Graduate School Tip of the Month: Become a Competitive Graduate School Candidate

Those of you considering graduate school as a possible path should use the start of the new academic year to further your preparations for meeting your academic and career goals. Becoming a competitive candidate for graduate school is a process that can begin in your freshman year of college. For freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, consider the following:

  • Build relevant research experience by taking Statistics and Experimental Psychology or Foundations of Social Research as early as possible. Follow those with a Research Assistantship or even an Independent Study and/or Honors Project.

  • Build relevant applied experience through Internships, volunteer work, service learning, or a related paid employment position. Think about the potential impact of sustained and self-initiated experiences (e.g., a couple of 4-week service learning experiences as a part of your classes will probably not be as helpful as a year of volunteer work for a local non-profit organization).

  • Build a base of future letters of recommendation by getting to know faculty, engaging in individualized learning experiences (e.g., RA, TA), and attending department events.

  • Build a strong academic record. Maximize your grade point average to be competitive for graduate school. Graduate admissions work very differently from undergraduate, and there are often many more applicants than there are available spots in a program. Even if minimum GPAs are listed for a program, the average GPA of admitted students will often be significantly higher.

  • Build a comprehensive academic record with thoughtfully chosen areas of strength. Select classes carefully. Think about minors that might enhance your record. For example, if you are interested in I/O Psychology, consider a minor or double-major in Business. If you are interested in Human Development or Social Psychology and think you might want to pursue culturally-focused research, consider a minor in Anthropology. As a final example, think about how a minor or double-major in a foreign language or how a semester abroad might enhance your credentials.

  • Build leadership experience by becoming involved in student organizations and taking on leadership positions in those organizations. Join PHD Club and become an officer. Apply to become a TA for a class. Run for a student government office.

  • Build your written and oral communication skills. These are highly prized by graduate schools and employers. Take additional writing emphasis courses; enroll in a course that requires you to engage in public speaking.

  • Build your knowledge about graduate school by visiting Career Services’ “Thinking about Graduate School?” booth next to the Garden CafĂ© on October 9th from 11:30-12:30. You can also attend their sponsored workshop on “The Graduate School Application Process” on October 21st at St. Norbert College (see: In addition, you can find great information on the web (begin with the Human Development and Psychology webpages). Start looking early because different types (e.g., Counseling vs. Social) and levels (e.g., Master’s vs. Ph.D.) of programs will value different kinds of courses, experiences, and so on in their applicants.

  • Build time into your schedule and strategically plan your experiences. Timing is very important when it comes to graduate school admissions. You will typically be applying the fall or early spring of your senior year. That means you want to have a strong GPA and record of experiences going into your senior year. Don’t wait until your last semester to take that Internship or to be an RA. Graduate schools may be making decisions based on what you have done through your junior year (or possibly the first semester of your senior year). They often won’t see that final semester record until it’s “too late.” Speaking of time, also make sure you build time into your schedule for the application process. Think of it as another 3 credit class for the semester in which you will be doing the bulk of your application work.

For more seasoned readers who are saying to themselves, but it’s too late for that now – I’m applying to graduate school this year! Still make the most of this semester, and maximize your grade point average and experiences. Start working on those applications, personal statements, and letter of recommendation requests now – it is never too early to begin!