Many undergraduates, especially those who are liberal arts majors, plan from the start of their college career to go to graduate school. They know that the career they want either requires a graduate degree or at least that a graduate degree will help them land the job they want. And so they know that their undergraduate graduation commencement is not an end to their education, but rather a time of transition, from undergrad to grad school. There is a large body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not to go to graduate school, so rather than address that question, this post will give you some pointers on how to prepare yourself, as an undergraduate, to become a graduate student.
The first thing you need to do if you’re planning on going to graduate school is get good grades. You need to demonstrate that you can excel at the undergraduate level before you should even contemplate graduate school, since grad school is far more difficult and rigorous than most any undergraduate program. Being a B or C student is not a sign of future success in graduate school. Plus, there’s the little matter of grades being important to the application process. For the more elite programs, you’ll be going up against students who have straight A’s, so you need to do that and more in order to stand out.
Pick your major, your minor, and your courses carefully and thoughtfully. Make sure that they work to help you achieve your goals. Plan ahead. Pick a major that sets you up for success in the field you’d like to break into. Pick a minor (or a second major) that either helps solidify your skill set or that demonstrates a breadth of knowledge and the ability to learn new and different things. Choose courses that will help you both now, as an undergraduate, and later, as a graduate student. For instance, depending on your field, many graduate programs have a foreign language requirement. If that’s the case, take those classes as an undergraduate. The earlier you plan ahead, the better prepared you’ll be for graduate school.
Get to know your professors. You want them to know who you are and the quality of work that you do. They may seem intimidating at first, but they’re people too. If you show a genuine interest in their topic or field, they will very often reciprocate that interest in your progress and growth. Remember, the better acquainted you are with your professors, the more they’ll be able to write a good letter of recommendation for you. Plus, they may know faculty at other institutions and provide some guidance as to good programs for you to apply to.
Get involved on campus. That could be getting into leadership roles in clubs or organizations. It could mean getting an internship on campus or working in a departmental office. And it could also mean volunteering at campus events. Campus involvement, and especially in leadership roles, demonstrates dedication and initiative. It shows that you can balance your time commitments and excel in multiple areas. And it shows that you can think beyond a narrowly focused topic.
Similarly, it’s good to get volunteer or internship experience in the field you’d like to work in. During your summer vacation, find a place a place to work that will give you experience in your field. This does at least two things. First, it gives you experience, which will help you rise to the top of the applicant pile when you’re applying to grad school. Second, and perhaps even more important, it broadens your professional network. You’ll know more people in your field who can write you letters of recommendation and help you find open positions. If you need help finding these opportunities, contact your faculty advisor, your major department chair, and/or the Career Center.
Generally speaking, if you’re graduating in May and planning on starting in grad school the following August/September, then you’d better be sending out applications the fall before you graduate. And in order to be ready for that, you’ll need to be taking one of the graduate/professional school exams. That would be the MCAT for med school, the PCAT for pharmacy school, the GMAT for business school, the LSAT for law school, and the GRE for most everything else. The best advice I can give you on these is to prep…a lot. Get a test prep book, study it, learn the test-taking skills it offers, and just go through the whole book. Then get a second one and do the same thing. There are different schools of thought as to the importance of these standardized tests. However, most will agree that while even acing the tests may not guarantee you a spot at an elite grad program, doing poorly on them could well sink your application.
So these are some of the things that will help you prepare for grad school. Just remember, start early, plan ahead, build relationships, and prepare for a lot of hard work.