1. Keep your GPA high.
No beating around the bush here—the fastest way to derail your grad school chances is to let your GPA drop. Graduate programs are extremely competitive, and this is likely the first thing they will look at as they begin to exclude candidates. Keeping your GPA above 3.5 will make you very competitive for most programs. Letting it drop below 3.0 makes it an uphill climb.
2. Don’t take the GRE cold.
It’s true that the GRE is an aptitude test—poring over the study manuals for hours is only going to help so much after a certain point. What’s more important is familiarizing yourself with the format of the test and the kinds of questions you can expect. Taking fully-simulated (and timed) practice tests is probably more useful than spending hours on practice problems alone. The pace and intensity of the test may catch you off-guard the first time—you don’t want that first time to count!
3. Identify a faculty mentor.
Find someone here who does what you want to do (or something close to it) and ask them to help you prepare for your graduate study. This is more than asking for a letter of recommendation. Consult with them about what courses you should be taking, and ask if they can help you get involved with a research project or an internship that might help make your application more competitive. Having the guidance of someone who has done it all before is invaluable.
4. Start looking now.
Whether you’re a freshman or a junior, now is a good time to start looking at programs and thinking about what you would like to do. Depending on your field, you should likely be ready to take the GRE by the summer after your junior year, and be prepared to submit your applications before the start of your last semester. Check with the programs you are interested in to see when their deadlines are. Applying for graduate school is not an “over-the-weekend” project! It takes months of work.
5. Identify ideal programs, but give yourself options.
You’ll likely find a couple of programs that you’re most interested in being accepted to, and it’s fine to devote a majority of your attention to those applications. However, it’s worth it to take a shot applying to a top-notch program, even if you think your chances of acceptance are slim. It’s also smart to apply to a program you feel confident you’ll be accepted to no matter what. Your goal should be to give yourself options—not to have to take the only offer you get.
6. Be smart with your electives.
Many programs prefer students who have taken certain courses as an undergraduate. Check with your mentor and with the websites of your programs of interest to see which courses you should be taking. Also, be wary of taking classes that might sound fun or interesting, but might also pose a threat to your GPA. Keeping your GPA high is number one on this list for a reason!
7. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
Lots of students ask me to read their admissions essays to make sure they’re saying the right thing. In almost all cases, it’s not exactly what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it. The admissions essay is first and foremost gauging your writing ability. It is the most tangible part of your application, and it gives the admissions board some insight into what kind of student and person you are. Whatever you end up writing, make sure it is well-written, articulate, and not too long or too short. Your mentor can help you assess this. Have at least five people read it over before you send it in. A single typo could drop you out of contention!
8. Don’t try to do everything.
You can’t participate in every extra-curricular activity available. The benefits of being an engaged and diverse student will be lost if the time you dedicate to those activities interferes with your studies. If you’ve got too much on your plate, take something off. You’d rather say you have a high GPA and less activities than have to argue that while you have a mid-range GPA, you had lots of activities.
9. But make sure you do something.
Balance is the key. Having a 4.0 is outstanding, but not if you haven’t been outside since you were a sophomore. Find a couple of activities that you truly love and enjoy, and do them well. Most admission boards will be more impressed by high levels of involvement in a few things than minimal involvement in lots of things. If you can relate your extra-curricular activities to your career goals, that’s an added bonus!
10. Do what you love.
It may sound obvious, but you should truly want the career your graduate study will prepare you for. Graduate study commands intense focus for 2-5 years of your life—ambivalence about the ultimate goal is the most likely thing to derail you once you’ve started your program. Use your time as an undergraduate to make sure that the graduate program you’re applying for is perfect for you and the life you want to ultimately lead.The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor offers several exciting programs in our Graduate School. If you’d like to advance your education with our expert faculty and state-of-the-art facilities, stop by for a visit to see if UMHB is right for you.