Professional School

Helpful Tips

PREPARING FOR PROFESSIONAL SCHOOL

Preparation for professional school (law school, business school, etc.)  really begins in your freshman year.  That's when you begin taking courses that lay the foundation for later success.  Most undergraduates change majors a couple of times in the course of completing a degree.  That means that the most important courses early on are the ones that build basic skills that can be used in all majors.  Reading and writing are essential for success in all professional fields.  English Composition and English Literature are key courses in improving writing and reading.  Courses in History, Philosophy, and Political Science are also useful in building reading and writing skills.  Mathematical reasoning and logic are also necessary skills for success in most fields.  Courses in Mathematics and Science can build those skills, as can some Sociology and Psychology courses.  Finally, students with graduate school ambitions should work to build their critical thinking and analytical skills.  Almost any college-level course should build a student's ability to question evidence, review arguments for logic and consistency, and make connections.  Many professional programs expect students to enter with specific skills (a certain level of mathematical proficiency for business and the sciences, for example).  It makes sense to work on those skills while still an undergraduate if possible.  (Note that law schools do not expect students to have learned a lot of law as undergraduates.  Basic reading, writing, and thinking skills are much more important in law school admissions.)

There are many summer programs that can help you prepare for post-graduate study.  Internship programs can give students a chance to earn money and/or college credit while doing hands-on work in their field.  Usually these summer programs begin advertising in the winter and early spring.  Keep your eyes open for announcements and deadlines on web pages and bulletin boards.  Ask faculty if they know of anything coming up.

Students might also want to join professional societies and honors societies within their field.  Joining a pre-law society, for example, will allow you to network with other students who have similar goals   Honors societies within your major look good on your application and give you opportunities to expand academically.  Pi Sigma Alpha is the Political Science honorary; Phi Alpha Theta is the History honorary.

As well as preparation in specific subjects, students prepare for professional school by continually stretching their minds.  This means taking courses because they are an interesting challenge and not because they are an easy grade. This means choosing paper topics that let you build on and add to your essential skills.  This means doing your best in every course, even if you can make an A with a half-hearted effort.  This means seeking out extracurricular activities that will expose you to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world.  This means reading widely in your chosen field and on topics of general interest.  This means making serious thought a normal part of every day of your life.

Your first years of college are also when most people learn how to use their time and energy wisely.  Learn how heavy a load you can carry without wearing yourself down mentally and physically.  Learn how to work hard when you have to, but also what you need to do to refresh yourself between tasks.  Learn what time of day you work most productively and how to get the most out of your effort if you are forced to work at other times.  Learn to recognize and compensate for your personal weaknesses (procrastination, carelessness in proofreading, obsession with petty details, tendency to wander off topic, etc.) and how to prevent yourself from sabotaging your own best effort.

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DECIDING ON PROFESSIONAL SCHOOL

Graduate and professional school can expand your earning power and give you the specialized skills you need to succeed in a competitive workplace.  In the past graduate study in the humanities and social sciences meant study leading to careers doing research and/or teaching.  (If you want to pursue a career in academics, my page on applying to graduate school gives more information.)  A number of departments, however, have recently developed more professionally oriented tracks (such as a master's in campaign management in a Political Science department).

An undergraduate degree in History or Political Science provides excellent preparation for a number of professions.  History and Political Science are among the most popular pre-law majors.  Other popular professional programs are a Masters of Library ScienceBusiness School, and  Public Administration.

As your education progresses you will begin to get a better idea of career possibilities and your personal strengths and weaknesses.  Once you have decided on a career path you should research what qualifications you need to achieve your goals.  Graduation from an ABA accredited law school, for example, is a necessary step in becoming a lawyer.  Other career paths might encourage but not require certain educational attainments.  A Master of Business Administration, for example, might open a number of doors in the corporate world, but there are also corporate jobs that do not require advanced training in business.

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CHOOSING SCHOOLS TO APPLY TO

Your choice of schools will depend on many factors.  If you need to stay in a particular part of the country, then that will limit your choice of schools.  Some careers may require you to relocate, so research the geographical availability of jobs in your chosen field if you anticipate wanting to stay in one part of the country.

You should also look at the reputation of the program that you are applying to, bearing in mind that there are lots of different ways to rank programs and that they are all subjective to some degree.  You should also consider financial aid packages available at different schools.  Some schools have a lot of scholarships (both general and directed at specific groups--women, minorities, in-state students, etc.), while others offer very few scholarships.  You can generally apply for financial aid from the federal government (grants, loans, work study), much as you would as an undergraduate.  In order to decide if a school is affordable or not, you will need to look at the entire picture (both tuition and aid--not to mention overall cost of living).  Schools will vary quite a bit in how much (and what kind of) hands-on experience you will get.  Consider what would be most appropriate for your education and career needs.  You should also look at the schools' record of putting students in appropriate jobs after graduation.  Finally, you might want to consider how diverse the program is (percentage of students who are women or minorities) and what the overall campus culture is like.

