Grades and good test scores are important … but not a life & death matter!

Many folks are concerned that if they messed up freshman or sophomore year with their academics and their GPA isn’t as good as they would want, there is no hope for graduate school.   Others are not as good test takers as others and are worried that their performance will hinder their admissions.  Remember that graduate school is not a life and death matter!  There is always hope and if you want it badly, you can achieve it!  YOU CAN DO IT!

If your GPA or graduate standardized test scores are low, supplement them with other positive characteristics of your application.  You may want to get another masters degree that is relevant to your field of interest to perform better as an illustration of your academic abilities.  Getting a job in your field of study and performing well in it will show schools your work ethic.  Studying harder and taking the test another time can supplement a poor score and show schools that you are persistent and really want to achieve.

Remember, there is never a dead-end, just a detour.  Don’t get frustrated and give up … there is hope!  Message me if you want more ideas!  Good luck … and remember … YOU CAN DO IT!

Graduate Application Checklist

Here is a useful checklist that I personally used while finalizing my graduate school applications.

  • Check and save records of all electronic applications (as .pdf) and written applications (as photocopyies. It’ll be useful to reference if anything goes wrong with your application process in the near future.
  • Carefully read through each personal statement and statement of purpose. If you used a general template tailored to each specific institution, make sure the university and the program names referenced in the statements corresponds to the actual school you’re applying to. This will surely avoid awkward situations.
  • Double-check that your GRE scores (general and field specific) have been sent to the correct university codes. Then check again by calling ETS. They are notorious for ruining applications.
  • Stay in constant contact with the nice folks who will be writing your letters of recommendation. First and foremost, they are people who have lives outside of work. Secondly, they are likely professionals or professors at your institution. These people are arguably the most busy people in the world. Don’t be afraid to offend, remind them OFTEN of upcoming deadlines. They’ll appreciate it.
  • Make a spreadsheet that contains all the schools you are applying to, the status of their applications, and special considerations as the application process for each school is quite unique (and should stay that way to avoid the plague of putting names into “magical black boxes” to determine one’s future that is currently a point consternation in the medical field).
  • Once the last application is sent off, DO NOT DWELL. Find something relaxing to occupy your time that applications has once stolen from you. Absolutely free you are, until bonded and shackled to your graduate project, but you didn’t hear it from me. =)

Best of luck always on all your endeavors! Email me if you have any questions.

Grades and Grad School Applications

As an emissary for IU, I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of students who are going through the application process for graduate school. One question which almost always comes up is, “How much do grades and GRE scores matter?” This can be a tricky question – it often depends on the individual student and the program they are applying to. I’ll share my perspective, but if you are worried about your numbers you should also talk to people at the institutions you are applying to.

If you don’t have high test scores, don’t despair. Grad school applications aren’t just about GREs and GPAs.

Graduate programs care about grades and test scores, but they also care about recruiting students who are dedicated, determined, and who have well-defined research interests. In my opinion, not many programs will take on a student who doesn’t know what they want to do in grad school, no matter how good that person’s grades are. On the other hand, they might be willing to take on a student whose grades and test scores are somewhat low, provided that they have the personal drive and direction that are needed to get through grad school.

A friend of mine was accepted to IU (with funding) in spite of her low GPA, because she was able to prove her worth in other ways. After completing her undergraduate degree, she strengthened her resume through work and research experience. She didn’t apply to graduate school right away, but she used her time wisely. Eventually, she developed a rapport with professors within the department she would later apply to. When she did apply, she had contacts within the university to vouch for her, as well as important experiences which made her application strong.

Gaining research experience is an excellent way to strengthen your application and show you are dedicated to furthering your education.

While some departments might prove stubborn about their minimum test score and GPA numbers, I think you will find that many departments are flexible, especially if your application shows your ability in other ways. So if your scores are not quite what you wish they were, don’t lose hope! You may have to work a little harder to prove yourself, but it certainly can be done.

