Published Date

May 16, 1998

Resource Type

For the Classroom


Teaching Methods

AHA Topics

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


United States

Part One: What Schools Will Look for When You Apply

Graduate admissions offices will be looking for a combination of qualities in their applicants, not just one outstanding academic characteristic. Some of these factors you cannot affect. So you need to begin to build a well-rounded and substantial profile early in your college career around the factors over which you do have some influence. The beginning of your senior year, when you have to submit your applications, is too late. Here are many of the qualities that will matter:

Everyone knows these are important, but some students get serious too late in their college careers. It is difficult to make up in your junior year for two years of mediocre grades as a first-year student and sophomore. Different universities have different requirements depending on how strong the competition is to get into them. Some look for nearly perfect and perfect grades over an undergraduate career. Others might accept a solid B record. The higher the grades, the better your chances; but even perfect grades by themselves will not be good enough.

Graduate Qualifying Exams
All schools require applicants to take exams to qualify for graduate school, just as most do for undergraduate admission. Be aware of which ones you will need to take and investigate how you can best prepare for them in addition to doing well academically.

Letters of Recommendation
These can be as important as grades. The letters that carry the most weight are the ones from professors who know you well enough to write convincing positive analyses of your academic abilities. Cultivate your professors early and long, and provide them with an academic profile they can praise. Do not ask a professor to write a letter of recommendation out of the blue. Always provide the professor with your updated transcript and a résumé that includes your employment record, extracurricular activities, special achievements, and awards. Always contact the professor a minimum of two weeks before the letter is due. See the chapter on how to manage stress for more.

Your Application and Application Essay
Your ability to fill out forms accurately, clearly, and cleanly will give admissions officers an idea of how serious you are about attending their schools. Even more important, your ability to communicate your purpose in applying, and your mature awareness of what graduate school in your chosen field is all about, will let them know how well you are prepared for the next challenge. If you cannot write a decent essay and they still let you in, beware of a school that wants a body count and your money.

Extracurricular Activities
Your participation in a number of student and community service organizations will show that you are a well-rounded person and not just a bookworm. Universities want to recruit students with leadership qualities and diverse life experiences that they can bring onto the campus and into the classroom. Colleges want to see that you have applied your learning in the real world.

Diversity of Many Kinds
Being female or an underrepresented minority (African American, Latino, First Nation) are only two of the many types of diversities that universities recruit at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Universities want students from diverse parts of the country, not just one state or region. Especially at the major schools, there is a limit to the number of in-state applicants that a university will actually enroll. For example, a number of spaces and scholarships are set aside for musically talented students who will make up the school band. Of these, so many will be assigned for each instrument. A school cannot recruit only tuba players. We already know about athletic scholarships. Departments choose graduate students partly on the fit of the students’ specialized interests with the expertise of their faculties. There are many other types of diversities for which universities select because they realize that diversity enriches campus environments and our society in general.

Your Family’s Connections and Money (or at Least Someone Else’s)
Some private universities set aside a number of slots for students whose parents are alumni or who make big monetary contributions to their school funds. This is a different type of affirmative action than the kind that is always in the news.

Part Two: The Qualities That Will Make You a Success in Graduate or Professional School

If you want to maximize your success in graduate school–or if you want to be more than what is required at the undergraduate level–consciously work on developing your ability to do the following:

Proactively and Consciously Reinvent and Grow Yourself
Your self-identity is the sum of your life experiences as interpreted by your mind. It includes the values you have absorbed about yourself from the rest of society. Your identity as a graduate student and professional academic is similarly shaped by your university experiences. You have the opportunity to proactively seek self-transformation through learning from your interaction with people and books. Learning, by definition, transforms the mind and its wisdom and therefore your identity. You cannot afford to be afraid of the individuals who are your teachers, mentors, and authority figures. You will have a better chance to learn and grow if you seek them out and hold them responsible for teaching you what they know that is of value and for recommending to you additional pathways to your self-improvement. If you are afraid, passive, or unduly deferential to authority, and expect that wisdom will rain down on you as a gift from those who have it; your identity will always be shaped by the perceptions, values, and goals of other people and the systems they faithfully operate. You can only experience self-transformation and self-realization if you let go of the fear of being perceived as inadequate by others. If you admit your ignorance, you have nothing to lose except ambitions that are burdens to your self-development. Admit your relative and temporary ignorance and ask for assistance. You will find willing teachers aplenty. Ultimately, your best teacher is yourself; and you can best teach yourself when your mind is self-aware and free of concerns about where you rank in the academic pecking order.

