Parenting: The grad school game

Many colleges offer graduate degrees and doctoral programs, but the slots are competitive.
David Murphy says the path to graduate school is entirely different from getting into college.
February 8, 2012 6:09:34 AM PST
My son (Murphy kid #2), a third-year mechanical engineering major, announced recently that he is thinking about heading to graduate school once he earns his Bachelor's Degree. This news, for any parent I imagine, produces different feelings. On the one hand, a Master's Degree or Doctorate seems to suggest more wage earning opportunity once your kid is out there in the working world. On the other hand, grad school puts a delay on the actually wage earning, and opens-up a whole new set of worries, the main one being: will he get in?

As your kids move from high school into college and beyond, they become more and more independent. You can see them doing more for themselves and making more of their own decisions. As a parent, you have less and less room to guide and nag. But it's still okay to discuss the process with your kids, and to educate yourself on how this process works, so your son or daughter has the right approach to the application process. In fact, you will need to learn a lot, because the process is a lot different.

While the requirements and opportunities may differ from major to major, the basic idea is that getting into graduate school takes a lot more finesse than getting into college. Websites like gradschooltips.com offer good primers on the subject and spell out the differences between applying to college and grad school.

For example, college admissions decisions are decided by an admissions staff that is primarily concerned with high school class rank, GPA, and SAT/ACT scores, with a secondary interest in extra-curricular activities. Graduate school admissions are more personal. It's college professors who are making the decision on who to accept, and while GRE scores (graduate school admissions tests) and grades from undergraduate courses are important, how much your young adult has done outside the classroom parameter carries far more weight than the general college application process required.

Among the important steps your son or daughter should take is getting to know their undergraduate professors well. Ask if they can do research. And whenever there's an opportunity to publish a paper related to research, they should do it. After all, many graduate school programs exist for research and anything that demonstrates ability along these lines is important. Tell your student not to stop with just one professor. They should work with as many as possible, and strive to do great work. Eventually, it's those professors who will be writing recommendations to grad schools, and a hard, productive worker is far more likely to win more than simply the standard letter. Internships also provide an opportunity to shine and make contacts. Your kids should make friends with the boss or supervisor and keep in touch even after the internship is over, so they are remembered - another way to get a good recommendation letter.

Most of the advice online also suggests that your student should cast a wide net. Grad school slots are competitive, especially at the top schools. Most of what I've seen suggests they should plan on applying to at least six different schools, and even 20 isn't unreasonable. They should apply early. They should also visit the schools they want the most, meet some professors if they can, and then keep in touch with these people, passing along any successes. If you son or daughter knows other students who move on to grad schools, they should keep in touch with these people and see whether they can be a conduit through which to meet professors and make contacts.

Next week, I'll talk about paying for grad school.

---David Murphy

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