I have worked as an enrollment counselor for the past three years and I have applied to several graduate programs in the past. I have learned a few things from this process that I thought I should share. You’re welcome!
First, do not wait until the last minute to apply somewhere! Be aware of deadlines. I have seen dozens of students turn in their application at the deadline. You won’t be the only person to do this. This creates a traffic jam for admissions committees and you are likely to experience a delay in receiving an admission decision. If you apply far in advanced to the deadline you should have your application processed earlier when there aren’t as many people applying and you will receive an admissions decision far before your first semester/quarter. This will allow you to plan your education rather than react at the last minute.
Also, don’t be cute when completing an application. Don’t use comic sans font. Don’t include a bunch of materials that you think are impressive but that the school did not require (no, your self-published book does not matter to an admissions committee, sorry).
Second, plan your financial aid ahead of time. If you plan on receiving federal loans fill out a FAFSA. If you think you may qualify for some random scholarship search for it. You can use websites like Fastweb.com to assist you. If you know what school you want to attend check their website to see what scholarships may be available. Some internal scholarships are merit based for ongoing students, but some you can receive as an incoming student so know your options. Do not forget that you can mix and match payment options. You don’t have to do loans only. You can pay out of pocket if you go through graduate school slowly enough. Some schools have payment plans for each semester. If you combine scholarships and grants with financial aid and paying some out of pocket it will reduce your debt at graduation.
Third, know what matters to you in choosing a school. For some it is the ethos of the school. For example, I work and I studied at Western Seminary. This school is best for those who want to do pastoral ministry. Our ThM program is very solid for those wanting to do further academics, but as a whole the seminary is best at combining theological thinking with practical ministry (notice I did not say mere “practical ministry”) which is why they tend to produce solid pastors (please overlook Mark Driscoll, thanks). If the school has strengths that matter a lot to you and weaknesses you can overlook then give them your serious attention.
Fourth, learn about the faculty of a school. Teachers still make or break your experience. Some schools have a faculty that produces a lot of books and academic research. Other schools have faculty that tend to major on relational teaching and mentorship. Ask active students about various teachers pedagogy. Find out whether some one is lecture based, discussion based, or whether they are monotone droids who read from their PowerPoint or textbook (yes, these types exist). I have had some very good teachers who can get the whole class involved in a discussion, whose textbook choices were very useful, and who continued to mentor me even after I left the classroom. These people have been extremely important to my education.
Fifth, know for yourself whether visiting a campus before enrolling matters to you. For some it is very useful to tour a campus, visit a class, meet a professor, and learn about a school in person. For others it is not. You know who you are!
Sixth, know the job market that you hope to enter after graduation. It may be horrible. If you have thousands of dollars in loans and you can’t get a job anywhere other than your local cafe after graduation make sure this doesn’t happen by surprise (be like me and go into it well aware that you will be poor)! If a school has kept data on whether their graduates have landed jobs in their field soon after graduation it would be helpful to you if you could get that information. If they are terrible at placing/connecting graduates (like many for-profits schools) you will want to know this before spending your hard earned money.
Seven, learn to manage your time, now! Do not think that you can party on Friday and sleep it off on Saturday like you may have done in your undergraduate program. Do not write your papers the night before they are due. This may have worked in the past. Hopefully it doesn’t work in grad school (lest you are quite brilliant or your professor is exceptionally lax).
If you have any wisdom to add please leave it in the comments. Hopefully student pilgrims will come across this blog post in the future and they can read what you wrote!