class hover around 50%.) I generally rock everything else.)

My end goal is medical school. (Ridiculous considering that I’m probably failing a class this semester. Again: Not entirely my fault. I’d be way more upset about this if I thought it had something to do with my study habits or intelligence.)

Anyway, my current dilemma: What do I do next? I’m not planning on applying to medical school right away. I don’t think I’d get in right now. I know that I could walk into the neuroscience Master’s program at my school. (It’s all that research love.) But do I want to do that? Or should I delay graduation a year to retake classes and take a few more classes bump my GPA back up? Or should I try to work? (Ha. Michigan.) I need an academic advisor that will tell me what to do with my life.

Does anyone have any advice?

I’m delurking for this, because I broke a ton of rules in my graduate application. And hey, I might as well start with a really long post. So, hi!

I graduated with a BS in Biology in 2007 – and had no clue what to do with it. So, I went and joined AmeriCorps as part of the Washington Conservation Corps. When I was ready to go back to school in 2010, I wasn’t sure in what besides ecology, and the Masters of Public Administration was starting to sound pretty awesome. I had a chat with the admissions staff at my school of choice about my interests, and decided to register as a graduate non-matriculated student for seven credits in the School of Public Affairs. (I used my AmeriCorps scholarship, so it was free. Yay!)

While taking classes at that school, I applied to the Masters of Science in Forestry program. I was accepted last month, so I’m now enjoying the early prep phase of grad school while applying to the MPA program proper. I received a lot more support from the school during the process, as I was a known student with a proven track record.

What amazed me was that most people don’t even know that this option exists, or even works. I have since confirmed from a number of professors and admissions staff that GNM time is often used as a test for students who aren’t showing quite the credentials they prefer. I’m unusual in that my application was considered fairly strong – my biology degree is ecology-focused – but I used the credits as an extra push.

The major caveats:
-I applied relatively late, and into forestry at that, so I’m losing the summer to researching funding sources.
-GNM credits can be quite expensive (they’re easy money for the school). I picked the more expensive of my two programs, so it wasn’t as bad a blow, but be warned.

This is all good advice. I would add (as an engineering PhD student, your mileage may vary):
-Do a senior research project if at all possible! This is the #1 thing you can do to get an advantage in a competitive program and get funding. Success in grad school correlates with research ability more than grades in undergrad and GRE scores, and most professors know this.
-I’m curious to see where this “extracurriculars” comes in. I honestly would tell people at least in programs like mine that those are your last priority and just icing on the applications process cake. Most STEM fields have little interest in you being a well-rounded person. Sorry. This could be very different from liberal arts, I’m not sure.

This is a wonderful point. By FAR the most important thing about grad school is research (I’m a final year PhD in International Studies, though I did history for undergrad) – especially if you want to do a PhD, and even more so if you want to do a PhD in Europe where there are far fewer class/exam stages and you’re expected to dive right into the research. The experience of researching and writing my senior thesis during undergrad was absolutely the best possible preparation for the PhD, even though it was a different discipline. If you can do this at undergrad level, whether by a thesis or through an independent study, by all means do it.

It’s a hell of a lot more important for a PhD programme than having been president of a club, you’re right. Extracurriculars meant nothing for me getting into my MPhil and PhD programmes. All they cared about were whether I could conduct top-class research and whether I could write about it well.

I’m actually including research as part of the extracurriculars section, because it is not strictly academic, as in taking classes, writing papers, getting grades. There is no “class time,” and there are a lot of outside-of-campus things you would have to be involved in, like presenting research at conferences and such.

Extracurriculars are a smaller portion, obviously, but I still think they are an important part of your education. And, my point about them is to not be like “Be in everything!” but to be in one thing, because the dedication it shows to belong to a single organization and rise up through it over your years in college shows a fortitude that simply getting good grades doesn’t. But I don’t want to give it all away! So we’ll talk about it next week :)

Oh okay, gotcha. I completely agree with research related extracurriculars. I think the real line, as you mention, is between “I’m in all the clubs” vs. “I’m very passionate about breakdancing/gardening/skydiving/etc so I find time to excel in it”. The former is useless to actually detrimental, the latter shows something potentially interesting about your character.

I’m finishing my PhD in English and, let me tell you, my undergrad education, while excellent by any standards (Ivy League), did not prepare me for what my discipline actually means on a professional level. I basically had to relearn how to come up with arguments and play major catch-up with theory.

Oh man, if this series could have started six months ago! Currently waiting to hear back any day for a few MA theology programs. If this column could cover all the basics, that’d be great. Most things I found online were either completely unhelpful or geared towards Harvard/Yale/etc with forums full of people just bragging about their GREs and GPAs and oh how much research they’ve done. Ugh.

