What I Wish I Knew Before Applying Graduate School

At the end of this summer I will have completed my last semester of graduate school.  The Master of Arts in Public History at the University of Western Ontario has been a phenomenal experience.  Last year, I completed my first masters degree in Library and Information Science at Western.  As I reflect upon my three years in grad school, I have realized that there are a few things I wish I knew before  I applied.

1. Make your application interesting

A lot of people are as qualified as you are for a spot in your program.  Because of this, graduate schools are looking to admit people that are interesting to them, and frankly, don’t worry as much about your GPA as you might think.  They are looking for smarts as well as life experiences.  Did you do some community service work in Honduras?  Find a way to mention it in your application.  Did you do a semester abroad in Asia? Highlight that experience.

Don’t underestimate the power of work experience. This can demonstrate maturity and excellent time management skills.  In addition, life experience can be the great equalizer if your grades are on the low end.  Nearly every applicant can complete the degree you’re applying to, set yourself apart by making yourself unique and memorable.

2. Talk to the program director before applying: be the “devil” s/he knows

This is a no-brainer that a lot of applicants don’t do.  If you are able to, make a visit to campus and speak with the program director and ask some questions about the program, even if they are just to clarify the requirements application.  Also, discuss your employment aspirations and ask how their program could prepare you for your vocational goals.  This gives the school an extra chance to get to know you, and put a face to your application.  If they need to break a tie between equal candidates, they’ll take the devil they know over the devil they don’t.

*Also remember, you are spending thousands of dollars in tuition, fees, rent etc. to attend this school, so you want to make sure the program is a good fit for you too.

3. Marks don’t matter…unless you’re planning on a Ph.D.

Newsflash: Employers don’t give a crap about your marks.

If you have a master’s degree on your resume, employers will already know you’re smart.  Again, they’re looking for people that are interesting, that can do the job, and people they can get along with on a daily basis.  Don’t have a hissy fit if you get an ‘A-‘ when you clearly deserve an ‘A’, employers could care less.

4. Treat grad school like a nine-to-five job

To be honest, graduate work isn’t that difficult, but the volume of work required borders on the ridiculous.  Plan everyday to do be doing schoolwork.  You may even have to sacrifice weekends in the name of a huge paper or project.  The days of starting a paper the night before its due are over.  And yes, you have to do your readings or else you’ll be lost in seminars.

5. Be nice to your classmates

Guess who your colleagues in the field will be after you graduate?  Guess who could be on the hiring committee for a job you’re applying for?  Your classmates could be your best friends or your worst enemies, it’s up to you.  If you’re in a professional program, chances are you will be engaged in a lot of group work.  This is your chance to show your future colleagues in the field how good a team player you are, and what kind of quality work you do.  You never know who will be giving you your next job, so make your time in grad school count and make some friends and allies among your classmates.  Likewise, you might be on a hiring committee some day and hire a classmate you know who is great to work with.

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