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Whether you’re just finishing up your undergraduate degree or have a few years of professional experience under your belt, you may find the process of applying to graduate programs to be a bit overwhelming, and understandably so!  Between choosing programs, defining your research goals, and preparing for the GRE, there is a lot to think about and we are here to help.  I sat down with one of our application experts, Suzanne Barnett, to gather some tips you need to know for narrowing your options and crafting your applications for Master’s and PhD programs.

  1. Apply to the department, not the school. For undergraduate admissions, students are generally told to think big: Why this School?  For graduate school, it’s a completely different ball game! You need to look at an institution’s strengths in your specific field. These departments might come from unexpected schools and places: a certain school that might not immediately come to mind as top-tier might have a stellar reputation for your field.  And, vice versa: just because a university is highly ranked doesn’t mean it’s the right place for you and your research.
  2. Do your homework. In addition to finding faculty of interest in each department, check out the department’s job placement numbers. If they’re good, the department will tout them on their website. If they’re not good, that might be a red flag.
  3. Tailor your application. Echoing tip #1, your applications should be specific! All graduate student application materials need to be pitched specifically to each individual school and department. Mention faculty names, cite their research interests, and describe how they connect with yours. General applications will be tossed out the window!
  4. Get involved in professional organizations early. In the past few months, almost all professional organizations have moved their conferences and annual meetings online, making it much easier for future graduate students to get involved! Research the major organizations in your field, find out when the conferences are, and inquire about volunteer opportunities. In the digital world, the conferences may not require as many volunteers as usual, but it never hurts to ask.  At the very least, plan to attend the major conferences and sit in on some panels and the plenary lectures so you can take note of the ways in which conversations are happening in your field. Consider reaching out to speakers after the conference, and find a way to work all of this into your personal statement. Initiative & experience = winning application.
  5. Show your potential.  Your personal statement should not only speak to why a specific program is right for you and your intended research, but also show your potential to do original scholarly work. Pose thoughtful research questions. Offer that you are excited and intentional with your research prospectus. Demonstrate that you’re excited to pursue new directions and add to the field as it grows!
  6. Prepare for the GRE. A test is a test is a test! It’s important to prepare for the GRE and get a handle on the test content, timing, and format before heading into test day. Give yourself enough time to learn the necessary vocabulary and brush up on your logical thinking for the analytical essays. (P.S. Wondering what’s changed in 2020?  Check out our recent blog post).
  7. Reach out to current graduate students. Consider emailing current graduate students in a department you’re targeting – they are usually listed on the department’s website! These folks are likely exceptionally busy; politely ask if they would be willing to discuss their experiences in the department and in the school more broadly. Current students can also offer insight into certain faculty members, the local scene, department culture, and funding packages.
  8. Position yourself as a future professional, not as an enthusiast. You want to be taken seriously! For example, if you’re applying for a Master’s degree in English, rather than gush about the written word, talk about your critical and analytical skills to approaching scholarship. Be specific about the kinds of work that you are (or will be) invested in, and what kinds of interventions/points of pivot you plan to make as part of your scholarly journey.

And, remember: if you don’t have it all figured out yet – that’s okay! The application process itself can help you define and refine your research interests and goals, which will likely change once you’re in the program of your dreams. There are very few graduate students whose research questions don’t change at least once… if not a hundred times!  Take your time, choose carefully, and use this as a learning tool on your path into the world of academia.

If you’re looking for some guidance on GRE prep, personal statements, research prospectuses and more, do not hesitate to contact us. We are happy to help!

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