When you’re a high school student applying to college, there’s a lot to keep track of — but a lot of the work can be done in a very natural way. Teachers provide reminders and suggested deadlines, parents are often more hands-on, and in many cases there are even counselors who can help with every step of the process. In other words: it’s difficult, but there’s a lot of assistance available for students who want to take advantage of it.
When you’re a college student or graduate applying to grad school, it’s a whole different ballgame. Students who fit this description are more independent and more mature, and as a result they’re expected do more of the work on their own. That’s not to say there isn’t any help available, but the responsibility tends to be more on the student’s shoulders to seek it out.
If you happen to be a student in the midst of discovering all this, here are some tips on how to get out in front of graduate school applications and make the process as smooth (and hopefully successful!) as it was when you were in high school.
First and foremost, go after your recommendations as early as possible. Professors are very busy people, and if you feel one is worth securing a recommendation from, chances are other students feel the same way. As soon as you know you’re applying to schools or you have specific schools and programs to which you need recommendations sent, contact any professors (or coaches, work supervisors, etc.) you may want to write for you. This gives them plenty of time to do the best possible job and get the recommendations in on time. As for choosing which professors to contact, the best tip is to choose teachers who know what you can do, as recommended by U.S. News. This advice goes the same when applying to college or grad school, and it’s important to understand properly: you don’t necessarily need the most popular teachers or the ones you enjoyed the most success with. Go for professors you’ve gotten to know, who understand and appreciate your work ethic, competence, and any relevant goals you may have.
You’ll need the recommendations no matter where you apply (though the specific number of recs required may vary), which is why that’s a good step to get out of the way right off the bat. But when you delve into the actual applications themselves, one of the first steps worth considering is to secure a coach or advisor if possible. Depending on your college, you may have a very helpful career center available as a valuable resource during the process. But even so, there’s nothing wrong with getting some more personal assistance and instruction. Menlo Coaching points to the numerous ways in which a professional coach can actually help you to organize your application and address each step properly. From choosing the right schools and programs to writing essays, designing resumes, and practicing interviews, a coach can help you to present yourself as effectively as possible throughout the process.
Finally, you’ll need to figure out how to nail the interviews. As stated, a coach can help with the preparation in this regard, but there’s ultimately something very personal about going through interviews, and in most cases this will be the experience that differs most from the undergraduate application process. Browsing through generic interview tips online you’re likely to come across all kinds of advice regarding how to dress, why you should make strong eye contact and be punctual, etc. But frankly, those are mostly common sense practices related to etiquette. Beyond how you present yourself, the actual content of an interview is extremely important, too, and requires more preparation. USA Today offers a wonderful guide to getting ready for an interview in which a number of the best bits of preparation are outlined. You’ll want to research the program you’re applying to and the careers it may lead to, figure out the individual school’s interview process, rehearse common questions, and be ready to articulate exactly why you’re interested in that program (not grad school in general). Addressing all of these ideas will help you to present yourself as an intelligent, disciplined, and goal-oriented candidate.
Every application carries its own demands, and each program is looking for different things in applicants. But by heeding these tips, you can set yourself up to put together competitive applications. That doesn’t make it an easy thing to do, but in this case preparation is more than half the battle.
This article was contributed by guest author Shannon Leonard.