How to get to grad school

12 strategies for people applying to graduate and law school

Admission tests like the LSAT are learnable. Don’t overlook the importance of studying. Photo courtesy of Steven Cooper.

Come May, many students graduate with a bachelor’s degree and move into the workforce. For some, however, a bachelor’s degree is only the first step in their higher education experience.

A September 2017 report by the Council of Graduate Schools reported 2.2 million applications for graduate school programs beginning in in 2016—a 1.2 percent increase from the previous year. Applications to law school have increased at an even more impressive rate. In January, the Law School Admission Council reported a 10 percent increase in applications from last year..

For students interested these programs, it can be an intimidating process. In interviews with advisors and faculty members on the WSUV campus, The VanCougar compiled a list of techniques to ensure you succeed on your journey to graduate or law school .

  1. Start early. The most common piece of advice from experts on campus is to start preparation for graduate or law school as early as possible. “The fatal mistake is this idea that you can wake up sometime in the fall of your senior year and think ‘I’m going to go to graduate school,’” said Debra Wilmington, an advisor and academic instructor in the Biology Department at WSUV. The same applies to law school. “When you’re a sophomore, no later than a junior, you need to start thinking about the [Law School Admission Test],” said public affairs professor Carolyn Long during a discussion with members of the campus’ pre-law society.
  2. Determine your true career interest. Spend time researching the details of what the career actually entails. “I say it a thousand times a day, ‘go job shadow,’” said Wilmington. “Spend some time with someone doing that job so you can see what a day in the life of that job is really like. Until you spend some time in that environment, you don’t know.” Long has the same advice for students interested in law. “Talk to as many lawyers as possible. It’s the best barometer for determining whether it is a career for you.” Long says nobody should go to law school unless they know it is for them. “Think about the debt,” she said. Lawyers typically only make $60-80 thousand a year after graduation, she explained. It often takes years to pay back student loans.
  3. Solicit advice from advisors and faculty. “The top two resources are your faculty and your academic advisor—probably in that order,” said history instructor and academic advisor Aaron Whelchel. “Visit their office hours. They’ll be happy to talk about graduate school.” Advisors can help as well. “They have the big picture of your whole program,” Whelchel said. You should also request letters of recommendation from faculty in-person and early. Long says some faculty take a long time to write recommendation letters, so ask them months in advance. Also, be thoughtful about who you ask for letters. “A tenure-track or a tenured-professor” is the best option, said Long. “They have the most experience to talk about who is qualified for law school.” Long also  says to ask for letters from professors who know you well. Admission committees don’t care about letters from famous or highly-qualified people if it is obvious they don’t know much about you.
  4. Prioritize classes and programs that give you the necessary skills and experience for you career choice. “I think the best thing you can do is focus exclusively on your classes,” said Long. “Focus on classes that focus on critical thinking and writing. It may be more difficult, but it will make you a better law-school student. I’m not just talking about getting A’s, I’m talking about learning how to write  and how to study,” she said. Whelchel recommends joining a research program. “At WSU Vancouver we have more opportunities for undergraduates to do that kind of research than most schools do,” he said. “In most places there are plenty of graduate students there to do research work, but we don’t have that here.”
  5. Schedule your admission test for when you have time to spare. Many of Wilmington’s students take either the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) or the Graduate Record Examinations test (GRE). “I recommend taking it during summer when you have some dedicated time to prepare for the test,” she said. She advises against taking the test unprepared just to see how you will do. “That score can follow you,” she said. The same principle applies to the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). Long says about two-thirds of what admission committees use to determine admission is the LSAT score. “Don’t put off studying,” she admonished. “GPA can be an imperfect measure of academic success, so schools place a lot of weight in the LSAT.”
  6. Prepare for the necessary admission test a minimum of six months in advance. Create a schedule with deadlines and milestones. Try taking the test once without studying, says Long. “Take that number, post it on your wall or computer and start studying.” Associated Students of Washington State University-Vancouver (ASWSUV) President Jose Scott studied for both the LSAT and the GRE—although he ended up only taking the GRE. “Both tests access critical thinking and pattern thinking,” he said. “Both are learnable tests.” Jose said he did “OK” on the GRE and was recently accepted to the Master of Public Affairs Program for Arizona State University.
  7. Find like-minded students and use them as accountability to help you study and prepare your applications. “Student clubs are where you make those connections to other people in your field,” said Whelchel. “They are where you hear about opportunities for grants or scholarships.” A number of clubs on campus cover a wide-range of interests—from pre-law to pre-health.8
  8. Devote time to your personal statement and resume. Both a well-structured resume and a well-written personal statement can make a significant difference in your application, said Nolan Yaws-Gonalez, assistant manager at the Student Resource Center. Unlike a resume for a traditional job, resumes for law and graduate schools should incorporate a broader range of skills. Yaws-Gonalez explained, “A graduate program isn’t as worried about having a targeted summary of your education as much as they want to have a pretty holistic sense of who you are and the skillsets, background and experience you bring.” Personal statements should not be a reiteration of your resume in a narrative form because that doesn’t reveal anything new or unique about you. “I don’t really get a sense of who they are,” he said. A personal statement should be more narrowly focused. “Part of that is how you got interested in the field, talking about some significant experience that relates to how you developed those interests and [what] reaffirmed your interest in that field,” Yaws-Gonalez said. “Then connect it to what you hope to get out of that graduate program and your future goals.
  9. Start researching application requirements of each school, months or even a year in advance. Graduate schools have different requirements and writing prompts for personal statements and essays. “One of my biggest tips is to look at the different requirements,” said Yaws-Gonalez. “Typically if you pick the most rigorous of what you’re seeing, and you prepare for that, you’ll have what you need for all the other applications.”
  10. Utilize the resources on campus. Yaws-Gonalez, Whelchel and Wilmington all recommend contacting the Student Resource Center for assistance in reviewing personal statements and resumes. Yaws-Gonalez said the center can also schedule mock interviews to prepare students for schools that have an interview process. Scheduling an appointment with SRC also help with accountability. When someone has an appointment scheduled to review their personal statement, they are more likely write it in a timely fashion.
  11. Submit your applications well in advance. “You don’t want to turn it in the last day—particularly if it’s rolling admissions,”said Wilmington. Rolling admissions mean the school approves applications as they receive them. If you wait until the last minute, there is less of a chance the school will have a spot open for you.
  12. Develop the character traits necessary to succeed. Whelchel identified three characteristics common to successful applicants. “They are very proactive about getting assistance. They’re organized, and they are strong academically.” According to Long those same skills can also help you succeed in law school. “It is like the hunger games of academia,” she said. “Everyone is trying to get out on top.”

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