Applying this Fall? Know the 8 Things You Must Do This Summer

With the start of the summer officially behind us, it’s time to get serious about what you’ll be doing to prepare for application season (a.k.a. fall). If you’re applying later this year, set yourself up for success by doing these 8 things this summer. The next chapter of your life starts now!

1. First things first: create your application timeline

Even if you’re not 100% sure of all the schools you will be applying to, it can’t hurt to get an idea as to when you should be working on certain things. Grab a piece of paper and write down all of the important deadlines for the schools you might be applying to and start backing out your own deadlines from there. 

Application due early September? Make yourself a few self-imposed deadlines in July, August and September for the first few drafts of your essays and build in some time to have AT LEAST one other person read them before you submit. Break down each big scary deadline into smaller subtasks (so that you’ll actually get them done) and set smaller deadlines for yourself before the big due date. The same goes for financial aid, standardized tests (see #2) and other related deadlines.

Things to include in your timeline (for EACH school):

  • Essays
  • Transcripts
  • Recommendation letters
  • Financial Aid forms
  • Test Prep

Pro tip: Put all of your dates in a calendar and block off chunks of time leading up to each deadline. Even if you end up having to move those blocks around within a week or month, you’ll at least remember to set aside time for that task. It probably goes without saying, but also included in this category is actually doing the work and meeting said deadlines.

2. Find yourself an accountabilibuddy!

One of the main predictors of success is accountability. Not in the way your parents kept you “accountable” growing up by nagging you and punishing you – think more along the lines of someone you trust and respect to check in on you and measure your progress. Applying to grad school (and so many other things) are much easier with an accountabilibuddy!If you know someone else applying to grad school, perfect! Ask them to be yours because misery loves company they’ll know exactly what you’re going through ;). If not, ask a friend, family member or coworker who you can check in with regularly. Here are a few more tips on how to find a good accountabilibuddy.

3. Get to know the programs you’re considering

See if any admissions events are happening in your area over the summer, and plan to attend them (obviously). Connect with faculty, current students or alumni from the program by reaching out to them on Gradschoolmatch. You’ll learn more from these folks than anything you’ll ever find on a website (plus, you can ask VERY specific questions and get VERY specific answers from them!). Visit schools as well as the towns and cities where you might be living (you’ll be too pressed for time when it’s time to make a decision). TAKE NOTES! The more information you have on a program, the culture, the town, etc. when you’re applying, the better you’ll be able to write highly-tailored application essays.

4. Prepare for standardized tests

If you’re still looking to improve your score or haven’t taken these at all, it’s a good idea to use your time wisely over the next few months. Spread your studying out over a few months instead of cramming. If you decide to Prepare for standardized tests before you start applyingtake a course, find out if you can sit in on one free class to see if the curriculum works well with your learning style. If you go it alone, make sure you get organized and stay accountable to your plan (see #2). Whether you choose self-study or a course, set dates for yourself to take practice exams and get comfortable with the format. By the time you go in for the real thing, you’ll be ready to pass with flying colors.

5. Make your recommendation letter action plan

The kind folks you’re asking to write your recommendation plans are probably pretty busy and important people, and your recommendation letter is just one of the many things they have to do. Plan for this process to take a few weeks, otherwise you’ll probably end up frustrated and maybe with a few bald spots. Be respectful of their time (remember, they’re doing you a favor) and make it SUPER easy for them to get you what you need by the time you need it. Following these steps should do the trick:

Step 1: Do a little research

Talk to friends, family, coworkers, etc to uncover your strengths and unique assets. (Hopefully some of these characteristics are the same ones that the programs are looking for, but it’s good to have some that differentiate you too).

Step 2: Prepare your packet

Using what you learned from your conversations (and what you know about yourself), prepare a recommendation packet. It should outline your strengths and provide examples of instances in which you displayed that trait prominently. Ideally, it’s one your recommender could know on their own (not totally out of the blue), but may not recall off the top of their head (remember, these are busy folks). Lastly, attach your resume/CV to this document so you can provide your recommenders all of the information they’ll need.

Step 3: Meet with your recommenders

Set up a meeting to talk with them, either in person or over the phone. Explain your goals and how grad school fits into that. Helping them understand why you’re going will help them understand what to highlight in their letter. Share with them your deadline and your packet to help them prepare a strong letter of support.

Step 4: Follow up!

Follow up with them after after a few weeks. Take the pressure off them to remember your deadlines and make yourself available to answer any questions they have.

