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
- Know why youâ€™re going, otherwise youâ€™ll flounder
- Focus your study as quickly as you can. It will simplify your research and decrease your time in the program.
- Get to know the professors in the programs that interest you. Itâ€™s the quickest way to get a TA or RA.
- Investigate departments in terms of the student success rate.
- Think for yourself.
- Read as much in your field as possible.
- Learn to sell yourself in a substantial, credible way.
- Know the history of your field and the basic theories. Itâ€™s dull but invaluable.
- Donâ€™t do it if money is your main motivation.
- Make sure youâ€™re devoted â€“ itâ€™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 admissionâ€”and then delivering exactly what is expectedâ€”is the most important aspect of the admissions process. The way your present yourself and your achievements should be tailored to the programs youâ€™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 havenâ€™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: Youâ€™re just gathering raw material, so donâ€™t edit your thinking. Itâ€™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 doesnâ€™t come up anywhere else on your application. You may want to give the admissions committee something new to think about, something that canâ€™t be gathered from your transcript or CV.
Essay approaches that donâ€™t work:
â€¢ Funny: A joke or wry remark is fine, but for the most part play it straight.
â€¢ Maudlin: Admissions committees are rather conservative about reading extensive discussions of personal problems, particularly if the problems are ongoing. Itâ€™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 donâ€™t ask for special consideration.
â€¢ Exhaustive life history: Try to avoid beginning the essay with â€œAs a child Iâ€¦â€ or â€œSuch-and-such has always been my passionâ€¦â€.
â€¢ The Resume: Since you are free to attach a resume/CV to nearly all graduate school applications, thereâ€™s no need to waste your essay space by recounting work history.
Concentrate on one theme. â€œWhat led me to apply to this program,â€, â€œThe kind of practice I want to go into,â€ â€œThe person who has influenced my thinking,â€ and so on.
Show, donâ€™t tell. Instead of saying, â€œI am extremely well organized,â€ 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. Thatâ€™s what makes an essay persuasive.
Common mistakes applicants make when writing a personal statement
(from an admissions officer)
- Writing one general statement for all schools. Learn about each schoolâ€™s curriculum, the research areas of the faculty, and the facilities.
- Boring Content: Have a positive tone, vary the length and structure of your sentences, and use precise language. Avoid numerical lists, clichÃ©s, and chronological histories.
- 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?
- Writing what you think someone wants to read. Enrolling in a program that isnâ€™t really suited for you will only make you uncomfortable later and decrease your chances of success.
- 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 doesnâ€™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 studentâ€™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 committeeâ€™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 recommendationsâ€”and that inspires confidence in them.
If you donâ€™t see the recommendations, how can you know theyâ€™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.
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:
â€¢ Undergraduate professors
â€¢ Other professors
â€¢ 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
â€¢ Your TA
â€¢ Graduate students in your proposed field, or even in the program youâ€™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 havenâ€™t seen you and your work for awhile. Most recommenders will be willing to schedule an appointment with you; theyâ€™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 youâ€™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 â€œleave-behindsâ€ 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. Itâ€™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; youâ€™re already taking up enough of the personâ€™s time. If you discuss your personal statement with the recommender, stick to the main points and donâ€™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 havenâ€™t, call and check with the recommenders.
For most graduates students, the choice is not, â€œShould I work?â€ but â€œHow much and where should I work?â€
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 doesnâ€™t take up more than about 25 hours per week. Find an employer whoâ€™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 nightâ€™s sleep wonâ€™t be a big part of your life during your degree years, unless you have an incredibly supportive partner.
â€œOver 700 assistantships are given by our school each yearâ€. Sounds like the mother lode, doesnâ€™t it? But thatâ€™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 beâ€”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 â€œsee and be seenâ€ by the very people who will consider your job applications in a few yearsâ€¦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.