Party Like A Billionaire

Tips for Your Grad School Search

So you’re thinking about applying to graduate school, congratulations! Applying to grad school is a truly exciting period of your life because it means you’re committing to embarking on a new challenge to make yourself a better person.

That being said, it’s also a time-consuming, intensive, and expensive process. Applying to grad school is no light decision and something you should take seriously and commit to spending months of preparation on. After going through the rigorous process myself, here are my tips:

Be Committed

This might be obvious, but if you’re not 100% certain you want to complete graduate school, then don’t do it. Before you make the decision to apply to grad school, you should have a clear idea of what you want to get out of your experience, how your degree will contribute to your life and career, and if it will truly achieve your objectives. Some professions simply don’t require a grad degree to be successful and/or well paid; others require it. Before you make the decision to apply, make sure you’re committed to the degree you’re pursuing and fully understand your reasons for wanting doing so.

Start Early

Like, really early. As in, you should be thinking about and preparing for graduate school about a year before applications are due, which is about 7 – 10 months before grad programs typically start…meaning you should start thinking seriously about grad programs 1.75-2 years before the program itself would start.

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But don’t get stressed! The most important reason to start thinking about grad school early is so you have enough time to get a general sense of what types of programs you want to apply to and what their general requirements are. Most programs don’t list out requirements to get into their programs, but if you read between the lines, you can usually figure out what they’re looking for. If you don’t immediately fit a program’s profile, it’s useful to know that in advance so you can take the appropriate steps to strengthen your application.

For example, almost all of the public policy programs I applied to had a preference for applicants who had a demonstrated commitment to public service and had completed economics and statistics courses. In order to strengthen my application, I increased the amount of volunteer activities I was involved in several months before applying, and completed online graduate courses (including Statistics) at a nearby college to prove I was capable of succeeding in a rigorous academic environment. Neither of those things would have been possible to do if I only started my search a few months before applications were due, but I started thinking about grad school early and was able to plan ahead.

If you already have a good understanding of what you’d like to do and feel confident that you have the right profile for the programs you want to apply to, you likely don’t have to start searching quite so early. Regardless, it might take more time than you think to search for programs you love and decide where to apply. Depending on what you want to study, there may be dozens of programs to consider, and it’ll take lots of research (see the next section) to finalize the list of where to apply.

Factors to Consider

  1. Curriculum: Find a program where you actively want to take a majority of the required courses, as well as a program that has electives you are interested in taking. Dig around online to find a full curriculum, list of possible electives, and information about concentrations/certificates. If possible, try to find the summaries and/or syllabuses of each course so you know exactly what is covered in each course, as titles can sometimes be misleading.

  2. Length: Find a program whose schedule works for you (and your finances). Make sure you know the answers to the following questions: how long is the program? Do classes start in the summer or fall? Are courses completed year-round or in traditional semesters? Is there an option to accelerate coursework and graduate early? Are summer internships/courses required? Can you switch between full-time and part-time status without losing financial aid?

  3. Course details: The size, timing, and delivery of courses are all important factors to consider. Depending on the size of the school and program, you may have anywhere from 12 – 300 people in your cohort, meaning that there could be any number of students in your courses. Find out the average class size and make sure it aligns with the culture you want in a grad program. Similarly, whether courses are taught in the day or in the evening may be an important factor, as that may interact with other parts of your life (work, family, etc). Lastly, determining whether courses are taught in-person, online, or a combination of both, is important. I personally chose to apply to programs that did not offer any courses online, as it was important to me to get to know and be able to easily work with all of my classmates. (There are pros to taking courses online, however, such as that you generally have much more flexibility in completing those courses. But again, think about what works best for you.)

  4. Career services: Most accredited programs and schools have a plethora of career services to offer students and alumni, but that isn’t something you should take for granted. Do your research and make sure you understand the role career services plays at each program so there are no unpleasant surprises later down the road. I’ve been surprised at the lack of career services at pretty good schools, so this is something you should definitely look into.

