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Have You Considered Graduate School?

Graduate programs are highly specialized, which means that not all programs are available at all schools. There are many graduate schools and many different kinds of programs, so you will have to research to find which schools offer what you are looking for.

There are two main tracks, or types of graduate fields: academic/research oriented, which focuses on expanding and disseminating the body of knowledge, and professional, which focuses on applying knowledge. Note, however, that academic/research fields entail applying knowledge, just as professional fields entail research and expanding the current body of knowledge.

Academic/Research

Anthropology
Art
Biology
Chemistry
Economics
English
History
Languages and Linguistics
Philosophy
Physics
Political Science
…etc.

Professional

Architecture
Business
Education
Engineering
Law
Medicine
Social Work
…etc.

There are also several levels of degrees, each requiring a considerable investment of time:

  • Certificates (usually 1 year, or less)
  • Masters (usually 2-4 years)
  • Doctorate (usually 4-10 years)

Graduate programs offer a wide variety of degrees. The most common academic/research degrees are the:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MS)
  • and Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD)

Examples of professional degrees include:

  • Teaching Certificates
  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Master of Education (Med)
  • Master of Public Health (MPH)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Doctor of Architecture (ArchD)
  • Juris Doctor (JD)
  • and Doctor of Medicine (MD)

to name just a few.

In general, your grade point average, or GPA, must be 3.0 or higher for you to be admitted to graduate study. In short, the best advice is:

Get good grades!

Get good grades!

Get good grades!

  • You must do particularly well in courses related to your field and in upper division courses in general (at UHM, upper division means 300- and 400-level).
  • For general admission purposes, UHM looks at only the last two years.
  • Admissions committees of schools and of individual programs will study the courses you took, looking carefully at the kinds of courses, content areas, level of difficulty, and semester loads.
  • Good grades in difficult courses, especially in the field or in related areas, mean much more than easy or irrelevant course work. Good grades in graduate-level courses are a bonus.
  • Admission into programs is competitive, which means that even someone with a 3.7 GPA may not be admitted if there are many outstanding applicants.

Gain Experience (especially important for professional degrees)

Faculty admission committees want to know whether you understand the nature of the work before they commit to the effort required to produce a graduate student. Gaining experience is also for your own protection. Graduate, and especially professional degrees are very expensive. You need to be sure that this is what you want to do before you invest several years and many thousands of dollars in pursuing a degree.

Where can I gain experience?

  • Internships or practica. These are often connected to courses in your major, and you should take advantage of these even if they are not required. Some opportunities offer wages in addition to academic credit.
  • Paid jobs in your field or in related fields are always good experience, whether or not they earn academic credit.
  • Volunteer work not only provides experience, but can demonstrate a commitment to public service as well, which is important for some professional fields.
  • Take an independent study course (399 or 499) and write a research paper in an area of interest. For example, if you are interested in music, you might analyze Mozart’s wind concertos. If you are interested in Chinese history, you might study the Cultural Revolution. This will not only give you a chance to get to know your professors better, but will show you a good example of what it is like to be an independent scholar as graduate students need to be.
  • Read journal articles in your specialty area. This is helpful for any level of graduate study, because it gives you acquaintance with current issues and helps you learn the “vocabulary” to use in your statement of objectives.
  • Become familiar with the faculty doing research in your field (for PhD students this is vital), not just faculty in Hawai‘i, but worldwide. As part of that community of scholars, there are a number of professors doing cutting edge research.
  • Make contact with the experts. If in Hawai‘i, try to work with an expert here for your 499 course. If they are at a program to which you might apply, write to them with any questions you have about their work.
  • If you can, publish; this is especially advisable for those interested in a PhD. Most universities are giving undergraduates more opportunities to do research and, while you are not likely to create and do your own research project, you can get involved in what someone else is doing and possibly co-author a paper.

A specialization is critical in helping you create a fit with a graduate program. If you know your focus before you apply, you can be sure the program will have the necessary resources to support your studies, you will have colleagues to collaborate with, and you will have at least one expert to oversee your work. If you choose a focus after being accepted, you may not be able to study  your primary interest or you may have problems finishing your degree.

How can I find an area of specialization?

If you do not have a focus, ask yourself:

  • What were your favorite courses and assignments, and why?
  • What aspects or issues got you interested in your major?
  • What research and readings do you find most interesting?

If these questions do not lead you to a focus, you may not know your field well enough and may want to discuss your plans with a professor.

 If you are certain you want to go to graduate school, you will need to prepare in order to:

  • be admitted to the program you want; and

  • be successful after you are in.

A. Join the academic community

Professional organizations. All fields of study involve a national or even global community of scholars, who conduct research, teach, and publish. These people know each other and often meet at conventions and conferences. Professors can help their graduate students and their most promising undergraduate students become part of the community.

