Spring has sprung and so has the time for March’s guest blogger! This month we welcome Michael Lindsey. Michael is a 2014 graduate of North Carolina State University where he received a degree in Mathematics. He is currently enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh where is he working on his PhD in the field. His recent navigation into graduate school has provided him with some great insight into the application and admission process that we hope our readers will find helpful.
Steering towards graduate school, Michael’s advice
“When it comes to senior year, expect a very important question from your professors, advisors, and definitely your parents, “What’s next?” Although somewhat daunting to think about, students usually prepare themselves to go one of two ways: landing their first job, or continuing their education via graduate school. While many are eager to jumpstart their career, I found myself among those who stayed in the lane of academia.
Graduate school is an exciting opportunity. It’s a time and place where you can really immerse yourself in the area you’re interested, study under exceptional professors and professionals, and get hands on experience with ground breaking studies. However, deciding when, where, and how to get to graduate school requires studying, researching, and planning.
Figuring out if and when you want to go to graduate school is the first step. Many students choose to attend graduate school immediately after completion of their undergraduate. This is the route most students take who know they are interested in pursuing careers that require an elevated level of schooling. However, that is not the only option, it is just as commonplace to pursue graduate school after working for a few years – you may even find yourself at a company that will help you pay for it!
After deciding you do want to go, deciding where you want to go graduate school is your next big decision, and one that, as I mentioned, requires you to do your research. Simply typing in “your field of interest” and “graduate school” into a search engine will yield thousands of results. So how do you narrow down, or even start making a prospective list? Factors you should and can consider are: what the school generally specializes in, what the department offers, school ranking, location, assistantship and fellowship opportunities. I chose to sort through schools based on a combination of their rankings and what they specialized in, and ultimately decided on which ones I would apply to based on how well they met my interests. I also tried to apply to schools that were well rounded because I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to concentrate in.
The advice I was given was to pick about two schools you stand little chance of getting into (but hey, you never know!), about three where your chance is about a 50/50 shot, and three safe schools – ones you feel at least 80% confident of getting into.
Just as there was when applying to undergrad, there are three important pieces to the application and admissions process.
- Test Scores
Unfortunately obtaining a degree from an accredited university isn’t quite enough to be automatically eligible for graduate school – just like you did with the SAT or ACT, you will have to take a standardized test. With the exception of the LSAT and the MCAT (reserved for law and medical students), you will either need to take the GRE or the GMAT. Studying for such tests can often put you under a lot of pressure, especially when you’re doing so in addition to your regular course load, so start early. There are multitudes of resources available depending on your learning style. You can find any and every kind of prep book via a simple Google or Amazon search, and there are tons of other free materials and tips available on the web as well. Some students also choose to take a prep course. These courses are widely popular and are available year around but probably most convenient to take the summer between junior and senior year. I recommend taking the tests at least twice. If you procrastinate, you may end up with a score you are not happy with and not enough time to retake before submitting applications. I chose to take my first attempt near the end of junior year. This gave me a baseline score, familiarly with the test, and almost 6 months of time in between to prepare and improve. I then took my second attempt in October of senior year. Although I was satisfied with my results, there was still time left if I felt I needed to retake once more.
- Letters of Recommendation
It goes without saying that the best letters will be from those who really know your intelligence and character. Choose professors who really know you on a first name basis, who you have worked closely with, or have taken multiple classes with. There is also etiquette to be followed when asking for a recommendation. Ask your professors well in advance of the application due date. I tried to ask at least two months in advance. Secondly, ask if they can write you a strong letter of recommendation. You might think just because you did well in their class means they can be a strong reference. However, this isn’t always the case. For a well-written letter, there are many more factors than just a letter grade. If they cannot write a strong letter for you, they’ll be honest with you if they think other faculty members might be better choices for recommenders. Schools will vary on whether or not they allow references to come from outside academia. If they do, think of people such as an internship coordinator or a coordinator of a community program you were heavily involved with.
- Personal statement
Here is your opportunity to tell the school WHY you want to attend and why you are motivated. An admission officer once told me that this is most persuasive document you can send in. If you have picked a school because of a particular program, say that! Express your enthusiasm for projects the department is working on, for professors you are keen on studying under, or research the school has produced.
Most application deadlines hover around mid December so make sure you give yourself enough time to confidently address all parts of the application. Then after finally hitting submit comes the waiting process, and to be honest, one of the most stressful times in my life – anticipation really does kill you. How quickly you hear back will vary from school to school and will most likely be affected by how large or small the program is. The earliest I heard back from a school was late January, most decision arrived in March, but I even received some through June.
If you’re still debating whether or not grad school is for you, or feeling overwhelmed by the process, reach out to the resources already around you. The professors in your department (or your coworkers) are a great place to start. Find out where they attended, where they have been for conferences, or if they know of schools that have programs similar to what you’re searching for.”
Have more questions about graduate school? Submit them for Michael in a comment below or contact him via his Facebook page!