Grad school applications are similar to undergrad applications, but place more emphasis on your personal experience than just your test scores. (Image via Pixabay)

From English to physics, every major has a dedicated graduate program to accompany it. Whether working toward a master’s or a doctorate degree, getting accepted into your graduate school of choice is one of the most exciting experiences in academia.

However, most people don’t think about their path to graduate school. The criteria you need to meet to get accepted into a college as an undergraduate are often well established: SAT scores, grades, rigor of classes and extracurricular activities.

But, most people only think about getting into graduate school after they’ve finished their four years of undergrad, rather than at the beginning. In reality, you should start planning your course to graduate school as soon as possible. Let’s take a look at what it will require.

1. Straight A’s

As is the case undergraduate programs, good grades are imperative in getting into the graduate school of your dreams. While straight A’s are by no means a requirement of acceptance, good grades exhibit your strength in academia.

Graduate schools weigh GPAs heavily when deciding whether or not a student best fits the program, so most advisors will encourage you to aim to do as well in school as you can. And although it might be cliché, if you’re trying to keep your grades up, make sure you’ve established a study routine and are regularly attending class.

2. Rigor

While good grades have their benefits, getting those grades by taking the easiest classes possible within your major is not that impressive. Instead, to best show genuine excitement for your field, try registering for difficult classes that push you out of your comfort zone and signal to admissions offices that you value intelligence over high marks.

Taking rigorous courses exemplifies your willingness to accept a challenge, to push yourself academically further than your competition. That being said, there is a fine line between taking the “just right” mix of rigorous and easy classes, and overwhelming yourself with extremely hard classes. Rigor is an import factor of getting into graduate school, but don’t take classes you know you won’t be able to handle.

3. Experience

Within this section of the graduate application, you should address one or two career-related experience(s): how you started, what your job experiences consisted of and, most importantly, what you learned. For example, if you were a a medical intern, be sure to mention that shadowing a doctor allowed you to hone your leadership skills.  

Internships, research projects and publications go a long way in showcasing commitment and involvement within your respective field of study. Getting involved with the “real-world” aspect of a major is crucial to success. More than that, experience is attractive: impress your committee of admission staff by going the extra mile.

4. Personal Statement

Most students are not familiar with a personal statement because undergraduate applications don’t require as much room for individual expression as grad applications do. This makes sense, as, typically, high schoolers haven’t chosen a major or engaged in research projects/internships.

Personal statements should focus on one or two research and/or internship experiences. The purpose of these “short essays” is for the university to get to know applicants further. It allows applicants to tell more about their unique experiences and encounters.

5. Letters of Recommendation

Asking for letters of recommendation can be intimidating and, at times, even unnerving. But remember, not only are letters of recommendation are required, they can be the deciding factor in your acceptance. Start preparing for that ahead of time: choose your recommenders well in advance (at least six weeks) and professionally request a letter of recommendation.

Remember that having a good reputation and being on good terms with your past professor will never hurt. Connecting with teachers, getting good grades in classes and participating in professor’s research or academic opportunities can be the difference between a “meh” recommendation letter and an outstanding one.

6. Graduate Record Examination

All students must take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) to be considered for a graduate program, and while this standardized test (yes, another one!) can be stressful, hard work can help you pass with flying colors.

According to Kaplan, a noted test-prep organization, there are three components of the test: the verbal, quantitative and analytical writing sections. The verbal and quantitative portions are scored between 130–170, and the average score falls somewhere around 150-152. The analytical writing section is scored between 0 and 6 in half-point increments, and the average hits somewhere around 3.5.

Similar to your SATs, schools look primarily at the verbal and quantitative (or “quant”) sections of your test. The importance of your scores depends, obviously, on what you want to study; math grad students should score very well on the quant section, whereas aspiring journalists should focus more on the verbal section.

For students interested in business school, you will have to take the Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT, which heavily resembles the GRE but focuses more on math. Most test prep companies recommend that potential applicants devote at least a few months to preparing for the tests, especially if you plan on applying after working in the professional world for several years.

7. Involvement

To improve your chances, decorate your application by staying involved within the community. While extracurricular activities are not nearly as important for graduate schools as they are for undergraduate schools, having a presence in the community — through volunteering, participating in clubs or committing to a sports team — can set you apart from other applications.

Graduate school, however daunting or far away it seems, is something that all undergraduate students should start thinking about early on in their college careers. Through choosing rigorous courses, getting good grades, taking on a research opportunity or internship and becoming involved within the community, getting into your graduate school of choice could be a breeze.

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