I feel like this is the only actual “Adulting 101” topic I’m actually qualified to write about. I’ve gotten into grad school three times so I guess that makes me an expert. But, turns out, the process is different based on what sort of program you’re aiming for. So this is mostly for social sciences or humanities, but in general, it applies to STEM programs as well.
I’m posting this now because the grad school process starts before your last year in undergrad. A lot of the time, you should be prepping your second to last year. The first thing you have to do is research schools and programs, and most importantly, find out their application deadlines. And, application deadlines can vary within a university. While the general university deadline can be sometime in July, the program you’re aiming for can cut off applications in February. So make a note of when everything needs to be completed.
Once you have your deadlines settled, take all the tests you need to take. At the very least, this is the GRE. Some schools, especially if you’re an international student, require english proficiency tests as well. Depending on the program, you might have to do the GMAT as well. It takes about three months to study for the tests, so plan accordingly, and make a note of what your school requires, and what they admit. My university and program officially requires a 300 on the GRE, but almost everyone admitted was closer to 320 and higher. You can find that out by looking at the incoming student profiles somewhere on your university website. Unfortunately, grad schools don’t have a convenient site like LSAC to figure out where you stand like law schools do.
Another reason you should be starting this process early is because most grad programs require at least three letters of recommendation. Figuring out which professors to ask is the tricky part. Ideally, you should have multiple classes with that professor, and have gotten decent grades in them. Depending on the program, pick professors who have read your work, or required a lot of writing. Ideally you should ask in person first, but if you absolutely must, send a polite and professional email. This also depends on the relationship you have with your professor. If it’s someone you’re one of 300 students in a general education class to, go see them in their office at least a few times so they become familiar with who you are beyond your grade. But really, you shouldn’t be asking those professors for recommendations. The perfect professors to ask are the ones whose research interests are similar to your own, whose smaller, upper level classes you’ve taken. They get to know you and are genuinely interested in your success, so they’ll be willing to write a glowing recommendation. Either way, when they say yes, they would be happy to write a letter for you, send them an email that includes your grades in whatever classes you took with them, both your program and overall GPAs (so they can see you’re brilliant within the program even if you suck at math), your academic interests, and your GRE score, broken down into written, verbal, and quantitative.
Give professors plenty of time to write your letters. A month at least. If it comes to two weeks before the deadline and you have no idea if they’ve sent in the letter, sent a brief but polite reminder, implying that you’re sure they’ve already done it but the website isn’t showing that they’ve sent in their letter. And once they do, send a thank you.
When I was applying into my master’s program, I first applied as a non-degree seeking student, to get a few good grades to offset my tragic undergrad GPA and that nasty semester in law school. I had luckily maintained relationships with my undergraduate professors, so they were more than willing to send in recommendation letters. Once I did a semester there, I asked some of the professors in the master’s program to write me recommendations to be in the program as a degree seeking student. Somehow I managed to get half the admissions committee to write me letters, so I got in before I completed my application. And when I was applying into the PhD program at the same university, I asked my thesis chair, one of the professors I had asked before, and a professor who had taught three of the classes I took. And just like that, I scooped up the other half of the admissions committee.
What I do want to mention is that letters from tenured professors carry more weight than non-tenured professors, as does the level of research the professor as done. If they’ve edited a journal or two and hold an endowed chair, then their letter is worth its weight in gold. That’s not saying that letters from non-tenured or clinical professors are worthless, they are fantastic in their own right, especially if it’s a really small department and everyone knows and respects each other. But you really have to research your writers.
That’s all I’ve got for now, happy summer, I hope you’re all enjoying it. I’ve been working on my thesis, so once I’m done on that front, I’ll be posting much more regularly. In the meantime, you can find me on Twitter or Instagram, and by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.