Grad School Advice

I just read Kaplan’s Graduate School Adviser and I made an outline of some notes for myself. I thought I would post them here in case anyone is looking into graduate school in the near future, or even if you’re just starting undergrad work like me.

Some of it may seem kind of obvious, but it’s stuff a lot of people don’t seem to know about the mysterious institution that is Graduate School. Hope it helps.

Advice from Students, Top 10

  1. Know why you’re going, otherwise you’ll flounder
  2. Focus your study as quickly as you can. It will simplify your research and decrease your time in the program.
  3. Get to know the professors in the programs that interest you. It’s the quickest way to get a TA or RA.
  4. Investigate departments in terms of the student success rate.
  5. Think for yourself.
  6. Read as much in your field as possible.
  7. Learn to sell yourself in a substantial, credible way.
  8. Know the history of your field and the basic theories. It’s dull but invaluable.
  9. Don’t do it if money is your main motivation.
  10. Make sure you’re devoted – it’s a long haul.

    I. The GRE

Verbal and Quantitative is a lot like the SAT (although not much like the ACT). The Verbal section tests your reading comprehension and vocabulary skills; The Quantitative section tests your high school math; the Analytical section tests reasoning skills with games and short reading selections. The sections are always timed, so that answering the questions efficiently is part of the challenge of getting a high score.

II. Your personal statement

While nothing will make up for serious academic or testing deficiencies, and a bad recommendation will almost certainly result in rejection, there are other times when a terrific statement can tip the balance in your favor. For example, most applicants have at least one weak spot in their applications, either the undergraduate GPA or the GRE scores. Admissions committees have been known to overlook the weak spot because the applicant presents himself so compellingly in her personal statement, with such a clear sense of how he fits into her chosen field and how his chosen field fits into his life, that they want him in the program.

Some people directly explain why they consider the particular program at a particular school right for them. Others let this show in less explicit ways: by describing relevant working or volunteer experience, by talking about classes they have already taken, and so on.

It may sound simple, but finding out what the requirements are for admission—and then delivering exactly what is expected—is the most important aspect of the admissions process. The way your present yourself and your achievements should be tailored to the programs you’re applying to.

Three or four months before you should start compiling information. As you work, reflect on the following.

Personal History: Are you heading for graduate school straight from undergrad? If so, what has happened during your undergraduate years to make you so certain that you already know what you want to do with your life? Most undergrads haven’t made that decision yet. Part of what makes you unusual, then, may be the circumstances and beliefs that have mad you ready for such a decision this early on. Are you a non traditional student? Then an interesting part of your story will be what in your adult life has led you to return to school.

Personal Life: You’re just gathering raw material, so don’t edit your thinking. It’s all fair game. Were there any unusual or difficult circumstances in your childhood? in your undergraduate years? Was there an adult in your life who was especially influential?

Stress unique material: use the essay to talk about something that doesn’t come up anywhere else on your application. You may want to give the admissions committee something new to think about, something that can’t be gathered from your transcript or CV.

Essay approaches that don’t work:
• Funny: A joke or wry remark is fine, but for the most part play it straight.
• Maudlin: Admissions committees are rather conservative about reading extensive discussions of personal problems, particularly if the problems are ongoing. It’s fine, even advisable, to acknowledge the role personal difficulties have played in your decisions about graduate school For example, illness or financial difficulty may have delayed your plans or affected your undergraduate studies. Keep the emotion to a minimum, and focus on the facts and the future. And don’t ask for special consideration.
• Exhaustive life history: Try to avoid beginning the essay with “As a child I…” or “Such-and-such has always been my passion…”.
• The Resume: Since you are free to attach a resume/CV to nearly all graduate school applications, there’s no need to waste your essay space by recounting work history.

Concentrate on one theme. “What led me to apply to this program,”, “The kind of practice I want to go into,” “The person who has influenced my thinking,” and so on.

