Top Ten Tips for Applying to Graduate School
Written by a successful graduate student- Kristen Frese, Career Advisor for University Career Center @ BSOS!
Many BSOS majors pursue an advanced degree in their field upon graduation. Graduate school can be a great opportunity that can sometimes expand career possibilities, but it is also a big investment of time, hard work, and money! If you’re considering a graduate degree, stay tuned for our 10 tips for applying to graduate school and check out our timeline for applying to graduate school to stay on track!
Want to get started today? Check out our resources HERE!
10. Planning for the unexpected- Ten things to do if you don’t get in to graduate school
Sometimes things don’t work out the way we plan, so have a parallel plan in place for May just in case you get waitlisted or declined.
Ten Things to Do if You Don’t Get In
Donald Asher shared the tips below with a group of UMD students. He has some great suggestions to implement for your next application round, if the first set of applications are not successful. Mr. Asher is the bestselling author of “Graduate Admission Essays” and is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the graduate admissions process.
1. Apply earlier (avoid the last six weeks before the deadline).
2. Apply to more schools (six is usually considered a prudent minimum: two schools that are likely to admit you, two middle-of-the-road schools, and two reach schools).
3. Apply to more safe schools (even 4.0 students can and do get rejected).
4. Visit and wow ‘em.
5. Go to summer school in the targeted subject and wow ‘em (it’s easier to get into summer school, even at Harvard).
6. Take one class at a time in the targeted subject and wow ‘em (remember: your most recent grades count the most).
7. Get volunteer or internship experiences in the targeted field (even part-time, even unpaid).
8. Work in a “real job” in the targeted field (there’s no substitute for actual experience and recommendations from supervisors in the profession).
9. Get an intermediate degree (such as a master’s or even just a credential).
10. Get older and try again (many times, that’s all it takes).
Don’t forget that the best time to apply is early in the fall to start graduate school the following fall, so be sure to plan ahead!
9. The final decision- Say “yes” to the right program!
It’s an exciting yet nerve-wracking time once your acceptance letters (or emails) start rolling in. If you are accepted to multiple programs which program is best for you and your needs.
Consider the following factors when choosing which program to attend:
· Funding: Money is usually the most stressful aspect after you receive the ACCEPTANCE letter. Compare funding opportunities at each of the programs you are considering attending. Some students find they have to accept before securing funding because of the timeline of graduate assistantships interviews (don’t worry, this is normal and it usually works out!), while other students (i.e. in PhD programs) can use the uncertainty of funding as a point of negotiation with their advising faculty member to negotiate an offer.
· Opportunities: What opportunities does each program provide? One program may set up an internship for you each year or allow you to do research with an esteemed faculty member.
· Good fit: Do you fit in with the culture of the program? This can include several important factors, including the methodology the program utilizes, the interests and research projects of the faculty members, and a good relationship with the professor who would be your advisor. It also includes smaller, but still important, characteristics. Can you see yourself living in the town for several years? Do you get along with the current students? Grad school is a big commitment, so make sure that you would be happy, comfortable and successful at whichever program you choose!
· Request feedback: Remember those professionals and/or professors who wrote your recommendation letters? Now is the perfect time to share your great news with them, while also asking for their feedback if you are struggling between two or more acceptance letters.
· Waitlisted: Deciding between an offer or waiting to be called from the waitlist can be tricky. If you need more time beyond the established acceptance decision date, contact the admission office and explain the issue; they might give you a couple more weeks to make a decision.
8. Money matters- Can graduate school be free?
Graduate schools offer many different types of funding, but each school is different in how much money they have available and how they distribute it. Examine what types of funding each program offers, how challenging it is to obtain funding, and what percentage of students are able to obtain funding (i.e. these are great questions to ask during the school visit).
· Now that you are applying to a program to land a particular position, research the average salary for that position to ensure the costs and benefits of graduate school makes sense for you.
· Loans are the most common and easily accessible form of funding for graduate school, but keep in mind that you’ll have to pay this money back.
· Some schools offer graduate assistantships – positions where grad students work for the university in exchange for tuition remission and a stipend. These positions could be research, teaching, or administrative assistantships and are a terrific way to gain some skills, work on campus, and save a lot of money! Some universities have lots of GA positions while others have very few or none. For example, the University of Maryland has many GA positions available throughout the year, while smaller universities may have only a few. Look for this information online or ask during your interview!
· Review more types of funding usually offered by the university, the federal government, and the private sector.
· Financial aid: Loan Analyzer- understand the debt before you accrue it.
· Fellowship options- apply for funding.
· Loan forgiveness programs- a couple years of service might be worth the money you would save.
7. Preparing for graduate school interviews - Be professional, be personable, and be YOU.
Don’t stress – not all programs require an interview – but review the tips below just in case. The interview allows the faculty to see if you are a good fit for the program, and you get to see if the program is a good fit for YOU. With a little preparation we know you can ace your interview!
