General images of University Park Campus, July9, 2019. (Photo/Gus Ruelas)
Preparing for Grad School

A graduate degree could drastically alter your career prospects and open doors to amazing opportunities. Graduate school comes with immense personal growth, acquisition of specialized skills, research opportunities, and much more. Reaching a decision to attend graduate school is not an easy process. (If you haven’t made that decision, check out our article, “Grad School: Is It Right for You?”) Yet, once you have made the choice to pursue a graduate degree, it is crucial to prepare for it in advance so you know what lies ahead.

Research the program

Firstly, you should research and select the right graduate program for your goals and look into the application requirements. Start by utilizing available resources online to gather information. Once you have honed down your options, it is extremely helpful to attend information sessions. When programs host these events, they provide a great opportunity for you to get a holistic view of the program, ask questions, and connect with staff, faculty, alumni, and prospective students. Attending these events can also demonstrate your proactiveness and interest in the program, helping you to establish connections. When weighing your options for grad school, make sure to consider factors such as the reputation of the program, its location, faculty, and available resources.

Additionally, there are many different avenues you could seek, and a lot of them come with prerequisites such as standardized test scores. Much like undergraduate applications, graduate programs also require transcripts, letters of recommendation, and personal statements. Knowing what each school expects of you for you to qualify for their graduate program is the first step to realizing success.

Build a strong application

After you have chosen what program to apply to and made sure that you have everything you need, building a strong application is what really determines the trajectory of your future—whether you get accepted or not. Having a strong application hinges upon crafting a compelling personal statement and securing strong letters of recommendation. If you have an driven, purposeful statement to show the admission officers and have maintained positive relationships with mentor figures during your undergraduate years of study, this will serve you well when applying for grad school.

Common Concerns

Money: One of the most common concerns for prospective graduate students is the cost of tuition and living expenses. Grad school can be expensive, but there are several ways to manage the financial aspects:

  1. Budgeting: Create a detailed budget that outlines your anticipated expenses, including tuition, books, housing, and daily living costs. Make sure to factor in any income you expect from part-time work or financial aid.
  2. Financial Aid: Explore potential sources of financial aid, such as scholarships, grants, and fellowships. Many universities and external organizations offer financial assistance to graduate students based on academic achievement, research interests, or specific demographics. Research these opportunities and apply for as many as you’re eligible for.
  3. Student Loans: While student loans are an option, they should be approached with caution. Research the terms and conditions of different loan programs, consider interest rates, and understand the impact of student loan debt on your future financial well-being.

Time: Time is another concern for those contemplating graduate school. Not only do students have to invest their time while in class, but investing time outside of class is also a necessity. Depending on the program, some can accommodate busy schedules offering night class and part-time enrollments. In addition, attending graduate school immediately after obtaining a bachelor’s degree is not mandatory; age and life stage of students in graduate school can vary. Ultimately, what works for each individual should be the determining factor. 

Imposter Syndrome: Imposter syndrome refers to the experience of doubting your own abilities and feeling like a fraud, despite your achievements. This can manifest thoughts like, “Am I really qualified? Do I deserve to be here? Am I smart enough?” It’s important to recognize that imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon that many people go through, especially in graduate school. It’s a sign that you are challenging yourself and pushing beyond your comfort zone. Remember that if you are having these thoughts, it’s likely that others around you are feeling the same way. So, take pride in your accomplishments and have confidence in your abilities. Eventually, you can shift your mindset from one of self-doubt to one of continuous improvement. Understand that it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from them.

Keys to success

Connections: Connecting with alumni is another great way to gain more insight into a program of interest. Hearing about personal experiences first-hand from alumni and asking questions will ensure that you are getting the best perspective. One easy way to connect with alumni is through informational interviews. Asking about the return-on-investment (ROI) of the graduate program can help you determine if the investment of time, money, and effort is worth it. You could also ask questions about the general culture of the university, as well as the program, which may give you a better idea on whether you would be a right fit. Establishing rapport and staying in touch can be beneficial down the line, as you never know how your paths may cross again in the future. One way to find alumni to connect with is through the Trojan Network—a professional networking and mentorship platform designed to help students and alumni connect with Trojans in wide-ranging roles and industries. By filtering your search, you can identify alumni who have attended similar programs or are in your field of interest. Taking that initiative to connect with alumni first can serve as a helpful tool in your decision. 

Organization + Resources: Staying organized and keeping track of all requirements and deadlines will help ensure that you submit your application on time with all necessary materials. Compiling a spreadsheet listing out all the programs you are interested in, along with their deadlines, requirements, costs, and locations can help you to easily compare and prioritize programs based on your preferences and goals. It is also important to take advantage of resources available to you. The USC Career Center can provide support to review your resume, while the Dornsife Writing Center could assist with your personal statement. By utilizing resources and staying organized, you can set yourself up for success and make the process of applying to graduate school less overwhelming. 

Start Your Journey

All of this can be extremely overwhelming. Don’t worry; USC has plenty of resources to help get you on the right track. The USC Career Center, in partnership with the USC Dornsife Career Pathways Pre-Law and Graduate School Advising Office, will host its annual Graduate Schools Fair on Wednesday, Oct. 25, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at Trousdale. Join us in learning about grad school, exploring your various options, and interacting with various schools and programs!

By Sarah Ju
Sarah Ju