Show, don’t tell. Instead of saying, “I am extremely well organized,” show it by explaining that you held down a demanding job at the same time you were a full-time student earning top grades. The admissions committee has no reason to believe any general, unsubstantiated statement you make about yourself unless you back up the facts with evidence. That’s what makes an essay persuasive.

Common mistakes applicants make when writing a personal statement
(from an admissions officer)

  1. Writing one general statement for all schools. Learn about each school’s curriculum, the research areas of the faculty, and the facilities.
  2. Boring Content: Have a positive tone, vary the length and structure of your sentences, and use precise language. Avoid numerical lists, clichés, and chronological histories.
  3. Sounding like everyone else: In your preliminary self-assessment, identify your strengths and decide what really sets you apart from other applicants. What motivates you? What are your aspirations? What academic challenges most excite you? What are your plans for the future?
  4. Writing what you think someone wants to read. Enrolling in a program that isn’t really suited for you will only make you uncomfortable later and decrease your chances of success.
  5. Dwelling on crises. When explaining a personal crisis, there is a fine line between too much and too little. The explanation of crises and misfortune are essential if they affected personal and academic development and perspective. A superficial mention that doesn’t provide the reader with insight is useless, and too much disaster and destruction also reflects negatively. For example, I once read an essay that described how the death of a roommate affected the student’s ability to concentrate. The circumstances were horrific and they were described in bloody detail. There are better ways to accomplish this purpose.

III. Letters of recommendation
They can rank very highly on the admission committee’s list of evaluation criteria, generally in the top three along with GPA and GRE scores. Most programs require three letters of recommendation. Some specify that exact number; others suggest a minimum number but allow some flexibility if you want to submit one or two more letters.

Most recommendation forms begin with a section asking whether you are willing to waive your right to see these recommendations, on the principle that your recommenders will write much more honestly about you if they know that you are not going to read the letter. It is wise to waive this right; it tells the schools that you are confident of your recommendations—and that inspires confidence in them.

If you don’t see the recommendations, how can you know they’re good? By choosing your recommenders wisely in the first place. If you choose people who know you very well and are enthusiastic about recommending you, the letters will be good.

Choosing Recommenders:
Whom you ask to write your recommendations can impact how you as an applicant are perceived. Your best choices for recommenders are academics and employers:
• Undergraduate professors
• Other professors
• Professionals who have supervised you, particularly in volunteer/paid work related to your graduate field

Though professors are your best bet, there are other people whose standing is less impressive but who can attest to your suitability for graduate school
• Your TA
• Colleagues
• Graduate students in your proposed field, or even in the program you’re applying

Schedule an appointment: Two months before the application is due, arrange an appointment to discuss your background and your future goals. This is particularly important if your recommenders haven’t seen you and your work for awhile. Most recommenders will be willing to schedule an appointment with you; they’ll be happy to have the opportunity to get some more information about you. You should bring with you copies of appropriate documentation, such as your transcript, papers you’ve written, your resume or curriculum vitae, your personal statement, and/or a sheet of bullet points that you plan to feature in your application and essay. These “leave-behinds” will go a long way toward making sure that your recommenders say relevant things about your good points and your background. Give your writers a good idea of why you want to go to graduate school and your reasons for interest in particular programs. Play up your good points, of course, but be reasonably humble. It’s often a good idea to explain to recommendation writers why you chose them, because it will give them an idea of the perspective from which you would like them to write.

Keep your appointment relatively brief; you’re already taking up enough of the person’s time. If you discuss your personal statement with the recommender, stick to the main points and don’t expect to get a style or grammar review.

Supply stamped, addressed envelopes.

Follow up your request. A few weeks before the deadline, call to ask whether the recommender has any further questions. If the recommender seems to be stalling, you might start working out a back up plan, just in case. A week before the deadline, call both your programs and your recommenders. Check with your programs to see whether your letters have arrived. If they haven’t, call and check with the recommenders.

IV. Work
For most graduates students, the choice is not, “Should I work?” but “How much and where should I work?”

Work no more than half time, many graduate students find that work is manageable, even a welcome change from study and research, as long as it doesn’t take up more than about 25 hours per week. Find an employer who’s willing to be flexible and understanding. Constant pressure to put your job first will not help you progress through your program.

