If you’re a senior collegiette thinking about graduate school, now is the time to put a little pep in your application steps. Luckily for you, you’ve decided to avoid the terror of the real world for a while longer, but getting into grad school doesn’t come without its own special form of stress. Most deadlines for graduate programs are in late November or December, but before you start hyperventilating into a paper bag, remember that you have no reason to freak out. You’ve already survived almost four years of hectic college life, and applying for grad school is just one last phase! So relax, brush off that seniortitis bug going around and go through this simple HC checklist to get you grad-school-ready.
1. Choose and contact references early
As deadlines approach, you’ll want to select the right people to be your references and give them plenty of notice for writing letters of recommendation. Laura Jackson, a recent graduate of Chatham University’s Master of Professional Writing program, says to narrow this list down as soon as possible.
“I would say as soon as you know which grad school you wish to apply to and how many you need, ask your references,” she says.
In addition to keeping an eye on the clock, it’s important to choose the right references for you. Jim Oris, dean of the graduate school at Miami University, advises choosing people who have interacted with you in class or in one-on-one situations.
“You want to make sure they are people who have experienced your abilities relevant to the program you’re applying to,” he says. “They can describe your characteristics in a way that sets you apart from the pack.” This list includes professors in your major’s department or previous internship supervisors.
When you email or speak to the person who you’d like to write your recommendation in person, ask nicely if he or she has the time to write a graduate school recommendation. Then, Laura advises, “provide them with whatever they need—whether it's either a link to an online recommendation or mailing them a copy of the recommendation form.”
2. Take the GRE or another required standardized test
Depending on what field you’re going into, you might need to take one of the many kinds of graduate school admissions tests. Many programs require or look for scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which is a computerized test covering verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing—kind of like the grad school version of the SAT. For prospective business school students, the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is for you, while the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) measures reading, writing and logical reasoning for potential law students. Finally, students who hope to attend medical school take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
Deciding whether to sign up for the test depends on where you’re applying and for what type of program. “Unlike the undergraduate process, each program sets their own criteria,” says Oris. “Some programs require the GRE and some don’t, and some programs stress these scores more than others.”
Deciding when to take the GRE or other test is crucial. Although deadlines for test scores will vary depending on the program, Oris says it’s good to take the GRE about a year before you expect to start grad school, preferably any time during the summer or early fall.
3. Write a killer personal statement
You’ve learned a lot in your undergraduate education, and it goes beyond a few bullet points and grades. To get all of your experiences across to the application committee, focus on making your personal statement stand out.
“Think of your personal statement not only as that but also a writing sample,” says Oris, adding that even though the essay has “personal” in the title, you should maintain a formal voice. “A lot of people will read that statement, and it needs to be professionally done,” he says. “You don’t necessarily want to tell a personalized story; you want to explain why you want to go to grad school.”
Communicate your passion for the subject you hope to study in grad school and your desire for a higher academic challenge, as well as how you hope to benefit from a graduate degree in the longer term. This is one instance where being too vague could really hurt you.
“I also recommend that you attempt to stay within the required length for the personal statement,” Oris says. “Trust me, those schools read a lot of essays.”