  • Become a student member of your field’s professional organization(s).
  • Read the organizations’ journal(s) regularly.
  • Attend national and regional conferences.
  • Ask your professor(s) to introduce you to others in the field.
  • Author/co-author a conference presentation.
  • Author/co-author an article for the organizations’ journal(s).

Honor societies. Academia has a number of general honor societies and many fields have their own honor societies, as well.

  • Join and become an active member of an honor society.
  • Serve as an officer in your honor society.
  • Help your honor society actively contribute to your field.

Faculty. The faculty in your graduate field can not only teach you about your field, but also help you choose a graduate program and provide references for applications.

  • Take smaller (upper division or even graduate-level) courses in your graduate field.
  • Take a Directed Reading and Research course (399 or 499) with a faculty member.
  • Participate actively in class.
  • Take advantage of office hours to discuss your areas of interest and possible research topics.
  • Ask their advice about graduate programs in your field.

Graduate Students. Graduate students who are currently in the programs you are considering can give you an insider’s perspective.

  • Make a point of talking to graduate students in every program you are considering.
  • Ask them what it took for them to get in and perhaps even for tips on applying and being admitted.
  • Find out what their program is like and whether they like it.
  • Talk to graduate students in UHM’s program.

B. Develop a focus in a specialty area (especially important for academic degrees)

Your identity as a graduate student and, therefore as an applicant, very much depends on your specialization, or area of focus.

At the graduate level, there is a high degree of specialization. For example:

  • Not just Psychology or even Social Psychology, but how social cognitive theory applies to an understanding of minority relations.
  • Not just Geology or even Geochemistry, but the use of stable isotope biogeochemistry to determine the cycling of chemicals in the ocean.
  • Not just Art History or even Nineteenth-Century Painting, but the use of color and shading in French impressionism.

People attend graduate school for myriad reasons. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • To study a subject in more detail. For example, after completing a Bachelor degree in Sociology, you might attend graduate school to specialize in juvenile delinquency.
  • To study a subject that was not offered at the Bachelor level. For example, degrees in specialized fields such as Educational Administration, Public Health, or Astrophysics are available only at the graduate level.
  • To study a new subject or change fields. Many students use graduate school as an opportunity to enter a new field. For example, an Art major may decide to enter medical school, or a Psychology major may choose to study creative writing. Those who are considering changing fields should be aware that many graduate programs have specific prerequisites.
    To obtain a credential or degree necessary to begin practice in a particular field. For example, those who plan to teach must first complete a teaching certificate, and psychologists must complete a degree in clinical psychology before they can begin practice.
  • To become eligible for better, higher paying jobs. In general, those who complete graduate degrees earn more and have more career options than those who hold a Bachelor degree. Higher salaries and better jobs are not, however, the best reasons for pursuing a graduate degree. Graduate degrees offer no guarantees: many skilled laborers and business executives earn very high salaries with a Bachelor degree and expertise.

Students sometimes continue on into graduate school because they are comfortable as students and do not yet want to enter the work world, or because they cannot think of anything else in particular they would like to do. Students who attend graduate school for these reasons are often disappointed and often do poorly because graduate school is markedly different from the undergraduate experience.

Differences in structure:

Graduate programs normally consist of courses, qualifying or comprehensive exams, and a practicum, thesis, or dissertation, but every program differs in what is required and in what order. There are no standard practices, but there are typical formats according to level and field.

  • Professional Masters – These degrees are similar to undergraduate programs in that no thesis is required, but they generally require some kind of capstone project before the degree is awarded. Examples include the MBA and the MEd.
  • Professional Masters in Health and Human Services – These degrees are often course based, but may also require a thesis and some kind of internship or practicum. Graduates must often pass a licensing exam before they can begin practice. Examples include MSW, MPH, and MS in Medical Technology or in Speech-Language Pathology.
  • Fine and Performing Arts – Students demonstrate their creative ability through performances, recitals, or works of art. Course work includes numerous studios, ensemble, or performance courses. In many programs, the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is the terminal degree, requiring intense study not unlike doctoral work, but some programs do offer the Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA). Examples include MFA in Art, Dance, and Theatre, MMus in Music, and MA in Creative Writing.
  • Academic degrees in the Arts, Humanities, Natural and Social Sciences – At both the Master and PhD levels, students usually complete a series of courses, take comprehensive exams, write a thesis or dissertation, and pass an oral defense of their work.
  • Laboratory Sciences – At both the Master and PhD levels, students are expected to do real science in a lab with a supervising professor from the beginning. Much of this work is collaborative and will lead to a thesis or dissertation topic. Examples include MS or PhD in Biology, Chemistry, Microbiology, and Oceanography.
  • Professional Doctorates – These degrees require both course work and applied practice at the highest levels of the professions. No dissertation is required, but intense testing and practice is involved. Examples include MD, JD, and PharmD.

