Navigating the grad school application process

It is never too early or too late to think about graduate school. Whether you’re gearing up for first year and want to know what extra-curriculars will help you with your impending application or entering your fourth year, it’s time to start planning for life after Laurier, and for some that means continuing their education.

First things first, make sure grad school is for you. Ask yourself why you want to apply.

“It’s a very personal decision and I think that if you really love what you’re doing, it’s for you,” said current graduate students’ associationlink text president Christinia Landry. “If you love what you’re doing, it’s just another year and you ought to keep going.”

Whatever your answer, be prepared for what you’re getting yourself into. Post-graduate studies are going to be a lot of work, so make sure you love what you plan on studying like Landry suggests, or else plan for long days and nights of being bored with the material, stressed from expectations and exhausted from the workload.

Should you decide that pursuing a post-grad degree is for you and you get into grad school, be proud, work hard but be wary of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you are under qualified to be doing what you’re doing, that everyone else is smarter than you, and that you are fooling anyone who believes you belong there.

Applying to graduate school can be as stressful or as smooth as you make it out to be, and being prepared will ease the process. By taking into account the following and strategically planning your assault on the graduate study application process there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be proud when you finally get your much-anticipated acceptance letters.

Know the program

This should be obvious: if you want to get into grad school you need good grades.

“The first thing you need to do is be realistic and take a good look at your grades and be very cognizant of the minimum grades required for grad school,” said Laurier professor and associate dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies for the English department, Tamas Dobozy.

There is no magic cutoff mark that will guarantee your acceptance to grad school (though, if your grade point average (GPA) is a perfect 12.0, you should be safe), but the higher your GPA, the better your chances.

Some programs, like Laurier’s masters in social work, are a little more forgiving of applicants with lower marks, but require documentation of hours of experience and the application process includes the answering of ethical scenarios.

“I don’t think that students have to be outstanding throughout all their years in terms of their grades,” said associate dean of the Laurier masters in social work program Cheryl-Anne Cait. However, she stressed that applicants must show they are academically suitable for the program.

All universities have different requirements when it comes to your grades. Some schools look at your overall GPA, others look at your GPA from the last two years. Most schools will consider the GPA of your major (which will usually be related to the program to which you are applying).

For many grad programs, a minimum GPA of 10.0 is required. Other schools suggest you don’t bother to apply unless you have a GPA of at least 7.0. Visit the websites of the schools you are interested in attending to get a better understanding of their admission requirements. Visiting the schools’ websites with program descriptions is also a way to discover if a good fit for you.

“The wonderful world of the internet means that websites are extremely useful,” explained Cheryl Dietrich, Laurier’s master of business administration (MBA) marketing coordinator. “Really look closely at a school’s website and use that as a starting point.”

With that said, it’s hard to know which school and even program is for you just by reading through their program and school websites. Dietrich recommends that you keep the culture of the school you’re applying to in mind when doing your preliminary research. For example, the MBA program at Laurier is very group-oriented, while other MBA programs are highly individual and competitive. Keep in mind the type of atmosphere you’d like to be surrounded by while you continue your education.

Another way to determine if the program is right for you is to talk to current grad students. They can tell you what it’s like and their experience thus far. Don’t think they’ll give you the time of day? It’s worth a shot; the worst that can happen is that they don’t respond to your emails.

On the other hand, if they do respond they may give you insight to what the program is like as well as provide extra tips on how to get accepted. Though current grad students often feel overwhelmed with school, they’ll likely respond to your emails because not too long ago they we’re in the same position as you.

Asking for references

When asking your professor for a letter of recommendation it is important to give notice. Three to six weeks should suffice. This gives the professor enough time to fit it in, but it is not so far in advance that you haven’t completed enough of the course for the professor to know you and how you’ll do.

“Ideally [your reference is] someone who knows you well and can speak to something more than just your academic qualifications,” said Markus Poetzsch, professor and undergraduate advisor for Laurier’s English department. “An average letter tends not to cut it. You want good letters from people with whom you also had good grades.”

When it comes to asking for reference letters, an email is deemed acceptable, but be sure to be formal when phrasing your request. To ensure the possibility of a detailed reference, put in lots of face time with your professor beforehand and make sure to remind your professor who you are when requesting.

Asking your professor if they can give you a good reference is a good idea because it will ensure that you’re not portrayed negatively. After all, you don’t get to read the letters before they are submitted.

“Give your referee the out, allow them to say no,” said Dobozy. “It is still remarkable how many letters that you get that basically say this student has issues.”

Often it is helpful to provide your references with the materials they will need to complete your letters. Asking if they would like you to provide samples of your work or a CV and a list of the schools and programs you are applying for could be helpful and ease the process.

Statement of intent

Not to be confused with personal statements (usually used when applying to professional schools), a statement of intent is used to explain what research you are interested in pursuing and why.

“So be honest, be yourself. Be insightful and not descriptive in the statement,” said Perkins-Marsh. “Don’t assume that you know what they want you to say.”

