Two and half weeks. That’s how long I have in my 2-year Master’s program. Not only is that exciting, it’s also pretty nerve-wracking considering the final projects and assignments I’ll need to finish by then. It’s even scarier when considering the fact that a huge capstone project that involves a business sponsor and multiple team members and hundreds of hours of time spent will be due in exactly 2 weeks and 2 days. Nevertheless, the deadlines will come and go, and everyone will go their separate ways. So this got me thinking about where I was a few years ago…
In my freshman year, I decided I was going to major in Molecular Biology. It was a tumultuous year with nearly failing classes and getting used to college life. By the end of my sophomore year, choosing Computer Science was an obvious choice; I had built websites and taught myself code all throughout my teenage years so why wouldn’t I major in it?! It didn’t hurt that the administration was creating a BA program that would allow me to minor in “Technology, Art, and Media” and still graduate within 4 years of starting college. For the most part, I understood what was going on and I enjoyed the parts where I learned front-end design.
So, thanks to overloading my schedule and taking summer classes, I was on track but I was still clueless on my post-graduation plans. As a junior and at the beginning of my senior year, I still had no idea what I wanted to do. But there was still something off. I wasn’t getting many interviews so I decided to follow my parents’ advice of going to grad school. I decided to focus on Information Management/Systems programs and it seemed like the best fit for someone like me who wanted the people-facing stuff along with the technology exposure.
Whether you’re clueless, need a career change, or just want to go back to school, here are my tips!
Researching Graduate Schools
I did a lot of research online just through Google and Princeton Review. There are so many sites out there that can help you pick the schools that interest you and help you find a program. I also talked to a professor in the CS department who I thought could guide me and help me find programs I’d be interested in. He told me about iSchools, or Information Schools. An iSchool is a department in several universities around the country with undergraduate and graduate degrees. They focus on information management, library sciences, informatics, etc.
Another resource is friends, family members, or family friends who have gone through the process themselves. Even if you don’t have people in your everyday life that have, you can also connect with people online through forums or through Facebook groups. After talking to professors, researching online, and talking with others, I chose seven programs and two of them were at the same university.
Taking the GRE
The next step was to start preparing for the GRE. Luckily, none of the programs I was applying to required the subject specific GRE test. I knew that applications would be due late in the fall or winter of my senior year. While I was researching programs, I signed up for a Princeton Review test prep course the summer before my senior year and I was also taking one or two other summer classes so it wasn’t difficult to add into my summer since I was already in “school mode”. We met once a week to go over general test taking strategies like you would for the SAT or ACT. They went over some tips and we had homework due every week.
You can use any tutor or program that knows what they are doing. I used Princeton Review since it is reputable and specializes in this kind of training. They also had a lot of class options and their own test prep that they work off of. I also registered for two tests a couple months apart just in case I felt like I I didn’t get a good enough score and needed to study more.
For the most part, the GRE test prep doesn’t teach you the content. Since it is a standardized test, you need to study for that specific test rather than general content. They do not teach you the math or make you read books as part of the prep. For the math section, they taught tips and tricks on how to quickly solve the questions since it was basic algebra and calculus. For the reading and writing portions, they provided vocab flashcards, more general test taking tips, and how to write an essay that would get points.
One of the most important things was I organizing all of the information: requirements, application materials, and everything else that I was researching. To do that, I made a simple Excel spreadsheet with a row for each school and column for the website, application materials, if I had sent my GRE scores, and if I had finished the personal essays so I could check it off as I went. It was really easy to keep track of everything this way and I knew when the deadlines were coming up. I incorporated this into my planner and to-do list just so I could be on track and plan ahead for it. Because of the spreadsheet I knew when everything was due.
Give yourself as much time as possible to finish all the application materials. Starting the process early will give you time to work on personal essays, solicit letters of rec, and prevent feeling overwhelmed with application materials in the midst of homework or work. Break down the tasks you need to complete and schedule deadlines for yourself. For example, set a deadline for your first draft of the personal statement. Also use this as an opportunity to breakdown the tasks into manageable sections to avoid cramming in everything right before the applications are due.
Personal Essays and Letters of Rec
I filled out all the easy parts right away (name, current school, GPA, etc.). Then I started working on my personal statements. Most of the programs I applied to were similar, so they had similar essay prompts and were looking for similar concepts in the responses. I created a general outline that would work for all the schools but when I wrote each one, I personalized it to tailor the school I was applying to by mentioning professors or specific courses I was interested in taking. Then I asked a several people to read over my essays and I had everyone mark it up so it was the best it could be.
I also asked 3 people for letters of recommendations since most schools required 2 and a couple asked for 3. Make sure to ask 3-4 months before they are due and ask people like professors, advisors, and people you have worked with. I went to 2 professors and my manager at an internship at the beginning of fall semester. They asked me about the schools I was applying to and information about me such as why I wanted to go to a specific school or program so they got a better understanding of what to write. By doing this early on in the year, I gave them plenty of time to complete and mail them as this might not be their top priority right away
Choosing a graduate school
Once you finish everything and you’re done with the applications, you just wait. For me it was tough to decide which one I wanted to go to because I had more than one top choice and they were all over the places. I applied to many on the east coast and only one on the west coast. In the end, I chose a school based on reputation, ranking, and location.
Hopefully this helped! This is a lot of information but I would like to continue this as a series that goes in depth on different parts of the process. Comment below if you’ve had any experience on applying for grad schools and if you have any tips for anyone currently going through the process!