Prioritize. Many working graduate students will tell you that a social life and such homely comforts as a well-stocked refrigerator, clean floors, and a full night’s sleep won’t be a big part of your life during your degree years, unless you have an incredibly supportive partner.

V. Assistantships
“Over 700 assistantships are given by our school each year”. Sounds like the mother lode, doesn’t it? But that’s for the school as a whole. Look in your department. Are there a lot or just a couple? A small number may indicate that the department is small and/or not very well funded. It may be hard for you to get a teaching job later in your doctorate if you need one. Or it may not be—they may be glad to have someone interested in a less popular field.

If you apply and are not admitted, ask the admissions committee or the department that rejected you for a review of your application. A frank evaluation will tell you a lot about how to improve your chances for next year.

Attending Conferences: A final financial problem that students encounter regularly is not having the spare cash to allow them to participate in annual conferences and meetings of their field. Simply attending these conferences gives you a chance to “see and be seen” by the very people who will consider your job applications in a few years…Graduate departments often have some discretionary funds that help defray the cost of such travel; some financial aid offices allow you to borrow money to cover some of these costs. Even so, some of the expense will still fall to you. Try to budget at least $500-$1000 per year for travel.

sigh… i kinda wish i had found this about 3 weeks ago… still, 2 more schools to apply to. thank you for great advice.

My advice to you is before you set out on this path- to talk to LOTS of people that are in the actual field right now - not instructors, not administration. Keep in mind that a school has a very strong interest in someone attending and producing a tuition check for several years. Some profs and admin have a vague idea of what the ID world is like, but haven’t actively been involved in anything but teaching in years. I made the mistake of trusting someone I probably shouldn’t have who was very good and telling me exactly what I wanted to hear (“you’ll be in great demand when you get out of school.” "this work is very good, profesional level, “you have nothing to worry about.” etc.) Now I realize that despite her credentials, she pretty much didn’t have a clue as to what she was talking about. It took me a year and half to find a job after I graduated with my shiny grad degree.

My advice to you is before you set out on this path- to talk to LOTS of people that are in the actual field right now - not instructors, not administration. Keep in mind that a school has a very strong interest in someone attending and producing a tuition check for several years. Some profs and admin have a vague idea of what the ID world is like, but haven’t actively been involved in anything but teaching in years. I made the mistake of trusting someone I probably shouldn’t have who was very good and telling me exactly what I wanted to hear (“you’ll be in great demand when you get out of school.” "this work is very good, profesional level, “you have nothing to worry about.” etc.) Now I realize that despite her credentials, she pretty much didn’t have a clue as to what she was talking about. It took me a year and half to find a job after I graduated with my shiny grad degree.

where did you get your grad degree from?

i got hired before even graduating from my bachelor’s…

Assembling a Competitive Application for Graduate Studies

Pulling together an application for graduate study can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially if you are applying to a number of schools or are applying from outside the United States. Each school has a checklist of requirements, and while there are key differences from school to school, with a little bit of planning you can ensure you have submitted a competitive application for your chosen program.

Here is an overview of the standard parts of an application with tips to help you. We have added extra notes and sections for international applicants.

The Application Form
While not the most important part of the application for admissions considerations, the application form is vital for proper identification and tracking of the rest of your application. Here you supply contact information, birth data, citizenship and visa status, as well as a summary of your qualifications. Taking the time to ensure that the application form is correctly and clearly completed smoothes the administrative aspects of your candidacy and enrollment at the university.

Application fee
Most schools require an application fee. Some specify amounts for international and domestic students separately. Ensure that you have filled out the correct amount and that the name of the school has been written as per the application guidelines. No school will process your application until the fee has been received. International students paying by banker’s check or demand draft should write their name on the document. Never address the check to an individual; when in doubt use the name of the university to which you are applying.

