Last summer, after four years of hard work and dedication, I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. But like you, I’ve chosen a field that requires an even higher education: i.e., grad school.
This is far from a flawless success story.
Graduate school was not always in my sights—honestly, I didn’t give it serious thought until I was three years into undergrad. Therefore I planned very little, and jumped into the application process blindly. Being unprepared caused an abundance of avoidable stress. Learn from my mistakes, dear reader!
Here are four things I wish I had known, as well as tips and tricks I’ve learned about navigating the murky waters of graduate school.
1. Different universities and programs have different requirements
Not all graduate programs are the same. This may seem like a silly statement—of course graduate programs are different! But this thought didn’t cross my mind until I began applications for different schools. I quickly realized that different universities have varying requirements, even for the same degree! I knew I wanted a Master of Social Work degree. Shouldn’t the requirements be universal? Apparently not. I wasn’t prepared for these differences, and the extra work my ignorance caused was annoying at best.
Review your program’s requirements
Establish understanding of your target graduate program’s specific requirements. There may be significant differences between universities that you wouldn’t expect, which will leave you inadequately prepared. For example, I found that some of the courses I took in pursuit of my bachelor’s weren’t transferable to California State Universities—this would have complicated my admission, or possibly prevented it! Thankfully, my school of choice (a private university) accepted my transcripts… had they not, I would’ve needed to retake courses that I didn’t even enjoy the first time around.
Utilize Unbound’s Academic Advisors
As a part of their Degree Planning services, Unbound’s advising department offers support for future graduate students. Their advisors assist students in determining the prerequisites for specific programs, and ensure that undergrad degree plans fulfill those requirements. When an Academic Advisor knows your plans for grad school, they help you avoid the headache of non-transferable credit (if only I had talked to an Advisor prior to applying!)
2. Saving money on grad school is difficult—but not impossible
Unbound believes in avoiding debt (at all costs). However, to save money and evade debt during graduate school, you have to get creative.
Take prerequisites and graduate courses during your undergrad
When reviewing your program’s requirements, you may find there are specific prerequisite courses you need before attending. Instead of taking these courses as “bridge courses” after receiving your bachelor’s degree, include them in your initial undergrad degree plan. (Academic Advisors are pros at this!)
Additionally, some universities offer graduate courses at undergrad prices, so check if your undergrad degree plan has room for a few of these courses.
Apply for scholarships (yes, they exist!)
Scholarships may not be as readily available for graduate students as they are for undergrads, but with a little effort, you can find suitable scholarships. You may find that an online service like Scholly is helpful for your scholarship search.
You should also check with organizations you’re connected with to see if they have scholarships available. Your church, your parent’s employer, or a service organization you’re involved in may have scholarships you didn’t know of. It never hurts to ask!
Seek tuition assistance programs
One of the best ways to pay for graduate programs is to work. Ask your employer if they offer tuition assistance programs to help cover the costs of your education—many companies do. If they don’t, seeking employment at a company that does may be worth considering! Similar to tuition assistance programs, internships may be an option for you. Some employers have stipends available for graduate students who complete internships at that workplace. Receiving a stipend may entail committing to the company after graduation, so be sure to check the terms before signing the dotted line. Ask the financial aid or internship coordinator at your university if these internships are available to you.
3. Applications can be confusing
Grad school applications are anything but simple. Essays, and transcripts, and references… oh my! Each program expects your application to be completed in a particular way, and there’s little room for error. And while the university often lays out exactly what’s needed, there are so many distinct sections within an application that it’s easy to lose track of essential elements.
Make a checklist
One graduate program I applied to supplied a handy checklist detailing every required material. This list was invaluable to my sanity through the application process! If your university doesn’t create this for you, I highly recommend making one for yourself. This way, you can be certain you’ve included every little requirement.
Know your deadlines
Application deadlines also vary from program to program, and they may come earlier than you’d expect—sometimes up to a full year before your intended start date!
Keep track of your deadlines, and give yourself more time than you think you need to complete your application. Trust me. When it comes to preparing your application, it’s better to have extra time than to be pressed for it. You might face unexpectedly difficult essay questions, technical complications, or delays in communication with your references. Allotting more time to the application process will prevent stress down the road. (And your future self will thank you.)
4. Graduate programs have high standards
This shouldn’t scare you, but rather be an encouragement. Why? The fact that you want to go to grad school speaks volumes about who you are: a young person who hopes to accomplish more than the average Joe. Graduate schools look for students with hands-on experience, volunteerism, and good grades—all of your hard work will really pay off!
Strive for excellence
About 20 million students enroll in U.S. colleges and universities every year. But I guarantee that most of those 20 million students aren’t getting hands-on experience, volunteering, and maintaining a 3.5 GPA. This is good news for you, you focused and driven student! Keep striving to be the best you can be. It will set you apart from those less motivated, and will serve you well as you seek acceptance to grad school.
Maintain positive relationships
I’m sure you have exceptional relationships with the people you interact with on a regular basis. That’s great, because a substantial part of grad school applications depends on others’ opinions of you. It’s crucial that you maintain overwhelmingly positive ongoing relationships with professors, academic advisors, pastors, and supervisors; you’ll need letters of recommendation from them, and it’s always best to know that they think highly of you!
Though I could’ve made the process easier for myself, I am thrilled to tell you that I got into my master’s program of choice, and will begin attending this fall! While I made it into graduate school despite my lack of knowledge, do yourself a favor and prepare prior to applying. Getting into grad school doesn’t have to add worry lines to your forehead or grey hairs to your head!
A big shout-out to Unbound’s Academic Advising Manager, Joel Talley: he and his team did an incredible job helping me to better understand graduate school, and provided some of the tips I’ve shared with you!
Want your grad school applications to go more smoothly than mine did? Prepare for your bachelor’s and grad school simultaneously: contact an Academic Advisor today to create your Degree Plan!