Application for graduate school admission checklist

Make your own chart like this to keep yourself on trackThis is an example spreadsheet that can be used to keep yourself on track during the process of applying to different schools. Using something like this will ensure that you didn’t forget to get transcripts for school number three or that you have enough recommendations for school number four. It’s short sweet and to the point. Put on it the dates and requirements for every aspect of every application and then check it off when you get it completely finished and ready to be shipped off. Hang it somewhere you will see it often so you see the dates and don’t fall behind. Its a little piece of paper that can help make your life much more organized and easier.

Tips for a successful application package

A good application package contains: a strong and empowering personal statement, transcripts from the university sealed and officially stamped, letters of recommendation that show how much of an intelligent and dedicated person you are, standardized test scores and last but not least…the application filled out correctly (you would be surprised how easy it is to mess that up when you are so focused on the “hard” parts). My tips for making sure your application stands out: show how well rounded you are, graduate school is a bit more dependent on innovation than undergrad. They don’t need to see that you can memorize a passage, they do need to see that you can create something worth memorizing and that you would bring prestige to the university as an alum. Make sure that your letters of recommendation are coming from people who are relevant and actually want the best for you and believe in you. Its hard to get a feel for an applicant from their paperwork and when you dilute that down with thousands of applications its very important that you stand out. Sometimes your favorite professor has just the right wording about the type of person you are to make the school want to see that for themselves so make sure you ask the right people and give them time to do it correctly. Standardized test scores, in my personal opinion unless test scores aren’t needed or you are some type of savant, there is no reason why you shouldn’t take a prep class for whatever exam you have to take. Yes it costs money and yes its a legitimate class that you have to do homework for. However sometimes a few points on your test is what separates you from going to either your top dream school or you safety net maybe school. Then when you think about the difference in salary you could be getting because of the difference in education you received well then that class pays for itself many times over. Finally your personal statement, it’s your chance to show the school who you are. Take it seriously and imagine that they would have to make the decision based purely off that essay. Read it, reread it, then have 3 other people read it, edit it and then have 3 different people read it. If you put together a good application then you will surely go where you deserve to be. Best of luck to you future scholars.

Strong letters of recommendation

Letters of recommendation are tools that can take a maybe applicant and make them outstanding or take an outstanding applicant and make them unsuitable for the program. Letters of recommendation are typically not allowed to be viewed by the person who is requesting them. That being said you must ensure that the person you are requesting to speak about you candidly behind your back, will in fact, have your best interests at heart. Don’t ask the professor you had freshman year in the 400 person lecture whom you never spoke to, to give you a letter of recommendation. Most would (or should) say no or recommend you ask someone who knows you better. For the few that don’t I can promise that the letter will not be as strong as it should be, depending on the person it could even be negative. You want to ask people who are in good standing in the field you want to work who know you personally and academically and are happy with and believe in you. Also please remember that it is a matter of professional courtesy to give the letter writers at the very least a month’s notice that you are requesting a letter from them. Provide them with your CV and inform them of your plans and dates. You are allowed to check in on them as time progresses but no one likes to be pestered. Good luck.

Finding the right match: Top, Middle, and Safety Net Schools

I think the best analogy of finding the correct graduate school or program is; think about picking out a pair of pants that you have to wear for the next 4-6 years. I say this because you want your program to fit you perfectly. You have to consider the academic standpoints that are important to you but you also weigh that against the environment that the campus is in as well as the character of the department. Now that you have to consider so many different factors you will appreciate the tier system of school applications. In my personal opinion a good number of schools to apply to is 6. 2 top schools: these are the dream schools, where if you got into them you would take off work for the rest of the day. 2 middle schools: these are schools that if you get into them you are happy about it, you cleared the hurdle and you are happy with how the next phase of your life will go. 2 safety net schools: now these schools are often misinterpreted as “bad” schools. Let me get this clear never apply to a school that you would not want to go to. Safety net schools are good schools that have probably sacrificed one of the lower list of requirements but still maintains the academic standards that you have set for your graduate education. So if location is somewhat important for you but not a deal breaker then your safety net schools will be academically sound but be in places that you wouldn’t have picked to live first choice but still wouldn’t hate to be. Last but not least it is very important when you are placing your choices into the tiers that you are realistic. There is nothing worse then putting two top schools in your middle category and not getting into any of your top choices. Now you are left with your safety nets and probably not happy about it. So be self aware and break things into categories and best of luck. Where do I fit in?