6. Organize your finances for your applications and life as a grad student

Spoiler alert: applying to grad school can be kind of expensive and the costs add up quickly. Also, grad school isn’t exactly high-living time. The goal here is 

Get all of your finances organized before you starting applying to grad school using Mint.com

to start grad school with no debt and as much savings as possible. Make a plan to pay down debt and develop a budget you can stick to this summer. Mint.com is a personal favorite to track your spending habits and set financial goals for savings and debt payment. Other people swear by You Need A Budget, so go with whichever looks best for you and your needs – just make sure you actually pick one. Pay off whatever debt you already have even faster by using an easy round-up debt payment system like Qoins. Save all you can before 

Applying is expensive! Use a financial service like ynab.com to get your finances in order before starting your applications to grad school

school since you’ll be foregoing at least 2 years of income and there’s only so much pizza you’ll want to eat while you’re getting your degree. Grad school is stressful enough on its own, so eliminating additional stress from finances is really helpful.

7. Get to know the process of requesting transcripts and submitting letters of recommendation

Little known fact: getting copies of your transcripts sent to grad programs is more annoying than you think. You don’t want to wait until the night before your application is due to do this only to find out that it will take 5 business days to deliver these. It’s an easy thing to do when you’re not hyper-stressed about applying. Find out how it works and how long it will take to get your transcripts delivered. Likewise, the process for submitting your recommendation letters could differ from school to school. The more you know, the better off you’ll be when it comes time to hit the final “Submit” button.

8. Get outside and enjoy the last few months before you start applying!  

Continue volunteering, your hobbies and everything that makes you an interesting human being. Don’t stop living and doing some of the Applying to grad school is much easier with a clear head and a full heartthings you enjoy, or you’ll burn out before you reach the finish line! Grad school applications are just the beginning; it’s going to be an intense few years, so make sure you keep your spirits up and your mind clear.

P.S. When you’re about ready to sit down and do the darn thing, read our post on how to avoid the 10 most common application mistakes. Then, go forth and prosper!

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Enrolling This Fall? Here’s What You Should Be Doing This Summer

Summer’s just around the corner and we want you to make the most of yours!

Whether you’re graduating from college or working in the real world (where summer breaks aren’t a thing anymore), you’re surely aware that summer is right around the corner. Summer means longer days, shorter nights, and that fall (aka Back-to-School season) is also on the horizon. There’s no shortage of ways and places to spend it, but here are a few things you SHOULD be doing this summer.

And so the [grad school] adventure begins

Here are 7 things you should do this summer to make starting grad school in a few months fun, exciting, and easy. 

Or at least easier – grad school isn’t supposed to be easy.

1. Stop for a moment to celebrate your accomplishments.
Take time to acknowledge your achievements and thank the people who helped you get where you are, including those who helped you get into grad school. If you just finished undergrad, use some of your newly-found free time to reconnect with friends and family (before free time is a distant memory). Make time to give thanks to your recommenders and advisors over coffee or write thank you notes (by hand). You’re about to set off in the noble pursuit of knowledge and it’s important to reflect on how you got to this point.

Celebrate your achievements

2. Take a break and be selfish.
Exercise, catch up on your favorite show (or ours), or spend time learning or perfecting your hobbies. You’re going to need good outlets for the stress that comes from being back in school and this is where healthy habits and hobbies will come in really handy. Now’s a great time to get your mind and body right for what will surely be a big transition.

3. Spend time outside.
Whether that’s at home or on vacation somewhere, enjoy the great outdoors. Depending on your degree of choice, you may be looking forward to a lot of time in the lab or in the library and you’re definitely going to need some memories of the time in your life when being outside didn’t make you feel guilty. (Plus, you’re going to need some #TBT material for those days when your current situation isn’t so great). Jokes aside, it’s incredibly important and beneficial to unplug and spend time outside. #ThisIsYourBrainOnNature

Get outside and explore!

4. Meet your classmates.
If you’re going into a bigger program, there’s a chance you’re not the only one from your city. Organize a happy hour at one of your favorite restaurants and get to know some of the people with whom you’ll be spending the next few years. You’ll be so happy you did once you need a study buddy or someone to vent to about #GradSchoolProblems.

5. Explore your new city.
If you’re moving for grad school, you may want to get there early. At the very least, visit once before school’s in session. You won’t have much time to figure everything out before you need to know it (e.g. where to study when you need a break from your cohort, where to go for late night eats after an all-nighter in the library, where to get your car fixed, or even where you’ll buy your groceries). More than that though, you should get to know what makes your town special! You won’t get to uncover these unique gems when you’re facing deadlines and cramming for tests and you’ll be able to better enjoy the city for what it is before the stress and assignments begin. Make technology work for you and start exploring!

