Preparing for Graduate Study

What is graduate school?

Pursuing a graduate degree is a very different experience from completing a Bachelor’s degree. Undergraduate degree programs are designed to provide students with a broad and well-rounded education that emphasizes the development of basic critical thinking skills, writing skills, and other communication skills. A large percentage of an undergraduate degree is devoted to general education course work and students may only devote 25-33% of their courses to major study. Undergraduate students have many opportunities to explore a broad range of interests and the flexibility to discover where their intellectual interests lie. They may often pursue multiple majors or minors as part of their studies.

Graduate degrees, by way of contrast, have a heavy emphasis upon specialization and professional advancement. Students enter medical school in order to develop the skill sets necessary to practice as doctors. Students enter law school in order to obtain the qualifications necessary to pass the bar exam. Students pursue MBAs in order to qualify for high-level management positions with supervisory responsibilities. Graduate programs expect students to have already mastered the academic skills necessary for success and to have specific intellectual or professional goals that they wish to pursue. Accordingly, graduate programs are not good places to explore general interests or to discover oneself.

Why should I seek a graduate degree?

Most candidates pursue a graduate degree in order to qualify for advanced employment in a specific career sector. Students who wish to become academics or researchers need a Ph.D. in their chosen field. Students who wish to practice in health care fields require an M.D., D.P.T., D.Ph., or similar degrees. Students wishing to practice law need to pursue a J.D. degree.

Earning a graduate degree will help you to develop advanced skill sets and acquire specialized knowledge that may open new employment opportunities to you or qualify you to earn a higher salary. In competitive job markets, a graduate degree may give you an edge and help you to stand out from lesser-educated candidates.

When should I enter graduate school?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question and each individual’s case will vary. Some students choose to enter graduate school immediately following completion of the undergraduate degree. For students entering M.D. or Ph.D. programs requiring four to eight years of additional study, this may make a great deal of sense. Other students may wish to pursue employment opportunities before entering a graduate program. This offers the advantage of allowing students additional time to develop their academic, professional, and personal goals and to select a graduate degree program that is tailored to their specific objectives. Professional experience deepens your resume and may make you a more attractive graduate school applicant, especially if your undergraduate transcript is average. Students can also use a period of employment to pay off undergraduate debts and to save money for graduate study.

Before applying to a graduate program, you should know what your interests and goals are and you should be able to articulate this clearly. If you are not certain what your long-range plans are, you may wish to postpone graduate study so that you do not squander valuable time and resources in the wrong program. You should have the necessary academic skills and course work to succeed in graduate school. If your B.A. in French did not include course work in economics or statistics, complete these courses before you apply to an MBA program. Above all, make sure that you are prepared to make the time commitment necessary for success in graduate school.

Where should I apply for graduate study?

Students should take a number of variables into consideration when answering this question, including university location, costs, competitiveness of admission, and personal life factors. Generally speaking, students may want to apply to three to six graduate programs in order to compare admission and financial aid offers. One or two of these programs should be reach programs (highly competitive), one or two of these programs should be safety programs, and the remainder should be programs that the applicant is reasonably confident that he/she will be admitted to.

Amongst the most important variables considered should be the quality of the program and the appropriateness of the program to the applicant’s interests and goals. One of the best ways to identify the top programs in your field of study is to speak with faculty members in your major department. You should also look at journal articles and books in your field and discover which institutions the leading experts in the field are affiliated with.

Don’t limit yourself; Honors College graduates have been admitted to outstanding universities throughout the United States and the world. You may be surprised how competitive your application may be at top research institutions!

How can I prepare myself for graduate school?

Set goals for yourself. If you can articulate what you want to accomplish, how, and why, you can impress graduate admissions committees. Outlining goals takes time. You won’t be able to successfully articulate your future plans in one week.

Take rigorous courses throughout your undergraduate career. Graduate programs expect you to be prepared for success. You need the writing skills, mathematical skills, or language skills necessary for success in your chosen field. The deeper your background in these areas, the better. Students who take the path of greatest resistance and enjoy success will be rewarded. Alternatively, a class schedule that is deemed soft can undermine an application, regardless of your GPA.

Consider your long-term goals when selecting a major. If you wish to become an economist, you will need a strong foundation in mathematics. You might not receive this training as part of an English degree program.

Use a minor or free electives to complement your major field. If you are a Literature major, you might seek a Spanish minor in order to prepare for the study of comparative literature as a graduate student.

Research the expectations in your field and discuss qualifications with your academic advisor. If you hope to earn a Ph.D. in History, you may need to be able to read or speak two foreign languages. If you know this ahead of time, you can select appropriate courses as an undergraduate.

Take advantage of research opportunities. Graduate students write papers and articles and make presentations at conferences. Science students design and execute original experiments and compete for research grants. If you have experience completing projects such as these at the undergraduate level, you will be very attractive to programs during the admissions process.

Earn Distinction in your Major by completing an Honors Distinction Project. Demonstrate to graduate schools that you can design and execute a long-term research project in your field of interest.

Build relationships with your instructors and advisors. These individuals will not only help you to identify competitive graduate programs, but their recommendations will be crucial in order for you to be seriously considered for admission and funding opportunities.