Be Yourself: Submitting an Effective Application for Admission

Often times depending on which program you are applying to, the only opportunity for the admissions committee to get to know you is through your application.  Most programs aren’t able to hold in-person interviews, and therefore, they rely on the application, personal statement, and recommendations to determine if the department will benefit having you as a student.  As a result, it is important to make sure that each piece of the application highlights a different aspect of your personal and professional life.

Your resume or curriculum vita should highlight your academic and professional accomplishments. For the difference between a resume and CV, please refer to one of my colleague’s post.  https://employmentelements.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/resume-sample.jpgYour resume is the opportunity to explain to the admissions committee the skills and abilities that you have.  It is important to highlight leadership experiences, unique educational and professional recognition, and tangible skills that you would bring to the school and educational environment at the university you are applying to.  Instead of being repetitive, use the opportunity of having different experiences to list different skills and accomplishments.  If you find that you have a long list of items, shorten it with only the most important and those that will really highlight you as an applicant.

Your personal statement is your “interview.”  Instead of writing about cliche topics, those that are expected to be read, use this opportunity to “wow” your readers.  Be personal.  Let them into your life and heart to understand why you are really pursuing this degree.  Everyone says, “make them cry,” and in essence, yes! You want to make an impact after the committee reads your personal statement.  This being said, you may have to dig deep and write about a challenging time in your life, a situation that is uncomfortable to rehash, or a topic that is uneasy to share.  Not only will such an experience help you to reflect upon your own life but it will give a personal inside look to the person you really are. To the committee member, you will become a person not just an application.

Letters of recommendations are very important.  Recommendations allow the admissions committee to see how others think of you.  While it is important to have a letter from an important person, it is more important to find someone who really knows you and can write to your strengths.  If you have a recommendation from an important person who doesn’t know you well, you will get a very standardized letter that won’t tell the reader much about you.  But if you get a letter from one who knows you well, the writer will be able to refer to specific examples and highlight the strengths and abilities needed to get your admitted.

Because the admission application is a critical piece of your admission into your dream program and school, utilize it wisely. Since there is limited space, be sure to make good use of every page without being repetitive.  An application that highlights all of your strengths and abilities while giving a personal, inside look of who you are will make you a strong candidate!  Good luck!

Resume vs. Curriculum Vitae

Many graduate students enter graduate school with some experience in writing resumes for previous jobs or even to fulfill requirements in the graduate student application process. Regardless of prior experiences, most face the realization that they must immediately strengthen their current resume and/or upgrade to a curriculum vitae in preparation for grant and scholarship applications during the first year. Having a well-updated curriculum vitae is one of many essential components of academic life, and as a graduate student, could mean the difference between earning that sought-after research fellowship or yet another trip back to the drawing boards.

The expression curriculum vitae originate from the Latin expression curriculum vitæ which loosely translate as “course of life,” or more fluidly, “the course of my life.” A curriculum vitae, or as known colloquially as a CV, is meant to provide a complete overview of a person’s experiences and qualifications rather than an abridged overview of experiences as provided by a resume. A commonly accepted rule of thumb is that resumes are typically limited one sheet of paper (front and back) whereas curricula vitae will require several pages of information to fully articulate one’s accomplishments and experiences. Well-constructed curricula vitae will often minimally include: a cover statement or statement of research interest, educational background, publications, conference proceedings, research experiences, specialized training, teaching experience, service, and awards and honors. In addition, a curriculum vitae may also include sections on invited talks, publications in preparation, relevant work experience, and personal information that you feel will add to the organization or group that you are interested in working with. However, each field has slightly different expectations of content, formatting, and language, so be sure to consult with colleagues, professors, and mentors when constructing and refining your curriculum vitae.

