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Your Guide to Getting into Grad School
So, you want to go to graduate school...maybe you want to change careers, earn another credential, make more money, or all of the above. Whatever your motive, there is bound to be an institution to accommodate both your short-term and long-term goals. But first you need to sit down and formulate a plan.
If you already know which field you want to enter, you're one step ahead of the game. If not, don't fret. There are hundreds of different programs out there, some more obscure than others...graduate degree in food science, anyone? How about Chinese Medicine? You just need to find the right fit for you.
Once you decide which degree to pursue, explore programs offered at various universities. A school's website is a good place to begin researching. Gather as much information regarding curriculum, prerequisites, cost, class size, program length, and future employment resources as you can. Attend an information session if it's convenient.
Talk to as many people as possible. Challenge: You don't know anyone who attended a similar program. Solution: Utilize your network because chances are, you have a friend who knows someone who pursued the same path. If nothing else, you can try contacting current students or alumni for an informational interview; people are usually willing to share their experiences -- if for no other reason than the love of alma mater.
Narrow your choice down to a manageable list of schools (the number of prospective programs will depend on the degree being sought and how much time and money you have at your disposal). Pick a safety school -- you can always decline an acceptance later if you don't want to enroll -- because having options is nice.
Make a list of everything you need to do to complete your application; sketch a timeline to keep you on track. Hint: If you don't know where to begin, work backwards from the application deadline. Does your program require research that you lack? If so, you may need to find appropriate lab work, even if it's part-time or unpaid. Are you missing required coursework? If so, you may need to postpone your application until you earn the necessary credits (or you might be able to complete the coursework before the program starts). Do you have an eligible GRE score that is currently valid?
Graduate Record Examination
Who doesn't love a good ol' standardized exam? If you were one of those people who took the GRE during undergrad "just in case," kudos to you for planning ahead! However, you can still do well on the GRE even if you haven't taken a test in years.
Study tip #1: Buy a book to help you study. Hit up a used bookstore, or ask a friend for an unwanted copy in the event that you don't want to purchase a new one.
Study tip #2: Memorize as many vocabulary words as possible. Flashcards are a fantastic way to study while riding public transportation, eating breakfast, or waiting for a doctor. (Several words a day add up quickly!)
Study tip #3: Take practice sessions and hone in on the type of question that gives you the most difficulty. Focus on mastering your weaknesses and spend less time on your strengths.
Caveat: Don't be alarmed if your final score is slightly lower than the average score admitted to a specific program. An admissions committee will review your application holistically. In other words, if standardized exams aren't your forte, but you have outstanding recommendations or an impressive resume, you should be able to compensate for a sub-par GRE score. However, if you feel your score is significantly below average, you can usually take the GRE again (be sure to confirm this with each program). A second score won't affect your first; assuming you improve, it should only help your application.
Letters of Recommendation
Most graduate programs require three letters of recommendation. While it is not your job to laud your greatness to the admissions committee in this letter, it IS your responsibility to inform your recommender why you're applying and remind her of any successes she may have forgotten. Talk to her, and if desired, provide any information necessary to bolster your application. Such items may include: an updated resume, a list of qualities desired by the program, or a copy of your personal statement.
Challenge: You don't have anyone to ask for a recommendation -- particularly not a college professor you still keep in touch with. Solution: Consider confiding in a trusted manager. Most managers care about your success, even if it means losing a good employee. Since you would be quitting to attend grad school (versus to work for a competitor), he or she will probably support your aspirations. Other options include: a mentor, a volunteer coordinator, a lab director, a coach, or a professor from a non-matriculating or post-baccalaureate course. If you don't presently have any of these figures in your life, find someone soon!
This will likely be the single most important portion of your application. A good prompt will force you to delve deeply in order to ascertain why you want to pursue a graduate degree. As if the exercise of self-discovery were not difficult enough, conveying your ambition through writing to an unknown third party is an equally harrowing feat. However, with ample time and supportive friends, you can write a stellar essay -- or two or three.
Writing tip #1: Do NOT procrastinate. You can never start too early. Begin the process with brainstorming before trying to dive headfirst into the essay. If you're stuck, try talking to people who know you best because they may provide insight to help fuel your writing.
Writing tip #2: Write. Rewrite. Repeat. Draft as many versions as necessary. Don't be surprised if the final essay you submit bears little resemblance to the first draft.
Writing tip #3: Surrender insecurity or pride. You must ask someone to edit your essay, regardless of how uncomfortable that makes you feel. Depending on your selection of editors, you may consider asking one person to proof for overall content and another for grammar and style. You will likely learn (early on) that some people are better at providing feedback than others. Diversify your pool (parents, colleagues, friends) because each opinion will help perfect your essay and ultimately strengthen your application.
Finally, good luck! And keep in mind that no matter where you're accepted, grad school will be what you make of it.
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