It's about the time of the year when the thoughts of young men and women turn to graduate school. Well, not really, but if you are thinking about applying to graduate school, here's are some tips on how you should prepare over the summer. Although I'm an anthropologist, these are general tips that should apply to most disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.
First, you really need to ask yourself if you want to go to grad school and why. I've seen enough unhappy grad students and assistant professors who went because of all the wrong reasons: they were smart and one of their teachers told them that smart people go to grad school; they thought academia was less stressful and had more intellectual freedom than the real world; they wanted to avoid going into the Real World altogether; etc. Unless you really consider being an academic your calling in life, then it may be difficult to make it through seven through ten years of grad school, and another seven to ten years before you get tenure.
One major difference between grad school and undergraduate applications is that the departments themselves decide which grad students to take rather than the university as a whole. Normally, all the grad applications for the year will come in to the department, the obviously bad ones will be culled, and the remainder of applications read by either part or all of the professors. What you want to be able to do is catch the eye or one or more professors who would be interested in working with you.
That being said, here are some of the elements of your grad school application that you should start working on.
- Statement of purpose: The statement of purpose (personal essay) is the most important part of your application and it is totally different from your college essay. The statement tells the committee why you want to become an anthropologist/sociologist/political scientist/etc. from an intellectual perspective. The search committee isn't interested that in 6th grade, you fell in love with Indiana Jones or that for study abroad, you went to India. They want to know what interests you intellectually and whether or not you are intelligent and organized enough to pursue a research project for over five years and write a 300 page dissertation.
While you don't have to have a predetermined research topic in mind before applying to grad school, it helps greatly to be able to articulate what you are interested in. Many grad schools apportion students either by area or topical specialty to the professors. If you do not know what region of the world you're interested in, or what type of theoretical approach (gender, political economy, social movements) you want to pursue, it maybe be difficult for any professor to take an interest in you.
The Statement of Purpose will make or break your application. Write a good one. Send it to all the professors you know and ask for feedback. Keep working and working on it until it becomes excellent. It should be the most difficult thing you have written in your life up to now.
- GREs: Most grad schools don't weigh the GRE exams too much, although they may use it as a first cut. So as long as you score fairly well, then there's nothing to be worried about. Don't bother with GRE prep -- use the time to work on your statement of purpose.
- Transcript: Various programs differ on how much they value an undergraduate degree in anthropology. My own school welcomes applications from all disciplines although there is a preference for students who have some real-world experience after graduating with their BA.
- Letters of recommendation: It may help to start asking your professors now if they can write for you, since they'll be bogged down by the Fall with other requests.
I can't stress enough the significance of the statement of purpose. It's too late now to change your grades and studying for the GRE won't help you application that much. The one thing that can significantly change your application is your statement. Don't work on it in a vacuum. Again, it is different from anything else you've written in your life. Ask for a lot of feedback on it from different sources.