Get to know your new city.

6. Read for fun.
And enjoy that freedom while you can because soon you will be inundated with articles and books that you won’t exactly get to choose. If you’ve forgotten what “reading for fun” is, here’s a list to get you started (which happens to include my favorite, A Man’s Search for Meaning)DO NOT try to get a jump start on your grad school reading! You’ll only burn yourself out before the hard work even begins and you’re going to need all that enthusiasm and stamina to get you through the hard days.

7. Get all the real life, adult stuff out of the way.
Ya, this one’s not so fun, but I wish someone had told me this before grad school. It’s a pain in the butt to find all new doctors, optometrists, dentists, mechanics, etc, in a new place and you won’t want to wait until it’s “do or die”. Make sure your finances are in order and that you’ll be able to bank from wherever you’re headed. If you’re taking a car, make sure your insurance covers you in your new city/state or start the process of getting new insurance. Do all of these things before you take off. I promise it will make your life in a new place THAT much easier.

Adulting is hard, we know.

Bonus: if you already know where you’re going to live, schedule your utilities/cable start date and set up mail forwarding so you have one less thing to worry about. #ResponsibleAdulting

Drop us a line (or two or three) and let us know what your plans are for the summer and where you’re heading to school. We’ll air high-five you from Atlanta and we may even have a celebratory drink on your behalf. 😉

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Making the Most of Your Graduate School Journey: How to Choose The Right Program After You’ve Been Accepted

No one wants to make the wrong choice, right?

Maybe not, but most people don’t know when they’re making the wrong choice.

Many grad school applicants don’t take this decision seriously enough, or realize how much will be affected by choosing the right (or wrong) program; the difference between good, better, and best is much more than just a few different experiences and a different friend group.

All programs can lead you to a degree, but not all programs will provide you a pleasant graduate experience, lead you to your dream career or take you down the right life path. 

Whether you consider this decision big or small, the truth is choosing the right graduate program will have a HUGE impact on your life.

Allow me to illustrate this point further. The difference between a pretty good choice and a GREAT choice could mean:

  • Entering a cohort of people you can tolerate in small doses vs. becoming part of a group of people you enjoy personally and grow with professionally
  • Struggling through a program that just meets your criteria vs. feeling supported and thriving in a program that feels tailored to your goals and aspirations
  • Spending frustrating years working on furthering someone else’s research vs. building a foundation of research skills you’ll need for a successful career after graduate school.

Choosing a program may feel like a multiple choice question where any of the answers could be right, but this is sadly not the case. Though two schools may not look very different on paper (or on websites that all start to look eerily similar), they definitely are in practice.

You might wonder why you should listen to me (and it’s good to be skeptical about these things).

I graduated from the University of Michigan in 2016 with an MBA and a Masters in Science after applying to ten graduate programs. Yes. TEN. So, you can probably imagine how hard it was for me to make my final choice.

I read every blog post available and talked to anyone that would listen. I found a lot of things I read to be unhelpful, and I think they were all missing the things I’ve outlined below. And to be perfectly transparent, I LOVED my time in grad school and I wouldn’t trade my three years in Ann Arbor for anything.

But, first things first – a HUGE congratulations is in order!

You’ll have to excuse me, I forgot my manners for a second. Getting accepted to a program you’ve worked SO hard to apply to feels amazing, so make sure to savor that for a minute. Go ahead and do that, even if you’ve already celebrated it. (Don’t worry, I’ll be ready with some advice for you when you’re done).

We raise our glass to you, newly-accepted applicant!

 

Now that you (and Leo) have adequately celebrated this momentous occasion, it’s time to get down to making your big decision. The sad truth is that 25% of current graduate students are unhappy with their choice. You worked tirelessly to apply and get in and made a big choice to improve your future, but did you ever consider that this could actually make you UNhappy? No one really tells you that it might not work out the way you had hoped, so I want to help you think this through properly.

Spoiler alert: this will not be a traditional “how to decide on a grad program” blog post.

I won’t outline how to think about cost, location, etc in a very logistical way in this post (there are enough of those out there). We’re here to help you think through some things that the sad 25% probably overlooked in making their choice.

No pressure, though. We’ve got your back. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you make your big decision.

1. Location and cost matter, but only to a certain extent.

We’ll start off with the more obvious factors here. The location of a program definitely matters since it will affect the next 2-7 years of your life (depending on your degree of choice).

