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Follow 3 Simple Steps to Finish Graduate School

Completing grad school is not a given; a former admissions dean offers advice to beat the odds.

Sticking to priorities can help graduate students complete their studies.

Sticking to priorities can help graduate students complete their studies.

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Sometime in late August or early September, thousands of new graduate school students will arrive on campus to begin an important life-changing journey to earn a master's degree or Ph.D. 

As a longtime graduate and business school admissions dean, I can promise that the workload will be very heavy—even daunting—at times. Expect lots of reading assignments, papers and projects, and of course, the financial burdens that come with trying to pay for graduate school. However, despite the enormity of the grad school undertaking, the No. 1 challenge students face is simply making it through. 

[Read about loan changes for graduate students.] 

A study by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) found that only 49 percent of those who start Ph.D. programs in the humanities finish within 10 years. With respect to master's students and retention, CGS launched a new project in November 2010 to study "Completion and Attrition in STEM Master's Programs." 

Having spent more than three decades in graduate admissions and student services, what's clear is that no magic recipes or secret formulas exist to beat the odds to complete a graduate program. In fact, the best advice may seem surprisingly simple, yet critically important: 

1. Relax and allow time to adjust: Graduate school represents a major change in your life. Many students find themselves in new cities with few, or no, friends or acquaintances. Often students have just left a full-time job or are apart from family and loved ones—not to mention the often-dramatic financial change. And then there's the coursework, which alone can be overwhelming. Stress is part of grad school, and all students feel it at some point. Be patient, remain confident, and take the time to adjust to this new paradigm. 

2. Set priorities and stick to them: It is vitally important to keep in mind what you want from this experience. Remember, it is your time and your graduate degree. Being in a new social environment with new friends and unique responsibilities creates new distractions often unlike what students have experienced. Undoubtedly, the graduate school experience will produce lifelong friendships and future career opportunities, but only you can and should set the priorities.

While social life and advancing your career is important, don't miss opportunities to broaden your intellectual horizons. Take advantage of what the professors have to offer and delve into issues, ideas, authors, concepts, research, and debate. 

[Learn tips for getting ready for graduate school.] 

3. Operate with realistic expectations: It is easy to be tempted to try to do it all, all the time. The truth is that very few people can. Therefore, as you set priorities, be careful not to place expectations so high that they cannot be met. Think carefully and realistically about what can and cannot be done, especially if your personal interests and responsibilities are varied. 

For example, if it's important to socialize with classmates to build new relationships and career networks, be actively involved on campus, attend to existing friendships or family, all while maintaining personal interests such as hobbies or sports, then reconsider any aspirations for straight A's. And that's OK; certainly, don't set the bar low. 

Grad school is the perfect opportunity for a challenge—but a realistic one. If you feel you've taken on too many extracurriculars, either re-evaluate your priorities or adjust your expectations. Operating with realistic expectations will substantially reduce stress and provide a more fulfilling grad school experience. 

The best way to make it through is to be kind to yourself—but not too lenient—and allow time to adjust, then settle in and settle down, and as the saying goes, "Just do it." 

Dr. Don Martin, Ph.D., is a higher education admissions expert, author, and former admissions dean at Columbia University, Northwestern University, Wheaton College, and University of Chicago Booth School of Business. To learn more about graduate admissions, visit gradschoolroadmap.com.