Course Work: Master degrees and doctorates usually require students to complete a certain number of credits. At UHM, the number of credits required varies from 30 to 60. Full time at UHM is 8 credits per semester, which indicates how much more intense this level is. Also, to remain a classified graduate student, you must maintain a 3.0 grade point average (GPA), not the 2.0 required for undergraduate work. In graduate school, you are expected to earn mostly ‘A’ grades; a ‘C’ grade indicates unsatisfactory work.

Seminars: In graduate school, many courses are seminars – discussion-based courses in which students research a subject then share their findings with the seminar group. Seminars often meet once a week for several hours.

Comprehensive Exams are most common at the doctoral level and are designed to test whether students have gained a thorough foundation in their field. Comprehensive exams range from a few hours to as long as a week; some are proctored, while others are take-home. Some doctoral programs require two exams, one that tests students’ foundation and another that tests knowledge of their specialty area. Exams often include history, current issues, and the work of leaders in the field.

Theses and Dissertations: Some, but not all, Masters degrees require theses; doctoral degrees almost always require dissertations. (Some programs use “thesis” and “dissertation” interchangeably.) The purpose of a Masters thesis is to demonstrate that the student is capable of carrying out the technical aspects of scholarship in their field. Theses are generally reviewed by a committee of at least three faculty and must be defended orally, usually in a public forum. The purpose of a doctoral dissertation is to demonstrate the student’s original and significant contribution to the field’s body of knowledge. Dissertations are generally reviewed by a committee of three to five faculty, and both the proposal to write the dissertation and the completed dissertation must be defended orally, usually in a public forum.

Differences in style:

In general, as an undergraduate, you acquired knowledge and skills; as a graduate, you will apply knowledge and skills. As Tara Kuther stated in her book Graduate School,

“Graduate education entails a critical transition from consumer of knowledge to producer of knowledge.”

You attended an undergraduate program to acquire the basic liberal arts skills of reading, writing, quantitative reasoning, and critical analysis, as well as a general foundation in a field. In graduate school, you will put those skills to work, applying and producing knowledge within a specialized area of your field.

Because graduate programs vary so widely, there really is no “typical,” but in general, graduate school:

  • Is more flexible. Sometimes there are no textbooks or even no specific course requirements. Courses may not have a clear structure and may consist entirely of seminar discussions or of individual research.
  • Requires research. Graduate programs frequently, but not always, require writing a thesis or dissertation and many courses require final papers. Courses are sometimes based on the research students bring to class and may even provide the foundation for a book or article the instructor is writing. On the other hand, some programs require very little research, while others focus on practica.
  • Offers current, often cutting-edge topics. Unlike undergraduate curricula, graduate course work does not necessarily provide an overview of the field. Courses may instead reflect the specialties and expertise of the faculty. Courses may also reflect the expertise of a visiting professor, of an opportunity available that semester in the community, or of a new publication.
    Situates instructors as experienced colleagues. In graduate school, instructors tend to teach less and collaborate more. At the doctoral level, instructors are often seminar facilitators, co-researchers and co-learners with students in pursuit of new knowledge.
  • Expects students to be apprentice colleagues. Graduate students need to be more independent and better able to learn on their own than they were as undergraduates. Participation, engagement, and initiative all become essential.
  • Is more expensive. Most graduate students need financial aid of some kind, whether in scholarships, teaching assistantships, or loans. For more information, see below.

Because graduate programs are so different, what professors expect of students is also different. In graduate school, you will need:

  • Exceptional reading skills. Graduate courses require considerably more reading than undergraduate courses. Students need to be able to read quickly, accurately, and critically, and be able to grasp nuances in writing. Students planning on attending graduate school should read as much, as often, and as widely as possible.
  • Excellent writing skills. Student who plan to attend graduate school should take as many writing courses as possible during their undergraduate years. Some graduate programs expect publishable, or at least near-publishable writing skills, and few graduate instructors will spend time teaching students the basics of writing.
    Strong analytical/critical thinking skills. Graduate schools are looking for exceptional students, and analytical/critical thinking skills often distinguish exception students from the average.
  • Strong communication skills. Graduate students must be able to communicate clearly and concisely, not only in writing but also verbally, in seminar courses, in presentations, and at conferences. Good communication skills are also valuable when collaborating with colleagues, working with professors, and socializing with the department.
  • Independence. Graduate schools value personal, intellectual, and emotional independence. Students need to be self-sufficient enough to persevere without hand-holding.
  • Initiative. In graduate school, students must be internally driven to succeed, to finish, and to graduate. Students should approach their graduate studies with the intent to learn and experience as much as possible.