Before the Interview:
· Research each school/program you apply to and know what they are looking for (examine their mission statement, program concentrations, etc.).
· Know yourself and be able to discuss your skills, experiences, values, motivations, etc. Create your 30-second commercial and practice sharing all of your amazing accomplishments.
· Be knowledgeable in current trends in the field (i.e. for medical school you might be asked about ethical standards or current medical issues).
· Buy a suit or professional dress clothes. Even if it’s a phone interview, dressing professionally will make you feel more prepared.
· Plan your budget! Interviewing in person at the schools that truly interest you will give you a leg up, but airline and hotel fees can add up, so make sure you have room in your budget.
During the Interview
· Avoid talking about negatives and always present yourself in a positive light.
· Keep your composure and act confidently; don’t be defensive if prodded to defend a belief.
· It is OK to say you do not know something.
· Keep interview answers under two minutes to ensure you keep the interviewer’s attention. The interviewer will ask follow-up questions if they are interested in learning more.
· Have thoughtful questions prepared for the interviewer.
· Remember: interviewers are also trying to impress you. Your decision is just as important as theirs!
After the Interview
· Send everyone you came into contact with a follow-up email thanking them for their time during your visit and again express why you would be a perfect fit for the program.
· Update your recommenders on your progress and thank them again for writing the recommendation letter.
· Be patient!
6. The Application: How to request letters of recommendation.
When applying for jobs, employers often call your references to make sure that you are a good candidate. Applying for graduate school is very similar, but admission committees utilize letters of reference so they do not have to contact each applicant’s references. Letters of recommendation should come from respected professionals who can speak positively on your behalf.
Who should I ask for a recommendation letter?
· Professors, lab supervisors or employers who know you well and can articulate your talents (so form relationships early!).
· Some programs prefer letters from professionals in your field. If you are applying to law school for example, consider asking your Law & Society professor and maybe a lawyer you interned for to write the reference letters.
How should I ask for a recommendation letter?
· Ask the recommender in person or through email and explain that you have valued your experience with him or her and would like to know if he/she would be available to write a positive recommendation letter for you in the next couple of weeks.
· Prepare a portfolio of information to give to each recommender, including…
- An overview of your experiences with the recommender and/or a copy of your resume.
- Your personal statement (a rough draft is fine).
- The deadlines for each school (this is important!). List a date that is a week or two before the actual date to ensure all of the materials are submitted on time.
- Instructions from the school’s website regarding how references should submit their letters – online, mail, etc. You don’t want to paraphrase the instructions and have them be incorrect, so it is best to copy and paste them directly.
ALWAYS write a thank you letter for your recommenders after the recommendation letters have been submitted!
5. The Application: The art of the personal statement (sometimes called statement of purpose).
The personal statement can be a very daunting document, as many schools do not give you specific guidelines or prompts. Simply put, a personal statement is a persuasive, professional essay explaining why you would be an ideal candidate for the program and how your interest in the field developed.
Get started today with the questions below.
· How did your interest develop in this area? Consider weaving your competencies and skills into a story about how your interest developed in your field (i.e. “in high school I was a peer mentor and I knew that social services was my calling when I witnessed…”). What has influenced this interest over time (i.e. professors, classes, labs, papers, research projects, or ideas)?
· Do you have a compelling story? Graduate schools seek to cultivate a diverse student body. Research each program you apply to (i.e. by visiting, reviewing their website and the program’s mission, etc.) and provide examples of your research papers or out-of-the-classroom experiences that are related to what they are seeking and highlight how special you are!
· Why are you interested in the program/school? Mention a couple of reasons why you are targeting the program (i.e. did you visit the campus and learn something interesting, did you speak with a professor, do they have access to a research facility, has the program been noted in that industry, etc.).
· What is your overall career goal? Graduate schools like to see that you have a plan after graduating from the program, because that makes you more likely to complete the program. Consider including your plan towards the end of the essay (example- “Ten years from now I hope to be an established immigration lawyer working at a non-profit organization”).
Your personal statement allows the admissions committee to get to know you – make sure it makes a good first impression! Here are some tips:
· Create a draft TODAY, and step away from it for a week or so. The best personal statements have depth, which usually comes through multiple drafts.
· Spelling and grammar mistakes could make you look careless, so make sure to proofread your statement several times. Schedule an appointment with the Writing CenterUniversity Career Center
4. The Application: Prepare your resume or CV.
Similar to applying for jobs, graduate programs will ask you to include a resume (or CV if you are applying to a science or research based program) with your application. Admissions committees briefly look at your experiences out of the classroom to determine if you have the skills necessary for success in their program. A strong resume is a great supplement to your application, especially if you may be weaker in another aspect, such as test scores or your GPA.
· Highlight experiences that demonstrate your interest in the graduate school area of study (i.e. if you are applying to law school, include your legal internships and volunteer experiences related to law).