If you’re a California native moving to notoriously wintery Michigan (Go Blue!) in pursuit of your graduate education, you may have to learn a few new life skills (like I did). Of course my choice to live in Michigan for three years shaped my graduate experience, from learning to drive in the snow to picking up new (indoor) hobbies to buying a much more winter-friendly wardrobe. I made sure before going there, though, that it would not necessarily affect my post-grad school aspirations in terms of geographic location.

Before enrolling (and moving my life across the country to “The Mitten”), I spoke with current students, graduates, and the career services office to make sure that the alumni network and recruiting opportunities spanned the entire country (and globe). So yes, where you go matters in terms of how you will experience graduate school, but it does not necessarily mean you’ll need to spend the rest of your career (and life) in that location.

On the other hand, if you’re hoping to move into a very niche industry or hoping to start a career in a new location, attending a program  in that place or near the epicenter of that industry can be a great choice. If you’re looking for a city experience, it may not make much sense to consider programs in more rural areas or college towns, and vice versa. If you HATE snow and it would ruin every day for you, consider a program in the southern half of the country.

Likewise, although the cost of your program will impact your extracurricular activities (and your relative level of stress throughout your studies), resist the urge to make your decision solely based on finances

Going to graduate school is an investment in yourself, and one you should ONLY make if you feel that it will benefit your future net worth (otherwise you’re giving up a few years of potential income AND paying tuition for no future benefit). Thinking of this as an investment in yourself that will pay off in the future, it’s OKAY to pick a program that isn’t offering you the best financial package if you think it’s the one that will lead you to the best career opportunities. That might be an unpopular, but you’re (likely) only going to grad school once and it’s important to make the most of your experience.

Long story short: location and cost will affect your experience, but these factors should be considered as a means to break ties between programs, NOT as a first filter.

2. Don’t treat the decision like you’re picking your undergrad program.

Grad school is not College 2.0. Your school selection should be hyper-focused on your particular program. Unlike college, this isn’t a time to explore your options so make sure the programs you are considering excel in your area of focus and will lead you to your dream career.

Realistically, you won’t have much time to enjoy many of the things that make your school a great undergrad institution (think sports, on-campus events, etc) since you’ll be in a grad school bubble with your own jam-packed agenda. Think about what makes it a great grad program specifically, like resources and funding available to graduate students, annual events or conferences in your field, a supportive learning environment, accessible professors, strong connections with potential employers or great on-campus recruiting opportunities etc. If you can make it to a big sporting event while you’re there, great, but don’t let the university as a whole sway your decision about your specific program.

3. Know the difference between what you want and what you think you should want.

Repeat after me: rankings aren’t everything.

Not only are they not everything, they all use VERY different, often subjective methodologies to compare schools that may be very different than your own. Additionally, these rankings often represent programs on the broadest levels and don’t take into account how a specific program performs in your particular area of interest (because, remember, you’re hyper-focused this time around). For example, the best program in the country for Physics may not be the best program in the country for Astrophysics.

You know yourself better than anyone — listen to what your heart is telling you. In making my final choice of graduate schools, a lot of people tried to tell me to choose the Ivy League program to which I was accepted. By certain standards, that’s what I SHOULD have wanted. But, I got to the bottom of many pages of “Pros and Cons” lists only to realize that, at the end of the day, this decision was MY experience and I had to listen to my gut and acknowledge what I REALLY wanted.

4. Ask yourself how a program treated you and made you feel while they were trying to woo you because that was “their best foot forward”.

Things could go from bad to worse.

Without getting too fluffy and unacademic, think back on how different programs made you feel. Remember that graduate programs do not exist without graduate students in them (read: they should be making you feel wanted once they’ve accepted you). Whether you’ve visited in person or just spoken with professors or students via email, different programs will likely give you different vibes. Though not quite as tangible, this X factor IS worth paying attention to; programs likely put their best foot forward to attract you to their program. So, if their best wasn’t that great, it may only get worse in terms of the attention and resources they provide you if you enroll.

5. Lastly, don’t be afraid to NOT choose.

No one likes choosing between bad and not-much-better, so don’t. Seriously. Imagine you’re on the finale of the The Bachelor (or Bachelorette) left with two options you don’t love – would you still choose one of them just because you had invested so much effort and time in getting to that point?

