Jennifer L. Bloom, University of South Carolina
Stephanie Uiga, University of California-Irvine
This is the time of year when graduating students begin to give serious thought to their post-graduation options. Given the competitiveness of today’s job market, more and more students are considering graduate school. The undergraduate academic advising office may be one of the first places students contact for information on the application process. Undergraduate advisors can best assist students considering graduate school, no matter the discipline, when they do six things.
1. Encourage students to reflect on their rationale for pursuing a graduate degree. Students should think carefully about their motivation and what they want to study before applying to graduate school. Faculty serving on admissions committees can sense when students’ motivation stems from parental pressure or uncertainty about what to do after college. Master’s and doctoral programs that require a thesis expect students to have at least a general idea of the research topics they are interested in pursuing. A student who pursues a graduate degree with a sense of purpose and a keen interest in the discipline is not only more likely to be admitted, but also is more likely to succeed in the face of the tremendous academic, social, and sometimes financial pressures of life as a graduate student.
2. Encourage students to do their research on graduate school options. In choosing a graduate program, the subject/concentration and the type of degree are not the only factors that should be considered. Prior to applying, students should also consider location, quality of the program, faculty, financial aid, the availability of resources and benefits (e.g., health insurance). Students should be encouraged to move beyond their comfort zone and consider schools that are out of state or in a different setting than their undergraduate school. An educational background that includes diverse experiences increases networking opportunities and makes students more attractive to potential employers. Admission into research-based programs is often tied to a particular faculty member’s willingness to serve as a mentor and/or how the student’s interests and abilities could be useful to the faculty member’s research. In these cases, it’s important that the applicant identify and contact faculty members with similar research interests.
3. Encourage students to call graduate program directors and/or admissions officers on the phone. Departmental websites are typically rich resources for information about a degree program; students should be encouraged to read these sites thoroughly. After students conduct their initial research online they should be encouraged to contact the program director with specific questions. This will give applicants the opportunity to ask about assistantship opportunities, experiences of students in the program, and what qualities the program selection committee seeks in candidates for admission. Academic advisors can help students develop a list of questions to ask program officials.
4. Help students by editing their personal statements for graduate school. One concrete way that academic advisors can help students in the graduate school application process is to offer to read and edit their personal statements. The personal statement should reflect students’ individual stories and aspirations for their futures. Students should also individualize their personal statements for each program/school to which they apply. They should share why they are interested in that school’s program and, especially for doctoral programs, mention specific faculty members whose work interests them. Poor grades or red flags in their records should be addressed in the personal statement, but such remarks should be kept brief and focus on what students learned by overcoming these obstacles.
5. Encourage students to get involved in undergraduate research. There are multiple benefits associated with students developing relationships with faculty members. One of the best ways to develop substantive relationships with faculty is for students to conduct undergraduate research. The benefits for students include one-on-one interaction with faculty outside the classroom, active opportunities to apply what is learned in classes, and the opportunity to see first-hand the work faculty do in addition to teaching (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Doctoral programs will expect applicants to have research experience, more so in the sciences than in humanities, social sciences, and professional programs. Given the positive outcomes associated with undergraduate research, academic advisors should make all students aware of opportunities to become involved in undergraduate research.
6. Help students realize that there may be additional funding sources for graduate education. At many institutions there are opportunities for students to secure funding to help pay for their graduate degrees and/or living expenses. Many students do not realize that there are graduate assistantships, fellowships, and scholarships available to prospective graduate students that can, if secured, help cover tuition. Assistantships may include a small stipend over and above the cost of tuition. Applicants should be encouraged to turn in their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) by the deadline just as they did for their undergraduate degrees. The FAFSA may be required by the school in order for students to receive federal or departmental aid.
Applying to graduate school can be an overwhelming and intimidating experience for undergraduate students. Academic advisors can help ease that stress by demystifying the application process and by suggesting steps students can take to get started. With help from advisors, students can successfully prepare for the next step in their educations.
Jennifer L. Bloom
Clinical Professor and Director
Higher Education & Student Affairs Program
Department of Educational Leadership & Policies
University of South Carolina
Graduate Student Affairs Officer
Program in Public Health
University of California-Irvine
Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students: a third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Cite this article using APA style as: Bloom, J.L. & Uiga, S. (2011, December). Make a difference: Six things undergraduate advisors should know about graduate school. Academic Advising Today, 34
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