Ugh, grad school. I graduated from undergrad 2 years ago and have been putting off grad school. The one piece of advice I have gotten from every graduate student I know is don’t go to grad school til you know its absolutely what you want to do. I haven’t even cracked open my GRE book. If I can’t muster the excitement for that there is no way I can write a dissertation.

Also I was originally a bio major and flunked out of my classes before I switched to Anthro. I got all A’s and B’s in those classes. Will my horrible grades from my first year and a half of bio classes affect my grad school apps? I’ve am currently working in my field (anthro/archaeology) in hopes that my work experience will make my grad school apps awesome

It is true – you should not commit yourself to this unless you are sure. As far as the GRE goes, well. I studied a week before it. Got a 1300. Just read all the tips in the book, really – they are very helpful.

Work experience will definitely be great, as will having good test scores, to help counterbalance your poor grades at the beginning. I mean, my first semester in Comp Sci resulted in a C average, haha. It obviously didn’t hurt, though, because I got into the exact program I wanted along with half of the others I applied to, and I do think it’s because I excelled in the classes related to the major I am graduating with. I think it would be very important to explain the tough first couple semesters in Bio in your personal statement – explain that it wasn’t because you were lazy or whatever, that it was because you were unhappy with your major and couldn’t do well etc.

No way, you are totally NOT screwed. Many grad programs happily accept people from different majors. If often indicates a different way of looking at things, different backgrounds, and general intellectual diversity which is seen as good thing.

Obviously there are some exceptions to this rule and it depends on which fields you want to move between, but especially in the “soft” sciences (humanities and social sciences) this happens all the time. It can be no problem at worst, a good thing at best. Even those students who are majors as an undergraduate are often not prepared for the highly specialized, complex work and research at the graduate level.

Not necessarily. Depending on your situation it could be neutral, a disadvantage, or even sometimes an advantage. Often times if you have a strong academic record it is not a problem. The only time I can see it being a big issue is if you have a bachelors in English and are looking to do a graduate degree in physics, or something else very different. But English->Anthro or Bio->Physics, for example, is quite doable.

Totally not. I mean, I’m a psych major going into human resources. Granted, I did skew my classes towards human resources by being an HR minor, but really, if you can show your knowledge of whatever field you’re interested in going to grad school for and demonstrate how your undergrad degree will be applicable to the field, I think you will be fine. As the other commenters mentioned, it’s particularly easy in softer sciences – English or history to sociology, sociology or psychology to anthropology, etc. If you can show the relationship between the two and show how your background makes you a good candidate, then go for it. Bringing a different perspective to the department is something good grad programs will do, because it prevents stagnation in research ideas and groupthink.

It’s also never too late to go back to school after some time away. Sometimes taking a break from school really clarifies your long-term career interests. I did four years in undergrad, a one year post-grad college certificate, and then worked for 3 years. Now I’m going back to school in September at UofT for my masters in a field I didn’t even know existed when I was in undergrad.

If a college student followed your advice to the tee, I think they’d be in really good shape when it came time to apply to grad school.

However, I also want to offer a slightly different perspective. Like you, I am about to start an MA+PhD program (albeit in English), with good funding. However, I started off as a science major, then switched to a different science major, then added on English as a second major in my junior year. I didn’t decide to apply to graduate school until about a year ago, when I was a senior. Thus, even though I too “wrote out my ideal schedule for my entire undergraduate career with my course catalog and degree requirements”, my “ideal schedule” changed a lot. Similarly, most people I know from college switched majors, and about half of them are going to grad school or medical school now. So, while I think your advice is pretty much perfect for the people that start college knowing they want to do grad school in a certain subject, I’d like to remind people that it’s fine to change plans.

Other advice: if you have the optional opportunity to do a senior thesis or an independent study, do it. You can use the resulting paper(s) as your writing sample(s), and it’s just fun in general. Also, if you are shy like me, consider taking 2+ classes from the same professor so you have more time to get to know them before asking them to write you a letter of recommendation.

I started out in Comp Sci, so my ideal schedule changed when I switched my major end of freshman year. I went from planning to get a Masters in software engineering to… a Ph.D. in org behavior, haha. Which wasn’t even what I thought I would be doing when I started applying, for reasons I will explain later in the “applying” section.

Y’all are making me want to give away my entire series just in the comments section!

Question about applying.

I’m a U.S citizen that graduated high school and went to community college for 2 years with a 4.0 GPA. Then transfered to university in the U.K where I will hopefully graduate within 2 years. I never took the SAT’s or ACT’s because I wasn’t planning on going to college.

I now want to go to graduate school but I’m curious about my credit transfers. If I apply to U.S schools will I need to go back and take the SAT/ACT’s?

