Is grad school right for you and are you right for grad school?

By Jessica M. Barr, with contributions from Mara Brotman, Kelly Danaher, Martin Golland, Robert Levan, Geoff Rawle, and Mike Tylee.

So you're thinking of applying to grad school. It's daunting, isn't it? Big decision, long process, so much information! We've asked a few seasoned grads to weigh in on the issue. Here are some points to consider...

Why?

Firstly, ask yourself why you are considering graduate studies. Are you interested in a career in academia (teaching at a college or university, working toward a Ph.D., etc)? Are you driven by the desire for professional advancement in the business world? If so, an M.B.A. would be a logical step. Or does your chosen profession require graduate-level education (e.g. an M.S.W. for social workers)? These are all good reasons to apply to graduate school. Knowing your goal is the first step in achieving it.

Before applying

Try to narrow down your desired field of study as much as possible. It won't do you much good to say to yourself "I like books" and leave it at that. Research the options! You have to decide what you will study before you decide where, how, and when.

Consider taking some time off from school. Geoff Rawle (LL.B., University of British Columbia) recommends taking a year off after you finish your undergrad degree. He and most of his classmates did it before entering law school. It is a great way to get more experience, make some money, and get a fresh perspective on your career path. In fact, most of the contributors to this article took at least a year off between undergrad and grad school, and we're glad we did!

Requirements

Most programs require a four-year Honours bachelor degree (B.A., B.Sc., B.F.A., etc.) and you're most likely to be considered if you have an average over 80%. It is particularly important to have a high average in upper-level courses that relate to your Major.

If you don't have these, consider doing an extra year (or a "victory lap" as some call it) at your undergraduate institution. You can work toward raising your G.P.A. and you can narrow down your interests at the same time. You could also use the extra time to cultivate better relationships with your favourite professors. Not only will they be happy to give you advice about applying to grad school, but when the time comes they will also be able to write you glowing letters of reference. A good reference letter is extremely important.

Robert Levan (LL.B., University of Windsor) says:

"My best suggestion is get your letters of reference early and when you ask the person (prof, boss, etc.) make sure that you ask in the following way: 'Would you be able to write me a positive letter of recommendation' rather than just 'could you write me a letter of recommendation.' I heard some horror stories about people who got really crappy (i.e. 'I am not sure that this person could perform at the appropriate level') letters!"

Kelly Danaher (M.A., University of Kansas) says:

"Here are some tips:

Give your letter writers [i.e. the professors who are writing your letters of reference] your school information (name of school you are applying to, pre-stamped envelope to be mailed if necessary, the information needed in the letter, etc.) several weeks in advance. Check with your letter writers a week before the letter is due - they often forget.

Be meticulous about due dates!

Ask the graduate school and the department for an updated application. Sometimes stuff online is outdated."

Applying

The two most important words we can say to you about applying are PLAN AHEAD. Start your search early, investigate as many schools as possible, and find the programs that really suit you.

Avoid applying to a program simply because "all my friends are doing it" or "it's close to my house". When you learn more about a program, you may discover that you're not what they're looking for. There's no sense in wasting your time and money applying to programs for which you aren't qualified.

Planning ahead will give you lots of time to prepare your application and apply for financial assistance in the form of scholarships, grants, bursaries, teaching assistantships, and so on. See the link at the bottom of this article for great information about finding money to support your graduate studies.

One of the most important components of your application is the statement of intent. It is a letter or short essay you must write to the grad school telling them how great you are, what you want to study, and why you want to study at their institution. This is the part of the application where you can really shine.

Mara Brotman (Master of Journalism, Dalhousie University) says:

Regarding the image you present in your application, "for me it was all about being memorable. For my post-grad in Journalism, I got in because I was unusual, well-travelled, and well-written. All the profs remembered my expose at 10 years old of bulging cans used in the summer camp cafeteria."

Martin Golland (M.F.A., University of Guelph) says:

When you write your statement of intent,

"DO...

  1. List three or more faculty that you want to directly work with. This shows that you've researched the university in-depth and have a focused desire to be a part of its program.
  2. List three elements particular to the school's facilities that are attractive to you.
  3. Use declarative words and phrases like 'intend to', 'will accomplish', 'strive towards', 'I look forward to' rather than 'I want to' or 'I'm trying to.'
  4. Be firm in your intent, but open to improvement. Write like you've already been accepted and are welcoming the challenges ahead.
  5. If the school has been recommended to you by a friend, talk about the school's reputation.
  6. Keep to one page, double-spaced.
  7. Thank them for considering you for their program.
  8. Ask for two contacts of students from the program, one in first year, the other having graduated that year. We're more than happy to give good feedback.

 

DON'T:

  1. Emphasize abstract goals such as 'improve my conceptual position on my work' - aahh!
  2. Showcase your weaknesses. Hide hide hide. (Conversely... you know, sell sell sell your strengths.)
  3. Speak in vague terms like a form letter.
  4. Forget the department head name and their title in your greetings.
  5. Forget the difference between Faculty and Department.
  6. Forget or forgo visiting the program, if possible.
  7. Miss the difference between 'post-marked' and 'in-office deadline.'
  8. Most importantly, don't forget to research all applicable scholarships a year and a half in advance."

 

Mike Tylee (Medical candidate, University of Toronto) says:

"Regarding statements of intent (this is advice I give to people who are writing med school applications):

DO:

  1. Be shameless when writing about your achievements. Be confident, but not cocky.
  2. Have multiple people edit the statement.
  3. Start way the heck in advance.
  4. Back up any statements about yourself with experiential evidence.
  5. Make it personal: write in first person and make your writing dynamic.

 

DON'T:

  1. Write pompously.
  2. Tell the reader what to think.
  3. Be redundant. I see this all the time: people make a statement, and then repeat it in different words as if repeating it using more flowery language is a good substitute for experiential evidence.
  4. Make the statement a simple "list-o-achievements".

 

Regarding graduate study supervisors: A supervisor is the single most important aspect of the grad school experience. Choose someone who is doing something you are interested in AND someone that you have a good communicative relationship with. If you can't relate to each other well in terms of academics and in terms of personality, it will not be a good experience."

Choices

So, is grad school right for you? Are you right for grad school? No matter what your decision is, make sure it's an informed one. For more information about graduate studies, check out "Your future: a guide for potential graduate students" at www.cags.ca/publications/publications.html . It's a great resource from the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (www.cags.ca).

Good luck!

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