Many of you have already decided whether to pursue graduate studies. Either you are currently enrolled in a graduate program or you have decided to do so soon. (Note: If you fall into the latter group, do not allow soon, to become a long time from now.) If you have not yet decided to enroll, you should be reminded that regardless of your post-baccalaureate dream, today’s equation for success requires training and education beyond the bachelor’s degree. The following article will not only explain the graduate school application process, it will explore the political nature of successfully navigating the graduate school experience. Prospective graduate students will gain insights from the entire article while current and former graduate students will certainly recognize, relate, and learn from the latter half of this article. Read on.
If you have decided to go to graduate school, you have made a wise decision. If you have not already done so, you are at least interested in graduate study since you are reading this article. Contact your favorite faculty member to discuss the graduate school process. It is not a process that can be taken lightly and, like anything else that is worth having, it will require a great deal of work. Nevertheless, it is not an impossible task, especially if you plan. Starting early is crucial, and consulting good resources (like the one you are currently reading) also will be helpful. Several additional resources include: Educational Testing Service’s GRE/CGS Directory of Graduate Programs; the Council of Graduate School’s Graduate School and You: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students; and Daniel Cassidy’s The Graduate Scholarship Book. These are all quite good, but perhaps the most comprehensive source of graduate school opportunities exists in the multi-volume set of books commonly referred to as “The Peterson’s Guides.” Peterson’s Guide to Graduate and Professional Programs can be found in most college library reference rooms as well as on-line. These materials will prove invaluable.
Upon completing your initial investigation about graduate school opportunities, you may yet be confused about application and admission. Although the process includes an assortment of tasks, it is fairly standard from school to school. It does require diligence and dedication; therefore it cannot be approached cavalierly. It also requires that you begin the process early! Do not procrastinate!
The Application Process
Once you have decided to pursue a graduate degree and have figured out which specific field you will study, the steps in the application process are as follows:
1. Create a list of potential schools – In order to maximize your opportunities you will need to apply to several schools. The more schools to which you apply, the more chances you have for admission. By consulting a guidebook such as Peterson’s Guides, you will uncover a comprehensive listing of graduate opportunities in your respective area. The listings include descriptions of each discipline and their sub-fields. It also includes a wealth of data about the various institutions with programs in those disciplines (location, entrance requirements, acceptance rates, tuition costs, funding options, enrollment demographics, etc.).
To create your list of schools you should first consider factors like quality of the program, strength of the university, reputation of faculty in your area, availability of funding, institutional support, and commitment to minority students. Other factors that may play a part include geographic region, size of enrollment, racial make-up of student body, community in which the school is located, and campus facilities and activities. After weighing these factors, you should compile a list of ten or more institutions.
Start by asking faculty members to recommend institutions. (Be careful; they almost always will think their alma mater is the best choice for you. This may, or may not be the case.) Check to see who are the leading experts in your chosen field, then find out what schools they attended and where they are currently working. You might also check to see where recent graduates from your current academic department have gone to graduate school. If they have had positive experiences, that institution might also be good for you.
After creating your list of choices you should contact each school. Wherever possible you should make a personal visit to the campus. Campus visits can sometimes make all the difference. In any case, you should request application materials and any other information that will help you with the admissions process. Ultimately, you want to be able to select the university that will give you your best opportunity for success.
2. Register, practice, and then take the GRE – The Graduate Records Examination (GRE) is the entrance exam most often required for graduate admission. It has assumed a greater role of importance in the admissions process than was ever intended. The GRE has assumed this role of importance primarily because most applicants will have good GPA’s, decent statements of purpose, and glowing letters of recommendation. What usually distinguishes one applicant from another is the score received on this nationally standardized test, therefore making performing well on this test of major importance. Make sure you practice by using a review course or study manual and that you register early (since the test is computerized, you may register at your convenience for a test site near you). Also, schedule your exam nine to eighteen months before you start graduate school. Finally, take precautions to do well on the test.
Few schools will post cutoff scores (something which ETS strongly discourages) but there seems to be some “magic” in obtaining a combined GRE score of 1,000-1,100 or better. This combined score is obtained by adding the quantitative score to the verbal reasoning score. Many schools will not only expect a minimum total score, but will have minimum scores established for these individual sections of the test. Finally, some departments will require a minimum score on a Subject Test. The Subject Tests (covering material unique to your graduate discipline) are administered separately and require preparation and practice much the same as the general test. Study material for the Subject Tests can be obtained directly from ETS.
3. Ask faculty members for letters of recommendations – Often applicants will try to impress admission committees with letters from a local politician, a high ranking university official, or even their pastor. While these people may be able to say nice things about the applicant, the admissions committee is more interested in what are the academic abilities of the applicant. This usually requires the evaluator to be someone who has taught the applicant and who can speak favorably about the applicant’s ability to perform graduate level work. Faculty members from whom you have earned at least two grades of “B” or higher (preferably two or more “A”s) are ideal candidates to write strong letters of recommendation for you.
When requesting these letters, always remember that it is just that–a request. It should therefore be requested in a courteous and thoughtful manner. This means that you approach your faculty members early and that you provide them with enough information so that they may effectively write about your potential. Provide them with a half-page abstract that includes the courses taken and grades received from that instructor; a concise description of your graduate plans and plans beyond graduate school (i.e. “I plan to pursue my Ph.D. in higher education administration and later work as a student service administrator…); the mailing address for the particular schools to which you are applying (most schools will provide special envelopes for these letters); and the deadline for mailing the letters of recommendation.
