Guide to getting into graduate school

By Sabrina Willmer

When the final year of undergraduate education rises from the mist of class duties, it awakens comfortable students to a life outside college utopia. For some, decisions come easy. For others, uncertainty follows with each step. For both the dubious and assured, the pursuit of graduate education becomes a viable turn on the road to ideal careers, which could turn into a problem without preparation.

When students decide on graduate school, a list of chores arrives with the application – letters of recommendation, standardized test scores, personal statements, transcripts and resumes must be completed by the due date to the admission staff’s satisfaction, or applicants are in trouble. The deadlines are easy, but what about reading the minds of admission’s personnel?

The mystery does not require a psychology degree to solve – just inquiring students. A number of admissions’ officers within various colleges at the University openly expressed their expectations for prospective students, despite differences between their admissions criteria.

James Slauch, director of the University Medical Scholar Program, stressed the importance of recommendations. “In all graduate programs, letters of recommendation are extremely important,” he said. “Really get to know faculty members so you can get good letters of recommendation.” In the specific case of Molecular and Cellular Biology admissions, recommendations from research supervisors add weight to the admissions decision, Slauch said.

Students should also gather information about their professors, read their papers, and formulate questions from the documents to ask their professors, said Jennifer Bloom, associate dean for student affairs and the Medical Scholar program.

Professor William J. Maxwell, director of English graduate studies, said the English department preferred recommendations from professors over teaching assistants. It also favors recommendations from professors with published works and reputations as scholars in their field, he said. Students should register for the most challenging classes with the best professors in their institution, he added.

The personal statement stands as the primary variable in the admission equation for the humanities, Maxwell said. Statements should discuss applicants’ reasons for applying to the University, he said. “If you are going to school in the humanities, make sure you have done the research,” Maxwell said. He also suggested studying the Web site to learn about the professors and their specialties.

“Take (the personal statement) seriously,” he said. “Show it to your smart friends and professors.”

Bloom also directed students to the Web site to research faculty members. Students should also state their interest in specific professors and their research, she said, because if a student expresses interest in an area in which no professors specialize, the admissions staff will wonder why the student applied to their institution.

Students should apply to schools that supply more than one faculty member within their desired research field, Slauch said.

“I am looking for a level of maturity,” said Slauch, who emphasized the importance of a well-written and structured statement.

The Career Center also recommends in their “Graduate School Ten Helpful Reminders” bulletin. “Write multiple drafts, allow as many eyes to review as possible and receive feedback from professors, academic advisors, current graduate students and those who are writing your letters of evaluation,” it says.

Quentin Obis, graduate student, also mentioned the importance of the personal statement. “You should really make sure it is as good as possible,” he said. Eliminate verbiage and write clearly, he added.

Kristin Crowson, assistant director of outreach and marketing for the Princeton Review in Chicago, said the Review offered personal statement and application assistance through office hours with standardized test teachers or tutoring at an additional cost.

“If you need help drafting an essay, a tutor will sit down with you one-on-one,” she said.

Steven Marietti, director of graduate programs at Kaplan, said Kaplan offers free seminars for writing statements and provides Admissions Consulting for a supplemental fee. When a student registers for Admissions Consulting, Kaplan matches the student with a compatible tutor, who holds expertise in the student’s pursued field,” he said.

Paul Pless, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at the College of Law, said in addition to work experience and writing ability, the LSAT and GPA become deciding factors in College of Law admissions because the scores foreshadow how well students will do academically. Students should not take the LSAT unprepared, Pless said. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC.org) sells books that offer LSATs from previous years, he said.

Kaplan and Princeton Review guarantee test score satisfaction through providing conditions for reimbursing or retaking courses for free.

Marietti said Kaplan administers free practice tests once or twice per month in their centers to give students an idea of where they stand. Kaplan also provides test preparation packages, which offer tutorials, classroom or online learning options.

Crowson said Princeton Review, which allows students to retake the course for free or have their money refunded if unsatisfied with their scores, offers test preparation classes at the University and online courses. GRE and GMAT classes total eight students per class, which allow students to create personal bonds with teachers, she said. The classes also offer free office hours for students to receive additional assistance with test preparation and the application process.

Each application component is equally important, Bloom said. “You can be strong in everything else and have something bad in a letter of recommendation that can wipe out the rest of your package.”

“The most important thing is to make an appointment with a (Career Center) counselor,” said Mariana Luna, a pre-professional graduate assistant at The Career Center. Counselors help organize students and provide advice on acquiring skills for graduate school acceptance, she said. The Center also provides workshops, seminars, online resources, resume critiques and mock interviews.

When examining the GPA, admission staff focuses on classes associated with the program, and identifies trends, Bloom said. It looks better if a student receives a low GPA freshman year and a high one junior year, than vice versa, she said.

Slauch said students should visit the university. Many programs invite students to visit, and may pay for those visits, he said.

Bloom said students should respond to information sent by the program or should inform the department if they decide not to proceed with the program. Students should also have an email address they check regularly and change their phone messages to sound professional. “You need to present yourself as a professional,” she said.

Students should send their applications in early, keep files for each prospective school and make copies of completed application material, she said.

“Make sure you are polite when calling programs,” she added. “If students act rudely to the secretary and staff, they are done.”