  5.  Location: While the overwhelming point of grad school is to study, you also need to be happy with where you live and be able to maintain a good quality of life. If you would be miserable or literally could not afford to live in a certain area, then you need to factor that into your decision. It’s also important to consider how many professional opportunities in your field are located in the area where you’re applying, which impacts your opportunities for internships and part-time work during grad school, as well as your ability to meet and network with people in your industry (70% of positions are filled through networking…).

  6.  Faculty: Some people would argue that when you chose a program, you’re essentially choosing the faculty. While that mostly holds true for research degrees, it’s also a good idea to have a general understanding of who’ll you be taking courses from, what their interests are, and what outside activities they’re involved in. Even if you’re interested in a professional degree and not a research degree, if none of the research of faculty members at a certain program interest you, you likely won’t be able to truly connect and network with them.

  7. Career prospects: Looking into what alumni are doing can provide huge clues for a program’s culture and focus. Are alumni working in fields and holding positions you’re interested in? Is the average starting salary for alumni acceptable to you? Do alumni generally stay in the area or do they scatter around the country (or world)? This information will help you discern if a program tilts in a certain direction and what sort of future you’re being prepared for. Learning this information will also help you determine what sort of classmates you’ll have, and ultimately what your graduate network is going to look like.

Don’t Over-Apply 

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A general rule of thumb is to apply to 5-7 programs, with 1-2 programs being reach schools, 2-3 schools that fit your exact profile, and 1-2 safety schools.If you can find more than 7 programs you really like, I might suggest that you need to narrow your focus and spend more time researching all aspects of schools and programs, and narrow down the list. To reiterate a sentiment from above, if you don’t really love a program and don’t see yourself being happy there, don’t apply. If you don’t get into any programs you really like, I would genuinely recommend taking a year to strengthen your application and then apply again, rather than commit to a program you don’t like.

Something else to seriously consider when creating a shot-list is the amount of time, energy, and money it takes to apply. Each program likely has its own set of unique essays, videos, and interviews to complete, and if you don’t tailor each piece of your application to that specific program and school, then seriously – don’t bother applying. Each program has unique values and goals and looks for unique characteristics, and all of that needs to be translated into your application.Writing good essays takes serious time (something I’ll get into in a future post), and that alone may preclude you from applying to a multitude of programs. Trust me, you’ll get busy, life will get in the way, and you if try to overachieve and try to apply to too many schools, you may shoot yourself in the foot (think quality over quantity).

And in terms of costs: the GREs currently cost $205, sending your scores after you take the GREs is $27 per school, each program charges anywhere from $25-$85 to apply, and my alma matter charged $8 for each official transcript sent. Needless to say, the costs tallied up real quick.

Give Yourself Time

Seriously. Don’t give yourself only a few weeks to decide where to apply, as it may be something you need to think about and keep in the back of your mind for months. Making the decision to dedicate a full year or two to your studies, a lot of money, and sometimes a move across the country, aren’t decisions that should be made lightly.

When you finalize where to apply, the best thing you can do for your applications is to spend time on them. Spend time making a really good first draft, and then take a break from it. Look at it again with fresh eyes and then make another really good fresh draft. Then, give it a friend to review, and then make another really good draft. Rinse, repeat, etc.

Some programs may also ask questions that you may not have an immediate answer to and will want to take time to deliberate on. For example, I had to write short essays on my biggest accomplishment and my biggest achievement. Instead of writing about the first thing I could think of, I spent weeks thinking about the most strategic way to answer those questions.

Example Timeline

Jan – May: Start searching for programs to apply to

June – July: Study for the GREs/GMATs

August: Take the GREs/GMATs

Sep: Take the GREs/GMATs again (this is much more common than you think)

Oct. 1 – Dec. 1: Start your applications

Dec. 1 – Feb. 1: Applications due

Good luck!!!

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This entry was posted on February 2, 2017 by in Advice, Career/Professional, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , .

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