I have spent quite literally the past year prepping to apply to graduate programs and most recently, traveling to those schools for interview weekends. This journey has filled me with anxiety about my future. Applying to graduate programs has so many moving parts that are hard to navigate. Now that I am done applying and have chosen my program, it may be helpful to share some of my experiences and suggestions. I am going to earn a Master’s of Education (M.Ed.) in Student Affairs, so this might not all be applicable to you but take what serves you and leave the rest!
Originally, I went into college hoping to study political science and then possibly teach the subject at the collegiate level. Higher education and the college experience had always been important to me but that passion intensified the more involved I became on NC State’s campus through our University Activities Board, Student Government and my sorority. My advisors in these organizations also played an extremely important role in shaping my outlook on the importance of student development, multiculturalism/social justice, leadership, scholarship and research. So, I changed my life path a little bit and decided to pursue Student Affairs and Higher Education as my career.
Choosing Your List of Schools
Choosing the degree you would like to pursue is obviously the first step in applying to graduate school. Once that decision is made, you can start doing research on schools you would possibly like to attend. There are a lot of ways to consider which school would be your best option but don’t let rankings alone dictate where you want to get your degree.
Personally, I considered the following benefits in no particular order:
- Location – I was not a fan of moving too far from my family but I knew that I wanted to get into a bigger city with more opportunity for personal and professional development. Thinking about cost of living, accessibility, and how I could advance my career in that area was definitely a determining factor.
- Professors – Considering the faculty’s research interests and how they could contribute to my experience was another key point for me. Based on my experience, I would say it is important to write about this in your personal statement. Sure enough, when I visited my school of choice I was reassured that I wanted to be taught by these faculty members.
- Affordability – Tuition remission was another important aspect of my decision. Not all programs/institutions have graduate assistantships, but they can be valuable for easing the financial burden by offering a stipend, professional experience, and sometimes tuition remission. There are also teaching assistantship opportunities that can offer the same benefits if that is more your style. Determining what you can afford is an extremely personal decision but there are plenty of options out there.
- The Feel – Everyone kept saying this to me, and I did not really understand what it meant until I visited a few schools. How you feel there is so essential! You can do anything for two years but I am sure most of us would rather be comfortable during that time. Visit the programs if you can, and if you attend a preview/interview weekend, being intentional in your conversations with people. Their experience can help you navigate if you truly want to attend that program.
Application Costs and Materials
Applying to graduate school can cost a pretty penny and requires a lot of planning. This can be a little difficult if you are still in undergrad (like me). Just about every application will cost $75, and the GRE costs $200 for the test alone. Applying to programs and taking the GRE cost me about $700 in total. Whatever your financial situation, this is an important aspect to consider and plan for. There are exemptions for application fees if you live below the poverty line or are an AmeriCorps member Considering this, your total expenses may look a lot different.
The spring before applications were due, I started researching programs, and in the summer I started my application. There were a lot of aspects to consider: I needed a handful of recommendations, a fine-tuned resume, an eloquent personal statement, and a GRE score. My advice is to get started as early as possible.
I took the GRE two months before my first deadline. This gave me a small window of opportunity to retake the test if I needed to (which I did). Advice for the GRE is going to vary by institution; some programs don’t put too much emphasis on standardized testing, others may. My advice is to ask around and find out. I asked professionals in my field and other graduate students what their experiences were in applying to schools and what they might know about the application process. Luckily, the GRE was not heavily factored into my admission process so I studied off and on for four months. I’ll be honest, I did average on the GRE and still got accepted into my top choices. How schools value your test scores is completely arbitrary but I still encourage you to try your hardest.
Personal statements can make or break your application packet. This is one of the only chances you will have to stand apart from the hundreds of other applicants. Each school will have a different prompt, character limit or format, so you will need to tailor your statement to each school.
I started my personal statement writing in July and my first application was due in November. This still did not feel like enough time, but every person will need to set their own pace. You will absolutely have to revise and edit several times. I found it was best to ask multiple people what their thoughts were on my writing. Some people analyzed content and others looked for grammatical mistakes. While writing, I thought of the following things:
- What led me to this decision? What could I contribute to the field? What makes me unique?
- Has something happened to me that led me to this field? How did I overcome or learn from this experience?
- Why do I want to go to this school? What about their program makes me want to go there?
- What has academically/professionally prepared me to do well?
The key word here is personal. I wrote my statement almost like a diary entry in hopes that I conveyed myself in the most intimate way possible. My overall advice, get as many eyes on your personal statement as you can, but in the end, go with your gut because the statement is a reflection of you!
Applying to graduate programs is a complex task, and once you have been accepted there are only more questions. However, I found that this task fulfilling. Spending time reflecting on my professional goals, talking to mentors and family about these next steps, and visiting schools has been nothing short of amazing. With all this work behind me, thankfully, in the fall I’ll be attending the University of Maryland, College Park to work on a M.Ed. in Student Affairs. Go Terps!