Undergraduate transcripts and Grades
Most graduate design programs specify a minimum GPA of 3.0 in undergraduate coursework before considering your application. If you feel the need to strengthen your candidacy to an extremely competitive program, consider additional qualifications. This can include asking the Admissions Coordinator whether the school would consider scores from a standardized test such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) to demonstrate your readiness for graduate study, or additional recommendations from professors familiar with your ability to do research, among other things.

Reviewers also scan your transcripts to evaluate the number of relevant courses you have taken for a particular program or area of study. If you feel your transcripts do not sufficiently reflect your area of expertise, this is where planning your portfolio properly can help you to demonstrate your skills.

If you are applying to multiple schools, it is often helpful to note which departments require transcripts to be sent directly to the program and which schools require the transcripts to be sent to the Graduate College at the university. Listing all the different addresses on one sheet will make transcript requests easier to fulfill and ensure your documents reach the correct departments on time.

The Portfolio
The portfolio is the most important part of your application for graduate study in design. At the graduate level, a professional portfolio is one that speaks for itself. For tips on creating a strong design portfolio, visit

Digital or Hard Copy?
Each school has requirements for what should be included in your portfolio submission. Some specify maximum and minimum sizes, some specify the exact size and some leave it up to you. If you are considering applying to a number of schools, take a look at all the specifications. Often, it may be easier for you to take the most rigorous specification as the criteria for creating your portfolio unless you wish to use different formats for different schools.

Do keep in mind:

A CD that requires special software to run, or will work on only one platform will not be evaluated as rigorously as one that is user-friendly and easily accessible to all reviewers. Test it on different machines to see if it runs. Have a friend check it out for you to see if the navigation features are easily understood. Keep it simple and, unless absolutely required, keep music to a minimum. If in doubt, see if you can upload your work to a URL as well. Write your name on the CD and the program to which you are applying. A little bit of common sense and planning goes a long way in making the admissions process easier.

Some programs recommend that a CD only be supplied as an addition to the hard copy portfolio. Not only do CDs run into compatibility problems, but a computer may not be available at a critical moment in the review process.

If a school does not specify a size for your portfolio, do get creative but keep in mind that the more parts a portfolio has—sample packaging, 3D models, slides—the more difficult it gets to keep it all together during the review process. Often the easiest and most convenient method is to take photographs of all your 3D samples and bind them together. Try not to get carried away with size. Oversize portfolios, while dramatic and outstanding, can be difficult to process and keep from damage.

The portfolio is a design opportunity in itself. Content that is concise and well presented will always make a better impression then covering your portfolio with fur. A colleague reported receiving a bowling ball sawn in half with a CD imbedded in it. It made a good door stop but didn’t get the applicant into the program.

Ultimately, apply some basic common sense when creating your portfolio. It will be handled many many times during the entire application process, not just by faculty members and the Admissions Review Committee, but also by admissions personnel, temporary staff members and the US Postal Service. A simple sturdy binder or slide pockets will survive and reflect your creativity far better than beautiful-yet-fragile pieces that are partially damaged or lost during the process.

Essay/Personal Statement/Letter of Intent/Statement of Interest/Autobiographical Statement
What is usually being requested is: 1) a statement of your interests in design and how you came to have those interests, 2) what your goals and ambitions in the field of design are, and 3) how the program to which you are applying can help you to achieve those goals.

In describing your interests in an area of study and how you came to have them, try to focus on particular educational and occupational experiences you have had that could account for your interests, rather than just personal experiences. Try to share experiences that reflect on that part of your reasons for seeking graduate level training. If you cannot find such reasons, perhaps now is a good time to think about whether advanced design education is for you.

As for your goals and ambitions, you should try to be as specific as possible. When candidates are asked: why do you want to go to graduate school or what are you interested in doing in this program? A common reply is “I just want to learn—I’m open minded—I want to study a bit of everything—and then I’ll decide on my career.” This can be taken to mean that you don’t know why you want to go to graduate school, and that you have no idea what you are interested in studying. You should try to be more specific, while at the same time showing openness to learning new things.

