As a distinguished undergraduate scholar, your thoughts may turn to wondering what’s next for you after you’ve earned your diploma. If you’re considering grad school, here are our tips on how to get your application in tip-top shape.
1. Start early
The most important part of starting early is taking full advantage of your current opportunities. Taking a variety of different classes will help you find a field you’re passionate about and will give you a broader knowledge base, which is useful no matter what you pursue. Build good relationships with your professors — this will not only help with your grade in that class (GPA is important for grad school), but it could come in handy when you need a recommendation down the line. Professors are a resource for you to tap — they’ve been through grad school, so they’re bound to have helpful insights and advice. So take advantage of office hours; do the extra credit; ask questions and make contributions in class; do a thesis; look into helping professors with research or some other project, especially if it’s in the discipline you wish to study in grad school. Everything you do to strengthen yourself now will make applying to (and succeeding in) grad school so much easier.
2. Think about money
Never mind grad school tuition — student loans still exist, and if you’re lucky, you may find a funded program — the applications themselves can get expensive. You’ll probably have to take the GRE and/or another test, and in addition to that cost, you have the app fees themselves, transcript mailing fees, the fee to send your test scores — then multiply that by the number of programs you’re applying to. Casting a wide net can improve your chances of landing a spot in grad school, but it can also put a dent in your wallet. Spending your summers working at a job or a (paying) internship can help you save up for these fees and also provide a relevant resume booster. In addition, it never hurts to ask the admissions folks if they offer application fee waivers.
3. Prepare for the GRE (or other test)
Nobody wants to be the person who overconfidently walks into a multiple-hour test, only to bomb and have to retake it. Luckily, there are plenty of free resources available to help you prepare. The GRE website itself offers free, timed practice tests, as well as a helpful math review. And you can find plenty of vocabulary-building games and aids online; here and here are a couple examples. Seats fill up fast for the test, so you’ll want to make sure you register and study well ahead of time. If you take the computerized version of the GRE, your scores will display automatically as soon as you finish — and if you know the schools you’re interested in applying to, you can send those scores to up to four of those programs for free right from the testing center. This general advice (register and prepare early using the bounty of resources available online) also applies to other tests, like the MCAT, LSAT, or GMAT.
4. Use your university resources
In addition to the aid your professors can give you (if you’ve been building those relationships!), your school likely has a career center that helps many students discern their path every year. Why would you not let the experts assist you in the application process? The earlier you start with them, the better — they can help you nail your personal statement and anything else you may need to submit, request recommendations in a timely and respectful manner, locate the nearest GRE testing center, and generally help you to keep things on track so that you can avoid deadline-induced panic and mistakes. All of this is covered by your tuition — you’re literally throwing money away, not to mention diminishing your chances of acceptance, if you refuse their help.
5. Read everything carefully and follow directions
When it comes time to actually apply, make sure you follow every instruction to the letter, no matter how idiosyncratic it may seem. Graduate programs receive many high-quality applications, so it’s easy for them to toss out those that make simple mistakes, like not using a specified font, header, or word count. Don’t let your hard work go to waste over an avoidable lack of effort. Save a different base version of your application materials, like your personal statement, for each school you are applying to, then edit according to each program’s specifications — and if the application asks a question, make sure you answer it. It helps to include the school’s name in the filename of each of these; that way, you ensure you upload the correct version to the app. A final note: use a professional-sounding email address as your contact info, not some cringe-inducing old address that you thought was cool when you were young. Your school email is a good bet; if that’s expiring soon, you should have (or make now) a professional-sounding account ready to go.
Best of luck in your future studies!