Thursday, June 25, 2009

4 Tips: Getting into Grad School

(originally posted 02/09 at wordpress)

by mae stephenson

I'm the kind of student who knew what I wanted to go to graduate school for long before I had decided on an undergraduate major. Maybe I've just always had lofty goals-- it's not common for my peers to be thinking of graduate school as certainly as I do. By my peers, I mean us lucky women who come from working class families with not a single college degree in our immediate family and get to pay for our education on our own. But with graduation coming up for me (crosses fingers, knocks on wood, and all that other stuff) at the end of summer, it's past time for me start setting goals on actually working toward getting into graduate school. So I recently sat down with one of my greatest mentors, who happens to be pursuing a doctoral degree, to have a talk about an action plan. Always one to try to share and not hoard knowledge, I've decided to write about what we came up with. Beware, some aspects of this plan might be pretty specific to my personal educational history and future goals, but I have a feeling at least some of it could be of benefit to the general graduate-degree-seeking public. Here goes:

First: Forge relationships with a variety of letter-of-recommendation-writing folks including faculty, staff (think student affairs, academic advisers, etc), community leaders, and mentors you've had for long periods of time.

***Not sure you have the right faculty connections? My mentor gave me a great idea: Think about professors you've had and really enjoyed but didn't keep in contact with. Find an online article relating to the course you took and e-mail it to your professor with an intro saying something like, "Hi Professor _____, I just read this article and it reminded me of the ________ class I took with you during Fall/Winter/Spring/Summer of 20__" (to help them place where they know you from). Follow with a paragraph or two of observations, critical thoughts, and connections to course material. Finish with a request for their thoughts on the article. If you get a response that isn't quite as detailed as you hoped, send another article with a similar note. Choosing professors that teach in your major is probably wisest, but any professor you think you could make a connection with and who would be able to attest to your dedication (grad schools look for folks who will finish), your critical thinking ability, and your other admirable qualities are also great options.

Second: Groom those faculty, staff, community leaders, and mentors in what the content of their potential letters should look like. What we decided I should do is put together a draft of my Curriculum Vitae (vita or CV for short: basically, a more detailed document than a resume which contains info about your life's goals and academic accomplishments; for a more detailed description and some tips, go to and of course, the career center on campus). After I've got a simple draft, send an e-mail to between five and ten letter-of-recommendation-writing candidates inviting them to enter into correspondence with me about goals for graduate school including tips on how to find the right program, how to write effective essays, and proof-reading my Curriculum Vitae; also, let them know that once I get to the point of the actual application process, I might be asking them to write a letter of recommendation for me. Not everyone will accept my invitation or stay the course until I'm ready to apply, so it's important include several people.

We decided to go this route because I'm not going to graduate school immediately after I finish my undergraduate degree and keeping in contact with faculty, staff, etc is great way to keep them familiar with me as a student and with my goals so when letter writing time comes around, they can easily recall my CV and know what they should gear their letter toward. This makes it easier for them to write my letter and gives me an opportunity to receive guidance and tips from folks who can really help me attain my goals.

Third: Research graduate programs. This seemed really daunting to me until I realized how much information we really have at out finger tips.

-Those faculty, staff, and mentors you're already contacting? Ask if they can recommend any programs for you after they read your vita. This is especially true of mentors in your field of interest. Ask them where they went to school and how they liked it.

-Look up scholarly journals pertaining to the area you'd like to study. What universities are they coming out of? Where do the experts teach?

- This is the big one: ready? Visit the Career Center. This is part of what your fees go toward and they are really good at their job over there.

Fourth: This might be the point where it gets a little personalized for my career path. First of all, I need to take a break between undergrad and graduate studies to work and replenish my bank account. Second, I'm looking into Student Development and Student Affairs, and I've managed to get some experience under my belt. My friend recommended that instead of applying for a program right away, I select about five universities I'd like to study at and apply for a job there first. I can keep my Portland service industry job until a position opens up on a campus of my choice or until I've got enough money saved up to go back to school. If I do get hired on a campus, I can settle in, apply for school after six months to a year, and if I get in? SCORE, most universities offer discounted tuition for employees.

But even if your career path isn't geared toward work on a college campus, there are a lot of jobs that you can qualify for with your undergraduate degree. If you need to take time off anyway, like I do, what's the harm in trying?

This is not a sure-fire guide to getting into grad school, but it's four hearty tips that I've found useful in laying out an action plan. If I come upon more, I'll be sure to share them-- and I hope you do the same.

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