Preparing for Graduate Study during
Your Undergraduate Program
- A General Guide -
1) Decide which type of degree you want or need: Master's, Specialist, Doctorate, professional (law or medicine) or other
a. Seek advice from your faculty advisor and other faculty members
b. Talk to people working in your chosen field
i. Try the "Career Contact Bank" under "Networking" on the Career Services web page menu to connect with GVSU graduates in your field
c. Search the web for professional association or graduate school sites related to your field
d. Check your undergraduate major's web site
2) Check the qualifications for the type of degree programs you want: Undergraduate major, GPA, appropriate/required courses, research experience, practicum/work experience, publications, admissions tests, etc.
3) Find out what the typical application requires - what do you need to do, what materials will you submit, and what is the range of typical application deadlines? (Different programs/fields start accepting applications as early as October of your senior year, some as late as the following May)
4) Carefully analyze whether graduate school is right for you
a. Is a graduate degree really the best pathway to get you where you want to go in your career and personal life?
b. What do you hope to attain by getting a graduate degree?
c. Are you choosing graduate school because you feel that you have no other options or are feeling pressure from others?
d. Are you choosing graduate school to delay the decision as to what kind of career or job you want? (This would be a very personally expensive way to find that you do not want to work in a particular field or job!)
e. Do you have an area of study that you want to specialize in?
f. Are you willing to invest the time, money, and effort to undertake a program that requires prolonged concentration in an academic setting?
g. What skills and abilities do you have that have prepared you to be successful in graduate school?
h. If you have a family, can you live with taking time and attention away from them for a significant period of time?
5) Do a personal analysis of your possible strengths and weaknesses as an applicant
a. Talk again to faculty in the field
b. How can you showcase your strengths to a graduate program?
c. How can you minimize weak areas?
d. Are there courses or experiences (practicum, research, work, volunteer opportunities) that you can be involved in that would strengthen your qualifications or address weaknesses?
6) Establish a personal time line for preparing for your graduate program, starting when you first start thinking about graduate study. Knowing clearly what and when you have to do things makes the task more manageable. Make sure all aspects of preparing for graduate study are on your time line, not just due dates. If you are going to do an internship/practicum, a research study, or study for the Graduate Records Exams for 6 mos., for example, these should appear on your time line.
7) Explore possible graduate programs
a. Talk to Professors at GVSU in your field of interest and ask them to make recommendations
b. During your undergraduate studies, keep note of the authors of research or articles in your specific interest area within your field and find out the graduate programs the authors are attached to.
i. Contact those authors whose ideas or work interest you and start a dialogue about their work and the field
c. Attend professional conferences in your field to meet professionals in your field and discuss graduate options and schools
i. If you attend a presentation that really interests you, talk with the presenter about the topic - Network!
d. Talk to Professors at GVSU that attended graduate schools that interest you (see list of professors on department web sites or at the end of the GVSU Undergraduate Catalog).
e. Use guides to graduate studies within your field, such as the American Psychological Associations "Graduate Study in Psychology" guide to psychology-related graduate programs
i. Look for average GPA's and GRE scores for last year's entering class, and how the school rates the importance of different application requirements/experiences to see how competitive you are for that program
f. Check the web sites for professional associations in your field again for lists of graduate programs
g. Look on your undergraduate department's web page to see what graduate school resources are listed
8) Narrow down your school/program search
a. Choose as many programs as you can afford to apply to if you are apply to very competitive programs
b. Choose a
range of programs based upon your projected ability to fit the profile of students they are looking for
i. Choose at least 2 or 3 that you are very-well qualified for, your "good chance" schools ii. Choose at least 2 or 3 that you qualify for, but feel less sure about, your "maybe" schools iii. Choose 1 or 2 schools that are the highest quality that you may be qualified for, your "dream" schools.
c. Consider applying to different types of programs, for example, if you want a doctorate in clinical psychology also apply for counseling programs and/or master's programs. Or if you want to do therapy, consider psychology programs, social work programs and counseling programs. However, discuss your plans with faculty to ensure that pursuing a master's won't hurt you in the long run if you are sure you want a Ph.D.