Synthesize Information and Ideas in Both Written and Oral Forms
You will have tons of reading thrown at you and you will have a multitude of ideas blown your way. You will be buried and badly beaten by the sheer force of their volume unless you know how to pick out what is important in the flow of information. You can best cope with this challenge if you identify the ideas and theories that give meaning and form to the mass. Develop a proactive, conceptual approach to your readings and to the oral exchanges with your professors and fellow students in seminars and classes. Make it your objective to reduce clearly and accurately the contents of books, articles, and oral presentations to their most important basic points. Synthesis and analysis have an interactive relationship. See chapter three, “The Fundamentals for more”

Analyze Information and the Ideas That Select and Organize It
A fundamental goal of a graduate education is to train you to critically evaluate the information and ideas you receive from teacher-figures, printed materials, and other sources. You will be asked to identify the point of view of each source of information and the factors that have shaped that view. You will be encouraged to become keenly aware that every piece of information you receive has been selected and shaped by a human mind or group of minds together or sequentially. Every interpretation is an intellectual construct of the minds of the persons who hold and promote that view and whose thinking has been shaped by their life experiences and by the values they use to organize their thinking and to live their lives. Everyone has an agenda, even those who proclaim objectivity, simply because everyone has a point of view. This applies to primary sources as well as secondary. You can therefore test the logic of every proposition being made for its internal consistency and for its accuracy in reflecting the sources it uses to construct an image of a reality. You can examine your own thinking to see if an idea seems sweetly logical because it fits your vision of how things should be, or if it seems so distastefully unsound because it clashes with your own preexisting views. You can reach for a state of mind in which you are careful to use ideas as tools of analysis and not as rooted components of your intellectual identity that you will then have to defend like a home territory against the attacks of hostile ideas. Ideas, theories, interpretations, and themes are all intellectual constructions. You should be able to take them apart and put them together like erector sets, jigsaw puzzles, car engines, or more complicated systems of interaction with specific designs and functions.

Create Original Ideas
The wonderful thing about ideas and intellectual constructions is that, like songs and car models, new ones are always being invented. When you are proficient at deconstructing and reconstructing someone else’s conceptual models, you get better at building your own. Most of the time, you use the same building blocks or components that are available to the other thinkers in the disciplinary field lab. Most of the time, you rearrange the pieces a little or apply the same principles to a new material. These exercises add to and refine our cumulative fund of knowledge. Creativity is the ability to link points of fact and elements of interpretation that have not been linked before by other scholars. It is the ability to develop new points of view and establish new interpretations. In the most dramatic cases, new approaches create shifts in the paradigm of an established field or discipline. Paradigm shifts in the various social science disciplines have resulted from the application of Marxist, subaltern, and feminist perspectives. Examples of paradigm shifts in larger spheres of the human experience have resulted from the impacts of domesticated fire and animals, agriculture, the wheel, the great religions, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the internal combustion engine, and the computer.

Translate Languages and Concepts
The ability to translate is usually associated with the grasp of more than one language. This standard but narrow definition applies to several disciplines in the sense that proficiency in a language other than English is often a requirement of graduate school. Not all important sources of information and concepts are found in English and some disciplines require the art of translation more than others. At the University of California at Berkeley, the doctoral program in Latin American history required that my fellow graduate students and I qualify in three languages other than English. In many countries, students must be proficient in English as a foreign language because that is the language of the major textbooks. Translation in language occurs at several levels. It is one thing to be able to translate by reading and another to do it in writing and still another to do it instantaneously while thinking, without any aids. And each of these types of translations has different levels of proficiency.

