If you are among the many working professionals considering graduate school, you may be motivated by the long-term benefits — knowing that lifetime earnings for people with a graduate degree are, on the average, 33 percent more than those with only a bachelor’s. You may need additional skills, knowledge, or credentials to advance in your current profession or allow you to change careers. Or perhaps you simply need to keep up with advances in your field. Whatever your motivation, thoughtful decision making and a little planning can ease the transition back to school and maximize your academic experience.
Selecting a Graduate Program
Going to graduate school is not a casual decision; it requires thoughtful consideration and analysis. Ask yourself a few key questions:
What credentials do you need to achieve your personal goals? Do you need a Ph.D., or will a master’s be sufficient? If you are not currently working in the field, chat with those who are to help you decide on the specific degree and program to pursue.
How prepared are you academically and personally? Be honest with yourself about your academic strengths, weaknesses and potential, as well as selecting a program for which you are academically well-suited.
Next, be proactive in identifying graduate programs that fit your particular interests, academic background and goals. In addition to looking at institutional characteristics important to most graduate applicants (faculty credentials, accreditation, cost, financial assistance, alumni job-search success), think about:
• The kind of academic experience are you looking for — hands-on versus theoretical, full time versus part time, traditional versus online.
• Your personal preferences for the school size and location.
• University support services that are important to you, such as cooperative education/internship opportunities, and the availability of parking or child care.
• Talk to faculty, current students and alumni; if possible, visit campuses. Beyond the facts and figures of the institution, personal contact with the people and the environment is important in determining your satisfaction and comfort level at a particular university.
Tips for Applying to Graduate School
• Follow instructions. Admissions requirements and deadlines vary by university and program, so read guidelines carefully and contact the admissions office if you have any questions.
• Don’t procrastinate. Transcripts and test scores may take up to six weeks to be sent to the graduate school, and getting recommenders to promptly submit letters can be difficult.
• Don’t worry about the F you got in chemistry in 1982. Schools make admissions decisions holistically, based on your total application. While admissions committees may be looking for an overall GPA of 3.0 or greater, they may be impressed by a pattern of improvement or in how you did in courses in your major or related to the graduate program. Work experience and professional accomplishments also can strengthen an application.
• Don’t over-stress about standardized tests. They are just one factor in the admission decision, and you can prepare for them, either on your own or by enrolling in a test preparation workshop. Practice test-taking skills and complete sample questions to become familiar with the kinds of questions and the test format.
• Get recommendations from those who know you well and have had positive experiences with you. Don’t submit recommendations from family or people who haven’t had enough contact with you in an academic or professional setting to evaluate your suitability for graduate study.
• Make the most of your statement of purpose. A good statement follows the stated guidelines for content and length and is well-written, honest and accurate. It also is your opportunity to stand out from the rest of the applicants and to share experiences and accomplishments not listed elsewhere in the application.
Financing Your Education
Explore all possible avenues for financing your graduate education, realizing that the type and availability of financial assistance varies by institution and program. In addition to federal and private loans, learn about the kinds of graduate support provided by the university, such as scholarships and fellowships, research/teaching assistantships and tuition awards. Your school and program also should be able to point you toward external fellowships and awards offered by private foundations or government agencies to graduate students in your field of study.
Tuition benefits are another good way to cover educational expenses. Check to see if your employer provides these benefits, or consider seeking a job with a university that includes free or reduced tuition rates.
Preparing for Success
Success in graduate school depends on a combination of academic preparation and personal characteristics. While your undergraduate record and standardized test scores generally are good predictors of success, graduate school also requires persistence, self-discipline, initiative and the ability to work well with faculty and colleagues. It also is important to stay motivated, with a clear picture of how the program contributes to your personal and professional goals.
Before you begin graduate study, establish personal support systems by sharing your plans with your employer and colleagues, family and friends, and professional and academic mentors. You also should assess your time- and stress-management skills and work to fine-tune them.
While in graduate school, be proactive in seeking out university services to help you succeed. Beyond the academic guidance of your faculty adviser, utilize other support services that universities provide graduate students, such as workshops to develop study, writing and research skills, and career counseling.
Finally, make the most of your time in graduate school. Enjoy the opportunity to meet new people, take advantage of the chance to broaden your professional network, and expand the value of your experience by getting involved in the intellectual and cultural life of the university.
Kristin Williams is director of Graduate Student Enrollment Management at The George Washington University and past president of the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals.