anthropod brings it to my attention that for graduate schools in Canada, the proces may be a little different. The information contained below is generally more valid for American schools, and I have no significant experience with schools outside the US. If anyone has any insight as to differences experienced with foreign schools, let me know and I'd be glad to add a section pertaining to that.

At the end of my undergraduate college experience, I was forced to make a decision: the real world, or more school. To many, this decision is a simple one. In the states, 16 years of straight schooling can wear even the most motivated students thin. For me, I wasn't willing to trade in my student discounts for the grand prize: a nine-to-five.

I made my decision during the summer before my last year of undergraduate, and it was a tough one. I often felt overwhelmed trying to figure out how to get myself in gear and onto the right track toward graduate school. I warn anyone interested in taking this same path: Graduate school is hard, and it's no where near as much fun as your undergrad was. No matter how much undergrad may have sucked, this will be worse. I'll also tell you it's not as bad as some make it out to be. That is, it's not bad if you want to do it. You have to like research, you have to be able to listen, you have to be able to study, and you have to be self-motivated. That being said, I have always wondered if my decision and discovery process would have been easier if I had been advised through the process. So, I will attempt to convey what small gems of wisdom I may have procured during my journey toward becoming a graduate student.

The first thing I would recommend before even starting the application process is to get an idea of what graduate or professional school is all about. Find out a little about financial aid options (fellowships, grants, employee scholarships and continuing education), and also make sure it is for you. Figure out what your career goals are, and see if they jive with your decision to go back to school or continue your education. Don't just start graduate school so you can tap some nice hot college ass. That's the worst reason for putting yourself through what you're going to be putting yourself through. Make sure you want to be there for the right reasons (no, not to get ass from sorority girls!).

When should I start?

You should start anytime before your final year of undergraduate, or for returning or foreign students, sometime during the summer (July or August). Why such an early start? You need to find schools that cater to your interests, as well as professors that are doing research in your area of interest. It's extremely important to find a school that is strong in your program of study that also has professors doing research that interests you. Starting over the summer gives you time to find schools you are interested in applying to. Get in contact with professors at those schools who may be interested in funding your education through research or TA grants, and also collect all the application material you may need. Some schools have online applications available and this can relieve some of the hurry you'll hit in November, but you need to contact professors starting in the fall. You'll also need to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) (and maybe take it again) for most schools. Starting early gives you a chance to study for this test, and in some cases, retake the test if you feel you can do better.

Where should I start looking?

Many people suggest that the U.S. News & World Report "Best Graduate Schools" annual issue is a good overall reference, but it does not rank very many programs outside of the extremely popular ones (Law, Medicine, Engineering, Business). U.S. News is a good start and has some great advice, but I would recommend doing online searches to compliment the rankings in U.S. News. Speaking with your current or past professors who are active in the areas you would like to study will also help give you an idea of who and where has what you're looking for. Remember, you are not only looking for a school, but a professor to work with as well. If you are only interested in a Masters program, it is not absolutely necessary to have a professor to work with, but it can make finding funding and general research direction MUCH easier. If you are looking to work toward a PhD, you will most definitely need a professor or department that is interested in bringing you on to work with them in their research areas and teaching.

There are quite a few online resources that can also help you. Searching in databases for conference proceedings and publications concerning your area of study will help you find out who is doing current research and what their subjects are. This can help you narrow down schools you may be interested in based upon research direction. Take a look at other more complete rankings within your field to get a better idea of where the best place for you may be. Overall, start out by mining the data. Collect a lot of information about a lot of places and go through it, narrowing down and selecting where you think you want to be.

OK, I think I know where I want to go, now what??

Well, it's time to start looking at the GRE, continuing to talk to Professors at schools you're interested in, and doing a variety of other necessities that will make the applications process go smoothly. Here is what you are looking at around September or October:

  • Schedule a time and location to take the GRE, and start studying. Trust me, you need to study for it. (I know you're a fucking genius, and I don't care, study for it.)
  • Begin to send away or print out applications for the schools you are considering applying to.
  • Continue to contact professors you may be interested in studying under/doing research for.
  • Obtain letters of recommendation from current or former professors or employers.
  • Make sure you know how to get transcripts sent from your undergraduate institution to the graduate departments at the schools you are applying to.
  • Polish up your resume. Some schools will ask you to send a copy along with your application.
  • Begin to construct a personal statement (also called letter of intent) that you will be sending along with your application. Almost all schools require this.

Applications

Most schools allow you to request an application via their graduate department web page. Start there. If not, call the department and get them to send you the application. Some schools also have online applications, which are generally easier to submit. Almost all applications require the following:

  • GRE (or other graduate test) scores
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Official transcript from your previous school
  • Statement of intent/purpose

The GREs:

Note: There are other types of graduate testing requirements such as GMAT, LSAT, and Miller Analogies. For simplicity sake, I will use the example of the GRE as it is the most common. If you are going to be taking any of the other tests for different specialties, just substitute for GRE in this document.

