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Graduate School Selection

By W. Spencer Guthrie (1998 USU Honors graduate)

A serious search for an adequate graduate school should begin at least a year and a half before your expected entrance to a chosen program of study. The following steps outline a general approach for selection of a graduate school. If you are a typical student planning to start graduate school in the fall of a given year, the example critical path discussed here should begin during April of your junior year as shown below in Table 1.

Table 1. Critical Path

  4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 1 2 3 4

1. General Preparation

Create and maintain a comprehensive list of accomplishments with the following recommended categories: test scores, scholarships, awards, leadership, service activities, athletics, professional training, professional and society memberships, and work experience. Record the names of organizations, positions held, and dates involved. This list will serve as a quick reference for later completion of graduate school admission forms and various scholarship applications. Develop a professional resume with highlights from each category. Also begin a search for applicable scholarships by visiting the Financial Aid Information Page on-line (http://www.finaid.com).

Determine the specific discipline within a typical division or department that holds your interests. Confirm details of various disciplines by studying professional publications, attending conferences and seminars, and discussing questions with professionals.

2. Criteria for Evaluation

Develop a list of important attributes against which each potential school may be evaluated. Such a list may include research opportunities, laboratory facilities, faculty reputation, class offerings, graduation rate, faculty/student ratio, funding, and community life. Funding may include fellowships, research or teaching assistantships, tuition and fee waivers, personal or family health insurance, cash stipends, traveling funds, or other incentives. Fellowships require no service from you in return for the funding, but assistantships require as many as twenty hours per week of work in your area.

The relative importance of each of the above factors will vary depending on person and program. Create a notebook specifically for evaluation of potential graduate schools against these criteria.

3. Sources of Information

Perform the actual research necessary to identify appropriate schools and to rate the advantages of each school against the list created above. Vast amounts of information may be located from the World Wide Web and various publications from each school under consideration. Rankings in various fields of study may be acquired through faculty recommendations, reviews by U.S. News and World Report (http://www.usnews.com), and statistical facts given in Peterson's Graduate Programs in Engineering and Applied Sciences.

You should request that graduate school applications, publications, housing details, and other pertinent information be mailed to you for careful review and identification of details which will assist you in your final selection. Faculty and graduate students at each school you are considering may be an additional source of information as needed. Record all of this information in your graduate school notebook.

4. Initial Selection

Based on the importance of the factors listed above, choose five or more schools whose programs best match your interests. These are the schools to which you will submit applications. The optimum number of schools to be selected at this stage depends primarily on your field of anticipated graduate study, and your faculty advisor may recommend more or less than five. Of this chosen subset, at least one school should be very elite, and at least one other should be a comparatively less competitive university. This assures acceptance to at least one adequate program but does not preclude the possibilities of attending a top-ranked university. Be both optimistic and realistic in your selection of this subset of schools.

You should now be about a year away from your expected entrance to graduate school. You should register as soon as possible to take any required examinations during the next three or so months and request that your official scores be sent to each school you have chosen. Books are available to assist with studying for most graduate entrance exams, and your preparation for these should also begin now. Multiple attempts on exams will require much earlier scheduling, however, as a mandatory sixty-day waiting period can be expected between each attempt.

5. Application Process

Begin completion of the applications required for admittance to each of these schools. As typically required by each application, choose three professors to write letters of recommendation certifying your competence in a broad range of research, writing, and speaking skills. In your ongoing pursuit of scholarships, you may have already requested letters from a number of faculty members, and they likely have electronic copies on file and can perform minor adjustments for quick printing. However, in order to ensure quality letters of recommendation, allow sufficient time for these professors to complete your requests at their convenience. Your college or department may also need extra time to compute your current class standing as well.

Write a statement of purpose describing your anticipated involvement in your chosen field. A statement of purpose should generally include your background and experience in the field, your educational goals, and your career ambitions. You may also include an expression of your personal ideals. Ask a faculty member or other professional to make suggestions to your work.

Submit each application punctually. Some deadlines are as early as October, but most are December or later. Some schools will have no deadlines at all, but realize that earlier submission will afford you better chances of funding. With regard to student housing, some schools have waiting lists a year or longer which will also require early action on your part. All required examinations should also be completed by this time.

6. Receipt of Offers

Begin now to contact the professors at each university under whom you would like to study. Express your interest in attending their program and inquire if, in addition to your application, you could send anything to further substantiate your qualifications. For instance, a recent research paper might be appropriate. Continue to gather information and carefully consider the offers from each school. Keep updating your graduate school notebook. Make additional telephone calls as needed to request further information about any offer you receive. You may have to wait as long as three or four months for some offers, but most will come within two months.

7. Final Selection

Consider all the advantages of attending any one university and begin to narrow your choices to a final selection. Offers from universities that subscribe to the National Council of Graduate Schools may require your response by April 15 of the year of your projected entrance. If the choice is not yet clear and adequate time remains, however, visits to the contending schools are in order. Though many departments do not advertise such monies, funding is sometimes available to assist potential graduate students with travel expenses. Do not hesitate to request such help. Furthermore, if your funding is not yet assured, a visit may strengthen your standing for an assistantship or waiver of some kind.

Most schools will prepare a full day of activities for you. These include visits with faculty members and graduate students, tours of the campus and specific facilities, and other items as you request. Memorize the names and research interests of those with whom you will speak and prepare definitive questions for them that will help you more clearly distinguish between schools in your final selection. Particularly visit with graduate students to obtain candid evaluations of the professors under whom you would like to study.

Send thank-you notes to all who participate in making your visits successful. Make for your personal files a copy of the letter of acceptance to be sent to your school of choice and mail it punctually. Formally decline all other offers. As your final selection of a graduate school may likely require relocation, you should make early reservations for truck or trailer rentals as necessary and begin an active search for a home. Considering your anticipated length of stay and the housing market in the area surrounding your chosen graduate school, you may desire to purchase a home instead of renting. Good luck!