Preparing for Graduate School
Once you have determined that graduate school is right for you, think about how you can start preparing to be a competitive and qualified applicant for the graduate program of your choice. Some programs are best applied to once you’ve gained some work experience, but many are open to students right out of their undergraduate studies. Here are a few ways you can prepare for graduate school in your undergraduate years.
Do your best
The simplest way to set yourself up for successful admission to grad school and a smooth career transition is simply by working hard during your undergraduate years. By being diligent, earning good grades, and participating on and off campus, you'll attract fans—people in your network who want to help you succeed in your next steps.
Benefits of doing your best work include:
- The organizations you've been volunteering or interning with will want to hire you if they can.
- Your professors, club leaders, and peers will want to give you a good reference. They will take an interest in mentoring you, as an extension of themselves. They'll want you to become part of their legacy.
- You'll have great experiences to share at your school—or job—interviews. Your accomplishments will be reflected in your resume, statements of purpose, and cover letters.
- You'll have gained the skills and confidence you need to succeed, in school and in future jobs.
Take advantage of undergraduate life
Take advantage of being an undergraduate student and stand out! College and university campuses are full of resources and opportunities to help you succeed.
Classes: Choose your classes wisely. Take classes based not only on requirements for your bachelor’s degree, but also on what you'll need to know for grad school. For example, macroeconomics classes are prerequisites for some international affairs programs. Find out what your priority schools require before you arrive, and work on those classes now. Use your classes to learn the language, current trends, and major players in your field.
Professors: Visit your professors outside of class. Going to office hours helps professors get to know you by name, and gives them a chance to mentor you their field. They will have connections at graduate institutions, can introduce you to programs you might not have known of, and talk to you about the realities of life in academia. Professors who know you better as a person will also be more willing to write letters of recommendation for your grad school applications.
Clubs: Take on leadership roles among groups of people doing things you are passionate about—from media (radio stations and campus papers), to environmental activism, to pre-professional groups. Participating in a campus club is a unique opportunity to learn and lead—not easily replicated after graduation. It also demonstrates commitment to and passion for an issue, cause, or field.
Service-learning opportunities: After you graduate, you'll have opportunities to volunteer or serve. As an undergraduate, you have the valuable opportunity to serve while being guided by a syllabus, a professor, and relevant readings.
On-campus jobs: Campuses are full of interesting paid jobs. Landing one of these jobs as a student is typically much less competitive than it will be after you graduate. Some examples: run a literary journal or edit a section of the campus paper, assist a professor with research, serve as a resident assistant for the school year or summer session, or work in departmental offices where you have close contact with professors.
Events and speakers: Become conversant in your field by participating in events and listening to guest speakers who play a role in your future world. This may be a wonderful opportunity to begin networking with experts in your field.
Fellowships only open to undergraduates: Fellowships can pay for graduate study, or fund a gap year experience before grad school. If you can, start looking as a sophomore or junior, and prioritize those that require student status to apply. This is yet another reason to become familiar with your career center.
Study, volunteer, and travel abroad: Most campuses have an office of study abroad with staff who can alert you to opportunities to learn in another country. International experience allows you to learn or test your foreign language abilities, hone cross-cultural skills, and see the world in a different light. No matter what your future field, expanding your horizons by spending time abroad will help bring you closer to your goals.
Gap year opportunities: Taking a year off of school, either before your first year, or some time before senior year, is another way to get the experience you need to be successful in grad school. Examples include participating in a year of service (AmeriCorps, for example), or serving as a volunteer in a foreign country through a third-party service or network.
Document your accomplishments: In addition to getting involved during your undergrad years, it is a really good idea to document your accomplishments. By keeping track of what you have done, you can later remember achievements better, be more specific in interviews about them, and show examples of what you have done rather than simply describing them. Besides, by doing the work now you'll save time later when you're deep into applying for schools and jobs!
Challenge yourself: Take on experiences, responsibilities, and tasks that you may not yet be good at, or that take you out of your professional comfort zone. If you study journalism, use a writing assignment to tackle a topic you are unfamiliar with. If you are an engineering student, try an anthropology or poetry class (or vice versa). You might discover something new about yourself that will help drive your next steps in a direction you hadn't predicted. Your worldview will expand, and you will set yourself apart from other students in your field.
Network: Building relationships is of key importance during your college years. The value of a strong social and professional network is impossible to overestimate, especially in the nonprofit sector. Nurturing new contacts, making your professional and social needs known, and connecting colleagues with the people who can help them succeed—all of these may lead to a successful grad school application or career transition for you. Learn how to network effectively!
Depending on the university you apply to and your field of interest, you will likely need to consider preparing for and taking one or more standardized tests. Typically these tests are completed in your senior year before you begin applying for graduate study, but always be sure to check with the universities you may apply to in order to determine their specific requirements and deadlines.
Most, if not all, graduate programs use the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) as their standardized entrance exam. There are two GRE exams: The General Test and The Subject Tests. Be sure to check the graduate field and programs you’re interested in to see which exams they require, how high you need to score on them, and how much you’ll need to study to do well. Many sources recommend taking the graduate entrance exams starting during your junior year of college, just to make sure you have time to work at it if need be.
As a general rule, the majority of graduate programs will require a 3.0 GPA out of your undergraduate studies. However, depending on how competitive the program is, the GPA requirement may be lower or higher than that. Be sure to take note of the GPA requirements of graduate schools/programs that interest you so you’re floundering at the end of your senior year trying to take extra classes to raise your GPA.
The following is a basic timeline to help you stay on track for graduate school. We recommend using it as a general guideline.
- Fall: Visit PREPs to discuss your goals, take a personality assessment & create a parallel plan. Discover clubs & organizations that fit your interests. Get involved!
- Spring: Research summer volunteer activities and experience-based opportunities Visit PREPs for assistance with your summer plans.
- Summer: Participate in a volunteer activity- preferably one that will give you experience in your field of interest Consider taking a summer class or two.
- Fall: Get involved or gain a leadership role in one of your organizations or clubs Visit PREPs and make sure you are on track with your parallel plan Keep your grades up!
- Spring: Lock in a summer opportunity related to your field of interest Take a GRE practice test online Research & visit graduate schools of interest.
- Summer: Choose a GRE preparation option, such as a tutor, a course, or a book Participate in an internship or volunteer activity Consider taking a summer class or two.
- Fall: Register for the GRE Visit PREPs for information on letters of recommendation, personal statements and more Get to know your professors Take a research class.
- Spring: Take the GRE Meet with your advisor & make sure you’re on track Choose schools and begin the application process Contact PREPs and schedule a Mock Interview.
- Summer: Complete your Personal Statement and have it reviewed by PREPs Consider taking a summer class or two Take the GRE (if you haven’t already) Purchase an interview suit
- Fall: Request recommendation letters and transcripts; complete your applications Complete interviews for graduate schools If not attending graduate school, write your resume
- Spring: Make a final decision as to your plans for the fall Complete your financial aid forms if going to school Have your resume reviewed @ PREPs if job searching Make plans for the summer
- Summer: Make appropriate living arrangements for the fall If attending school, purchase books & equipment, and attend your orientation program If working, make sure you have a work wardrobe