Undergraduate faculty can help you identify schools that have good programs in your area of interest.  Various professional associations (Law School Admissions Council, for example) have guides to post-graduate programs.  You can also get lists of top-ranked programs from various publications (US News and World Report has some of the most well-known rankings, but you can also find other guides serving different audiences--and note that just because a program is strong overall doesn't mean that it is strong in the particular area that you want to study).

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TIMELINE FOR APPLICATIONS

Most post-graduate programs  begin accepting applications in the mid to late fall for admission the following fall, though deadlines might not be until the following spring or even summer.  Some programs will also admit students in the middle of the year.  Check the school's web site for specific information.  You should also see if there are early deadlines for preferred admissions or for merit-based aid.

Ideally, students planning on professional school should start researching programs at the end of the Sophomore year.  At this point you will be looking less at individual schools and more at overall requirements, to make sure that you will have the skills that admissions committees are looking for in your field.  You may also want to start doing some preparation for standardized tests (LSAT, GMAT, etc.).  You'll want to start researching specific schools and their requirements in your Junior year.  You should begin lining up application materials (writing samples, cover letters, letters of reference, test scores, etc.) the summer after the Junior year.  Applications should go out in October of the Senior year.  You should review your offers and be prepared to accept an offer in Spring of the Senior year.   If you don't decide to go to professional school until your Senior year, however, don't panic.  You will just have to go through the steps a little more quickly. If your test scores haven't come back by the time materials need to be sent out, just send out the materials with a note indicating when you took the test and when the program can expect to see the scores.

There's no set rule for how many schools you apply to.  If you have limits on where you can live or what type of program you can enter, you might find that there are only a few programs that fit your needs.  In that case, apply to all of them. If you have a lot of flexibility, then you should probably narrow your list down to 5-10 schools.  At least one or two of the schools should be "safety" schools whose standards you are pretty sure that you meet (and exceed).

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APPLICATION PACKET

Graduate and professional programs generally use the following information to determine admissions and financial aid:

  • GPA
  • Coursework
  • Standardized test scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Writing sample
  • Employment
  • Extra-curricular activities

Transcripts provide evidence of GPA and coursework.  Students planning to go to graduate and professional school should try to maintain a GPA above 3.0.  Students with lower GPAs still have a good chance at entry into many programs, but they will need to provide evidence that their abilities go beyond what the bald numbers suggest.  If specific circumstances have affected the GPA, students should highlight those circumstances in a cover letter.  (For example, a student might have become seriously ill or suffered a personal loss one semester, resulting in a drop in GAP for that semester.  Or a student might have been working full-time while taking a full load of classes.  Or perhaps a student had trouble adjusting to college but showed steady improvement after the first year.)  Departments will also be looking for whether students took a challenging and relevant mix of classes.  (Schools and colleges often don't look at transcripts quite as closely as individual departments.  Graduate programs in History and Political Science, for example, will want to look at training in the field, whereas law schools will be more concerned with overall GPA.)

Different programs will require different standardized testing.  Law schools usually require the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test).  Business schools usually require the GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test).  Graduate programs in Public Administration or Library Science might require the Graduate Records Exam (GRE).

Students should take care in requesting letters of recommendation.  The best letters will come from faculty who have worked closely with you recently and can provide a lot of details about your writing and overall academic ability.  Letters from employers or community leaders will weigh less heavily unless they address experience that is directly relevant to the program you are applying to (for example, if you've done filing in a law office, a letter from your employer would be a good letter if you are applying to a law program).  Obviously, you want to ask only faculty who have had a good experience with you. If you are in doubt, it's OK to ask if the faculty member would be able to recommend you strongly.  You also need to allow faculty enough time to write the letter.  Ideally, you should give them two weeks or more.  You should also be very clear about where they should send the letter (and the person to whom they should address it) and some general information about the program and why you are applying to it.  If you anticipate asking for a lot of letters, then you should warn the faculty member in advance.  If you haven't taken courses from a faculty member recently, you might want to give them  some reminders (perhaps you still have a copy of a term paper you wrote for them) so that they remember who you were and how you performed in the class.  It's in your interest to make it easy for faculty to write letters for you.

Many schools ask for a writing sample.  In some cases you can simply submit a paper from a course.  In other cases, the program might ask for something composed specifically for the admissions committee (an intellectual autobiography, for example, or a statement of why you want to study in a particular field).  Whatever you send in, be sure that it is the type of writing that the application calls for, that it is the length called for, that you have proofread carefully, and that it prints clearly.

