Living the Dream

This is how you get what you want…

How to get into grad school, Part II: Choosing your programs September 30, 2007

Before you get started with applications, how do you choose a program? You don’t want to apply to too many because the application process is costly. And however fabulous you are, it’s not a good idea to apply to just a couple of top schools without giving consideration to other decent choices, and even some backups.

Among the most important elements to attend to in selecting a program are the following: 


Read up on the program’s general philosophy. Look for important nuances, such as the focus- for instance, is there a differential emphasis on research vs. practice? Also, if you have specific interests within your field, certain programs have specialty tracks to accommodate these, while others don’t. Finally, find out if your field has an accrediting institution, and if the programs you’re looking into are accredited. 

Program length

Find out how long the program is designed to be. For some programs, typically doctoral programs, the time it actually takes students to complete the program often exceeds the planned timeline. In this case, get a more realistic idea of program length by taking a look at how long it has taken previous students to graduate. This should be on the department website. 


Will you be working closely with a mentor or an advisor? If so, your choice should hinge heavily on your mentor. Your interests should overlap considerably with those of a potential mentor. Find out what type of activities s/he’s involved in, and select a few publications of his/hers to read. If it’s not already built in to the admission process, try to meet her/him before accepting. To get the honest truth on what it’s like to work with this person, talk to his/her current graduate students. 


If a required internship or residency follows the academic years of the program, find out where the program has set its past graduates. Based on the type of internship you’re leaning towards, gauge whether the program will provide the appropriate and sufficient experience. 

Thinking WAY Ahead

Find out what types of jobs are held by graduates of the program. Whether you know exactly what you’d like to do, or you’re still paving your way to a specific career, consider whether are these positions in line with what you see yourself doing for the long-term future. Also this is a decent index to inform you about the program more generally, and what it gears its students towards. 


This is HUGE. Many doctoral programs fully fund their students, including tuition and health insurance, plus a monthly stipend. That’s right – you can get paid to go to school! Other programs offer some support, work-study, and/or loans. MAKE SURE you find out about this ahead of time! If you’re accepted, you might feel so lucky that you got in anywhere, that you simply brush the funding issue under the rug. Then you could be drowning in debt following graduation. All that hard work to be in debt…boo. Remember, the program picked you for a reason, especially if it subscribes to a mentor model. They want you, and they will make compromises to keep you.  


Find out what classes you’ll be required to take while you’re there. Consider how much wiggle room you’ll have for electives, and what choices you’ll have. Consider the typical semester course load and the usual coursework timeline at each program. 

Hands-on Opportunities

Find out if you’ll have (required or optional) opportunities to work with patients, clients, cases, samples during your time in the program. Find out if this will this happen on or off campus, and whether you will get to choose the site. 

Location, location, location!

This one’s a tad controversial, because you certainly shouldn’t select all of your programs because they’re in a particular location. You should be applying to programs, not to a geographic place. The other side of the coin is that you’ll be living in the place for several years- you should see yourself being happy there. Though you’ll be super busy doing a lot of hard work, you should enjoy the ride. Before you commit, visit the place and try to get a feel for it. Scope out neighborhoods and the local culture. Another issue is, will your significant other be moving with you? How does s/he feel about the place? It’s your career, but it’s also important that you both agree on a location to minimize the possibility of resentment in the future. If you’re single, do you have a friend there? This could make your transition a lot easier. Starting school, you’ll meet people in your program, but perhaps not many others. It is a good thing to have friends outside of your program to add some diversity to your social scene.


How to get into Grad School, Part I: Get in the Running


So you’ve decided to pursue post-graduate degree. First of all, go you for pursuing this goal! It’s definitely tough and only a small percentage of us actually get there. Just entertaining the idea of post-graduate training means you are motivated, intelligent, and confident. Good- you’ll need these qualities in grad school! Just as a disclaimer, a “how to” doesn’t quite do this post justice, but here are some of the most important tricks that worked for Mammy. Keep in mind that although I’ve tried to keep these tips as general as possible so as to address a broad audience, some ideas may only be relevant for certain types of programs, for instance, a research-based doctoral program in psychology. I refer to this example throughout the blog. Also, it’s ideal to identify the type of graduate degree that you’d like to obtain while you’re still in undergrad, so you can gear your educational and professional activities towards this goal. Hence, most of these tips are most easily carried out while you’re still an undergrad. Where appropriate, sections have been added for those of you who are post-grad. Feel free to email us or add comments to supplement this post. Get involved and stay busyVolunteer, work, take classes, and get experience in the field any way you can from a variety of different angles. For instance, research-based doctoral programs are going to want to see that you’ve had your hand in research projects. If you’re still in college: take classes, volunteer, work in the field, get involved in field-relevant professional societies. If you’re out of college: take classes (online, an extension course, at a community college), volunteer, work in the field. It’s not all about smarts- you need to show you have the discipline, work ethic, and organizational and time management skills to make it.