In addition, doctoral programs expect:

  • The ability to formulate research questions,
  • The ability to conduct research, and
  • Students who have something new to contribute to the field.

Because of all these demands, students considering graduate school might want to consider whether they are, or can become the following.

Independent Hard Working Mature
Dedicated Self-disciplined Detail-oriented
Persistent Self-sufficient Adaptable
Intellectually curious Creative/innovative

It also helps to have the abilities to see the “big picture” and to question “the way things are.”

Differences in style:

In general, as an undergraduate, you acquired knowledge and skills; as a graduate, you will apply knowledge and skills. As Tara Kuther stated in her book Graduate School,

“Graduate education entails a critical transition from consumer of knowledge to producer of knowledge.

You attended an undergraduate program to acquire the basic liberal arts skills of reading, writing, quantitative reasoning, and critical analysis, as well as a general foundation in a field. In graduate school, you will put those skills to work, applying and producing knowledge within a specialized area of your field.

Because graduate programs vary so widely, there really is no “typical,” but in general, graduate school:

  • Is more flexible. Sometimes there are no textbooks or even no specific course requirements. Courses may not have a clear structure and may consist entirely of seminar discussions or of individual research.
  • Requires research. Graduate programs frequently, but not always, require writing a thesis or dissertation and many courses require final papers. Courses are sometimes based on the research students bring to class and may even provide the foundation for a book or article the instructor is writing. On the other hand, some programs require very little research, while others focus on practica.
  • Offers current, often cutting-edge topics. Unlike undergraduate curricula, graduate course work does not necessarily provide an overview of the field. Courses may instead reflect the specialties and expertise of the faculty. Courses may also reflect the expertise of a visiting professor, of an opportunity available that semester in the community, or of a new publication.
  • Situates instructors as experienced colleagues. In graduate school, instructors tend to teach less and collaborate more. At the doctoral level, instructors are often seminar facilitators, co-researchers and co-learners with students in pursuit of new knowledge.
  • Expects students to be apprentice colleagues. Graduate students need to be more independent and better able to learn on their own than they were as undergraduates. Participation, engagement, and initiative all become essential.
  • Is more expensive. Most graduate students need financial aid of some kind, whether in scholarships, teaching assistantships, or loans. For more information, see below.

Because graduate programs are so different, what professors expect of students is also different. In graduate school, you will need:

  • Exceptional reading skills. Graduate courses require considerably more reading than undergraduate courses. Students need to be able to read quickly, accurately, and critically, and be able to grasp nuances in writing. Students planning on attending graduate school should read as much, as often, and as widely as possible.
  • Excellent writing skills. Student who plan to attend graduate school should take as many writing courses as possible during their undergraduate years. Some graduate programs expect publishable, or at least near-publishable writing skills, and few graduate instructors will spend time teaching students the basics of writing.
  • Strong analytical/critical thinking skills. Graduate schools are looking for exceptional students, and analytical/critical thinking skills often distinguish exception students from the average.
  • Strong communication skills. Graduate students must be able to communicate clearly and concisely, not only in writing but also verbally, in seminar courses, in presentations, and at conferences. Good communication skills are also valuable when collaborating with colleagues, working with professors, and socializing with the department.
  • Independence. Graduate schools value personal, intellectual, and emotional independence. Students need to be self-sufficient enough to persevere without hand-holding.
  • Initiative. In graduate school, students must be internally driven to succeed, to finish, and to graduate. Students should approach their graduate studies with the intent to learn and experience as much as possible.

In addition, doctoral programs expect:

  • The ability to formulate research questions
  • The ability to conduct research
  • Students who have something new to contribute to the field

Because of all these demands, students considering graduate school might want to consider whether they are, or can become the following:

  • Independent
  • Dedicated
  • Persistent
  • Intellectually curious
  • Hard working
  • Self-disciplined
  • Self-sufficient
  • Creative/innovative
  • Mature
  • Detail-oriented
  • Adaptable

It also helps to have the abilities to see the “big picture” and to question “the way things are.”

Research Graduate Programs

The final step before applying is to study which graduate programs are of interest to you and would be a good fit.

Specifically, does a given university have the right degree within the right program for your focus?

For example, let us say that you interested in the study of fish as a food. You are pretty sure you want to get a PhD, but you want to get a Masters first. Would your focus be best found in a zoology program where they have a specialization in ichthyology (the study of fish)? In a food science program that considers fisheries (where fish are raised for food) a part of their expertise?  Would either of these programs allow you to start with a Masters then continue on to a doctorate?

