Tips for preparing for graduate school

Ashanka Kumari

For students preparing for the graduate school admissions process, research should extend beyond preparation for their undergraduate courses.

Natalie Adams, assistant dean of the University of Alabama Graduate School, said students should prepare for graduate school interviews by researching the school they are applying for ahead of time.

“Do your homework,” Adams said. “Graduate schools get hundreds, if not thousands, of applications and you have to make yourself memorable. You do that by showing you have thoroughly researched their graduate program. Learn about the faculty, what type of research and service they do, what is unique about their program and how their program fits your professional goals.”

David Francko, associate provost and dean of the graduate school, said interviews are an important part of the graduate school admissions process although every graduate school treats them differently.

“Most programs will develop a short list of students they want to admit but often make final decisions, especially for offers of assistantships and fellowships, after they have had a chance to meet people in person and judge their fit in the program,” Francko said.

John Shanks, a second-year doctor of musical arts student, said he treated graduate school interview preparation like a job interview.

“I researched the school and the faculty I’d most likely be interviewing with,” Shanks said. “I also had considerable contact with my major professor. Additionally, I tried to see the process from the other side of the table and gave some forethought to questions I guessed the interviewers might ask.”

Graduate schools look for a number of attributes including grades and test scores but also for evidence that the student has already done something professionally as an undergraduate, Francko said.

“Research experiences, intern- and externships and international experiences are so valuable,” Francko said. “Most programs would rather recruit a student with a 3.3 GPA and two papers they presented at a scientific conference, for example, than a person with a 3.6 GPA and no evidence of professional accomplishment.”

For some graduate school programs, however, test scores on exams such as the LSAT or the GRE are just as important as work or research experience, Adams said.

“Some graduate programs make their decision almost exclusively on the GRE and GPA, but other programs pay far less attention to it,” Adams said. “[Graduate school programs] are more concerned with work or research experience, and some programs do not even require the GRE. Again, a student needs to do his or her homework because departments are typically very impressed when a student schedules his or her own campus visit.”

Francko said students should start the process early, decide what they want out of their graduate school experience and apply to more than a couple of schools.

“[Ask yourself things like] what you see yourself wanting to do professionally in five to 10 years and then tailor your search for the right place to study by learning all you can about the five or six schools that seem like a good fit,” Francko said. “Remember that professors who you know as an undergrad can be invaluable allies in helping you identify the right places and helping you craft an application.”

Francko said students should not be discouraged if they end up at their “safe” university choice rather than a “dream” school.

“No matter how good you are, competition is stiff and you may lose out simply because of space limitations,” Francko said. “Grad school is all about what you do to make yourself a professional and the adage ‘bloom where you are planted’ is absolutely true. If you have the opportunity to learn, research, publish your work, attend conferences, etc., you will be well prepared for life after grad school.”

The graduate school experience is a combination of being a student with a professional status and students should take advantage of that, Shanks said.

“It’s much better to do professional work and use the resources a student has available than to be dismissed as ‘just a student’ while being held accountable for the highest-caliber work,” Shanks said.