d. Consider visiting programs to get a personal sense of your fit with the program and to make connections with faculty
i. Many Doctorates take on average 7-10 years to complete, depending on the field. During that time you will be spending an enormous amount of time with the faculty, staff and students in your program, and in the program's local. Make sure you and the program are a good fit for each other before committing to the program
e. Investigate/consider the following factors when choosing a program:
i. reputation of the faculty ii. breadth and depth of class offerings iii. average time to degree iv. how graduates do on professional exams v. employment success of graduates vi. selectivity of the program vii. library, computer, research and other facilities viii. journals in your field published by the university
f. Look at the list of faculty within your target programs
i. Peruse their research articles to find overlap with your interests or research experience. This is a very important step when targeting Ph.D. programs. You choose your graduate program, and they choose you, based upon the match between your interests and a faculty member. Faculty members look for students who can support their research, or even work within their labs. You want to be in a program whose faculty interests will support your specific field of interest and will allow you to do research in your field, and will help you build connections to experts in that field. ii. Contact relevant faculty via email to discuss an area of their research that interests you. This personal connection can be very helpful. iii. Check to see if any of the relevant faculty have grant funded research projects. If you have research experience in their area, highlight this experience clearly in your personal statement. Sometimes this will cause that faculty to notice you favorably out of all the applicants.
9) Get specific information about your target programs via the web and direct contact with the program (web sites can be out of date), such as:
a. Application deadlines
b. List of materials to be submitted
c. Which, if any, tests are required or recommended NOTE: Some programs do not require the GRE's, but you may still need to take the GRE's to be eligible for some types of financial aid. Ask about this.
d. Semesters in which new students can start, if applicable
e. Is part-time study or working while completing your degree possible, if relevant? (Most doctorate programs are full-time and working while attending is not possible.)
10) Develop a reasonable back-up plan or "plan B." What if you don't get accepted?
a. Is there another degree that would allow you to reach your career goals?
b. If you take time off from school after graduation, there may be things you can do to make yourself more competitive for the types of programs you want for the next application cycle, such as:
i. Participate in research at GVSU or in a summer research program at another university - even your one of your target universities. Many offer summer research experiences. ii. Can you take classes as a non-degree seeking student in your target program? Will this school be willing to re-evaluate your application if you do very well in these classes? (Some schools may allow you to take such courses, but are so competitive that doing well in the courses may not make you a more competitive candidate. Ask the schools about this.) iii. Take more challenging, higher level undergraduate courses iv. Spend more time studying for the GRE's to improve your scores v. Gain work experience in the field to help you choose a specialty area or develop new skills.
c. If may seems contradictory, but developing a back-up plan early can sometimes reduce your anxiety and allow you to be more effective at what you need to do.
11) Letters of Recommendation
a. Develop meaningful academic relationships with specific faculty members who can then speak knowledgeably about your fitness for graduate work. Doing research with a faculty member in the department is an excellent way to allow them to get to know you.
b. Choose recommenders carefully. Usually at least 3 letters of recommendation are required. In most cases, letters from high-level college faculty members are most appropriate. Many programs will not find letters from employers and high school teachers acceptable. Letters from friends and family members are generally excluded. In many cases, letters from academic advisors who are not faculty members will not be weighted heavily.
c. Some programs ask recommenders to rate applicants on a check-list. It's a good idea to look at what factors are rated, and to determine if the people you want to ask could possibly address those factors. If they cannot, don't ask them for a recommendation unless there are a few areas that they can address in depth that are very highly rated for applicants.
d. Have a conversation about your strengths and weaknesses as a graduate school applicant with those you have asked to write letters so the letters can be targeted to improve your chances of acceptance.
e. Fill out a Release of Information form for each faculty member to give them your permission to write a recommendation and share personal information. Some departments provide these and other related forms on their web sites.
f. If you haven't worked closely with the person you are asking to write a recommendation, ask what types of information they would like from you
g. Provide the faculty member with an updated resume which includes your awards, work and volunteer experiences, research, publications, etc.
12) Personal Statements/application essays
a. Different schools may provide different questions for you to address.
b. Kraft your statement carefully, writing several drafts
c. Ask one or two professors to critique your personal statement. Once you rewrite your statement, have them read it again to make sure that it is a more effective statement
d. Consider asking someone in the Writing Center to review the statement as well
e. Use this opportunity to showcase your strengths. Be concise and support your statements with specific examples.
13) Admissions Tests
a. Look at the application requirements for each program to determine if any standardized tests such as the Graduate Records Exam General or Subject Tests are required, or recommended, for admissions
b. Gather information about the required tests
c. If you need special accommodations, be sure to know the procedures for making arrangements for the testing and the relevant deadlines
d. Take practice tests early to determine if, or what, you need to study for the actual tests and to allow for sufficient study time (Sometimes a few months of preparation are required)
e. Practice and Study for tests as needed
14) Dealing with acceptances: Making the choice between programs
a. Talk to faculty in your field and your graduate programs to be sure you understand the process for handling multiple acceptances, and the timing of notification of financial aid packages
b. Find out whether negotiating financial aid packages is possible before and/or after an offer of aid has been made
CLAS Academic Advising Center Grand Valley State University Allendale, Michigan 49401 616 331-8585 firstname.lastname@example.org