  • Check the current Peterson’s Graduate and Professional Programs, which is published annually and lists faculty and research specialties.
  • Research the authors of major journal articles in your area; short biographies, including where they teach, are usually included in the journal, either as part of the article or in a separate “Biographies” section.
  • Use the internet: “Google” your focus, add “university” or a degree (MA or PhD, for example) and see what you get.
  • Ask your professors and current graduate students for their advice.
  • Ask your reference librarian for help finding programs with expertise in your specialty.

From this information, make a list of programs that seem like “good bets.”

How can I narrow the list?

Once you know the programs that offer your specialty, you need to ask:

  • Is the program strong in your focus? I.e., is its expertise recognized nationally?
  • Who are the faculty? What are their specializations and their academic reputations?
  • What resources does the program offer? What  labs, studios, or office space and other resources do they provide for graduate students?
  • What kind of financial support might they offer?
  • How is the curriculum structured?
  • What is required for the degree? How long does it normally take to complete?
  • What are the program’s completion and attrition rates?
  • What is the school’s and the program’s reputations? (Check the Gorman report, the Peterson’s volumes, major business magazines such as U.S. News and World Report, Business Report, or Newsweek, professor’s recommendations, and good old-fashioned gossip and hearsay.)

Answers to these questions should narrow your list to somewhere between five and ten programs.

What are the campuses like?

At the graduate level, the program is the most important factor, but do not just ignore the campus; setting does matter. Check out campuses just as you did for your undergraduate degree:

  • Location (weather, travel costs, rural or urban setting, , etc.)
  • Community (what part of the U.S., available housing, job market, cost of living, level of diversity, etc.)
    Size (of the campus, of the program, of each class of graduates, of the nearest city)
  • Graduate Students (what are they like, what is the program’s “culture,” etc.)
  • Support services (health care insurance, LGBT programs, counseling, etc.)
  • Campus resources (libraries, computer labs, gymnasiums, etc.)

One of the very real stumbling blocks to attending graduate school is its cost. Unless you and your family are independently wealthy, you might well ask whether you can afford it. The question you should be asking, however, is:

Can I afford not to go to graduate school?

For the rest of your working life, graduate degrees impact your earning power, but more importantly, they give you more choices in life and career opportunities.

The purpose of financial aid is to make graduate school possible. When students think of “financial aid,” they tend to think only of the “free money” – scholarships and grants. But financial aid is any and all available support. Financial aid often comes in a “package” that includes different kinds of aid.

The first step is in finding out what graduate school will cost. You will need to plan for the total picture: after all, once you’ve paid tuition, you still have to live. Contact the financial aid office at each school you are considering to find their Cost of Living (COL) or Cost of Attendance (COA), which will include items such as

Tuition and fees
Room and board
Books and supplies (laptops, for example, are sometimes required)
Living expenses (toiletries, etc.)

In addition, you will need to calculate in your own essential expenses, such as

Transportation
Childcare

Options for financial aid include:

  • Fellowships, Scholarships, and Grants. This is the “free money” that usually does not have to be repaid. These opportunities rarely just appear; plan on spending considerable time researching and applying, starting six months to a year beforehand. For help in researching, contact your financial aid office, ask a reference librarian, and search online. Be sure to search on all levels: these opportunities are offered nationally, by state, sometimes by region, by individual institution, and by department. Research is free, and as a prospective graduate student, you are probably already good at that. You should never have to pay someone to find these opportunities for you!
  • Assistantships (Teaching, Research, or Graduate). Assistantships are basically paid work, usually in the form of tuition waivers but sometimes also as stipends. Assistantships are generally offered by individual departments, so be sure to ask about them and to request the department’s application. Assistantships also provide valuable experience and boost your resume for when you start applying for jobs.
  • Tuition Waivers. Many schools also provide independent tuition waivers that do not require work in exchange. At UHM, these are administered by individual departments. Again, be sure to ask what is available and to apply for everything possible.
  • Loans. While it is a good idea to be careful about the amount of debt you accrue, loans exist to make graduate school possible for those who cannot afford it outright. In general, and in the long term, graduate degrees are worth far more than they cost, even if you have to take out a loan to cover the cost. Contact the institution’s financial aid office to find out about available loans.
  • Work. Many, and in some states most undergraduates worked while attending school. That is must more difficult to do in graduate school; do not count on that being a possibility until you have discussed it with your department. Many graduate schools are not designed for part-time students, and although some allow part-time attendance, it greatly extends the amount of time required to complete the degree. Sometimes it is cheaper to take out a loan for two years than to attend part-time for four.

