If you're thinking about going to grad school, first ask yourself some tough questions:
- Do you have the time? Masters programs are another year, sometimes two, added to your schooling, while Doctoral programs are at least four.
- Do you have the grades? Most grad schools require a B+ average, but in practice don't admit anyone without straight As.
- Do your goals require an advanced degree? For business, an M.B.A. may be a good idea. If you want to publish novels, a Ph.D. won't help much – though if your ambition is becoming an English professor, it's essential.
If the answer to those questions is yes, research your chosen discipline next. Take the opportunity, while still in college, to talk to professors and grad students in your target department. Find out the current research trends and major debates. Demonstrating this knowledge is vital later when you write your plan of study as part of applications.
Also, ask around as to which grad schools best fit your interests. Most major universities are good choices for a B.A., but even the most prestigious schools have their strengths and weaknesses in the specialized world of graduate studies. Make a list of the top half-dozen or so schools, and apply to those.
Plan Ahead for Tests and Other Application Requirements
The deadline for applying to most graduate programs is in December or January for admission the following September. But there are many application requirements which must be started as soon as possible – at the beginning of your senior year, if not before.
Most American grad schools require GRE scores. Budget a few months to arrange to take the test, and have the results sent to the schools to which you're applying. Specialized fields such as medicine or law have their own tests, the MCAT and LSAT, respectively, which also must be taken well in advance.
Grad schools require letters of recommendation from professors who are familiar with your work. You should therefore build relationships with your instructors well before you apply. Though most instructors are happy to provide recommendations, remember that they get many requests at the same time every year. Ask as far ahead of the deadline as you can.
You'll have to send transcripts with your application too. Since these must be official (not photocopies or printouts), they must be requested from your university (and any previous ones, if you've transferred). Again, the sooner the better.
Finally, Have a Back-Up Plan (or Two)
Work on alternate plans, such as job opportunities, before you hear back from grad schools. Meanwhile, know your ideal schools so you won't agonize over offers. There usually isn't much time to accept, and your place may be lost if you delay.
Even with everything done right, you may not be accepted everywhere – or even anywhere. If so, try to find work in your academic field so that you gain relevant experience. When you try again, the process outlined above still applies. Take comfort that the added practice only improves your chances.