NO! No, no, no. You would not sign up for a lifetime of unhappiness because of sunk costs. And Brad Womack broke all the cardinal rules of The Bachelor just to prove it to us in Season 11. If at the end of the whole process you don’t love your options, you don’t have to go to grad school this year!

 

You can reapply next year or the following and end up much better off. (And yes, Brad also proved this by coming back in Season 15 to give it another shot).  

All (Bachelor) jokes aside, you REALLY do not have to pick between two bad options. This is a huge life investment of both time and money, and if at the end of the process you don’t feel any of your options are the right one, just say “No” and consider reapplying in the future.

At the end of the day, there are a million ways to look at your options. We know this list is by no means exhaustive, but we hope it helps you frame your decision and make the best one for you. We wish you all the best!

 

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10 Common Grad School Application Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

Avoid making these mistakes to put together the strongest application possible.

Even silly mistakes are easy to make under pressure and we want to help you improve your chances of getting into grad school.

We’re sure you’ve heard some of these application mistakes before, but we wouldn’t be reminding you of them if we didn’t still see them EVERY SINGLE YEAR. Luckily for you, we’ve put together this list of mistakes to avoid (and what to do instead) to read through BEFORE you start your applications. Think of this as a “how to apply to grad school” from a very high level.

Application Mistake #1: Applying at the deadline

Start now, not later.
There’s no time like the present, so start NOW!

Little known fact: Graduate programs often make admissions decisions on the fly, many of which include scholarship offers. You may be the best applicant they’ve seen all year, but miss out on the money (and maybe even admission) by procrastinating. You may work well under pressure, but that fact won’t matter if there are no seats or money left for next year’s class.

Our Advice: Get your application in as early as you can complete it and ensure that it gives the admissions committee the best picture of who you are and why their program is perfect for you.

Application Mistake #2: Not answering application questions correctly

At this age, there’s NO reason you shouldn’t be able to read and follow directions. Not all application questions are the same and it’s important to read them through and give them EXACTLY what they’re looking for.

Our Advice: Answer questions with specific details and examples. For example, if they ask you to explain why their program would be a good fit for you, you should answer with specific details about their program, university and city. Help them visualize the full picture – one that includes you in their program.

Application Mistake #3: Using poor grammar and misspelling words

Application mistake #3: Bad grammar or improper punctuation. Just one more reason in support of proper punctuation.
Just one more reason to use proper punctuation.

Academics write a LOT and highly value good writing. Read: you will be writing a lot as a graduate student and you need to show that you can do this well and pay attention to detail.

Our Advice: Use spell check and get another set of eyes on your essays before submitting them. Grammar and correct punctuation are very important.

Application Mistake #4: Not speaking with your recommenders

Recommendations tell the graduate admissions committee how others think of you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help them identify areas to focus on. Missing the opportunity to have a discussion about your strengths, what makes you a good fit for the program and particular examples to showcase is a HUGE miss; lukewarm letters that don’t focus on your unique strengths will hurt even a strong application.

Our Advice: Schedule time to speak with your recommender WEEKS before the deadline and provide them with something to work from. Explain your goals and tell them where you are applying and specifically what each program is looking for in candidates. Then, remind them of examples and accomplishments that show you’re a great candidate. Provide them your CV and a statement of purpose and anything else they can use as source material. Get them excited about you and make their job as easy as possible. Lastly, don’t be scared to ask them point blank if they feel comfortable writing a strong recommendation on your behalf. If you’re uncomfortable having this conversation, that might be a sign to consider a different recommender.

Application Mistake #5: Applying to the wrong program

Nope – you didn’t read that wrong. Sadly, this is much more common than you think; a whopping 25% of current graduate students admit theyare in the wrong program! Wrong in this sense could mean a poor fit academically or culturally, or one that won’t lead them into their dream career.

Application mistake #5: Applying to the wrong program. Make sure to compare your options thoroughly.
Make sure to compare your options thoroughly before making a decision.

Our Advice: Take the time to figure out what distinguishes one program from another. Speak with current students, alumni and faculty of programs to get a REAL idea of what it would be like to be a student there and if it’s the right program for your career goals.

Application Mistake #6: Copying and pasting answers

Now is not the time for shortcuts, especially not the Ctrl C + Ctrl V kind. If you’re thinking about writing a generic, one-size-fits-all-none narrative, you may as well not apply.

Our Advice: Prepare each answer individually. You may end up using some of the same examples, but be sure to specifically tailor each answer to what each program is asking. Programs are interested in how you fit into their graduate program and the answers you provide help them gauge your interest in their school and if you are a good fit.