“You want them to read the statement and the natural conclusion should be the person is very well suited to this program and what we’re aiming to achieve and the kind of student we’re trying to recruit,” she continued.

If your research interests match up with that of a professor’s, you have a better chance of getting accepted because you increase you likelihood of having an interested supervisor. Look through university websites and e-mail these professors. They would likely be happy to meet with your or discuss your potential application over the phone.

Emailing a professor you may be interested in working with is also a good idea because they can provide you with insight and advice.

“Call your grad officer of the program you’re applying to before you fill out the forms,” suggests Dobozy. “Just talk to them, get a feel for what they’re looking for. I think a lot of students could have saved everyone a lot of time if they’d done that. They could have been better prepared.”

Experience

Though having good grades and knowing the program and admission requirements is important, they’re not the only determining factors when it comes to getting accepted into the graduate program of your choice.

Most graduate programs weigh research and practical experience differently, and some don’t take it into consideration at all. It is important to plan ahead and either focus simply on your marks or get ready to start volunteering and planning what extra-curricular activities could help you get a leg up over the competition.

Dobozy explains that although writing for a school newspaper, having experience teaching or working at a writing centre demonstrates that an applicant would be a good teaching assistant, “grades and reference letters are by far the most important.

“If you have Bs, nobody’s going to care about what extracurricular stuff you have, it’s all about performance,” he concluded.

Dietrich explained that MBA programs often weigh Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) scores, work experience and academic experience. It is important to research how each school you’re applying to weighs the different components of the application.

“At least with our program we want students who aren’t afraid to take risks and also who are very good collaborators,” said Dietrich.

Then there are programs where demonstrating research experience is an important component. You can cover this base by taking classes like political science’s research specialization, a full-credit, one-semester course that mimics a class you would take in post-grad.

Relevant research experience demonstrates that you are familiar and passionate about what you hope to study and suggests to the admissions office that you are competent and interested. Share your research experiences via a curriculum vitae.

Apply to a variety of programs and schools

There’s an element of chance when it comes to getting accepted to grad school so applying to many schools and programs increases your likelihood of being accepted. It’s important to read and re-read the application processes for each school because they are often different.

Keeping binders or file folders for each school will help you keep organized because each school handles applications differently and expects something unique. Also, Perkins-Marsh recommends finding a buddy that can share the burden of the application process and proofread your letters and statement of interests.

“It’s important to keep in mind that depending on the programs you’re applying to the application information could be quite different,” explained Perkins-Marsh. “Look very closely at the application information so that you’re following step by step based on each institution and not to making assumptions.”

When you do apply, double and triple check that you are submitting everything that is required for that program (transcripts, references, curriculum vitae, statement of intent, GRE results, et cetera) and that there are no spelling or grammar mistakes in anything you’ve written. Quadruple check the spelling of names.

Step-by-step

1. Begin by researching different institutions that provide the types of programs you’re interested in.

2. Go see your advisors. Now that you know what you want to do, they will be eager to point you in the right direction. They have contacts at other schools and can even refer you to other Laurier professors that could help with your decision process. While you’re asking about grad school, make sure you’re on track to graduate with the undergraduate advisor.

3. Attend any conferences or meetings regarding applying to grad school. The Career and Co-op office holds one, along with a Grad Fair in fall semester. Sometimes even departments will hold them.

4. Ask your references if they can give you a good reference early. September or October is a good time to ask, so that you can put in some good face time with your references throughout the semester.

5. Go buy a file folder that you can use to separate information you require by school. A lot of schools’ websites allow you to download PDFs with instructions and even applications. Some schools require you to sign up online but making notes for each school and keeping organized will help you in the long run.

6. E-mail professors at the schools you have chosen. Ask them if they would be willing to speak to you or even advise you on your thesis.

7. Visit the schools you want to apply to if it’s feasible to do so.

8. Provide your referees with all the resources they need to provide you with their letters a few weeks before your applications are due. If you are applying to more than one school you should include a list of schools you are applying to. A letter thanking them for their time is always appreciated.

9. A reminder e-mail of when you’re going to pick up your letters from your profs should be sent out to arrange a time to retrieve your letters and thank your references in person, if you can. Make sure you have your letters in your hand at least a week before your applications are due.

10. Send your package with everything together. It never hurts to phone the graduate studies office to ensure you have the right address.

Statement of interest

  • Remember to be yourself, but don’t be descriptive.

  • Separate yourself from the competition by highlighting the qualities you possess that are congruent with what the program you’re applying to wants. If they value academics, point out classes you did well in. If the institution weighs field experience heavily, highlight this area of your expertise.

  • Make sure all of your statements are different. They should vary based on how you are catering your statement towards what each institution is looking for in an applicant.

  • Proofread! Get as many people as you can to read over your letters. It’s helpful to have the career and co-op centre read them over too. Use academic language and proper grammar.

  • Single out your reasons for choosing the institution you are applying to by mentioning classes, profs or field opportunities unique to that program.

    • Be professional in your layout, greetings and signature.

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