How to Get Into Grad School – Master’s or PhD Programs
Some Master’s or PhD programs are extremely competitive; these tips for applying for graduate level studies will help you complete your application and get accepted into the grad program of your choice.
If you’re not sure if you want to get into grad school, read Is Graduate School Really for You?: The Whos, Whats, Hows, and Whys of Pursuing a Master’s or Ph.D. by Amanda I. Seligman.
I’m working on my MSW (Master’s of Social Work) degree at UBC (the University of British Columbia) in Vancouver. My undergraduate degrees are in Psychology and Education, from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada – and I think having two undergrad degrees helped me get accepted. So did my age – I’m 42 and thus have lots of life experience (and a teeny tiny bit of wisdom to show for it!).
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“Applying to graduate school can be quite the challenge for any student, but it can seem particularly intimidating if you are one of the many students that do not have spectacular grades,” writes Mumby. “Although grades are an important component of your application, grades alone will certainly not get you a free pass into the graduate school or program of your choice. There are many other important factors that no one tells you about, ones that can make or break an application. If you take the time to learn about and understand why you are being evaluated in a variety of ways in the first place, you can then use this to your advantage. This book will take you through, in a clear, step-by-step fashion, all of the measures that you will be evaluated upon and how you can take advantage of each one of them to come out ahead of the competition.” ~ from Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting in With or Without Excellent Grades by Dave G. Mumby.
My grades weren’t stellar – I think I had a A- average my last two years of university. My first two years, I barely passed my undergraduate courses! And the competition to get into the MSW program at the University of British Columbia (UBC) is stiff; I was told that over 40 students apply every year, and there are only 15 spots available. I think your undergraduate course grades are less important when you’re a mature student.
If you have any questions about how to get into graduate school, please ask below!
Tips for Applying to Grad School – Master’s or PhD Programs
Every grad school application process is slightly different, but these tips are applicable to most universities.
Start the graduate school application process a full year in advance. If you want to go to grad school next September, you should start researching the application process and program about a year earlier. This gives you time to make up for missing coursework or credits, get relevant work experience, and contact your references.
I decided to apply to grad school in early December. My application was due on January 2. You’d think that would be enough time – but I barely got everything done in time! If you want to study at the graduate level, you should apply at least two or three months in advance. Rushing through the process will increase your chances of mistakes due to haste or carelessness.
I had to give my referees (the MSW program at UBC requires three academic or professional references or “referees”) a few gentle shoves to get their forms in on time. This is not ideal! The last thing you want to do is push the people who have the power to get you into graduate school.
That’s why you need to start applying for graduate school a couple months before the actual application deadline – to give yourself and others time. If you don’t know what university to apply to, read How Do I Choose a College? 5 Ways to Find the Best School for You.
Connect with the admissions clerk. Marjorie Paulkner is the Admissions Advisor for the social work grad program at UBC, and she was invaluable in helping me get my application in. When I emailed her to say that I don’t have the two required undergraduate social work courses, she told me how to get them (Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops offers online university courses. They don’t offer much support from the teacher or “tutor”, but if you jump through the hoops, you’ll get your credits).
Marjorie also helped me make sure I had the proper research and statistics undergrad courses from the U of A, and that all my transcripts arrived on time. Honestly, I couldn’t have made it through the application process without her. When I go to UBC for my grad student orientation at the end of August, she’ll be one of my first stops 🙂 .
Be prepared to write a thesis proposal. I was surprised that I had to write a thesis proposal for my grad school application – I thought that was what they would be teaching me! But, they provided examples of thesis proposals, and I suspect they grant some leeway for applicants.
The admissions board is looking for evidence that you know what a thesis is, you know how to do research, and you have some level of writing ability.
If you’d like to read my thesis proposal, let me know in the comments section below. One of my best tips for applying to grad school is to learn how other people did it!
Do you want to get a grad degree, but aren’t a strong student – or you hate school? Read 5 Ways to Stay Motivated to Go to College – From Bored to Inspired!
Connect with someone who went to the grad school you’re applying to. While writing my thesis proposal (I wrote it over a two-week period), I called my friend’s sister. She took the Master’s of Social Work program about 10 years ago, so I figured she’d have some solid tips for applying to grad school for me. And, I had to interview a social worker for one of my online undergrad social work courses – which I got 94% on. See the value of connecting with experienced people? Practically priceless!
Be prepared for a form acceptance letter. I thought my acceptance letter would be more personal – but I was excited to get it, nevertheless!
Here it is:
I have good news for you. We have completed our assessment of the applicants this year, and I am happy to advise that your file will be sent to the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FOGS) with a recommendation that they admit you to our programme. They may take two weeks to contact you – initially by email with a letter in the post following. There is nothing to do in the interim, except of course for those of you with outstanding pre-requisite courses to continue and send me two final transcripts when you have completed the courses. Those of you with outstanding final English tests, or letters of reference, please know that as soon as I receive these documents I will send your file to FOGS. Please keep me up-to-date with progress.”
And voila – I’m now a graduate student at UBC in Vancouver, BC.
My final tip for applying to graduate school is figuring out how you’ll pay for tuition and books! For ideas, read 6 Ways to Avoid Major Student Loan Debt for College Students.
If you’re applying for a scholarship, here’s a Sample Scholarship Essay.
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If you have any questions or tips for getting into grad school, please comment below…