Translation can also be applied at the level of concepts. Remember that the fundamental act of translation is the decoding of a message in one language and the encoding of it in another. In the field of history, for example, we depend a great deal on the ability of scholars to read a concept or conceptual approach in one area and translate it into an appropriate form for use in another. Because each of the histories of the various world regions have their own unique dynamics, scholars must be very careful about translating from one context to another. The danger is that the inappropriate application of an imported format will distort the history being examined. The benefit is that a careful translation–or transplantation–of concepts among several areas and fields enriches all of them.

Communicate Your Thoughts and Ideas Powerfully
Language is the foundation medium of human thinking. Without a commonly agreed-on set of symbols into which specific meanings have been encoded, we would not have a society. Language is a powerful tool for shaping and representing reality and for communicating our thoughts and plans to others. The idea “the pen is mightier than the sword” is really a reference to the power of language to move people. The use of language in one’s thinking and in communicating through written and oral forms are skills that need to be consciously developed at the graduate and professional levels. The often-stated idea that writing is a craft conveys an image of the work and care that has to go into the selection of every word in a sentence, of every sentence in a paragraph, of every paragraph in an essay. One of the first things your professors in graduate school will do is challenge you to write a book report in one or two pages rather than five to ten. They want you to realize how we all tend to be very sloppy in our use of the language and how much more effective we can become as communicators if we take care in selecting our words. Great writers and great orators survive in the memory and literature of the human race because of their ability to use the language to communicate ideas and feelings that have an enduring impact on human sensibilities across time, space, and cultures. Our own ability to communicate gains power when we craft our words with care.

Seek Objectivity with an Awareness of Your Own Subjectivity
You will hear and read a lot about the postmodern state of the social sciences and the humanities. What is important here is that we have come to realize that any fact, event, or process of human interaction can be perceived and interpreted from many points of view. Until very recently in human history, most of the record of the human experience was left by individuals writing from the perspective of male elites. This perspective distorted our vision and understanding of women and nonelite groups because these were usually left out of the record or portrayed as being less intelligent, less moral, and less capable than the dominant elite males. Historical writings and other types of literature tend to reflect the distribution of power in society. The civil rights movements that flourished from the 1960s in the United States eventually penetrated into academia and created a shift in scholarship that brought to the fore the perspectives of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, women, and other groups once excluded from full humanity in the scholarship dominated by an Anglo-American, upper-class male perspective. The lesson learned by scholars is that “truth” is multifaceted and that we must be careful that the truth we discover as researchers is not just a reflection of our own biases and prejudices working themselves out in the selection and interpretation of the sources. Scholars attempting to reconstruct a subaltern or feminine perspective can be just as biased as the scholars they seek to revise. This does not mean that you cannot make careful judgments about history and humanity. However, as a scholar, you will want to ask yourself the extent to which the values you hold dear will influence you to grant or withhold the full humanity of the subjects you study. If you can see your own tastes and biases functioning within your mind, you will have a better chance of being the driver–better yet, the observer–rather than being the driven.

Develop Your Standard and Electronic Bibliographic Agility
You will be most effective as a graduate student and scholar if you learn the major journals, bibliographical guides, and indexes in your field of specialization as soon as possible and use them frequently to stay current on the themes and issues being worked by the published experts. All of these can be found in printed form in the library. However, many are now being transferred to CD-ROM for easier and quicker use. The World Wide Web and e-mail have introduced even more wonderful tools for the researcher. Organizations like H-NET, for example, have Web pages and Listservs on a great variety of specializations within the study of history. Book reviews can now be transmitted via both of these electronic mediums. Libraries throughout the country and the world, and indexes of their contents, are now accessible through the computer. In many cases, actual documents, books, pictures, and other types of information have been formatted for electronic access and transmission. Your reference librarian should be one of the persons with whom you are already well-acquainted by the time you enter graduate school.