The first step in applying for financial aid of any kind is to submit an application to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA):

FAFSA
www.fafsa.ed.gov

or to the Graduate and Professional School Financial Aid Service (GAPSFAS):

GAPSFAS
Box 2614
Princeton, NJ  08541

> Do not wait until you are accepted to a graduate program before applying to FAFSA or GAPSFAS!  Apply in early spring (January or February) just in case; you can always decline whatever aid is offered.

Finally, remember that the financial aid package offered as part of your acceptance should impact your decision about which program to attend! Partial free support for the entire degree program is generally more valuable than full free support for the first year. Schools sometimes offer incoming students a free ride in order to attract more students, but then expect them to find their own funding for the remaining years. Keep in mind that transferring between graduate programs is difficult, so make plans for however long the program requires.

Most graduate schools and programs require applicants to take a standardized entrance exam and to report the scores as part of their application. The most commonly required exams are:

Exam Name Exam Info
Graduate Records Exam (GRE) www.gre.org
Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) www.mba.com
Pre-Professional Skills Test (PPST) www.ets.org/praxis/prxtest.html
Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) www.ets.org/toefl

Contact both the graduate school and the graduate program; you may need to take a general test to apply to the graduate school, as well as a field-specific test to apply to the program.

UHM does not require an entrance exam for the campus-level application, but many individual programs at UHM require a specific entrance exam. Be sure to check program requirements carefully. All foreign students are required to take the TOEFL, unless their Bachelor degree was from an institution where an approved form of English was the official language of instruction.

Almost all exams test the same general areas:

Verbal skills
Quantitative skills
Writing skills

Some tests require field-specific questions. The GRE, for example, offers “Subject Areas” such as Biochemistry, Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, English Literature, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology.

Think twice before taking any optional exams or optional portions of exams. If it is optional, not taking it cannot be held against you, but if you do take it, a poor score can weaken your application. In general, take whatever exams you need, but only what you need. The exceptions to that guideline are if you are an exceptional test-taker or if you think the score might strengthen your application.

 

When you should take the exam depends on when you need the scores. How quickly scores become available varies from exam to exam, so start by checking the official websites. Choose a date so that your scores will be available well in advance of your application deadlines – one month at the very least; three to four months to be safe.

Scores are not usually valid forever. Graduate schools often have guidelines on how recent scores must be; check those guidelines before scheduling your exam.

Finally, it is usually less expensive if you know where you want the scores sent before you take the exam. If you want the scores reported to you first, i.e., before you decide whether to send them to schools, you may have to pay an extra reporting fee.

If you have a choice of dates, it is usually better to take the exam sooner rather than later. Use only practice tests to “see how it goes”; when it comes to the real exam, prepare well, and take it once.

Where you take the exam depends on the exam and your geographic location. For information about a specific exam, contact:

UHM Testing Office
QLCSS 307
956-3454

 

For-profit companies will gladly charge you hundreds, even thousands of dollars to help you prepare for your exam. Before signing up to pay all that money, be aware that taking a commercial preparation class does not guarantee better scores and is not usually necessary. Before enrolling in a commercial prep course, take full advantage of the following:

  • Study for long-term retention. Your undergraduate courses are designed to prepare you for graduate entrance exams. Read your assignments thoroughly and carefully, take courses that require extensive writing, use your quantitative skills daily (instead of relying on calculators and computers), and study your field to build a strong foundation. For many students, this step alone is enough to do well on entrance exams.
  • Take the free practice and diagnostic exams on the official websites. Remember that the exams’ websites are the original source; their information is the most up-to-date and official. Best of all – they’re free! Some of the websites will allow you to purchase older versions of the exam, the same versions used in commercial prep courses. Some websites also offer for sale test preparation information and sample tests in CD-ROM format.
  • Purchase exam guidebooks. These are available at most bookstores and are often well less than $100 each. Read the “Tips” sections carefully and take the practice tests, some slowly so that you understand each problem and answer, others within the allotted time. As you near the actual exam, practice taking the entire exam 2-3 times, exactly as it will be given, using a stopwatch and adhering to exact break times.
  • Study 100- and 200-level textbooks. Graduate entrance exams are testing basic liberal arts skills, not the skills you will acquire as a graduate student. For example, if your math skills are weak, work through a basic textbook (the websites and guidebooks can tell you what level math you will need).
  • Enroll in a commercial test preparation course. The primary benefit of these courses is the discipline provided by paying the high tuition. If you are the kind of person who plans to study every Saturday morning, wakes up to a beautiful day, and then postpones studying in order to catch a few waves first, you should probably sign up for a commercial course. Paying several hundred dollars will ensure you show up to study. If, however, you plan to study and do so faithfully every Saturday morning, you can probably save your money.

 

PBT stands for “paper based test,” the old pencil-and-paper format, usually proctored in large rooms. CBT stands for “computer based test,” usually offered in computer labs. Most exams are now available only as CBT, except for the GRE, which is still PBT but plans to convert to CBT only by 2008.