Application Mistake #7: Using grandiloquent writing

You’re doing it wrong if the first sentence of your narrative reads like a fairly competitive entry for the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest. Nothing

Application mistake #7: Avoid grandiloquent writing in your applications.
Don’t be an aeolist!

says you really struggle with writing than melodramatic overwriting. Remember: academic papers are generally straightforward, data-driven and avoid flowery language.

Our Advice: Use a natural writing style that’s both conversational and professional. Don’t use a thesaurus. Stories about overcoming obstacles can be very good, but avoid exposing your unresolved issues and psychological wounds in the process of telling them. There’s also a fine line between passion and over-the-top obsession.

Application Mistake #8: Assuming that “Accomplishments” = Resume

You’re missing a huge opportunity to tell the admissions committee who you are and what experiences have shaped you if you simply copy and paste your resume.

Our Advice: Provide some context about your experiences here (what you learned, how they shaped your goals, etc). Avoid getting TOO personal, though, since you want to maintain an air of professionalism.

Application Mistake #9: Assuming nobody will read your narrative

Real people read them very carefully. Programs are looking to understand your personality and what makes you tick. They want to know if their program will satisfy your interests and whether you’d be a good program

Application mistake #9: Making the reader fill in the blanks. Your story should connect the dots for your reader
Your story should connect the dots for your reader. Don’t make them fill in the blanks on their own.

citizen. Good narrative writing will help applicants who might have average numbers, whereas applicants with strong numbers can sink quickly on poorly written narratives.

Our Advice: We might be sounding a little redundant at this point, but we can’t emphasize it enough: take the time to do this right. Make sure your narrative is unique, connects the dots for the reader and strengthens your candidacy for their specific program.

Application Mistake #10: Not using a proofreader

Spellchecking and grammar checking are precursors to this step, but don’t underestimate the importance of having someone with the knowledge and experience to look over your whole application. Skipping this step will hurt you, as your proofreader can help you avoid cliches and remove anything that might be a red flag.

Our Advice: First, identify who can play the role of proofreader. Ideally, he/she is an academic who is writing a recommendation on your behalf AND has experience with admissions. This person will have a good idea of your story and your goals and can assess if your application conveys your message clearly. Offer them your narrative and ask for candid feedback. Lastly, remember feedback is a gift and do not take their constructive criticisms personally – they’re only trying to help.

Keep calm and apply for grad school.
No reason not to keep calm now that you can avoid silly mistakes!

Of course this list is not completely exhaustive, but we really hope this list helps you to prepare a strong application for your graduate studies. Feel free to leave us comments or questions below and good luck with your applications!

 

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Choosing a Graduate Program After Multiple Offers

opportunityWith March upon us graduate program admissions committees have made their decisions and have sent out their first waves of acceptance letters. If you’ve been accepted by a program, congratulations! Chances are you have more than 1 offer. Now it’s your turn to make some decisions. Most programs with winter application deadlines will want your choice by the middle of April, so time is of the essence.

Now what? How do you choose between your various graduate program offers? You may not sense this is the biggest career decision you’ve ever made. But it probably is.

One thing is certain. Your graduate program experience is going to launch your career on a trajectory that it would take any other way. That trajectory will differ remarkably for each of your offers…this is the classic Road Not Taken problem Robert Frost penned so elegantly, “I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

Your guiding principle during this decision process is think of each option as an opportunity. All of the opportunities differ to some degree. Which option offers the best opportunity for you and your future?

Your Programs Can Answer Your Questions

Now is the time to lay out the programs side-by-side in microscopic detail. The internet is not going to be very helpful in answering many of the questions that arise. Only the faculty, staff and students of the programs you’re considering can answer them. Be certain to circle back with them to ensure you have all of the information you need to make your best decision. This is NOT a time to play cat and mouse. If you are uncertain about anything, reach out to them directly.

Put yourself in their shoes. The fact that they accepted you means they want you to be there. A lot. They really would hate to lose you because of a misunderstanding. Don’t be shy to ask.

Are You Sure They Offer The Opportunities You Want?

This is the biggest question for you to settle. The primary reason you’re going to graduate school is to satisfy your academic curiosity. If the specialist material you crave is simply not there, you’re at high risk of growing unhappy with your choice. For example, many graduate courses can be offered infrequently, sometimes only once every 3 years or so. Find out if the coursework that interests you the most will actually be offered during your residence.

