Expert Tips On Graduate School Planning – What You Need to Know

Kate Horan


Vol. 52/ Issue 10

“In my experience, having now gotten two graduate degrees, a master’s and a Ph.D., I believe that earning those degrees is as much about persistence and determination as it is about needing to have the academic ability to succeed,” says Dr. Don Martin. He says that the application process is nerve-wracking, but it is important to “stay true to yourself, remain authentic, follow directions, let them hear your voice, and make sure you leave them with a positive impression about you.”

Dr. Martin is the Founder and CEO of Grad School Road Map, a graduate school admissions consulting program. Dr. Martin has coached over 470 graduate school applicants in arts and sciences, business, law, and medicine with a 97% acceptance rate. He explains that there are many important things to consider when deciding whether to pursue further education. Dr. Martin emphasizes the importance of answering this question: “Why are you doing this?” He continues, saying, “Why do you want to pursue a graduate education? Are you being pressured by someone? Are you feeling this is just something to do so that you can keep going to school and not having to go to work yet? What is the motivation?” Dr. Martin asserts that determining the answers to these questions can greatly affect the kind of research students end up doing that would lead them in a good direction for their applications.

When thinking about which graduate school programs students may want to apply for, it is essential to learn more about the program and the campus through direct methods. Michele Poruban, an Associate Director of Experiential Learning in the office of Career and Post-Graduate Development (CPD) at Ursinus College, aids students in finding internships and externships, while also assisting students and alumni in career planning. Poruban emphasizes the importance of physically taking a tour, experiencing the campus, and also taking a look at the research settings. Even if students cannot easily get to the location, there are online tours and webinars.

Poruban emphasizes that webinars can be about graduate school in general, but it is useful to try and find orientations or information sessions that are specific to one’s program. She says, “It’s a great time to hear from the program directors, what they focus on, what are their goals and objectives for their students, what are the outcomes that those students then have.” This is also a good opportunity to hear from current graduate students and to ask “how they felt supported through the program, and maybe some of the specific resources that they were able to use.”

Similarly, Dr. Martin asserts that prospective graduate students should make sure that they know what the campus looks like, and they should be asking what students, both current and former, have to say about the programs. If prospective graduate students do reach out to current students or recent graduates, Dr. Martin advises asking at least these two questions: “What did or do you like most and least about this program?” and “If you had to do it over again, knowing what you know now, would you still attend this program?”

Organization is essential when applying for graduate school programs, especially when first getting started. It is important to keep all of those details together, and Poruban says, “A really good go-to resource for many students is creating something like an Excel spreadsheet where you can identify things like the school, the program name, and then you’ll start putting together some of those other factors.” Other factors can include start and end dates, the due date for the application, and then other unique things about the programs, such as if they have “graduate assistantships, or special practicum experiences or hands-on experiences that you can do, or perhaps some of them are set in a city where you might be able to work directly with some of their programs there,” says Poruban.

The timeline when pursuing a graduate school education is not the same for every student, but Poruban explains that “the longer runway you give yourself, the better.” This gives students more time to explore, and Poruban says, “I think it allows you to do yourself the diligence of getting a lot of input, a lot of gathering so that you can layer in those conversations that we’re talking about. They don’t happen overnight.” Poruban emphasizes that this research takes time to facilitate, and she says that even as early as a student’s first undergraduate year they can be thinking about graduate school as a possibility. Then, Poruban recommends that by the end of sophomore year, it is important to start having a direct conversation with one’s advisor if students are thinking that they might want to attend graduate school.

Poruban says, “You’re really going to want to start ramping up your plans by junior year.” She suggests students should meet with CPD before the summer after junior year to outline a plan. “Give yourself a set of to-dos and tasks so it’s not that all of your time is investing in that, but a little bit at a time, kind of a checklist,” Poruban explains.

After students work on the organization aspect, the time comes to start narrowing down the programs to find those that best fit the student’s interests. Choosing the right program can depend on what additional skills one wants to gain. Poruban says, “A phrase that has always stuck with me when somebody talked about grad school is, you want to think about what you’ve learned so far as just the tip of the iceberg, and you’re so excited to learn more and dive into a specific topic.” 

