After I graduated from Cal Poly Pomona with my bachelor's in sociology, I knew I wanted to pursue a higher degree, but I just wasn’t sure what.
At first, it was culinary school, then a master’s in public policy, then museum studies, then social innovation, then peace and justice studies, then law school. After going on various college tours from San Diego, New York, to Seattle and countless conversations with admissions counselors, program advisors, and student ambassadors, I finally decided on what I felt was right for me. I am currently am in a dual degree master’s program in urban planning and public administration at USC; here are some tips for those considering going to grad school!
1. Please Take a Few Years Off Before You Go
This sounds typical for someone who took about seven years off before graduating, but it stands true. Work experience or even a year off to travel and experience something outside the academic landscape is helpful. You can bring a different and crafted experience to graduate school. It will also give you skills that even the best graduate school program cannot teach you. Also, work experience will give you a focus and perspective on what you want to get from your degree and what matters in life. School is a great tool to help get you to where you want to be, but the real-world experience will be what gets you there.
2. Tour and Reach Out to the Programs
It is important that you explore all the different programs that you’re interested in. Build an Excel list of all the schools with a pros and cons list. Look at the different curriculums and compare the other classes they offer. Ask yourself what sounds more interesting. See what fits your needs if a program teaches more technical skills than theory. Try to see if you can schedule a tour and see if the campus fits you.
3. Speak to Students, Professors & Program Advisors
Explore the admissions sites and reach out to the program advisors. Meet them and see if they can connect you to professors. Ask or explore the admissions website to see if they have students that you can talk to or a student ambassador program. Explore the different faculty biographies, see if there are specific faculty you’d like to research or learn from and try to see if you can talk to them.
4. Plan Ahead
Build an Excel spreadsheet with an application timeline to meet all the different application deadlines. Also, check for priority deadlines. Priority deadlines and applying early can lead to more scholarship opportunities.
5. Edit, Edit, Edit
I had about four or five people read my personal statement and additional application documents for scholarship opportunities. I had about six or seven drafts of the same statement, running through edits to ensure I had a solid statement. Make sure you read the prompts carefully and ensure you’re answering the questions each individual school is asking.
6. There is No Perfect Program
It can be intimidating to want to find the “right” program to invest your time and money in, but if you are not finding one that checks all the boxes, do not worry. There is no “perfect” program, and you will find faults even in your dream school. But there is power in that because you get to take what you want and make what you want from the program.
7. Know You Can Change Your Mind
As someone admitted to law school, put in her deposit, and decided a month before starting that it wasn’t the right decision, I knew this lesson very well. As a Japanese-American, the concept of “changing your mind” is hard for me to grasp. I always feel that I should commit to what I started, but as I am getting older and experiencing more in life, I realize this isn’t the case. There is beauty in making shifts, starting over, and deciding what’s not and what’s for you. If you get admitted into graduate school and are excited, congratulations, and welcome to a new journey! If you didn’t, that’s okay because school will always be there for you to return to! If you got admitted and don’t want to go, that’s also okay! School will always be there for you to return to and change your mind.
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