The biggest mistake prospective graduate students make is not doing enough research before they apply. Many do not take time to evaluate a large number of programs in their intended field of study before developing their "short list."
In addition, in my experience as a dean of students for two graduate schools, I found that many undergraduate students think their graduate school experience will likely be a continuation of college, with the primary benefit being an added credential for their resume. Not so. Graduate school is not college.
In many instances there will be much smaller classes, much more teamwork in the classroom, more interaction with faculty and less hand holding from administrators and professors. Consider the following differences when deciding to apply to graduate school.
[Kick start your graduate school application process with this checklist.]
1. The evaluation of applicants: As director of admissions at Wheaton College in Illinois, it was my job to evaluate applications for the undergraduate program. An applicant's high school grades and his or her scores on the ACT or SAT figured prominently in my decision to offer or deny admission.
However, as a graduate admissions dean at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and Teachers College at Columbia University, my decisions on applicants included much more than academic achievement in college. I relied heavily on interview reports, recommendations, essays, resumes and information about extracurricular involvement and community service to help me in choosing each year's entering class.
This is because the graduate school experience involves the ability to communicate and work well with others in a variety of situations, meet deadlines, work with a team on many course projects and handle a fairly high level of stress.
Perhaps more importantly, graduate school is the first time that many students are really on their own, managing their lives and their financial obligations, with much less involvement of and direction from their parents. So when evaluating applicants for an MBA program of other master's degree programs, it was important to me to learn more about their personalities and how they were viewed in social, extracurricular and interactive situations.
It is my experience that most graduate school admissions committees operate in the same way I did. They will be evaluating the entirety of an application, trying to determine if a student possesses both the academic and interpersonal skills it will take to succeed in graduate school.
[Don't fall for these graduate school myths.]
2. The academic program's structure: In college, most students take prerequisite general education requirements before choosing a major. Their course work is more general in nature, and they gain an initial introduction to their major field of study.
In grad school, however, the focus is entirely on one area of specialization: education, law, medicine, business, social work, psychology, history or others. Course work is focused, and delves in to a greater depth around the subject matter at hand.
There will also be a greater amount of research involved. Professors will often include research-type papers and individual or team research projects in their course syllabi. Students will need to be prepared to develop their ideas fully, and to defend and prove their hypotheses with valid and relevant statistical data.
Finally, there will be major differences of opinion among leading professors in major fields. While at Booth, I recall two well-known and highly regarded economics professors who had the exact opposite opinion on the same subject, and showed research to back up their claims.
3. The way students interact: As suggested earlier, in graduate student you will largely be on your own. Unlike your undergraduate experience, where you are regularly reminded of deadlines, often given extensions, and have faculty and staff reaching out to you, it is more or less the opposite in grad school.
You will not generally be reminded of deadlines that are readily provided on the Web, or in a course syllabus. Do not expect an extension unless it is for a genuine emergency.
While resources are readily available in a variety of areas – academic advising, counseling, health advice, and student activities, to name a few – it is up to you to ask for help and to participate. No one is going to come after you, or keep encouraging you to do so.
Blogger and professor Dave G. Mumby writes on his blog "My Graduate School" that graduate students are more visible, unlike many undergraduates who rarely have significant contact with any of their professors. Mumby writes that professors and fellow students will get to know you rather well, and will develop opinions about your values, interpersonal skills, emotional health and character.
In my experience, that's why successful graduate students tend to be good communicators, flexible, reasonable and negotiate most interpersonal and social interactions well.