You’ve done it! You’ve made it through undergrad and are facing a world of limitless possibilities. Maybe you’ll be a doctor, a lawyer, an astronaut, who knows? You’ve got your bachelor’s degree and can now call yourself a college graduate or graduette.
It’s a great feeling to have, that is until reality sets in:
“So, hang on, I won’t be able to get a job in my major?” you may ask your adviser in befuddlement.
“You’re only gonna offer me how much per year?” you might incredulously beseech a potential employer.
“Wait, so I have to start paying back loans? I don’t even have a job yet!” you may wail to your creditors or just anyone willing to lend an ear to your woes.
Hey, it’s a tough world after the happy-go-lucky times in undergrad, and due to the difficulties there are in finding employment in such a down economy (especially for recent graduates who lack experience), a graduate degree may be the best option. Not only will it afford you more options in terms of employment, but it helps defer those pesky undergraduate loan payments until you have the necessary education to actually make a little money.
As for myself: My plan was to go straight from undergrad to graduate school, and I gave it a damn good effort. Ultimately, I came up short and looking down the barrel of the student loan gun, I went into the job market with the plan to reapply later on and I did reapply; I was rejected again. It wasn’t until my third time applying to graduate schools that I was finally granted admissions, and looking back on my first attempt four years ago, there are a few lessons I learned the hard way that would have profited me from the outset.
So if you are like I was during my senior year of college and are hoping to get into a graduate program, especially a highly competitive program such as clinical psychology (what I applied for), here’s some advice for you that maybe you haven’t yet heard.
– Master the art of the GRE. Yes, it’s a somewhat ridiculous standardized test that tests basic knowledge of mathematics and English, but it is a means by which to compare applicants using a common metric. Let’s face it, not all schools provide the same level of education so a 4.0 GPA at your school might equate to a 3.5 somewhere else. The GRE is a way to put everyone on the same playing field and see how they do. This same logic holds true for the LSATs, MCATs and all other means of testing for graduate programs.
– Take a subject-specific GRE if you can, even if it is not a required test. I know that there is one offered for those who wish to go to school for psychology and there are many other subjects that ETS (Educational Testing Services) offer. There are a few reasons why you should take one.
1) For those who do not have many classes on their undergraduate transcript in their intended field of graduate study, it can give schools a better idea of your knowledge base in that subject beyond a separate GPA calculation for classes in that subject area.
2) For those that do not have a sterling GPA, this can help ensure schools that you are a good student.
3) Even if you do have a great GPA and have taken many classes in your field of study, this will just show programs that you are willing to do more than the minimum. From what I’ve read and through the conversations I’ve had with professors and students evaluating graduate applicants, subject-specific scores are not valued as highly as the general GRE, but even if you don’t do well in the GRE subject test, your effort can pay off.
– Put some thought into who is writing your letters of recommendation and make sure to supply each of the your letter writers with an abridged summary of your qualifications that can help them add some specifics to their letters. You may want to use a professor who you had years prior who probably doesn’t know what activities you’ve done outside of his or her class. Tell that person what you’ve done since that time, and tell them why those activities were important and how they affected your decision to apply to schools. If you are not certain that someone will write you an outstanding letter of recommendation, DO NOT USE THEM. I’ve asked professors and supervisors if they could write me an “outstanding” letter and I encourage any who reads this to do the same; it’s not a rude question to ask. Use those who say they absolutely can give you an outstanding letter. Schools tend to put a lot of emphasis on your letters of recommendation. Letters written for my application have been referenced during interviews at more than one school in my own experience.
– Make your personal statements personal and unique. Do not use a stock letter and copy and paste the names of schools or professors to match each school. Obviously, your decision to apply is affected by your experience, so much of the background of your personal statements will probably remain the same or similar. As for those experiences that inform why you want to go to School X, make it specific to that school, that program, those professors, and that teaching model. Each school knows you’re applying to many schools, but your letter should say YOURS is the only school for me.