For most students, the biggest difference between PBT and CBT is the writing section: students who can touch-type have a distinct advantage in CBT tests. In multiple choice sections, the main advantage seems to be familiarity and individual preference, although students who “mouse” with their off hand (right-handers who “mouse” left, or left-handers who “mouse” right) have a small advantage because they can take notes or work problems with one hand while clicking or scrolling with the other.

Some CBT exams are sequential – you must answer all questions in order; others are open – you can skip around, answering questions in any order. Also, some CBT exams are adjusted – when you answer a question incorrectly, the exam skips similar, more difficult questions and sends you to a different track of questions; others are set – everyone answers the same set of questions. Most students are more comfortable with open, set exams, but students cannot choose their own format. Be sure your practice exams use the same format as the exam you will be taking.

Admission to graduate schools is competitive and in some fields, even harder than medical school. Minimum grade point average (GPA) requirements mean “barely enough to be considered”; they do not mean that everyone who has the minimum is admitted. Usually, students who are admitted have GPAs well above the minimum

Even if you are a strong candidate academically, mishandling the application process may result in your not being admitted. Completing the application process successfully is, in a sense, your first test.

Applying

There are four principle parts to an application for graduate school:

  1. Application and fee;
  2. Official transcripts;
  3. Statement of objectives, or essay; and
  4. Letters of recommendation.

Note: Entrance exams and financial aid are essential parts of the application process but are handled by agencies other than the admissions office.

Application and Fee

Unlike undergraduate applications, where admission is determined by the college or campus, admission at the graduate level is determined by individual programs. Most schools have a two-step process: a campus application to a central graduate admissions office; and a secondary or supplemental application to the individual program. Schools that do not use a secondary or supplemental application usually forward the campus application to the program for the final decision.

It is critical to know what materials to send and where to send them, because there are significant differences between programs in the process, documents, and deadlines. It can be complicated.

Get organized!

First, create a master calendar (paper calendars, spreadsheets, and scheduling software all work) that includes:

  • Application deadline for every graduate school to which you are applying.
  • Application deadline for every program to which you are applying (if separate from the graduate school’s).
  • Application deadline for financial aid.
  • Exam dates, score reporting dates (be sure the scores arrive at least a month before the application deadlines!), and the dates when you will confirm the scores have been received. Leave enough time, 2-3 weeks, to request the scores be re-sent, in case they were not received the first time.
  • Registration deadlines for exams.
  • Dates for requesting transcripts and, a couple weeks later, for confirming they have been received by the schools. Leave enough time, 2-3 weeks, to request your transcripts be re-sent, in case they were not received the first time.
  • Timeline for writing a statement of objectives: plan on the writing and revising taking at least a month.
  • Dates for requesting letters of recommendation: plan on at least a month for referees to write and send their letters.
  • Dates for confirming that letters of recommendation have been received by the schools. Leave enough time, 3-4 weeks, to follow up with referees if their letters were not received the first time.

Second, create a file (real or virtual) for each individual program to hold copies of everything you receive and everything you send.

Third, take care in completing the application form.

  • Print or copy an extra form to use as a rough draft and complete it before filling out the real one.
  • Review everything twice before you click “submit.
  • Send everything at least a month ahead of the deadline.
  • Don’t forget to include the application fee!

Request transcripts from all schools you have ever attended.

  • List all schools on your application; not only those schools where you received a degree.
  • Send a transcript even for schools you attended only one term and made poor grades. This is important because, until all of your transcripts have been received, your application incomplete and will not be processed.
  • Do not think you can simply avoid mentioning a school you attended, because any transcript showing your degree will have a record of your other schools.
  • Request transcripts well in advance of deadlines: some schools take a long time to issue transcripts.
  • Most colleges and universities now allow you request transcripts online.
  • If you do not already have a copy of your transcripts, be sure to request a copy for your personal files. Your copy is for your own use only and cannot substitute for an official transcript, which must be sent directly from your old school to your prospective school.

Note: If you are applying to a UHM program you do not need to send transcripts for any courses you took in the UH system, as the UHM graduate division can access your records electronically.

A strong Statement of Objectives is crucial. Graduate programs are looking for students who fit into their specializations. You should have determined your specialization and goals well ahead of applying, but writing your statement will help you solidify and articulate them. The Statement of Objectives will be the only way you have to convince graduate programs that you do fit and that they should admit you.

How do you write a good statement?

  • Write a general rough draft to highlight your personal interests and qualifications. Be sure to mention your specialization.
  • Next, write a rough draft for each individual program (not for the campus—it is the program that makes the decision about admission).
  • Then ask someone who knows you well academically to review your drafts, and revise accordingly.
  • Finally, tailor each Statement to its program, being very clear to specify why you think your area of focus makes you a good fit with their program.