4. Write a statement of purpose and have it critiqued – The statement of purpose often distinguishes between the winners and the losers. Those that get accepted almost always have better statements of purpose than those who do not. What sets apart a good statement is its overall quality and ability to clearly articulate your potential for graduate study. A good statement will be:
a. concise – say what you have to as efficiently as possible; most are limited to 1-1 1/2 pages
b. organized – your essay should be well thought out and structured, so work from an outline
c. clear – it should say exactly what you want it to say; no ambiguity
d. honest – do not pretend to be who you are not; but, do not sell yourself short, either
e. personal – this is uniquely yours, it is a statement about you; write about yourself
f. positive – sell yourself using positive attributes; do not dwell on negatives like low grades
The content of statement of purpose varies from school to school. Be sure to read each application carefully and provide the specific information requested. Typically you are asked to include responses to most of the following:
- · Why do you want to get a graduate degree?
- · What are your specific goals for graduate study?
- · How have you been academically prepared for these goals?
- · What are your goals beyond graduate study?
- · What tangible experiences helped prepare you (research projects, internships, professional and volunteer experiences, publications, exchange programs, etc?)
- · Why should you be admitted?
Upon completion of your statement, show it to a friend and have him/her critique it. Make corrections and then share it with a faculty member. Ask the same questions. Inquire about punctuation and grammar. Make the necessary revisions and then have it proofed one last time. If you are satisfied you may then include it with the rest of your application. This may seem like a tedious process for a one-page statement. It is necessary however, since you will seldom be asked to write a more important statement.
5. Complete and mail your applications for admission and financial/fellowship support – This is in fact a very important process and you do not want to leave anything to chance. Complete your application making sure it is typed. Make copies of everything! It should look nice and should be legible. Use the original application materials provided (no photocopies) including any return addressed envelopes. Mail all materials well in advance of any stated deadline! Institutions receive hundreds of applications and most have no room for late or incomplete applications. Order transcripts and test scores early enough to be mailed in a timely fashion to the appropriate institutions. Further, remember that a completed, clean, and on-time application will not by itself gain you admission, but you can rest assured that an incomplete, sloppy, or late application will ensure rejection.
Also complete all financial aid forms (some are separate) and fellowship/assistantship requests (most are included in the application) in a similar manner. While most students receive funding from their graduate institution, it is always advantageous to have outside funding. This funding may come from major corporations, professional organizations, special interest programs, or other sources. They often have fall application deadlines and they typically require good grades and test scores. Contact these funding sources directly or check with your school for other sources. These funding sources can be found in reference journals at your library or online at Web sites such as www.black-collegian.com and fastweb.com. It must be noted that due to the under-representation of certain groups at the graduate level, there is plenty of funding to go around. You should not have to pay for a Ph.D. given the number of funding opportunities available. It is up to you to find your financial support.
You should begin thinking about your graduate career as early as possible. It is not too early for freshmen or sophomores to start inquiring about options or to start planning. Successful graduate school applicants often will have participated in summer research internships and graduate recruitment fairs during their undergraduate careers. The wise student will begin the actual application process no later than one year before his or her expected date of graduate admission.
The Politics Of Graduate School
The following is a collection of suggestions for the successful navigation of the graduate school process. For many students, this is an unfamiliar process and perhaps an unfamiliar environment. As a result, a great deal of confusion and uncertainty often develops. Some students quickly make the necessary adjustments, some get frustrated and respond inappropriately, and some never figure out what’s happening. In any case, these pointers are provided to help graduate students anticipate situations and avoid potential problems.
It’s All In The Department
- · underestimate the importance of the department. Think of yourself not as being enrolled in a university, but as enrolled in a department.
- · get caught up in department gossip. Mess is mess.
- · volunteer information about your graduate school funding or personal finances to people who have no influence on these funds. Your money is your business.
- · leave your advisor in the dark. Keep him or her informed and keep notes of all agreements.
- · assume anything. Always check information out and verify it in writing, e.g., policies, requirements, deadlines.
- · identify faculty and student advocates to help you, should the need arise. Identify them before a problem arises.
- · establish good rapport with the secretaries. Your chairperson is important and so is your advisor, but the secretaries run the show.
- · maintain positive relationships with the faculty, especially your advisor. You never know whom you will need.
- · create a calendar that clearly plots the steps and self-imposed deadlines required for degree completion. If you don’t plan, your chances for success are minimized.
- · keep a file of all written correspondence and catalogs. Document everything; you never know what you might have to prove later.
How’s Your Social Life?
- · let dating, partying, hanging in the gym, watching television or other social activities interfere with your schoolwork. Make time for these activities, but keep everything in proper perspective.
- · let relationship problems disrupt your studies or dramatically alter your academic pursuits. It’s not worth it.
- · let family or friends distract you from your goal. True friends and supportive family members will understand.
- · get so involved in your schoolwork that you neglect a healthy relationship. A truly healthy relationship will enable you to complete your program faster.
- · get involved in study groups and other academic endeavors. Two heads are better than one.
- · socialize with department associates. You don’t have to like them a whole lot, but you do have to work with them.
- · establish healthy functional relationships that don’t interfere with your academic progress. Life is not all about graduate school, so you will need these relationships to sustain and reaffirm your goals.
- · make time for enjoyable activities outside of academic work.
- · get involved in service to your community that allows you to share your talents. Your community needs this and so do you.
- · maintain a positive spiritual relationship. Above all else, your faith will see you through.
Graduate school is no longer just a good idea. Graduate education has become an entry-level requirement for many of the more desirable professional positions. Further, there is a critical shortage of African Americans with advanced degrees (especially the Ph.D.) who conduct research, publish, or teach about the many issues and agendas that directly impact our lives. Your pursuit of graduate studies cannot only address this shortage, but it can also dramatically contribute to the advancement of the aforementioned agendas.
Dr. Dereck J. Rovaris, Sr. is the assistant dean of the Graduate School and director of Graduate Placement at Xavier