Network Professionally
A professional network is crucial to staying informed in your field and to your ability to take part in professional organizations and conferences. Networks keep you informed on research trends, job opportunities, funding, and other resources. Begin your network with your professors and fellow graduate students who will provide an important social and professional context for you at the local level. Expand your network by enrolling as a student member of the major organizations in your specialization. You can also subscribe to listserv information and discussion groups. Subscribe to, or read at the library, the major journals in your field. Read The Chronicle of Higher Education for all types of issues concerning academia. Attend conferences whenever possible and introduce yourself to scholars and graduate students from other universities. Do not wait to do all of this until you get your degree.

Build a Conference Presentation and Journal Publication Profile
Competition for jobs has gotten so intense, and graduate training has become so good in some fields, that doctoral graduate students are now expected to have presented at least one or two papers at conferences before graduation and even to have published an article in at least a minor journal. Graduate students can now be found who exceed these expectations. Do not leave this area of your academic life underdeveloped out of modesty or fear. There are plenty of conferences and publications that invite the participation of graduate students. Some are specifically geared to graduate students. Search them out and jump into the mainstream of the profession. The practice will make you stronger and better.

Be Persistent and Fluid in Pursuing Your Goal of a Graduate Career
A graduate career is one of the most difficult undertakings possible because it requires a lot of energy, determination, stamina, and money. The long hours–let alone the long years–you have to put into your training can be very discouraging. You will need a lot of persistence if you decide to go to graduate school. You will be asked to step up to a higher level of academic and life challenges. No matter how friendly the professors may be, they will still hold you to standards of performance that outstrip anything at the undergraduate level. You will be challenged to accept strong academic criticism constructively rather than personally. You may not be able to get into the school of your choice. The programs and courses you want–or the professor you want to work with–may not be available. The cost of graduate school will be high and you may need to live even more frugally than you did as an undergraduate. You may not be able to afford health insurance. You may face concerns from family and friends that you are chasing windmills when you could be earning a living working in the “real world.” Take comfort in the fact that tens of thousands of other individuals like you are going through comparable experiences.

Do It Because You Love the Experience
Finally, if you go to graduate school, do it because you get immediate satisfaction out of the learning process in your chosen field. Especially in the social sciences and humanities, you are not guaranteed a job in your chosen field after you get your degree. You will lessen the possibility of winding up resentful and bitter if you are willing to do it for the experience itself and for the way it will transform you as a person, rather than if you do it primarily for the job and income you hope will be there at the end. Having both the pleasure of the experience and the economic rewards is the ideal goal for most of us. We would then be paid for what we like to do. Unfortunately, this is not the way it always works in our market-driven economy. Academic professionals need to be realistic as well as idealistic. Be prepared to apply your intellectual skills to another profession. If you have to do this in your life, you may be surprised by how much you are able to transfer from your academic training to your new occupational identity.

#Stay Healthy–Physically, Mentally, and Spiritually
Take care of your physical health. In academia, the pressure is always on to stay seated. Remember your mind and emotions are affected by the state of your body. You will do better at your study and work if you get enough exercise and adhere to a reasonably healthy diet. Taking care of your physical being will minimize the need to go into debt if you do not have insurance. Way back in the mythical sixties and seventies when I was a graduate student at Berkeley, the university provided health insurance at a reasonable cost. Today, graduate students who are not covered by a wife or family, or by a full-time job outside of academia, often go without basic medical care. Remember also that taking care of your mental health and finding inner peace is important to your physical health. People in academia are no better than people in other areas of endeavor. Stay true to your values, ideals, and ethics. Call a time-out when the stress becomes overwhelming. It is an ancient idea that the body is the temple for the soul and for the mind. The idea is still relevant today. Now we also know all three are intricately and intimately related and interdependent.