This September, six and a half years since graduating from Merrimack College with my bachelor's degree, I started my first year as a graduate student at Emerson College in their Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC) program.
For the past few years, I've been the anomaly in my group of friends as I've sat back, wonderfully content working my full-time, 9-to-5 job, watching as they continued their education and have either received their master's degrees or are almost done. After having tossed the graduate school question around since graduating from Merrimack, I never felt like it was the right time–until now. At the end of last winter, I started to feel restless. Something clicked for me and I decided to take the plunge and go through the whole college admission process again...and I've lived to tell about it!
1. Research, research, research
Remember how easy undergrad was? You could basically apply to any school even if you had no idea what you wanted to do with your life and eventually pick a major to study (okay, not recommended, but there was a little more wiggle room). With grad school, you're getting a professional degree in a specialized area, so you need to know what major you want right off the bat and avoid settling on a school just because you want a degree.
This step should be a top priority because you will want to know exactly what you're getting into. When I started my school search, I had originally intended to apply to many schools with M.B.A. programs because that was the only type of program I could find that would allow me to also specialize in marketing. On a whim, I took a look at the Emerson website and found the exact type of program I was looking for (goodbye, business administration!). Once you've found a program that interests you, you should take your research a step further and explore the curriculum and see what classes are required (and if they would even interest you). Reading about the required classes and electives was a key to me gravitating toward the program I chose.
2. Know that you're ready
A lot of people choose to go to grad school right from undergrad, but they still don't have a direction or any work experience. Don't jump into such an expensive and time-consuming process if you absolutely don't have to or because all of your friends are doing it. And don't use grad school as a way to put off finding a job, which will just get harder as the years go by if your résumé is six pages long and filled with a lot of education but no work experience.
3. Give yourself time to apply, because the application process is, well, quite a process
Just like with undergrad, you're going to need transcripts, recommendations, and test scores. All grad schools are different, but I think it's safe to say that most will require some combination of the above, and some may even require a résumé. That being said, if you're applying for the next fall semester, give yourself six to eight months to fully make your decision, get your materials together, and take the GRE or GMAT once or twice (don't forget to add studying into the mix!).
4. Organization is key
If you're working full- or even part-time, it is so important to stay organized and get ready for a whole new kind of workload. You now have to keep up with your same quality of work at your job, maintain your family life (especially if you have children or are married), and be diligent about taking notes in class, doing homework, and being ready to participate in group projects and take exams.
Fun organization tip: forward your new school e-mail to the e-mail you use every day. I say this from firsthand experience, as I missed my first class assignment because I wasn't actively checking my school e-mail. Doing this will help you avoid the awkwardness of having to tell your professor and maybe even the entire class that you didn't do an assignment.
5. Be open to new friendships
This one sounds a little lame, but everyone sitting in those classes with you will be your peers for most of the rest of your grad school experience—and they're basically the next generation of your chosen industry. If you want to make a deal with one of them in the future or maybe even get hired by their company, you'd better have had a good relationship with them back in the day.
6. You can't do it all
If I could, I would be taking a full "undergraduate-type" course load with three or four classes per semester just to get a move on! But it's really impossible to do. At Emerson, you're considered a full-time student if you take two classes—and from the people I've met taking two classes and working on top of that, even those two classes are a little too much. So you need to know going into this that your degree is going to take a while and the process isn't all fun and games.
Without a doubt, graduate school is a huge commitment. Just getting accepted is quite the journey. But that end goal, that reward of a master's degree, is the light at the end of the tunnel we're all looking for, right? Having only been at school for the past month, I've already made some new friends and have fully enjoyed getting back into an academic environment.
I'm by no means a graduate school expert–I'm just going through the steps right now, and I hope I can be of some help to those who are thinking about going back to school or who have already started.
Are you currently in grad school? What is some of your advice for prospective students?