The GREs are a bigger deal than they probably should be, but you still have to do well on them. The examination is split into three sections: Analytical, Quantitative, and Verbal. Trust me, you want to study for them no matter how smart you think you are. They are graded very strangely, and the questions you will be asked will increase/decrease in difficulty depending on how well you do. If you fuck up on one of the early questions, it can have a huge affect on your score. The GREs are really all about how well prepared you are to take them. This is especially true with the analytical part. The test is in no way difficult (unless you are utterly terrified of math). I highly recommend taking practice tests, and a lot of them, until you feel generally comfortable with the test format.

The entire test is now computer-based, adaptive, and timed. You must complete each section within the given time limit, and you can't go back. If you don't complete the last three or four questions in a section, they penalize you more than if you got all three or four wrong. The GRE is a money making machine, and ETS has a pretty sick sense of humor when it comes to testing, but it's the way it works. I highly recommend getting practice tests on CD-ROM from any of the test preparation companies (Barron's, Princeton Review, etc.). Study for the GRE and you will do well. It's not hard at all. If you don't study, you'll be blind-sided by a test that is designed to be easy if you know how to take it. For the complete skinny on the GREs, check out http://www.ets.org

For more complete information on the GRE, see the excellent node How to Ace the GRE.

Letters of Recommendation:

Ask your current or former professors if they would be able to write you a good recommendation. If you're a non-traditional student (i.e., you're a working stiff), you can ask current employers, but it is a very good idea to ask former professors as they can judge your academic performance. Most applications tell you where to send the recommendations, and may have an accompanying form. You should fill out all parts of the form that you can, and include a stamped and addressed envelope for the person who will be writing your recommendation. It is very rare that they will give the recommendation directly to you. It is common practice for those writing the recommendations to send the material directly to the school. On occasion, it is acceptable for the person writing the recommendation to seal it in an envelope and sign the back over the crease where the flap and envelope are glued together.

Letters of recommendation are very important in the process of admissions, and you should take seriously your consideration as to whom you will ask. Typically, a professor or employer that you are sure has a very favorable opinion of you is the best choice, though that may be obvious, it is important to remember.

Transcripts:

It's a good idea to find out the procedure for getting official transcripts from your undergraduate institution ahead of time. Some schools may have a fee for sending transcripts, and some may not. Make sure you find out how to do this as you'll need it when it's time to complete all your applications.

Letter of Intent/Personal Statement:

Almost every school asks you to write a letter of intent (also called a statement of purpose or personal statement). These are really ridiculous, but you have to do it. Make it clear and concise. It doesn’t need to be long, and different schools have different criteria. Sometimes I wonder if they even read them, but you have to write one. Take some time, tell them what your current and future plans are, and why the University of "Fill-in-the-Blank" is a good fit for you. Send the same one to all the schools if you want, but make sure to change the school name in the letter to avoid embarrassment.

OK, I did all that, and I like my GRE scores. It's late October!? What do I do?!

Well, hopefully you have taken the GRE once or twice and you're happy. You should have all the letters of recommendation either in progress or sent already. You have all the applications for the schools you've narrowed it down to, and you know there are a couple professors at different schools who are interested in having you work for them. Good. Fill out your applications, get your transcripts sent, and make sure the professors/employers are getting those recommendations done. Have ETS (the people who do the GRE thing) send your scores to the schools you are applying to. Print out copies of your letter of intent (or whatever the schools are calling it now), and get all your stuff together in folders for each school.

If you got an early start, this is when it pays off. You can fill out the applications, attach all the stuff you've been getting together (resume, letter of intent), and send it in. The recommendations will get sent along by those wonderful people who are glorifying your existence, and the ETS folks will send your GRE scores automagically. It's a good idea to send in applications early. For one, graduate schools can have deadlines as early as November 1st, and as late as January 1st. You have to make sure you keep track of the deadlines. If you started early, like I told you to do, you'll be fine and you'll have beat the rush. Many graduate schools make decisions as the student's applications come in. Getting your application materials in early gives you a better chance. You'll hear back from them earlier as well. You also beat the rush for the GRE test dates, the recommendation flurry that starts in October at most universities, and you generally get it all taken care of in a timely fashion (before all the deadlines!).

The information included here is by no means completely thorough. It is a good starting point, and it is a generic listing. Some schools have slightly different requirements during the application process, but this write-up should include most of the relevant information. The timeline for getting all this done is the most important part of the process. It's not hard, but it is a process that most often is undertaken while in school or working. This can put the entire process on the backburner for weeks at a time while current needs are attended to. Following the timeline above should help minimize the stress and confusion involved.

