Perhaps you have known for quite some time that you want to attend graduate school. Or, maybe you are in your final year of college, and you decided to start looking into the idea, mainly because you are scared out of your mind of, what’s next?! Regardless of your reason for pursuing graduate school, the planning stages for starting your next educational journey are just as important as the journey itself.
Before you start to look at programs, have a conversation with your family and loved ones about your decision. Graduate school, even in the shortest duration can impact the relationships with those around you, and having the support from your loved ones is an important part of your journey. You also want to consider your timeline for the process. The entire application process takes about a year from preparing to apply, to the time you receive an admissions decision.
What type of program should you apply to? Research your career interests and schedule a few informational interviews with people in the field to see what their recommendations are about whether or when they recommend attending graduate school and how they think graduate school fits into a career path in this field. What difference will having an advanced degree have on your earning potential? Are there shorter-term certificate programs that will help you achieve your goals? Do schools that offer this type of degree program typically recommend that you gain work experience before applying?
The next thing you want to think about is who you would potentially ask to write you a letter of recommendation. You may be asking yourself “Why do I need to think about this so early? I might not even need letters of recommendation!” Yes, it is early. However, if you do not have anyone that you have developed a relationship with recently who would be good to ask, you may need to take some time to re-acquaint yourself with individuals who you want to ask from previous experiences. Typically graduate programs will request at least one academic reference and one professional reference.
TIP: Make sure you stay in touch with supervisors, professors, and/or mentors who you have had a positive experience with. You never know when you will need a letter of recommendation, and having it from the right person can often be more important than the content of the letter itself.
The search begins! Where are you going to apply? This part could potentially be overwhelming given the numerous options. A few things to keep in mind:
- A more specific graduate degree might only be offered at a few schools, limiting your options a bit, but making it easier to narrow down.
- Take into consideration how close you want to be to family or to your current situation.
- If you have no idea where to start your search, Princeton Review provides a comprehensive guide to graduate schools that allows you to search by major or location, and offers a number of valuable resources.
- Make sure to thoroughly research the program outcomes, cost of attendance, and time to completion. Keep in mind that in addition to tuition costs, you should factor in the cost of lost wages if you are unable to work while attending school full-time. This factor might help you determine whether you want to attend graduate on a part-time or full-time basis.
Once you have a few schools in mind, you can start considering some of the details. Keep in mind that applying to graduate school often means much more than just submitting an application form and previous transcripts. You need to consider what entrance exams you need to take (GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, CBEST), including what kind of preparation you will need for the exam and the time it will take to strategize about and write your personal statement. Check if your school offers free or discounted test prep courses. Another great tool for learning about specific programs is the students who are currently going through the program. Contact admissions and ask to be connected with a student ambassador within your program of interest and see if you can reach out to them to gain a student perspective.
Graduate school can be incredibly rewarding and can provide numerous career opportunities. It is however, a very big decision. If you put in the time to do the research and plan your approach, you will feel much more confident that you have made whatever decision is best for you.
Andrea Peeters is the Director of Student Success at Menlo College, a small undergraduate business college in Northern California. She works with all students and alumni on general career and professional development, as well as with current students on academic progress and success. Prior to coming to Menlo, she worked as a High School Counselor and Adjunct Faculty teaching personal development courses in central California.