· Resumes are reviewed quickly, so list your most relevant experiences/skills/research experiences first and use customized headings. Follow all resume application instructions carefully.
· Include out-of-the-classroom experiences. Graduate programs do not accept students based on their skills like an employer would when hiring for a position, but they look for qualities like leadership, resilience, ability to work in groups, appreciation for diversity, etc. Your club, sports, Greek life, or volunteer experiences, for example, could offer great examples of those qualities.
· A Curriculum Vitae (CV) should represent all of your college experiences including: relevant research experience, teaching experience, publications, relevant coursework, conference presentations, etc.
· Make sure your resume/CV is professional and easy to read. Check out this resume check list!
· Request feedback on your resume from faculty, professionals working in the field, UMD alumni mentors on Terrapins Connect, who have completed a degree in your field of interest, and/or the University Career Center. Remember, only take the advice that makes sense to you.
3. Ready to apply? Narrow down your list of schools/programs!
Remember applying to college? If you do, you probably recall the amount of time and money each application required. Graduate programs are similar, but may have more expensive application fees and more in-depth applications. Save time, money, and hassle by narrowing down your list of prospective schools.
Here are some things to consider when examining a graduate program:
· Is the geographical region an issue or a perk?
· Are there specific faculty you would like to work with (i.e. conducting research interesting to you)?
· Does the program have ethnically diverse students? What is the male vs. female ratio?
· Quickly compare and review schools using the Peterson’s graduate school guide.
“I have read about the programs online, but I am still not sure. What else can I do?”
· Request to visit the school/program by contacting the admission office.
· Schedule a short meeting with a faculty member of interest (i.e. phone or in person), especially if you will be applying to a research-based program. Sample questions to ask.
· Attend a regional graduate school fair. These events offer access to many different programs and schools, so if you are prepared with thoughtful questions, you can gain a lot of information.
- Idealist Grad Fairs (www.idealist.org/info/GradFairs) connect individuals with graduate schools in fields such as public administration, international affairs, education, public policy, public interest law, social work, nonprofit management, etc. (Free).
2. Choose the best degree for your goals.
There are different types of graduate school that you can consider, depending on your career aspirations and which skills you hope to obtain. Below, you’ll find a brief descriptions of degree options.
· Master’s programs are typically 2-3 years and are usually more focused on applied education. While some research is required (such as a thesis), there will be less emphasis on designing and conducting research than in a PhD program.
· PhD programs are about 4-7 years and focus more on research and academia. This is the highest degree attainable in most fields. PhD programs are more likely to offer funding. Keep an eye out for Tip 9!
· Professional degrees, such as the Doctorate of Medicine and the Juris Doctorate, take 2-5 years to obtain and focus on the application of specific skills.
· Read a more in-depth discussion here! Another interesting discussion: Choosing Between the PsyD and PhD Psychology Graduate Degrees
MS, MA, MPH, MHA
MD, DDS, JD, MSW, Pharm.D., DMV
4 to 7 years
2 to 3 years
1 to 3 years
3 to 5 years
Major research project with dissertation
Research with thesis or capstone
Research project or capstone
Clinical practitioner training
Still not sure about your options? Use the following resources or UMD offices to learn more.
- The Pre-Law Professions Advising Office can assist students interested in law school and legal careers.
- The Reed-Yorke Health Professionals Advising Office advises students on health-related graduate school program admission.
- The University Career Center meets with students individually to discuss strategies for choosing, applying to, and evaluating graduate school offers.
- Locate UMD alumni who are willing to share their graduate school experiences with you and offer tips regarding a variety of advanced degrees in the Terrapins Connect.
1. Is grad school right for you?
Graduate programs can range from one to seven years, so make sure that grad school is the right choice for you. Sometimes, students find it most beneficial to go directly from undergrad, while others take a few years off, gain work experience, and apply later on.
Consider the following questions to help determine if grad school is right for you.
· Does your dream position require a graduate degree? Check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook for more information on education requirements for particular job titles!
· Should I take time off before applying to graduate school?
Pros for working first:
- Land a full-time position with an employer who offers to pay for graduate degrees. Here are 15 organizations to get you started.
- Try out your interests by working in your chosen field first to ensure you want to pursue an advanced degree (and maybe meet more professionals to write your recommendation letters).
- Idealist.org offers even more reasons to wait a couple of years before pursuing graduate school.
Reasons for applying to graduate school immediately:
- You know that your career field requires a masters or PhD (i.e. hearing and speech areas, counseling, therapy, medical fields, etc.) AND you are certain that field is for you!
- You have unlimited financial funds, or know that there are available funding opportunities for your program, and you want to continue learning (kudos to you!).
· Are you prepared to apply this year? Many graduate programs have December 1st deadlines, which means you’ll have to take any required tests (i.e. GRE, LSAT, MCAT), request transcripts, complete applications, etc. by this date. Look at this timeline to see if you are on track.