If there is any further information that anyone feels I've left out, please let me know and I will amend any parts which may be incomplete, or include suggestions from the experiences of others who may have gone through graduate hell as well. As most write-ups are, this is a work in progress. I hope it helps.

If you want to make it simple, real simple, you can do the following:

Apply to lots of places, then go to the school that offers the prettiest PhD robes.

So many universities opt for the basic, traditional black robes on which the hood provides the only splash of color.--and it's just so dull. I happen to like Duke's robes: elegant, subtle deep blue trimmed with black and white, topped with a soft black hat with a golden tassel. If red's your color, you could try Stanford; some people prefer the audacity of Harvard's crimson, which bellows your educational pedigree to everyone within eyeshot. Hopkins has very nice gold robes with black trim--understated, yet elegant. Now, moving into the other end of the spectrum, Columbia's robes combine traditional black with royal blue trim; unfortunately, you're expected to wear a royal blue top hat as well, which I tend to find absurd. I would also advise against Princeton or Brown, both of which incorporate orange and brown--colors that are only fashionable around October. If you just want to be different, maybe UPenn's for you; the body of their robes is a dark blue, but the arms are red from the elbow to the wrist.

I think NYU is the best choice of all. As an NYU graduate, you'd wear an elegant purple robe with a soft, comfortable gold-tassled black cap. The armbands are black velvet and, as a PhD, the hood would be trimmed with a complementary dark blue. Simply lovely.

Alternatively, you could select the graduate school whose name forms the coolest acronym.

This time, Duke's not a good choice; Duke University Graduate School is DUGS, which is nothing more than an archaic epithet for women's breasts. Other schools offer much more interesting options: entomologists should go to Brown or Boston (BUGS), coffeeholics should opt for Marquette (MUGS), and future criminals should try for Texas-Houston University (THUGS). If you like to bask in irony, you could attend snooty, coldhearted, arrogant Harvard (HUGS). Lovers of small dogs should attend Princeton (PUGS), collectors of ewers or large-breast fetishists should choose the Jesuit University (JUGS), magic-carpet enthusiasts and bald people should go to Rice or Rockefeller (RUGS)...you get the idea.

This option of course, rules out all Universities of Whatever. You could attend Berkeley, but UCBGS doesn't spell anything...

Choose wisely!

Additional stress should be laid on several elements in NetCurl's excellent writeup. My advice is limited to the system in the USA, which is the one I know; and my field is the humanities, not the soft or hard sciences. See the other caveats at the bottom.

Choosing a school.

Graduate schools are selling a product. A lot of people recommend looking at rankings, but the latter do not tell the whole story. As a prospective customer, get on the phone (or write an email) to the graduate advisor (or some similarly-titled equivalent) of the department in which you are interested and ask them a pointed question: have recent graduates of their program been hired, and (more importantly) where? Any good school will be glad of its bragging rights and its representatives will not resent the question (any resentment or unwillingness to answer should be read as a red flag).

If you are planning to enter an academic field (the only choice about which I am competent to give first-hand advice), be wary of any school that does not send its graduates on as assistant professors to schools in the top X of those rated in your favorite guide to graduate schools. "Assistant professor" is an important distinction: it is the default title for professors hired on the "tenure-track," which means the institution hired them with a view to keeping them. Visiting assistant professors and adjunct professors are in a different category--lots of people are hired right out of graduate school for one-year stints, and because the institution has little invested in the temporary hire, these positions tell you correspondingly little about the graduate school's clout, the student's quality, or the hiring institution's opinion of the student. (As a hiring institution, Harvard is an exception. They characteristically hire good people right out of graduate school for only a few years with no real chance of tenure. For tenured faculty, Harvard prefers to hire big guns who've already proven their mettle elsewhere.)

I wrote "top X" above because a mere number won't do. Maybe you prefer liberal arts colleges; maybe you want to buckle down and do research without bothering too much about interacting with students; maybe you want to take another route, and enter secondary-school teaching. You'll need to think hard about the names of schools at which a prospective graduate school places its graduates. But I dare say, this is the most important consideration of all. If a certain department does not place its graduates well, your chances of their placing you well, no matter how good you are, will be diminished (though by no means zeroed out). This is regrettable, but a fact of academic life.

Letters of recommendation.

Given grade inflation, letters of recommendation are arguably more important than grades. You should think very carefully about whom to choose, and you should expand your options by going in and getting to know your professors better. The payoff is that they will get to know you better, and a letter of recommendation chock-full of anecdotes and specific examples is extremely powerful. A teacher who's on the ball will ask to interview you before writing if he or she doesn't know you very well. Watch out if the teacher seems to take the whole thing as pro-forma. You might get a generic letter. It doesn't hurt to get your request in the queue early--profs tend to get swamped with them about winter final exam time, as students take care of business before going home, and your letter may suffer from being part of a large number written all at the same time.

