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