You have even more prep work to do if you’ll be on a research degree track. Your choice of mentor will define your experience. Reach out directly to specific professors whose research interests you. For now, just check to see they are accepting new students in the next year or so. Be on the alert for any red flags. Pick a few professors associated with each program, to ensure you have a backup that you can be happy with in case something goes wrong with your first choice after you enroll.

There are many factors to consider in assessing these options. Beth Bowman at Vanderbilt University’s Biomedical and Biological Science graduate program has assembled some fantastic advice on what is involved in choosing a mentor and how to go about doing it. Her blog is definitely worth reading.

If you are unsure about what research you specifically want to do that’s perfectly ok and very common. But you should still inquire to get a sense of what proportion of the program faculty professors have the resources and time to take on new students. Would you be happy with those options?

Compare Costs, Not Just Sticker Prices

While it is important to ask yourself whether you can afford to attend a specific school, don’t forget to ask whether you can afford NOT to attend one program or another. You don’t need me to tell you how to compare stipends and tuition and housing costs. But I can point you to some things that you might not be aware of that should weigh strongly in your decision. For example, you are probably going to earn a good living after graduate school. What impact will your choice have on your earnings down the road? What kind of track record do program graduates enjoy afterwards?

Ask yourself whether some front-end sacrifice now can lead to higher dividends later. Don’t get blinded by a higher tuition or a crappy stipend offer that is, in the big picture, only marginally worse than some other crappy stipend offer or barely lower tuition.

Remember, your income is very unlikely to be grad school crappy forever. Your lifetime earnings should be better. It won’t be easy because things seem to have gone out of control lately, but you will probably will be able to manage your student debt. With a graduate degree, you probably will be OK. With the right degree, you may be even better.

Making these judgments means you’ll have to peek around corners. You’ll need to identify and then weigh risks and opportunities that are difficult to be certain about. You’ll need to honestly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. And there are no guarantees. Might as well start learning how to do these “risk assessment” and  “vision” things now because that’s a skill set that tends to make people with advanced degrees valuable.

But my main bit of advice here is to try to think strategically about how your program options might influence your career launch.

Hidden Costs

Having said that, let me say another word about the smaller costs that add up. Again, stipends and tuition and rents are easy. Graduate students tend to become unhappy when blindsided by unexpected costs. What about software fees? Does the university offer grad students free productivity software–such as MS Office, EndNote, statistical packages–or are these costs on your shoulders? Universities have wildly varying policies in this regard.

Health benefits? Childcare? Use of the athletics center? Parking? Free bus shuttles or other low cost commute options? Movies and shows and other good but low cost entertainment?

I’m not kidding here either: I’d even go so far to recommend asking how many times per week the program serves pizza to the graduate students. Being a graduate student is about learning how to stretch an impossible budget in 1 month increments. Always has been, always will be. These hidden costs can add up to the point where it can make all the difference between soup with or without noodles at the end of the month.

Place and Lifestyle

Most graduate students pack up and move someplace to attend school. Think about moving as an opportunity with a couple of important facets. Graduate school is a good excuse to experience a change in place. For example, you might move across the country to an entirely new region that has always struck your fancy. Or, you might wish to attend a program in a college town knowing that your career afterwards will almost certainly put you in a major metropolitan area. Or vice versa.

Graduate school is a way to test drive a new town or city or region to see if its the kind of place where you’d like to plant roots after you graduate. Is that place a good employment center for the career you imagine after school? Employers in metro areas tend to have better opinions of people who emerge with graduate degrees from their local universities, compared to those from outside the region. If that is a place you might want to live, you could have a leg up.

Yes, your program will allow you outside of the classroom or lab or library for a few hours each week. Are there things nearby that you enjoy doing? Are you passionate about an activity that you’d be able to continue or have to give up to attend grad school? A big part of happiness in graduate school is how you spend your (limited) time outside of school.

Most importantly, there is a high probability that your personal life will change profoundly while you’re in graduate school. Most graduate students are young adults. Pair bonding is one of those biological imperatives of young adulthood. What is the meetup scene like?

If you come as a single, there is a good chance you’ll finish graduate school with a partner. If you begin graduate school with a partner, you might end up finishing with a baby in your arms. Don’t forget to look around that corner, too.

Program Culture

How does the graduate program treat its students? Are students on the program steering committees and do they have any voice in shaping the program? Is the program student-centric or is it more aloof? Does any of this matter to you either way?

There are two minds on these questions from a faculty perspective. What I’ll label as the old school way is to believe the job of the program and its faculty is to educate students in this specialized subject matter, because its an education not a career placement service. Besides, all the faculty know from a career perspective is the academic track. For many students, particularly those with a clear vision of their trajectory, that can be all they need.

Others believe that in addition to educating the students, programs should put effort into making students more aware of the various career opportunities that their education will prepare them for outside of the academy. Some students (and faculty) prefer to be in this kind of environment instead.

For the purposes of making your individual decision on where to matriculate, neither environment is necessarily all right or all wrong. It depends upon what seems like a better fit for you. However, in the aggregated space of graduate school, we’re long past the time of going about our business the old school way.

Finally, do the people in the program get along? Are you comfortable with the faculty and staff and current graduate students? If you interviewed, hopefully you did so in a group and was able to meet several of your future classmates. How well do you think you’ll get along with them?

Big decisions like these are never perfect, they are never simple. When your only options are good opportunities, by the very nature of the problem, you’ll probably have to turn down something very good. When you put it into perspective, that’s just not a bad place to be.

As I said before, congratulations. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t earned the privilege.

Unfortunately, I feel compelled to have this discussion because some effort on the front end can go along way towards ensuring that you’re satisfied with your decision. Unfortunately, 25% of current graduate students wish they chose a different program. That’s a sobering statistic that indicates too many mistakes are being made. Too many misapplications. Too many mis-acceptances. Too many mis-matriculations.

Whether you become one of those statistics is something you can potentially control now with some upfront effort.

Probably. There are no guarantees.

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How to Choose the RIGHT Graduate School

Right Graduate SchoolWe couldn’t do our national survey of current graduate students without asking our respondents to reflect on their grad school search experience and to give some advice to the next generation of grad students on how to choose the right graduate school.

Nearly half of our respondents indicate that knowing what they know now, they would change the way they researched grad schools. And while the majority of our sample is satisfied in their current grad program, a quarter of our respondents indicate they wish they had chosen a different grad school/program or decided not to pursue a graduate degree at all.

So with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, what do current graduate students recommend to prospective students for choosing the right graduate school?

Our respondents indicate that in addition to spending time researching program/school websites, the following three things are the most critical to choosing the BEST grad school for you:

  1. Contact program faculty/staff

82% of the current graduate students surveyed indicated that communicating directly with program administrators or program faculty would have improved their ability to make an informed decision about graduate school and prospective graduate programs. Grad students indicate these interactions were not only influential in deciding which programs to apply to but also affected their final decision of which program to attend.

  1. Contact current/former graduate students

While many prospective grad students consider communicating with program faculty far fewer reach out to current/former grad students at programs they are interested in. This is a mistake! Current and former graduate students may be the best resource for determining which faculty to consider working with, understanding the academic/social environment and even for getting tips/suggestions on how to make your application stand out!

This is likely why nearly 90% of our respondents indicated that communicating directly with current or former graduate students would have improved their ability to make an informed decision about graduate school and prospective graduate programs.

  1. Seek advice from academic professors/mentors

Lastly, our respondents suggest seeking advice from academic professors/mentors. Tapping into these resources would be a great way to learn about a program or a field you know little about. And while our respondents do recommend seeking advice from professors and/or mentors from your undergrad institution, less than a third of students found their Career Services Advisors and/or On-Campus Academic Advising Offices useful in their graduate school search.

We at Gradschoolmatch are not surprised by these responses! We have always seen the value in direct communication between prospective grad students and faculty, admins and students. That is why facilitating communication between student and program is at the core of what happens on gradschoolmatch.com.

So get matchin!

 

Check out the other articles on our current graduate student survey:

Survey of Current Graduate Students

Graduate Student Survey – Demographics and Fields of Study

Students Don’t Apply to Many Graduate Programs

Getting Into Grad School – How to Improve Your Chances

Are Grad Students Happy?

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Income and Employment After Graduate School

US Bureau of Labor Statistics Data

I just ran across yet another blog post on the internets wrongly decrying graduate school as a poor value proposition. I won’t link to it because it is mostly an uninformed polemic. Since one of the other things I do is teach statistics, I’m well aware of the concept of deviation from the central tendency of data, or in other words, that not all boats rise equally with the tide. There are no guarantees.

Nevertheless, if you earn an advanced degree, you are less likely to be unemployed and more likely to earn a higher income compared to if you hadn’t. Your prospects for both income and employment after graduate school are quite good. And in an age of flat earnings year-on-year, about the only proven way to jump up an earnings level is with a degree.

Then there is the whole thing about interesting, challenging work and the fulfillment that can bring….

US Bureau of Labor Statistics Data

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