5 Ways to Get a Head Start on Graduate School

Fulbright award winner Amanda Eke
Fulbright award winner Amanda Eke, a senior with BA in gender, sexuality and women's studies, will to do research or teach overseas and stands in the Armadillo Music on May 1, 2017.

Planning your life after graduation can be daunting, especially when you have grad school on the brain.

The best thing a prospective graduate student can do is learn as much as they can about the graduate program and the application process upfront. All of the information and resources you need are out there — it’s just up to you to reach out and take advantage of them.”

Your choice of a master’s or doctoral degree will not only impact your life for the next two to eight years but your career choices for decades to come. Before you decide, take time to explore and define personal, academic and professional goals:

1. Scope out your options early

Female students standing and talking to seated graduate program staff
The annual Pre-Health Conference at UC Davis offers opportunities for undergraduates to learn about a variety of programs that might fit their career plans. They can also get to know a number of graduate school representatives. (Cody Snapp/UC Davis)

Believe it or not, it’s never too early to start researching potential graduate programs. You may be surprised by the sheer number of possibilities out there (UC Davis alone offers nearly 100 graduate and professional programs). Finding the right program for you may require in-depth research.

Research programs independently via a simple Internet search. As you discover different programs, create a list of your top 15 or 20. Take note of faculty research interests, program rankings and other factors that may play into your decision. Once you have a basic list, take time to discuss potential programs with a trusted professor or industry mentor who can help you identify the programs that may be the best match for your short- and long-term career goals.

Want to meet program representatives face-to-face? Each year, UC Davis hosts a series of informational events for students interested in pursuing graduate or professional school.

  • The UC Davis Pre-Health Conference, held on campus in early October provides community-college, university and post-baccalaureate students with the information and skills necessary to succeed in the health-professions school admission process.
  • Graduate and Law School Information Day is a free event in October that gives students and others an opportunity to explore graduate and law programs and speak directly with the admissions staff. Attendees can learn more about the application process and program faculty, culture and curriculum, as well as financial support and fellowships. Programs may also offer fee waivers to attendees who stop by their tables.

2. Participate in undergrad research and programs

Pharmaceutical chemistry major Manuel Munoz working in a lab
Pharmaceutical chemistry major Manuel Munoz ’13 prepares a liquid solution for his intern project on cancer research, getting research experience that graduate programs are seeking. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Need hands-on research experience? The Undergraduate Research Center offers activities and awards that support undergraduate research for students from all majors. Undergraduates can work in numerous sponsored research programs, many of that combine academic enrichment, advising and the opportunity to conduct research under the supervision of faculty mentors.

Programs like the McNair Scholars Program, MURALS and UC LEADS will not only give you a taste of the research expectations you’ll face in graduate school, but they also communicate to admissions committees your abilities.

“Scholars are guided through the process from selecting a faculty mentor to presenting their research and applying to graduate school,” says Jose Ballesteros, Executive Director of Graduate Pipeline Programs. “Students who participate in graduate preparation programs develop their research and professional skills to become competitive graduate school candidates.”

3. Study for the Graduate Record Exam

UC Davis Shields Library Reading Room filled with studying students
Refreshing your skills in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus and vocabulary will help you get better Graduate Record Exam scores, used by many graduate programs to assess candidates. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Graduate programs often require applicants to submit their scores from the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) or another standardized test. The GRE allows graduate schools to assess the abilities and skills (in subjects such as arithmetic, algebra, geometry and vocabulary) of applicants.

The GRE General Test assesses your abilities in analytical writing and verbal and quantitative reasoning, with the option of taking subject-specific tests. Graduate programs have a wide range of application dates and deadlines, so you’ll want to research potential graduate programs in advance to ensure your GRE scores can be submitted before the deadline. The Office of Educational Opportunity and Enrichment Services holds GRE-preparation workshops on a quarterly basis. Learn more by visiting the Pre-Graduate/Law Advising website.

4. Define your purpose

UC Davis graduate Srujan Kopparapu ’17 in the lab with a flask
UC Davis graduate Srujan Kopparapu ’17, who won the University Medal as the top graduating senior, did research on cell division during his three undergraduate years. Srujan, who earned degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology and psychology is making plans to pursue medical school. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)
  • What are your short- and long-term goals?
  • How do you plan to use your powers for good?
  • How have your experiences shaped your strengths and worldview?

Can you answer these questions? If not, you ought to start mulling them over before you draft your statement of purpose, a key component of your application.

It’s critical that your statement of purpose be your own. Don’t just write the first thing that comes to mind or follow a formula you found online. Take the time to reflect on your strengths, experiences and goals.

“The statement of purpose is where you add personality to your application.” says Annalisa Teixeira, pre-graduate/professional advising coordinator. “It is your chance to go beyond the numbers — GPA, GRE score — and put into narrative your story, strengths and plans. It is also a writing sample, so start early and plan to draft and redraft to polish it.”

Get Ready for Grad School

Here are two steps to take right now to prepare for graduate school.

Need some help crafting the perfect statement of purpose? The Student Academic Success Center hosts regular writing workshops for graduate school applicants.

5. Consider a gap year … or two

Fulbright award winner Ana Skomal in a yoga pose outdoors
Fulbright award winner Ana Skomal ’17, who completes her degree in food science this fall, will teach English to schoolchildren in rural Malaysia before applying for medical school. Fluent in Spanish and English, she plans to hold yoga classes as part of a women’s health club she will start in her community there. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Don’t rush it. Not only can a gap year give you the mental space to assess your priorities, but it can also provide the time and resources needed to gain valuable, application-bolstering experience. At the same time, we advise you to pursue opportunities and experiences relevant or transferable to your intended graduate program or field.

Graduate and professional schools want applicants who demonstrate maturity, seriousness and a firm understanding of what to expect from both graduate school and the post-graduation job market. And these graduate school administrators are looking for candidates who, on the basis of earlier work or internship experiences, are prepared to get the most out of their program.

And remember, if your academic record isn't top-notch, a strong recommendation from a professional in the field who has watched you work can increase your odds as an applicant.

Elizabeth Lambert is the Senior Director of External Relations and Strategic Communications for Graduate Studies at UC Davis.

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