Your application packet should include a cover letter.  Begin the letter by indicating what program you are applying to (law school or Master's in Non-Profit Management, for example).  Indicate if any application materials will be sent separately (test scores, letters of reference, etc.).  If you have not done so elsewhere, this is the place to say a little about any special circumstances that the admissions committee might need to know about.  If you have relevant work or volunteer experience, this is your opportunity to mention it.  If you took courses that did a particularly good job of preparing you for advanced study, then you can mention those as well.  Likewise, if you had circumstances that caused you to do poorly in classes (work obligations, health problems, etc.) you can mention these as well.  (You do not have to be detailed about the nature of the problems, but you should be clear which semesters were affected and point out that the preceding and following semesters were much better.)  As with all written submissions be sure to proofread to make sure that there are no grammatical, spelling, formatting errors, or printing errors.

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ACCEPTING AN OFFER

In the best of all possible worlds you will have several offers to choose from.  You may have already ranked your schools before offers arrive. Nevertheless, it is useful to look at the details of the offers.  Things to look at include:

  • What type of aid is offered (academic scholarship, need-based only, etc.)
  • How long the aid will continue (through the end of the program, for one year, etc.)
  • How much aid will be provided (note that the cost of living will vary--a school in San Francisco or New York City will require a larger living allowance than one in Lincoln, Nebraska)
  • Conditions of aid (maintaining a specific GPA, making progress in the program, etc.)
  • Expected course load (some programs will expect you to take a lighter load if holding an assistantship)

Many schools will put you in contact with current students or with faculty.  If you have the time and money, you might want to schedule a campus visit.  (Make sure that you are going to be visiting at a time when students and faculty are likely to be around to meet with you.)  You can also talk to your undergraduate faculty about the merits of the different offers.

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 PAYING FOR PROFESSIONAL SCHOOL

Different types of professional school programs have different types of aid packages.  Some are more like traditional graduate school programs that offer fellowships or assistantships (see my page on applying to graduate school for more information).  Most programs have scholarships for students matching certain profiles (minorities, women, first-generation college students, students with high GPAs, students with high test scores, students with good writing skills, non-traditional aged students, etc.).  Be sure to inquire about these early on in the application process.

Students can also apply for need-based aid using the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) submitted to the school's financial aid office.  As with undergraduate education, you may be eligible for grants, loans, or work study money.

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PREPARING FOR THE NEXT BIG STEP

Once you have been admitted and accepted an offer, you will want to set yourself up for success. Make sure that you have completed all paperwork necessary for admission and receipt of aid.  Take note of your new institution's academic calendar so that you know when you need to show up. Your department may also have some orientation activities for new students (both academic and social) before the term officially begins.

Once you know when you need to be on campus, you can plan your move.  You will need to have some place where you can work effectively.  Some schools will give students library carrels (reserved desk space in the library where students can keep books, sometimes with locking drawers or cupboards).  If you work best at home, then you want to make sure that your apartment or dorm room has a comfortable place for you to study.  (Professional schools, however, often require extensive use of resources that students might not be able to access from home--legal reference works, for example or proprietary computer programs available only in on-campus labs.)  Note that the best places for undergraduate students to live are not always the best places for graduate and professional students to live (for reasons of noise, for example).  Many schools have special graduate student housing (either dorm rooms or apartments).  If you want to live off-campus, you should ask where other students in your program are living to get an idea of what neighborhoods are most suitable for the your lifestyle and budget.  If you decide you need a roommate, choose carefully to make sure that the person you room with has similar ideas about quiet time, paying bills, and shared household chores.  You also need to decide if you will want a car or not.  Parking and insuring a car in some big cities can be prohibitively expensive on a graduate student stipend.  On the other hand, some communities don't have good public transportation, making a car a necessity.

Make sure that you will have the financial resources that you need to make the move.  Hiring movers can be very expensive, so unless you get a moving allowance from your school or have a lot of valuable necessities, you are probably better off moving yourself.  Rental trucks are usually affordable.  Budget for the expenses of moving into a new apartment, utility hook-ups, deposits, storage if you won't be able to move in right away, and perhaps a few nights in a hotel while looking for an apartment or waiting for an apartment to become available.  A summer job can help you save some money for these start-up expenses. You might also want to have a yard sale before you go so that you aren't taking anything that you don't absolutely need.   (The farther you are moving, the less you want to take.  For a cross-country move, you might want to consider leaving all or most of your furniture behind and buying used furniture when you get to your destination. In a really light-weight move, you might take a plane or bus and send your clothes and books by mail.)

The summer before you go is also a good time to make sure that you are ready for the change mentally.  This is a good time to work on necessary skills.  Alternatively, you might want to give yourself a mental break in the summer so that you are rested and ready to work when you arrive.   Whatever you do, be proud of your accomplishment in getting into a graduate program and be sure to fill out our Senior Exit Survey so that we can boast about you:  http://www.tnstate.edu/history/exitsurvey.aspx

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USEFUL LINKS

TSU's Career Center:

TSU's Graduate School:

College Atlas (focus on undergraduate degrees but includes Law Schools):

Law School Admissions Council:

LSAT:

Graduate Management Admissions Council:

GMAT:

GRE:

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webpage contact:
Elizabeth Dachowski