– Additionally, avoid repeating your CV or resume in your personal statement. Anyone reading a personal statement of yours already knows where you’ve worked and what your responsibilities were. What they want to know is who you are, how your experiences impacted you, and what specific aspects about those experiences helped steer you toward graduate studies. Anecdotes are a great tool for adding a personal touch, but there has to be a point to them. Your story should emphasize an aspect about yourself or describe how you became interested in studying such-and-such. Keep in mind, this is how admissions officials get to know your personality before they meet you. A dry personal letter is a bad one, but don’t be overly sappy. Your personal statement is another highly-weighted aspect of your application so edit, revise, spell check, and have someone you know who has some knowledge of both you as a person and your intended field of study read and critique your statement.
– Study for the interview. It’s good to know about the program for your own sake, and it can help you come up with some insightful questions to ask at the interview. It’s always a good idea to study up on the faculty as well and read through a little of their work to get a better idea of where they come from and the kinds of activities they’re involved in. That too can inform some good questions and good conversation on interview day. You don’t want to walk in there and say, “I read your paper entitled…”, but it’s good to show that you know about what they have done in the past, and with that information you can emphasize how you could contribute to that work.
– Dress for the job. It’s self-explanatory: if you’re applying for doctoral admissions, look like you’re already a working professional on interview day. Pay attention to details as well. Admissions officials may be interviewing 50, 100, 200 people or more and I’m going to cite a Wedding Crashers quote, “Draw attention to yourself, but do it on your own terms.” With so many people being interviewed you need to be memorable and what you wear can help. Black suit, white shirt, blue tie? Nah, try something a little less conventional.
– You friggin’ love to be at the interview. You want everyone you come across, from the secretary in the building next door to the head of the department to know that you want to be there. Interviews are stressful, no doubt about that, but when you get to that interview you need to make it known that you want to be there. From the minute you walk into the building until the minute you’re out of sight, it’s show time. With any down time you get, make an effort to speak with current students or faculty you haven’t met and get their perspectives on the program and the school, that face time is valuable, scarce and will matter in how the decision-makers form an opinion about you. Now, you don’t want to be “acting” interested because people see right through that. Just be yourself, but be engaging and enthused to be there.
– Network and follow up. After all, these are people who are in the field in which you’d like to be. Get contact information of those that you speak with and keep in touch until you get a final decision. The game isn’t over until the clock reads 00:00. Make sure to follow up on the interview with thank you letters to faculty members and graduate students you spoke with and do so quickly. Speed matters in this game; it might look like you’re not THAT interested when yours is the last thank you letter to arrive. Treat your thank you letter a little bit like your personal statement. Reiterate your interest in the program with some justification, and if you can work in something specific that you spoke about with that person, do it.
– Never hesitate to continue to ask questions to faculty and students after interview day. It just shows that you’re still thinking about that program and reminds those who are going to decide your future that you’re still there and still want to go to their school.
– Lastly, don’t forget to solicit the advice of those who know you best. This was my latest-learned, and most helpful lesson. My boo offered to help me prepare application materials and helped me prepare for interviews. I do not doubt that, without her support, I would not be off to graduate school this fall. If you are lucky enough to have people in your life who are close to you and will offer their support as you undertake what is a very long and stressful process, listen to them, ask their advice, and allow them help you out.
Some of these lessons are easy and predictable and some have taken me some time to learn and refine. Ultimately, after 4 years and three rounds of applications (28 applications in total), I will be heading off to graduate school in the fall. I would have liked to have known all of this stuff before I applied the first time. Then, I could have made a better effort, saved some money, and been more successful at both getting interviews and getting acceptance letters. Hey, it worked out for me in the end, and if you’re applying for graduate admissions or waiting to hear about the status of your application, I hope it works out for you too. If you find yourself out of luck this time around, try and put some of my advice to practice and see if it works for you on the next go-around. Good luck everyone.
“ETS GRE”, Educational Testing Services.
Wedding Crashers. Dir. David Dobkin. New Line Cinema, 2005.