Dear Dr. LaScala:
You write a great deal about college admissions, so I wondered what you could tell me about graduate school admissions. I just finished my freshman year in college and I am planning on going on for graduate study when I complete my undergraduate degree.
Post-collegiate degrees are increasingly required for high-level positions in many fields. As a result, many college-level juniors and seniors choose to apply to either masters or doctoral programs. The choice to pursue graduate-level study is ideally made by the conclusion of the student's junior year. The application process itself will occupy much of a student's senior year.
Like college applications, applications for graduate study are strongest if the student has consciously cultivated a strong resume. This is accomplished by the careful selection of academic coursework, strong internships during breaks, study abroad experiences and the development of relationships with professors and other mentors. Below, a timeline is provided that outlines a hypothetical student's progress as he or she prepares for graduate study.
• Freshman year: During the first year in college, students focus on determining their interests. Some colleges require students to enter the school with a predetermined major, but most permit more flexibility. Regardless, the final choice of major is nearly always made by the end of the freshman year or sometime during the sophomore year. The choice of major should reflect a student's academic interests and possible career path at this point in her or his education. During the summer following the freshman year, a student should identify a summer internship, paid employment, an opportunity to shadow professionals in field of interests, or other relevant work that will help them begin to decide upon attractive career paths to pursue.
• Sophomore year: The sophomore year is considered to be an exploratory one by many schools. Students may work with their academic advisers to tailor coursework to their interests and curiosities. This flexibility allows students to explore the depth of their track of study and the intersections between tracks. Students should also begin to form connections with their professors during sophomore year. The cultivation of these initial connections with professors can provide invaluable advice and strong recommendations throughout the graduate application process. Finally, students should put a good deal of effort into landing a summer internship that relates to their interests and builds valuable skillsets and connections with mentors.
• Junior year: In the junior year a student's major courses typically intensify the academic workload. This workload is often compounded by part-time employment and/or extracurricular activities the student has been doing over the first two years. Students should focus on performing well in their major courses, while simultaneously, using their time to solidify relationships with their professors and mentors from summer internships, campus-based employment or both. Critical to the strong conclusion of the junior year is finding a relevant internship for the summer. By the conclusion of the junior year or, at least, by the fall of the senior year, students must decide whether or not to move on toward graduate study immediately after college.
• Summer prior to senior year: During the summer before their senior year, ideally students are actively engaged in an internship related to their interests. It is during this time that they should also be researching graduate programs. There are numerous opportunities for graduate study in the United States and abroad, and each program provides different educational opportunities. Students should read about each program carefully, and select a list of schools by the end of the summer. Additionally, most graduate programs require the student to have taken the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). It is a good idea to study for and take a practice GRE during the summer. Students should also determine whether their programs of interest require taking one or more GRE subject tests; the subject tests are much more difficult than the general exam, and may also be prepared for over the summer.
• Fall of senior year: Students should plan to take their GREs before the start of fall classes, and create drafts of their personal statements for their applications as well. Throughout the fall, students must work on their graduate school applications which require test scores, transcripts and letters of recommendation. Students should also identify, initiate and maintain contact with professors in the department of interest to each school where they plan to submit an application. Relationships with professors who share your interests are a critical component to the admissions process.
Each graduate school application is unique and time-consuming and each school expects polished and tailored personal statements. Financial aid applications usually have the same deadline as the admissions applications. Throughout the winter, students should maintain contact with any professors with whom they successfully communicated in the fall. Some schools require interviews before the admissions decisions are made and requests for interviews generally arrive by email or post in January and February, and occur in February and March. All applications are generally due between November and January of the senior year and final admission decisions arrive between March and the end of May.
Selecting the Right Graduate Program for You
When researching and applying to graduate schools, it is important that students look for the right programs rather than the highest ranking ones. Finding the right match programs is a complex process. Students must consider the location, resources and size of a school in addition to its quality, the unique opportunities offered by its programs and the cost of attendance.
Elizabeth LaScala Ph.D. guides college, transfer and graduate school applicants through the complex world of admissions. She develops best match college lists, offers personalized interview and essay coaching, and tools and strategies to help students tackle each step of the admissions process with confidence and success. Elizabeth helps students from all backgrounds, including college-bound athletes, to maximize merit and financial aid awards. Contact her @ (925) 891-4491 or firstname.lastname@example.org.