why applying to grad school is not the same as applying to college

Hi there! Sorry for the radio silence. It’s been crazy over here. But, the good news is I passed my dissertation proposal! Now it’s off to the races; trying to finish all my analyses and writing it all up in the next 8 months. It’s going to be a busy year, but I’m excited to finally get this project underway. Being at this stage of graduate school makes me think back to when I first started. I’ve learned a lot along the way, and I’m glad I have this space to help others with their process.

Today, I want to talk a little bit about the graduate school application process. Many students approach this process much like they did when applying to undergraduate programs. For college applications, many students make a long list of all schools they might want to apply to, maybe visit a few to get a feel for the campus, and they choose based on the caliber of the school as a whole, and some other details that were mentioned on the campus tour (e.g. class sizes, professors, clubs, study abroad programs, major options, etc.).

When applying to graduate school, the process is quite different. First, and foremost, the caliber and general ranking of the school does not mean that the graduate program you’re interested in is necessarily a good fit for you. Many students get caught up in name recognition when applying to graduate programs, and while this might seem important to you, it does not necessarily guarantee that the graduate program you’re applying to is anything special. The skills you develop and the connections you make during graduate school matter more.

Applying to graduate school is a personal process. You are choosing which graduate program will further YOUR interests, and help you develop YOUR career. Unlike undergraduate programs, which really serve as a stepping stone toward many different careers, graduate degrees help you specialize, and get the job you really want. For example, many people chose an undergraduate major they didn’t really end up liking, and they decide to pursue a career that is separate from their major (think: biology majors who end up working in finance). This isn’t really a big deal since undergraduate programs give you broad skills that can be applied to a myriad of different careers. This is not necessarily true, however, for graduate programs. Getting a graduate degree helps you become highly specialized. This means, it is imperative that you pick the right program for you; otherwise, you could end up highly qualified to do a job you really don’t like, and under-qualified for your dream career.

Graduate school is about building relationships with faculty and other students, in a very different way than in college. During college, you can easily cruise on by barely even knowing your professor’s names. However, during graduate school, it is necessary for your career and success in the program for you to develop professional relationships with other faculty members and students in the program. These relationships can help build the foundation for future job interviews, employment, and letters of recommendation.

Many applicants make the mistake of not connecting with faculty or current students before applying. College students rarely work one-on-one with faculty, and even less often do they have a clear idea of their research/career interests at 18 years old. However, this all changes when you apply to graduate school. If you’re hoping to get involved in research during graduate school, it helps to make connect with graduate professors before even applying. Email professors ahead of time and ask for a face-to-face informational interview (either via Skype or in-person if that’s available to you). This can help you visualize what it would be like to attend this school, what kinds of research projects faculty and students are working on, and help you get a better understanding of what the program is like in general.

Here are a few guiding questions to keep in mind when you’re applying to graduate programs:

  • Is this the right degree for you?
  • What kinds of jobs can you get with this degree? Do you like these options?
  • What are the general research interests of the faculty at this school? Are you interested in what they are studying?
  • Have you contacted professors ahead of time? What did you learn? Did it seem like the right fit for you?

Good luck! As always, contact me with any further questions.


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