Advice on Approaching Graduate School

Dateline: student newspaper

By: Robyn Stone

File Under: graduate school, graduation, tips

While most students are relieved to see their graduation looming and an end to their classes, there are an odd few who are sad.  Who will miss homework and classes.  Who have decided to go into a field that requires more degrees.  Who are simply masochistic.  These few are future graduate students. As someone who was where they are and who still knows exactly how they feel, I’m offering some friendly advice on how to achieve that dream.

Most students know if they’re going to go to further school before they even graduate, but they may not be playing the long game yet.  With the struggles in the economy, more students are going to school longer, and this is happening at the same time that many schools are retrenching their budgets.  The problems are obvious.  The response, then, is to set yourself up as a fantastic candidate, and the sooner the better.

As College of Mount St. Joseph students, you’re in a very good position to get to know your professors well and to let them know you well.  This is extremely useful when it comes to the vitally important letters of recommendation that graduate school programs will require.  You’ll usually need three, and I’d highly suggest going with the professors who are good at deadlines and getting things done, if only so you don’t have to keep hounding them about getting your letter out on time.  Figure out who you want to ask and ask them well in advance of the deadline.  I do know someone who got rejected from a program she applied to because her letter of recommendation was never sent out.

Some schools (but not all, so be sure to look into this in advance) require GRE results.  This is like the SAT for the next level.  There are books and classes out there to help you prepare, but if you keep your eyes open you can also sometimes find a free practice test session.  Take advantage of this and get an idea of how you’d do on the real thing.  It will take around four hours, but the real test is quite expensive so the time up front can save you a lot of money you’d otherwise spend on taking the test over for better results!

Consider what field you’re planning to go into and get involved with related activities at the Mount.  Not only does this look good on your applications, but it can help you network, which is incredibly helpful.  Go out into the community as well and see what, and who, you can find there.  A good place to look for this is at the University of Cincinnati.  I know you decided not to go to school there, but they’re a big college with a lot of fields and a lot of special events.  Check out a poster presentation or a conference or lecture on the campus there.  Meet other people who are interested in your field and get some ideas.

Obviously, the most important step is to research the programs and colleges you want to consider.  Ask yourself if you want to stay near home, if you want to get far away from home, or if you’re simply willing to cast a wide net to get the best possible deal.  Graduate school will be a very different experience for you depending largely on where you decide to go.  Some programs even offer scholarships in exchange for your services as a teacher, which doubles as experience that can help you find a job later.  Remember, also, that there is a lot of competition out there.  I’ve known people who applied to nine graduate programs but only got accepted to one, and believe me, it wasn’t because they were bad students.  Yes, you have to pay for every application you send out, but it’s a necessary evil. 

Graduate school is grueling, so make sure you’re ready and willing to put in the work for it.  If you’ve struggled to get through your undergraduate degree, if you habitually put things off till the last minute and turn in rushed work, if you can’t be fussed to read a short story, let alone a full book- you might want to rethink your graduate school plans.  When I went, students who liked school were complaining not too far into the experience that it was too much and they wish they dared just drop out.  If you don’t like school, unless you’re really willing to make the commitment, save the money and time and don’t go.

Now, if you’re going into English or composition, I can give you more specific suggestions for how to make yourself look like a good candidate.  Submit to “Lions On Line” here at the Mount.  Even if you don’t want to work on our little literary journal, you can still say you’ve had a piece published.  There is also a new undergraduate journal at the University of Cincinnati.  It’s called “Storming the Gate”, and it is specifically designed for students who have taken the first year English class that we call “Written Word”.  If there was an essay you were particularly proud of, consider sending it in.  The information is here: http://qc-writers.com/submissions/ . 

Finally, if you want a taste of what graduate school is full of, try attending a conference.  Even if you don’t present some of your own writing, it would still be a learning experience to hear some of the scholarship and learn a bit of the format.  Here, again, our proximity to the University of Cincinnati comes in handy.  In April of 2013, the English department is holding a conference.  If you’re feeling bold, submit to present.  I’ve known the program to take a panel of undergraduate upperclassmen.  If you’re shy, attend and enjoy instead.  It’s local and it’s free and open to the public.  For details, check here: http://beingundisciplineduc.wordpress.com/

Graduate school is difficult, but I’ve found it to be well worth it.  I’m sure my students are tired of me starting stories with, “When I was in grad school…” Start thinking and planning early and you’ll avoid some of that last minute rush and stand a better chance of getting one of those glorious acceptance letters.