Usually, you will need three letters of recommendation from faculty who are familiar with your academic work.

  • Provide each of your referees with some background on you:
    • A copy of your general Statement of Objectives. This will help “jog” their memories about what you want to do and will ensure that what they say about you will be consistent with what you have said.
    • A copy of your resume (coursework, relevant activities, jobs, etc.).
    • Copies of work (papers, exams) you did in their classes.
    • A summary of salient points about the program(s) to which you are applying, so they can explain why you are such a great fit. Be sure to include a list of the faculty.
    • Finally, if your referees are willing, take the time to talk to them about your goals and your reasons for applying.
  • Do not use generic reference services, which could hurt your chances of admission. Ask your referees to write letters to each program.
    • Programs can recognize “form letters” and such letters do not speak strongly in your favor.
    • If your referees are supportive, they will tailor their letters to mention specific points relevant to the individual programs.
    • Remember that it’s a small world: your referees may actually know someone in the program to which you are applying and can “personalize” the letter to their colleague or friend.
  • Always waive your right to review the letters; if you do not, admissions committees may discount them.
  • It is your responsibility to follow up with the admission offices and to confirm that they have received everything. When following up, it is imperative that you be friendly and polite with everyone.
  • When applying to UHM, you should receive an e-mail message confirming receipt and will tell you what, if any, documents are missing. Not all schools will do this!
  • If you do not hear from the Admissions Office within a month of submitting the application plus fee, contact them directly.
  • Send neat, heartfelt thank you notes to each and every referee who wrote you a letter of recommendation.

These factors are under your control:

  • Your grades – good grades will not guarantee admission, but bad grades will almost certainly keep you out. Graduate admission is very competitive.
  • An accurate, complete application plus fee. If you have missing or incomplete application materials, your chances of admission drop to zero.
  • The quality of your Statement of Objectives.
  • Letters from supportive faculty. Three strong letters are simply the minimum; a bad or even lukewarm recommendation can hurt your application. Only exceptional, glowing recommendations or those written to a colleague are likely to have a positive impact.
  • Strong test scores.

These factors are not under your control:

  • Faculty perception of your “fit” with their needs and directions. These might have changed or be undergoing change, for a variety of reasons.
    Available resources.

    • Sometimes, the faculty in your area of interest will be overloaded, retiring, or leaving, so there will be no one who can supervise your work.
    • Sometimes the program will be overloaded with students and there are no seats available.
    • There may have been budget cuts, reducing the program’s ability to accept new students.
  • The competition.
    • Sometimes the program will be swamped with applications the year you apply.
    • Depending on who else applies, your GPA and other attributes, however strong, may not be competitive.

Timing of offers

Many programs conduct what is called “rolling admissions.” They first make offers to top applicants, usually within a month of their deadline. After hearing from the first group, they then make a second round of offers, and sometimes even a third. The timing of these subsequent offers is hard to predict, and you may have to respond to one offer before you have heard from all the schools.

  • Prioritize your acceptance of offers; know ahead of time which programs you prefer. Most programs will give you a reasonable deadline by which to decide, but don’t wait too long or you risk losing the offer.
  • If you get an offer from a program lower in priority, contact the programs higher on your list and ask them about your status. If they plan to make you an offer, they will want to know that you have been accepted elsewhere.
  • You can ask for more time if you need it, but schools are not obligated to grant it. Requesting further information may keep the dialogue open longer.

 If accepted, get it in writing

  • If you are offered financial support, getting the offer in writing is doubly important.
  • Be sure to submit the required deposit and/or statement of intent by the deadline. Failure to do so may mean losing the offer of acceptance.
  • Try to find out why you were rejected and improve the areas under your control. Some programs will not reveal the reason for denial. Do not pressure them for an answer, as you have nothing to gain by annoying them.
  • Appeal if you think there was something that was overlooked, but it is rare for appeals to succeed. You almost always have to have a faculty “champion” for this to succeed.
  • Discuss your application with an academic advisor. Ask for a frank evaluation of your case and how to improve your chances of being accepted.
  • Re-examine your Statement of Objectives; ask others for feedback and then revise.
  • Take additional courses to improve your grades. You can do this as a Post Baccalaureate Unclassified student. At UHM, students with 12 credits beyond a Bachelor degree are admissible if their GPA for those credits is 3.0 or higher. Some post-baccalaureate credits can be applied towards the advanced degree.
  • Try applying again next year, perhaps at more or different programs.
  • Do more research to find programs with a better “fit.”
  • Get more experience, if that is desirable in your field.
  • Refocus on a different specialization or consider other programs related to your interests.