Remember that one’s curriculum vitae is a dynamical piece of work that will need to change to reflect the purpose of its implementation. For example, when applying for a research position or a position in which research is emphasized, it is important to highlight your research experiences and publications right away on the first page. This seems obvious, but it is of the utmost importance that the reader understands how prolific of a scholar you are and on the way to becoming. Whereas applying to a position in which teaching is emphasized requires your teaching experiences to be placed at the beginning. Imagine an impatient reviewer making his or her rounds reviewing potential applicants. You would like to catch their attention immediately upon picking up your curriculum vitae instead of having them flip through many pages to get the essential information that may be critical to your success.

Your curriculum vitae is meant to be a detailed account of all your education, training, and experiences along the way as well as any recognition that you have earned to reflect the effectiveness of your training. Do elaborate fully on your experiences. When listing previous positions held also include a small description of duties carried forth and tools that you have used to accomplished your work. For example, a young astrophysicist whose work included reduction and analysis of spectral data would give a brief description on how the programming languages IDL and C++ were used to complete his or her task. This will not only give the reviewer an idea of your competency in a particular discipline but the tools that you have learned that may also be applicable in future work.

Tasteful verbosity is quite the gift to have in writing a curriculum vitae. Have close colleagues and friends critique your curriculum vitae often to ensure its fluidity. Know your audience and tailor the information that goes on your curriculum vitae to be in parallel with the reviewers’ objectives. Of course this goes without saying, but in light of recent cases of fallen CEOs due to falsification of information on their curriculum vitae, DO NOT attempt to embellish the information on your curriculum vitae as it may hurt you in the long run. Have fun and good luck. Feel free to message me if you have questions.

Funding your graduate program

When I applied to graduate school, I was really surprised by the differences in the ways universities handle funding and appointments for graduate students. In many cases, applicants have to be more than a little savvy and be willing to ask potentially uncomfortable questions about money. Some universities (or schools within a university) require prospective graduate students to fill out applications for assistantships, that is, an application separate from the application to admission to the program or school. Many programs, however, will automatically consider you for a research or teaching assistantship based on your program application materials. Some programs/schools have competitive fellowships for applicants, so be sure to call the programs to which you apply and ask explicitly.

No matter what avenue you pursue for funding your graduate program, don’t be afraid to ask questions. I think the most appropriate times to ask is both before you apply to the program/school (scholarships/fellowships – some have early deadlines) and then once you have received a letter of admission into the program (assistantships). If the program or school doesn’t send information with your acceptance letter, pick up the phone or send an email to the contact for your program and ask them about assistantships and fellowships.

Most assistantships come in two forms: research assistantships (RA) or teaching assistantships (TA). For RAs, you will probably be expected to help a faculty member with some aspect of a research project(s): doing literature searches, conducting lab or field experiments, collecting and/or analyzing data, and in some cases, writing. For TAs, you will teach one or more sections of an undergraduate course in your program or school. If you don’t have previous teaching experience, this can be pretty intimidating. Most universities now have supports in place to help TAs get oriented to teaching, but honestly, your best resources for teaching are faculty members and the seasoned graduate students in your program. No matter what type of assistantship you receive, you can expect a tuition waiver (partial or full) and a (very) modest stipend for teaching. Most graduate students find it difficult to live on the stipend they receive, but to me, the tuition waiver is what makes the assistantship fiscally valuable. Without it, many graduate students would be strapped with monumental student loans, especially if you are coming to the program as an out-of-state resident. So you will find that you probably will have to take out some student loans, but having the tuition wavier makes the amount of loans more reasonable. Finally, from a professional standpoint, assistantships are valuable because they provide you with experience with teaching and/or research that becomes invaluable as you enter the job market.