By: Alyssa Kapaona
Perhaps you are an undergraduate student pondering your next educational step, or a professional yearning to return to school and further your education, or someone in between. Regardless of where you are in your life, when applying to graduate school, it is never too early to start the planning process. Here are a few things to consider as you explore this exciting new option for your future.
Ask yourself the following questions and encourage yourself to answer them open and honestly:
When students are confident that they are choosing the right path for them, they are more successful in their respective programs.
Answering these questions will also help you to figure out if grad school is not right for you, or at least not right for you in this moment.
I have seen hundreds of students who further their education simply because they have external pressures (family, friends, society etc.). Many times, these students get lost when things get challenging because they are not doing work that they are passionate about. They are unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel and end up doing poorly in school or dropping out completely. After some reflection, if you find that this is the best time for you to instead pursue your dream of opening that organic farm, or start a travel blog, or taking a “gap” year, then go for it! Be knowledgeable and informed about whichever choice you make, but don’t go to grad school just because you feel like it is what's expected of you.
You may even consider answering these questions by writing in a journal and keeping this journal throughout your grad school journey, from the day you send in your application to the day you graduate. Reflecting on the process throughout will help you make more meaning of your educational experience, and document a rewarding but potentially challenging time in your life. Studies show that people who are more reflective about their current situations are more likely to accomplish the goals they set.
Where you decide to go to graduate school has lasting impacts that can shape your studies, your career, and even your life (no pressure)! To ease your stress when picking schools, first consider the location:
You should also thoroughly ponder what program(s) you are looking to apply to. Make sure you are applying to a program that fits your needs and future goals. Applications can be expensive (usually around the $100 range) and time consuming, so being certain about your decision to apply to a specific institution is straight up self-preservation. Here are some more questions to ask about the program itself:
Once you have those answers figured out, you can narrow your search.
I also recommend looking up the faculty in the department you are interested in and figuring out the following:
You can usually find this information on the “Faculty” tab of most program websites. If they have an email address listed, contact a faculty member that has similar interests to you and see if you can find out more about what they do and the program you are pursuing.
I also suggest reading the course descriptions for the program you're interested in via the university catalog. Are the courses you are supposed to take sound relevant to what you want to study? Most universities have their catalogs online where you can find current course descriptions.
Also take advantage of academic advisers. Most graduate schools have advisers that have a lot of valuable knowledge regarding the university's programs and campus resources. They are usually the first contacts for most students who are trying to get more information. If you are out of state and cannot visit the campus in person, see if they can help you either via email, phone, or Skype.
Different institutions have different deadlines. It is very important to make sure you turn in all of your application materials by the deadline as most universities do not make exceptions to deadlines. If you miss a deadline for graduate school, in most cases you will have to wait a whole year before the next application cycle happens. Because of this, I suggest you give yourself enough time to gather all of the application materials. Having everything at least 90% complete a month before the application is due would be ideal, as you will be giving yourself extra time in case anything goes wrong.
Another important note is that when applying to graduate school, you usually have to apply to the institution itself, then you have to do a separate application for the exact program you want to participate in. For example, a student who is interested in doing a Masters in Education at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa would need to apply to the University’s graduate division as well as complete the application process for the College of Education Masters program that they want to be admitted to.
You can't go to grad school if you don't have a plan for financing it, so figuring out your finances ahead of time is incredibly important. Graduate studies are typically more expensive than undergraduate tuition, so if you need help with financing it, contact every financial aid office at each institution you are applying to to make sure you are aware of all the possible ways to finance your education. In many institutions, graduate assistants, staff and/or faculty are able to get discounted or even free tuition. Look into these options by contacting the department you are applying to and see if they have any opportunities available.
Student loans aren’t the enemy so don’t be afraid to take them out. However, just be extremely knowledgeable regarding the terms and conditions of your loan. Find out when you would need to start repaying it (some loans expect payment as soon as you graduate, while others give you a grace period) and how much the monthly payment would be. Budget accordingly so you feel confident that can realistically pay them back when it is time.
Doubling checking your work on an application is extremely important. Common mistakes I often see are:
Pro tip: Buy lunch for friend with an eye for detail in exchange for reviewing your app(s).
Most grad school applications require a personal statement. This would definitely be something you would want someone to review to check for clarity, grammar, and readability. Try to include one fact that would make you stand out from other applications (like that fellowship in China), while also highlighting why the institution you are applying to is the best fit for you. Knowing facts and accolades of that specific institution and how studying there will help you personally and professionally would be good to also include, as is shows you've done your research.
Applying to graduate school can be overwhelming, but try to enjoy the process as much as you can. Most importantly, once you are sure you actually want to go to grad school, make sure you are fully informed about every step of the application process and don't be afraid to ask questions when you need more clarity. Planning things out ahead of time is the best way to avoid a stress-filled and rushed application process. Reading this article just got you one step closer, so what are you waiting for? You got this!
Alyssa Kapaona is an Academic Advisor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
She has her Bachelors of Science degree in Human Development and Family Studies and
her Masters of Education in Higher Educational Administration.
She has been working in Education for over ten years.