How to: Tips and tricks for the graduate school applicant

Senior thesis, senior projects, senior portfolios, senior, senior, senior! With the amount of activities, papers and expectations placed on the graduating class of 2012, it is amazing that we survive, let alone have social lives. However, one aspect of senior year, for those of us who choose the path, creates more tensions and nerves than all the rest put together: graduate school applications. For those juniors looking ahead to planning for senior year or for my fellow year-mates, I hope I can offer some grad school tips to ease the plight of your last semesters at Puget Sound.

My first bit of advice: try to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), or, for medical school hopefuls, the MCATs, as soon as you possibly can. It is preferable to take them the summer before your senior year because this helps to decrease the stress that accumulates with having to study for a four-hour plus computerized test alongside a full semester’s class load. It may not be fun studying for yet another standardized test during the summer (weren’t the SATs bad enough?), but at least it gives you ample practice time. Summer testing also enables you to retake the test mid semester if you want to improve your scores.  One final piece of advice for the GRE: calculators and pretty much nothing but yourself and your clothes are allowed in the testing room, so be sure to practice your math skills. Also, don’t have a lot of excess change in your pockets, because TSA could learn a thing or two about security breaches from the GRE proctors.

Already got the GRE done and you are still stressing about your workload and applications? Well, here are some more tips. Make sure you have strong letters of recommendation, preferably from professors who know you and have taught you more than one semester. Most schools want two to three references, so make sure you let your professors know ahead of time (again, maybe during the summer) that you will be needing the ever-so-crucial recommendations for your application around midterm time. Hopefully this goes without saying, but also be on top of your game and research the schools with programs related to your interests. Depending on your future career goals, I was told that you should apply to around seven schools to optimize your chances of receiving a place for the term of your choice.

Once you have your top schools in mind, become familiar with their websites. Personally, I can navigate the sites of my chosen schools in my sleep; thankfully, this level of crazy preoccupation is not a requirement for everyone. While navigating your way through the websites, look at the programs that interest you and really know about the school that you want to apply to. What courses would I be taking? What possible research projects could I do there? Is there a member of faculty in my given program with research interests similar to my own? These questions are what you should be asking yourself as you look at masters or PhD programs because they are what you need to reflect in your application and personal statement.

Now we come to personal statements, the bane of my current existence. In about 500 to 600 words you must tell the university of your choice a) why you deserve a coveted place in their program, b) what you have to offer that makes you different from everyone else, c) your specific goals for study or research, d) your experience in the given field, and e) what your future career goals are and how that university can help you attain those goals. If that seems like a lot of information to pack into a cohesive paper with a limit of about one page, believe me, it is.  Don’t let the word count fool you into overestimating the ease of the undertaking. Trying to convince the admissions board of a highly competitive program to let you in using only 500 words is a daunting experience. The good news is that the Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching has graduate school advisors who are willing to work with you on personal statements, writing samples and resumes. Don’t forget to utilize the knowledge of your professors when it comes to your personal statement because they had to write the beastly papers too, probably more recently than they care to remember.

Really focus on getting those written supporting documents done as soon as possible because once they are finished the application process goes a lot smoother. With references and everything in, all you have to do is fill out basic background information forms online and make sure to send your schools transcripts and then you are basically done. Well, you do have to wait an agonizing few months to hear if you were accepted or not, but at least the paperwork is over.

Talking with fellow seniors, I continually hear that senior year of college is like senior year of high school all over again. True, there are standardized tests, applications, transcripts and FAFSAs, but can you really compare your high school self to your college self? Yes, the graduate school application process is both new and highly competitive, especially for those wanting to enter medical school (sorry science majors), but no matter how difficult the process, we are not our 18-year-old selves anymore. We are seniors in college, and we have four more years of experience, knowledge and personal growth under our belts.  In the spring we will have diplomas. So, fellow members of the class of 2012, we may have a lot of work ahead of us in our remaining semesters, but that does not mean that the graduate school application process has to be a black pit of horror. Just take it one step at a time, ask for help when needed and enjoy senior year.