Project Wonderful

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thinking of Grad School?

Me too. In fact, it's consuming my life. Well, right now I am procrastinating by letting myself become obsessed over the things I wish I had done differently in this process. Though this isn't strictly campaign related, I do think that some of these regrets come from my having chosen a non-traditional career path. So I figured, as I often do, that I would try to give you the opportunity to learn from my mistakes.

Here is some advice I wish someone had given me in preparation for the grad school application process.

1) Take some classes.
Even though my programs don't require me to post-bac, I wish I had done this anyway. A lot of public policy and business programs require strong quantitative skills and although we all know where these come into play on a campaign, it's less obvious to others and scoring well in a math or econ class could solve that. In addition, if your grades weren't great in college, as mine were not, it gives you an opportunity to prove that you've matured. Finally if you've been out of school for a while, it's an opportunity to cultivate an academic reference, and one who is more experienced in writing letters of recommendation than your campaign colleagues are likely to be, which brings me to number 2...

2) Give your references plenty of warning, and coaching. You should probably do this anyway, but it goes double if your references are campaign folk. Asking these people to write a reference in October of an election year is far from ideal. You don't want to miss out on a reference who knows you well because they don't have time and you don't want them to do a rushed job. In addition, your friends and colleagues are probably unfamiliar with the application process so it useful to give them plenty of coaching about writing a good recommendation. Talk to admissions officers about what they are looking for in an application and then use your recs to highlight your strengths with specific examples and to help address any holes.

3) Start your applications early, not just the essay. I made this mistake with my early applications. I spent weeks writing answers to the long essay questions, but had not considered what I would include in my resume, what if anything, I would write about having been sick in college in the portion where they ask if there is any additional information the admissions committee should know, and how long it would take to track down and upload my transcripts in the proper format. Ideally I would fill all of these out ahead of time, and have uploading my final essays as the last step.

4) Visit the campus. Trying to distinguish between schools from their websites and viewbooks is kind of like online dating- you won't get a real feel for them until you meet them in person. Undergraduate institutions have distinct personalities and so do their graduate counterparts. Not only will pre-application visits save you time and money on applying to places you wouldn't actually want to go, they will help you get a feel for the culture of the school and thus what to include in your application.

5) Be able to make an argument for why you need your degree. I like to joke that I have a PhD in Campaign Management from the school of hard knocks, and yet here I am pursuing not one, but two masters. I was actually good about this one. I thought long and hard about what I wanted out of a graduate degree and which programs fit my career goals before I began to apply. If you can't explain to yourself why you need a degree from that institution to achieve your goals, then how can you explain it to the school? The more specific the better.

I'm looking forward to sharing my personal statement with you. Ideally, after having been accepted.

With campaign love and grad school ambitions,

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