Obviously, you want at least one professor from your chosen field of graduate study to write for you; but it does not hurt at all if one of the (usually) three is in an unrelated field (or from the "real world," for that matter). I am in the humanities and regularly write in support of medical school applications, and tracking results shows that this hasn't hurt them at all. Likewise, a humanities aspirant would be well served by a good letter from a math or science prof. NetCurl is right: ask the professor straightforwardly if they can write a good letter for you. Some profs will agree to write while avoiding the unpleasantness of telling you they don't think highly of your work, if you do not trouble to ask. This is all the more important because you should always sign the waiver relinquishing your right to inspect the letter later. Letters written by professors with the expectation (or fear) that the candidate will read it some day are far less powerful than ones the candidate has waived the right to see.

Resume.

Most graduate applications do not require one. Nevertheless, get one written and keep it up-to-date, so that you can give it to your recommenders as a summary of your achievements even if you don't need to send it in with your application.

Everyone has their pet peeves and strong preferences here. My recommendation is: create a CV (= resume) specific to what you want out of it. If you are applying to graduate school, there's little need for an "objectives" section. Likewise, put your information in the order a graduate school (or someone writing to a graduate school on your behalf) will want to see it in: academic information (schools, awards, publications, if any), then work experience. Don't clutter your CV with high school achievements or vaguely self-congratulatory personal stuff like your age, marital status, smoking status, etc., etc.

At all times in your career, format your CV for legibility. Admissions (and job search) committees have to look through hundreds of CVs, and a clearly arranged one (that avoids splashy graphic effects) will be more likely to impress them. Be honest. We academics are masters at padding our resumes and you play our game at your peril.

Personal statement.

Everyone is agreed that these are not very significant. So why are they required by a great many applications? It is a brief writing sample that has not been corrected by a professor, and may just represent something like your native writing and organizing skills. That means it's not there to get you thrown out of the pile if you don't find something terribly odd or clever to say about yourself--it's there to get you thrown out if you have not the wit to write a clear, syntactically-correct, properly-spelled essay in an application you theoretically care very much about. Any good professor will be willing to read your personal statement and suggest ways to make it better (though not perhaps at the moment you ask--think ahead). You may just impress someone with an offbeat essay, but that's not the purpose of the exercise.

Publication(s).

I am of two minds here. First of all, the publication rat-race ought really to start no sooner than you've found a job. Publishing takes a lot more time than just the research and generation of workable ideas, and I think that for a student, this time might best be used filling your head with the general knowledge necessary for your field. But the real world imposes a different view: more and more graduate students are publishing these days, and these publications are occasionally quite good. By a process analogous to grade inflation, it's now becoming more and more common for undergraduates to publish papers in venues designed to receive such work. So sooner or later, it may actually become a default necessity to publish as an undergraduate.

After being accepted.

This is the time to visit a school or two, if things have worked out such that you have a choice. Let them sell the school a little more; ask them again about recent hires among their graduates; ask to talk (with no professors around) to a couple of their graduate students. Is the culture at that school hellishly competitive? Do students there apply for and regularly win grants, or fellowships to study abroad? Are the graduate students happy? Are they left to fend for themselves? Do they seem to get along together? These will be your friends within a year: choose wisely.

Again, intelligent people of goodwill will differ, but if you are in the humanities and not independently wealthy, I advise against going to a school which does not offer you sufficient free or TA money to support yourself and a remission of all or nearly all student tuition and fees. The last thing you want is to graduate with massive student loans to (possibly, if everything works out right) about a $45,000/annum starting salary. Better to do some further undergraduate studying, GRE practice, or other remedial work if your resources will permit it and apply again the following year.

On cultivating professors.

There is a respectable school of thought which recommends getting to know a big professor in your area of interest at your undergraduate institution. The idea is that this prof will write a letter with clout, and that is a good thing. But be sure to get a letter from a younger faculty member who remembers what it's like to be applying and hasn't lost her or his fire. There is a notorious professor in my field who writes essentially form letters for every student--all of them worthless "this is the finest student ever" letters. Very embarrassing when two letters from the same prof cross a committee's desk!

Truth in advertising:

I went to graduate school in the late 80s and early 90s. Having done one-year stints for several years, I was hired as an assistant professor (in a liberal arts environment) in 2001; now, in a case of the lunatics truly running the asylum, I write letters of recommendation every year, and have vetted applications for fellowships and jobs. I have never sat on a graduate school admissions committee, however. Use my advice with an eye to my limitations, and, as with any advice, get a second opinion!

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