Applying to Grad School — The Essay, The Test, The Letters of Recommendation

9 Jul

The undergraduate college essay can be a source of stress for prospective students. Many of us can relate to the angst of trying to put together an “admissions-winning” composition.

The same often holds true for students writing an essay as part of their application package for grad school.

In Part I of this 3-part series, we looked at the importance of self-awareness and gathering information about potential schools before applying to graduate school. Today, Wise Words explores the admissions essay, admissions tests and letters of recommendation — three crucial components of the application process.

The application process for graduate school involves many of the components as at the undergraduate level -- and can be just as stressful.

The application process for graduate school involves many of the components as at the undergraduate level — and can be just as stressful.

Shirley Jackson, graduate coordinator of Southern’s Sociology Department, recommends that students write their graduate school admissions essay in a scholarly fashion. “I constantly tell my (undergraduate students) that when they write assignment or papers, they should write in a scholarly fashion and to revise their work,” she says. “I do that for good reason. Both a scholarly style of writing and a heavily revised essay are key to writing the graduate school essay.”

While her next suggestion may be a given to most prospective graduate students, it may be necessary to remind a few folks, especially in this day of electronic access to all kinds of materials.

Do not use websites that offer to write personal essays for a fee. In addition to a person’s honesty and academic integrity being at stake, pragmatically it doesn’t make sense to risk your reputation with another person’s work. “There is a good chance someone will find out, and your career as a graduate student can be over before it begins.” Jackson says.

Instead, Jackson suggests buying a book that can be helpful in writing the essay. “Bookstores have sections on graduate and professional schools in their reference section,” she says. “Check through their shelves to see what may be most helpful to you.”

Admissions Tests

Jackson points out that many grad programs will require taking a particular type of admissions test (GRE, LSAT, etc.) as part of the admissions process. “The test scores may not alone result in admission, but they are usually considered with the rest of a person’s application materials (essay, transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc.)”

One of the most often required tests for grad study in the social sciences and business schools is the Graduate Records Examination (GRE). It is offered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The following link provides information about the admission tests:
http://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about)

Those considering law school should prepare for an extremely competitive process, according to Jackson. She suggests the following link from the Law School Admissions Council for information about the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test): http://www.lsac.org

Some people are better test takers than others, of course. Jackson says those who are not good test takers should consider taking one of the preparation courses offered by Kaplan or Princeton Review, or checking whether there are sample test questions available through the test administrators for your particular entrance examination. Bookstores also have a large selection of test preparation books.

Letters of Recommendation

Just as you should do during the undergraduate school application process or with a job opening, give the people you are asking enough time to write a thoughtful letter. “These letters will carry a great deal of weight, especially if they can help offset weak test scores or a low GPA,” Jackson says.

She suggests:

*Choose your letter writers carefully. It may not be enough to have someone write a letter to simply say that you have received an “A” in their course, especially if the course is not related to the major or does not draw upon the skills necessary to show your potential as a grad student.

*A letter from a professor who taught a class in which you earned a “B” might be a good candidate under certain circumstances.

*Consider letters from professors who taught courses where much writing was required, or in which you wrote a research paper.

*Think about seeking letters from those professors who know you well. Do not be offended if a professor declines to write a letter. The professor may simply not know you as well as you think, or perhaps may not believe they can write a strong enough letter to support your application. If that happens, simply seek out another professor.

*Employers may also be good options, especially if they can speak to your level of commitment, positive character traits and ability to work well with others.

Coming Soon:

Part III — Admissions Interviews and Other Words of Wisdom

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