Once students find the graduate schools and programs that they want to apply for, the next steps include writing graduate essays and participating in interviews with the admissions committees.

In Dr. Martin’s opinion, writing an effective essay “boils down to a couple of very important factors.” First, students need to make sure that they provide the number of words that they were asked to provide. During his 28 years as an admissions dean, Dr. Martin personally evaluated over 125,000 applications. Dr. Martin recalls an instance in which the importance of word count was exemplified. Working as an admissions dean, Dr. Martin was evaluating applications in which applicants were asked to provide a personal statement of 750 words. One applicant, applying for a doctoral program, sent Dr. Martin their master’s thesis, which was 50 pages long. Dr. Martin says, “I denied them immediately. I thought if you cannot follow a simple direction…they didn’t answer anything we asked them. They just said, please see my master’s thesis.”

This leads to what Dr. Martin lists as the second factor: “You need to give them what they actually asked you to give them.” It is important for the applicant to answer the questions that they are asked and to answer only those questions. Dr. Martin gives an example: “If they say, ‘What do you hope to do? What’s your short- and long-term goal after you finish?’ Give them your short- and long-term goal, but do not go on and say, ‘And I want to go to your program because…’ If they don’t ask that, you don’t tell them.”

The last factor that Dr. Martin lists is a mantra for the entire way of proceeding through an application process: “Be yourself.” The admissions committee needs to hear the applicant’s voice. Dr. Martin emphasizes the importance of being your authentic self in the application process, quoting Oscar Wilde, saying, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

When it comes to writing an effective graduate school essay, Poruban likes what has been described as the “necklace method.” This is the idea of starting with a great story that will catch somebody’s attention, telling the story of “something that will connect with somebody on a personal level and help them to remember you.” That starts off the story, and then it is important to lead into why the program would be ideal for the student, focusing on why the student wants to participate in this type of graduate school or graduate program. “And then at the end, kind of closing the necklace, you come back to that story to pull it all together,” says Poruban.

As for getting ready for graduate school interviews, Poruban suggests that students prepare five to six stories about themselves. These stories usually are events or experiences that students are involved in that they would want to share to the admissions team to prove that they are a solid candidate for the program.

Poruban thinks that, in terms of interviews, there are two “buckets” that students are answering in terms of questions. She says, “The first is, do you have the academic strength and stamina to be successful in our program? And that’s where your transcript comes into play. What courses have you taken? Have you been successful in those?” The second bucket is answering questions in terms of what makes students unique. Poruban explains that these questions can revolve around what you “bring to the table that’s going to help you contribute and be part of our team that’s already here, whether that’s faculty and/or other graduate students.”

Another important part of interviewing is to come with questions for the interviewer, as “it shows that you’ve taken the initiative to prepare and you’re really thoughtful and interested in their program and that’s why you have these questions,” says Poruban. An essential piece of the interview process happens after the interview: sending a thank you. Demonstrating that the student has taken the professional time to thank the committee and mentioning something that the student appreciated talking about during the interview experience makes the student stand out while the committee is in the decision process.  

When making decisions about graduate school, it is essential to remember that the process and timeline do not look the same for everyone. Poruban says, “It’s similar to what we hear sometimes this time of year around graduation, especially for seniors feeling like everybody around me knows what they want to do, and they have their job opportunities figured out. When in reality when we’re talking to students, it’s more of the students that are in the position of, ‘Okay, I’m still making those final decisions and not everybody does have it figured out.’” Poruban says that the same dynamic happens with graduate school, and she advises students to “try to quiet the voices around you and really think about what’s most important to you in meeting you where you are with your ultimate goals academically, personally, and professionally.”

In terms of one’s ability to succeed both in the application process but also succeeding in graduate school and in life overall, Dr. Martin says, “Don’t hear me wrong that I’m not thrilled when folks do well academically in their undergraduate career. That’s wonderful. Congratulations to them. But I will also say that long-term success in life, so far, I have yet to see that that is directly correlated to a 4.0 GPA or a 99-percentile test score. It isn’t.” With his focus being on working one-on-one with individuals, Dr. Martin recalls someone telling him something early in life that has stuck with him ever since. According to Dr. Martin, this person told him, “If people know you, like you, and trust you, they will work with you.”