Be consistent

Don’t take jobs or volunteer in a bunch of unrelated fields. This makes you look like your interests are all over the place and that you’re not committed to a single goal. Most grad programs like to see consistency. That said, you will be a stronger applicant if in addition to your main focus, you get experience in a few fields closely related to your focus. Carefully select opportunities that will push you along a single path.


If you’re still in college, work hard and get good grades. Additionally, expand the breadth of your studies- pick up another major or at least minor in something that differs from but complements your primary major. Yeah, easier said than done, but you’ve gotta work hard to make it happen!! For instance, if your sights are set on grad school in psychology, pick up biology. Make sure to talk to an academic advisor about prerequisites and overlapping requirements.

Enhance your resume/CV

Professional development is what counts here. Publish in scholarly journals if research is relevant to your area – find an opportunity to co-author a paper with a research group. In addition, present at conferences, whether it be a poster or as part of a colloquium (…the opportunity for the latter of these would be difficult to find prior to grad school). Get involved in field-relevant professional societies. Take a chair position to show off your leadership skills.

Letters of recommendation

If you’re still in college, become a teaching assistant or research assistant, or find some other way to work for a professor and really get to know her/him. This will enable the prof to write you a much better letter than a professor whose class you took. Imagine, “Mammy took my class and got an A. This is quite an accomplishment as my class was very demanding, blah blah blah”. This doesn’t augment your application- your transcripts will be sent, and your programs will already see your grades. The letters of recommendation and admissions essays are where you get to provide information about yourself that isn’t evident from the rest of your application.


For some programs, this is the most important part of your application. Find out how important your scores will be to admission to your programs of interest. Find out if the programs require certain minimum scores, and more important, find out the mean scores of the past several years’ entering classes. Usually this information will be somewhere on the department website. You should have a “goal score”, and you should aim for it to be at least the mean of the past several years’ entering classes. Nobody likes standardized tests, and few people can flaunt this as a skill. You’d better believe that you’ll have to study. Prepare yourself by taking a course or be extremely disciplined about studying. If your test is timed, take practice tests timed. Give yourself one less minute per section to make sure you’re on top of things. Take as many practice tests as you can get your hands on, and do so in a variety of different setting because you’ll be in an unfamiliar testing environment when test time comes. Don’t take the test until you’ve gotten your goal score on at least two practice tests.


Timing. Don’t wait until the last minute to turn them in. The postal service makes mistakes, and you’ll need to call or email admissions secretaries at each program to ensure that your application was received (unless they use a postcard system). Allow at least two weeks prior to the deadline before sending off an app. Also, because many programs practice a rolling admissions process, it’s a good idea to turn apps in a little on the early side.

Details, details. Make sure every aspect of every application is perfect. You’re competing against 100s of other applicants and the admissions committee is looking for any little detail to weed out slackers. Typos, ink smudges, sloppy handwriting, and even the best white-out job are all unacceptable. Be perfectionistic here.

Admissions essay/personal statement

Tailor admissions essays to individual programs. Make it seem like every program is your #1 choice, and discuss the specifics of why. As with letters of rec, this is your chance to show the admissions committe the your characteristics that aren’t clear in the rest of your application materials. Try to resist making it overly personal, or writing about a personal struggle. Sometimes this can get you in the door, but this strategy can backfire too. A sure-fire way to nail this is to discuss a few of your academic and professional activities in detail, why you enjoyed them, and why you’d like to take them to the next level. State your ultimate career aspirations as well- make sure they’re consistent with the types of jobs the program steers students towards.

**Keep in mind: You’ve got a hell of a lot of competition. Your number one goal is to set yourself apart from the pack.