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How can I improve my chances of getting into grad school?

UBC dean offers advice on getting in to grad school and whether you should go at all. Marks really are as important as they say, but don’t waste time with irrelevant volunteer work.

Are you thinking about making the jump from your undergrad program to a graduate school? Wondering if all the hype about high marks is for real? How to beef up your application? How much work it’s going to be anyways? Maclean’s chatted with Jennifer M. Phelps, assistant dean and director of graduate enrolment services in the faculty of graduate studies at the University of British Columbia, to find out.

Are top-notch marks really the most important qualification for getting into grad school?

I think top-notch marks are really important in most graduate programs.

A thing that I would preface this whole talk with is that not all graduate programs are the same. And so, the answers to these questions are going to depend on the specific graduate program.

In general, even though we know that marks aren’t the only thing that reflect a student’s ability, they are the easiest way to compare one student to another when you have many, many applications and not very many spots to offer. So excellent marks are very important.

That said, someone without excellent marks can also be a great graduate student and can be convincing in their application that they would be a great graduate student. But if you don’t have good marks, you are going to have a harder path ahead to convince the program that you are ready to perform well.

How can students with less than stellar marks beef up their applications?

Again, it depends on the type of program that they are going into. But something that we hear from professors a lot is that students who want to go into research oriented graduate programs, its really great if they can get some research experience first either as an undergraduate or even volunteering after their undergraduate degree.

Another way is to, even after your degree, take some additional course work. Something that would be typical if a student decides they want to go to grad school in microbiology but their grads are not quite high enough, they can confer with the department at the university they are interested in and ask what sort of courses could they take to show that they are up to the task.

In some programs, some additional professional training might be a benefit.

Try to get to know professors in the department that they are interested in applying to.

Should undergraduate students be communicating with their faculty ahead of time?

Absolutely. Something a lot of undergrads don’t realize is, if they are going into an MA or a MSC program, which are normally research programs, it’s crucial that the students area of interest links up well with the interests of at least one faculty member in the department.

It’s not enough to be an undergrad and say “I want to go to graduate school in political science and I’m just interested in political science.” That person wants to be able o write an application that says, “I’m really interested in, for example, voting patterns for young Canadians aged 18 to 22 and I know there is a professor in your department that does work on that and I’m really interested in working with that person.” Get enough specificity about what their interested in studying to be able to communicate to the grad program that they would be a good match for the interests of the faculty members and the department.

What volunteer opportunities would you recommend to strengthen your application?

The only volunteer opportunities that make a difference at all to strengthen the application are ones that have a very strong connection to the area that they want to study. In contrast to undergrad, grad schools are not necessarily looking for well-rounded people. They are looking for focused people. If a person volunteers for something that is totally outside the area that they want to study in, that says something positive about that person, but it is not going to be a compelling factor in admitting the student.

But if the student has experience volunteering on research projects related to the graduate program. Or, for example, say they want to get a master’s of social work, doing volunteer opportunities that have some relevance to social work would be positive.

Do you think that graduate school is for everyone? Would some students be better off going straight into the workforce?

I think the students that are best for graduate studies are students who are focused, they have a passion for something, for understanding something better or making new discoveries or just having advanced knowledge in a particular area.

I don’t think grad school is for people who are really searching and vague about what they care about and are interested in. I think those people are better off being out there in the workforce and having some different experiences first.

I think grad school can be for everyone but maybe not at the same time. It might be perfect for one person to go straight from undergrad into grad school. Another person it might be perfect them five or ten years later.

Do you think that graduate school is becoming a more necessary qualification for employment opportunities?

That is the sort of question that would really benefit from having some data to support it and I don’t have that data. But I have seen some research that has shown that, on average, the higher degree you have, the higher your income potential is.

The jobs that are going to be the most fascinating, interesting, and contributing, I think, more and more you need a graduate degree.

What kind of scholarships and fellowships are available to graduate students at UBC?

A wide range: There are federal scholarships via the research funding agencies. Students can go straight to the government to apply for a scholarship.

There are also a number of provincial scholarships offered by the province of B.C. including a brand new one they just announced called the Pacific Leadership scholarships. Those are really interesting because you have to work for the government for one year for every year of scholarship funding you get. It’s actually doubly great for students: on one hand, they are limited because they have to work for the government, but it’s a guaranteed job and you’ll get all sorts of interesting government experience.

The university itself has graduate student fellowships based on academic excellence.

What kind of workload can aspiring grad students expect? Any advice for managing this?

One of the biggest differences and the biggest challenges in transitioning from being a undergraduate to being a graduate student is that you have to be a lot more self managing of your time. It’s not just that you click into your classes you just finish them and move on to the next semester. As a graduate student you are guiding your own education a lot more. In that way, the workload can depend on yourself and how quickly you choose to work.

In general grad students probably spend more reading, writing, or spending a lot of time in the lab or in the field. We consider being a grad student to be a full time job. We advise students not to work outside of their program more than 12 hours a week.

What was your most memorable experience as a graduate student?

I would say, meeting a vast array of other graduate students from schools and countries and the relationships that I developed with the people that I met.

Anything else you want to add?

One thing I might add that undergrads can do while they are still in their undergrad program is really make sure that they are on their professors’ radar and that they are developing good relationships with the faculty that are teaching them. Because they are going to need letters of reference from those people and they count for a lot.

There is a lot of students who just kind of hide out in classes. Even if they do really well, even if they get A’s, if the professor doesn’t know who they are they are not going to be able to write a very good recommendation for them.

I see the difference in those sorts of letters all the time. I see letters that say, “I didn’t know this student very well but I went back into my records and saw that they got an A so they must be pretty bright.” We see a lot of letter that are more like, “I had great conversations with this student. They really showed a lot of intellectual curiosity and initiative to ask interesting questions.” Get to know your professors.

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