As far as I know, SAT/ACT’s aren’t used in grad school applications. For MA and PhD programs, it’s the GRE, and then there’s the GMAT and the MCAT and the LSAT blah blah blah for professional schools. So, hopefully you won’t need to take the SAT/ACT.

Good to know. I haven’t started to do any research on qualifications because it seems like the application time is so far away.

I ultimately want to go study in Germany, but if that doesn’t pan out then I will apply for the U.K and back to the U.S.

If you ultimately want to study in Germany then I’d suggest looking at entry criteria there soon. The university degree system only changed recently and while most have adjusted to a bachelor/master/PhD structure the result has just been confusing.
Criteria will vary between schools and programmes but I can almost promise you that they will not require SAT/GRE tests. I’ve only ever applied as a German national and criteria is usually different for foreign students and degrees from abroad.

Try looking at prerequisite credit points in certain subjects, material you have to have covered etc. and become familiar with the different credit point scales (e.g. the UK one is different from the European ECATS one)

Thanks. I think I’ll spend this weekend researching requirements for post grad studies.

A lot of the German university websites list their post grad requirements for International students all in German. My German is very basic and that’s why I plan to start studying it academically next semester to ensure I can pass the language entrance exams.

Add-on: depending on what kind of program you go into, you may have the option of taking the GRE or the MCAT, I’ve heard it’s better to take the GRE and not the MCAT. I have many friends who took both (planning to get into med school and didn’t) and said the GRE is far easier to score better on unless you’re BioChem/Neuroscience, etc, and more applicable if you decide to change your mind.

Can you talk about how to find graduate programs or decide whether to go at all? I’m also a college senior, forgoing grad school for the time being, but I’m not sure how to go about researching programs I might be interested in. (This is both on the level of “which school is good for this discipline?” and “what does ‘x studies’ actually encompass?”)

Personally, I asked professors, researched specialties of the universities in the places I would like to move, emailed potential programs, kinda general stuff like that. I ended up at the same university I did my undergrad because I had a strong professional network already (that, and the one school I wanted to go to lost everything except my application and blamed me).

As hiphophooray the best way to get a graduate school plan started is to talk to your professors. To make the process most efficient, talk to those who have most recently left graduate school as they are best prepared to discuss current conditions. Many of the older faculty went to grad school under very different economic and other circumstances. Also, if you can talk to those professors who teach classes in areas you think you would like to research, that can be even more helpful. Even if you have never taken a class with a professor, many are happy to help guide you to begin the process.

As a dual degree graduate student (JD/Clinical Psych PhD), I feel somewhat qualified to talk about this subject. When it comes to academics, look to your desired graduate programs. For example, psychology graduate programs, regardless of field (usually) are going to require statistics. Be one step better, take as many psych statistics classes you can. Also, diversify yourself. Being one-note is not always a positive.

If you’re planning on law school, it doesn’t really matter what your undergrad major was. Pre-law is no more a benefit than chemistry. If you want to go the intellectual property route, see if your desired field requires an advanced degree. For example, you may need an engineering BS or even a MS.

From my application process, I noticed that GPA and standardized test scores are most important. If you don’t meet the minimum criteria, your app will get tossed before they even read your resume, statement of intent, or letters of recommendation.

I agree with this all, but particularly the importance of GPA and GRE scores. For example, in my field, the cut off for Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Indiana is a combined GRE score of 1400. Research One State schools often require a combined score of 1000-1200. I think that this is a means of weeding out applications when a school with 2 spots in their Ph.D program each year gets piles of applications. But it is good to know what you should be aiming for in terms of the GRE/GMAT and it also helps you be realistic. I have seen a lot of people kid themselves and consequently spend a lot of money on school applications which were tossed due to a lower GRE score or GPA.

Additionally, and I cannot stress this enough, go somewhere with a program suited to your research interests. For me, all of the research in my subdiscipline is being conducted at R-1 public institutions, so that is where I went for my Masters degree. Likewise, for the Ph.D, I had the opportunity to work with a fantastic scholar in my field, near all three archives I require for my diss. research and with a good funding package. While my education won’t have the cache of an Ivy League one necessarily, I believe very strongly that the guidance, opportunities, and financial support I have here are hugely beneficial.

I’m definitely going to get into finding programs where your research interests align. The bottom line is, what you do with your education speaks worlds. You take someone who got into a good state B-school program who did ALL THE THINGS and took every opportunity they had to research and flourish in the field, and compare it to the person who, sure, got into an Ivy League B-school but didn’t do anything beyond the requirements… frankly, the achievements of the person from the decent B-school will be a better candidate, in my eyes, because they went above and beyond. What you do with your education matters just as much as the education itself.

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