It is wise to apply to schools that fit with your own interests. Do your homework. Decide whether this is the kind of specialization you want to do. Some schools are heavily research oriented, requiring a master’s thesis in order to graduate. Others focus on individual creative expression and the arts. Still others are business oriented with a focus on design research and methodology. It is at this point that you should have a clear idea of the reasons why you are choosing graduate study in design. In this case, the goodness of fit between your interests and the schools you apply to is crucial.

Many schools look at their graduate programs as a collaborative experience. The students come in with a wide variety of expertise. It is important for the school to know what it is that the applicant will have to offer their peers and the program itself.

Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are extremely important. They can help you and they can hurt you. The most helpful letters come from teachers who have had considerable contact with you, especially in non-classroom settings such as Design Studio or Design workshop.

If you have been out of school for some time and worked professionally, letters from employers attesting to your professional design skills are some of the best letters you can send. This demonstrates your ability to solve complex problems in real world settings for actual clients. It is better to send letters from employers, clients and coworkers who have observed your creative problem solving skills, team work and communication skills, than professors who may not remember you from more than six years ago. Also, don’t include letters from public officials or professionals with whom your contacts have not been of a professional sort.

Some schools provide a pre-printed recommendation form to be filled in. It is good idea to supply an additional letter that gives the writer a chance to reveal more about the applicant. It’s a pretty good bet that they will check off only excellent and outstanding on the form.

Presenting Your Materials Appropriately
All of your communications should be typed. Don’t send anything hand written. You should be certain that your letters are grammatically correct and that they contain no misspelled words and no colloquialisms. Have someone else read your letters to proof them. Most correspondence is by email these days. Do use proper English as far as possible; while we understand that English is not the first language for many international applicants, neither is “netspeak.”

International Applicants
Since mailing parts of your application to the United States can be expensive and/or time consuming from many parts of the world, you may consider placing your entire application in one large envelope for each of the schools you wish to apply to. To ensure validity, you can request your professors or employers to place their letters of recommendation in a separate envelope, sealing it, and signing across the back. The same can be done for your transcripts. A checklist of all the items enclosed will assist Admissions staff with processing your application quickly and accurately. If you pay the application fees online by credit card, enclose a printout of the receipt email or make a note of the date of the payment and enclose with the rest of your application. This will cut down on valuable time spent contacting each applicant to ensure his or her application materials are complete.

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and other Admission Tests
Most graduate admissions committees require the TOEFL for international applicants, and a few require the GRE. Every school specifies the TOEFL cut off score—check to see which has the highest and obtain the best scores you possibly can.

Take the test early so that your scores are available by the admission deadline. Incomplete applications are not usually considered, and when they are, the fact that they are incomplete reflects poorly on the candidate. If you can, take the tests in October. If you take the December test you could be cutting it close. If you have to take the December test, follow up with the graduate schools right before their deadline and make they have received it. Many countries offer the TOEFL or the GRE only in specific months. Planning can thus be very important. Ensure that original scores from ETS are sent directly to the program. You can also insert a photocopy of your student score with your application to ease the application processing.

What do you do if after all of this, no one admits you? If you are committed to further training, it makes sense to try again. Examine the reasons why you were not competitive. Was it a bad letter? Poor grades? Lack of experience? Did you apply to too few programs? Try to correct these problems. Many schools are willing to discuss with unsuccessful candidates how they can strengthen their application for another try.

Good Luck!

this is really great advice.

thank you.

A good post.

My two cents: When I review graduate portfolios, Admissions hands me a gigantic folder that has every communication with the candidate in it (including print-outs of emails and the envelopes that materials were sent in!). I flip right to the statement of purpose and read that first, and then view the student’s work. At this point, I usually have a good idea of how the candidate looks; then I’ll read the transcript and the recommendations.

One of my favorite (ught) idiocies I have encountered on a number of occasions: “The reason I think Pratt is the right school for me is” (except I teach at SCAD) …

PROOFREAD!! :smiley: