Academic and Extracurricular Activities
The general information given below is intended to provide undergraduate students with some tips for beginning to prepare for graduate studies. (Can't decide if graduate school is for you? Visit Career Services for assistance in making this decision!)
Grades: Although the minimum grade point average (GPA) required for admission varies from program to program, the higher your GPA is, the better your chances of being accepted to a graduate program are. Keep in mind that meeting the minimum GPA requirement for a program does not guarantee that you will be accepted to the program; in fact, the average GPA of accepted applicants often far exceeds a program’s minimum admission requirements. A high GPA will also give you a better chance of receiving some type of financial aid when you attend graduate school.
Course Selection: Before or during your third year of undergraduate study, research specific graduate programs in which you have some interest. Look at the admission requirements of the programs to which you might apply, and take any required or recommended courses. Depending on which graduate programs you intend to apply to, you may not need to earn an undergraduate major in the subject you wish to study as a graduate student, but you should have a good base of knowledge in the subject.
Get to Know Some Faculty Members: When you apply to graduate programs, you will need letters of recommendation from people who can comment on your academic abilities, so form relationships with a few faculty members at your undergraduate institution. Participate in class discussions, work with professors outside of class (for example, work on research with a professor), and stop by to see professors during their office hours when you have relevant issues to discuss with them (your educational and/or career plans, class assignments, etc.).
Extracurricular Activities: Participate in extracurricular activities that relate to the subject you are interested in studying in graduate school, both to demonstrate your interest in the subject and to confirm to yourself that you truly want to dedicate more time and energy to learning about this subject. For example, if you plan to apply to creative writing programs, read literary works and criticism in addition to your class assignments, develop a body of written work, and attend and participate in readings and other literary events. As a second example, if you plan to apply to chemistry programs, participate in relevant research, attend academic conferences, and join Mercer’s Student Chapter of the American Chemical Society.
Community Service and Leadership Activities: Students who plan to attend graduate school may wish to participate in community service and/or leadership activities. Such activities will prepare you for graduate school by giving you a greater breadth of experience and a better understanding of the diversity of our society. Participation in such activities will also strengthen your ability to work with others and to take initiative in participating in and leading group activities, which are skills you will need in graduate school and in your future career.
Most master’s and doctoral programs require their applicants to submit scores from standardized tests. Some of the tests most commonly required by graduate programs are described below.
The Graduate Records Examination (GRE) General Test: Many graduate programs require applicants to submit their scores from the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) General Test. The GRE General Test measures students’ abilities in the areas of verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing. The General Test is meant to measure skills that have been developed over many years of schooling and in many types of courses, rather than material learned in specific college courses. Students may prepare for the GRE General Test by studying its format, taking practice tests, reviewing vocabulary words, and brushing up on their math skills. The General Test is computerized and is offered by appointment. For more information about the GRE General Test, click here.
Graduate Records Examination (GRE) Subject Tests: Some graduate programs require applicants to take a GRE Subject Test, often in addition to the General Test. There are eight GRE Subject Tests: Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology; Biology; Chemistry; Computer Science; Literature in English; Mathematics; Physics; and Psychology. These tests measure students’ knowledge in specific subject areas. A student who plans to take a GRE Subject Test should study the relevant subject extensively as an undergraduate and should review relevant materials before taking the test. Subject Tests are offered three times a year (in November, December, and April) in a traditional paper format. Visit the link above for more information.
The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT): Many Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) programs, as well as some other graduate management programs, require applicants to submit scores from the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Like the GRE General Test, the GMAT measures the skills that students have accumulated over many years in a variety of courses; it does not test students on content from specific courses. The GMAT consists of three sections: an analytical writing assessment, a quantitative section, and a verbal section. Students may prepare for the GMAT by becoming familiar with its format, taking practice exams, and brushing up on their math and English skills. The GMAT is a computerized exam that is offered by appointment. For more information about the GMAT, click here.
Deciding Which Programs to Apply To
If you are interested in attending graduate school, you should research a variety of programs and consider many aspects of each program before beginning the application process.
Research Program Options
The Internet: Use the internet to do your initial research on various graduate programs, their admission requirements, their application processes, and the tests you may be required to take for admission. Almost all of the information that you need can be found on the internet. Helpful links include http://www.braintrack.com/, and http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools.
Faculty Members: Faculty members at your undergraduate school may be helpful resources as you try to decide which graduate programs to apply to, since they, of course, went to graduate school. Talk to a few of your professors about their experiences applying to and attending graduate programs.
Campus Visits: Once you have been accepted at a graduate school, you may want to visit the campus before committing to attending that program. A campus visit is a great way for you to meet other students in the program, meet the faculty members who teach in the program, and see what the campus and its surroundings are like.
The Personal Factor
Don’t Rely on Rankings Alone: The school rankings that are available from sources such as U.S. News and World Report may provide a helpful starting point in your search for graduate programs, but those rankings only take certain limited information into account and cannot reflect the very individual experience that each student has in a graduate program. For example, those rankings cannot take into account how friendly (or unfriendly) faculty members are to students or how pleasant (or unpleasant) the location of a school might seem to a certain student. You should research each program’s curriculum, the activities offered for students outside of class, the amount and type of financial aid the average graduate student in a program receives, the average number of years it takes students to complete a certain program, what the job-placement rate is for graduates of a program, etc. Consider all aspects of a given graduate program as they relate to your specific needs and desires, and be realistic in your decision-making; for example, ask yourself if you are personally capable of living for two years in a small town in Maine in order to attend a particular graduate program.
Academic Standards: Familiarize yourself with the academic admissions standards of each program in which you are interested. Balance your desire to aim high and apply to competitive programs with a sense of realism about your academic abilities. Make sure that the majority of the programs you apply to actually admit students who have grades and test scores that are similar to yours.
Deciding How Many Programs to Apply To
Apply to multiple programs. The more programs you apply to, the better your chances are of being accepted at one program or more. If you are accepted at multiple programs, you can be selective when you decide which one to attend; for example, you may be offered a better financial package by one program, or you may decide that you prefer the curriculum of one program over another.
There are, however, some reasons to limit the number of applications you complete. First of all, consider the financial cost of applying to many programs; you will need to pay application fees to each school and, in many cases, fees to have transcripts and test scores delivered to each school. Second, consider any burden you are placing on others, such as those who are writing your letters of recommendation, by applying to a large number of schools. Finally, consider the burden you are placing on yourself by applying to a lot of schools; completing dozens of graduate school applications can be stressful, so you may wish to instead focus on completing a few applications very thoroughly.
The Application Process
Be thorough and careful when you prepare your applications for graduate schools. Follow directions, and be sure to provide all of the requested information. Spend several hours writing and revising your application essays so that they are well-organized, thoughtful, honest, and generally polished, and check and re-check all portions of each application---not just your essay---for errors. If you make mistakes in your application materials, admissions officials may take that as a sign that you are not very interested in being accepted to their program or you are not properly prepared for the academic rigors of graduate school. Remember, you may be competing against dozens or even hundreds of other students to earn a place at a graduate program, so you need to do everything you can to increase your chances of acceptance, including dotting your “i’s” and crossing your “t’s.”
Be aware of the admission procedures and deadlines for all of the programs to which you intend to apply. Some schools use an admission practice called “rolling admissions,” which means they begin accepting students to their programs as soon as they begin receiving applications (instead of waiting until after the application deadlines to make admission decisions). Schools with rolling admissions may fill most of the seats in their graduate programs before their application deadlines, which means that you will have less of a chance of being admitted if you wait to apply until the deadline. Even for schools that do not use rolling admissions, it is a good idea to turn your applications in early so that, if you make a mistake on an application or part of your application packet is missing (such as a transcript), you can correct the error before the deadline. Generally, the earlier you get your application to a school, the better.
A Final Note
Keep in mind that, just as with your undergraduate studies, graduate programs are largely what you make of them. If you are highly motivated---you do all of the assigned readings, you participate in classes, you develop relationships with your professors, and you take advantage of every opportunity a program offers you to learn and grow---you will benefit from any graduate program you attend.