Apply Yourself: Advice for Graduate School Admissions

CUNY students learned the ins and outs of graduate school admissions at a February 27 information session led by Margaret Okada, Assistant Director of Admissions at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“It’s hilarious that this is my job now,” said Okada. “I applied to graduate school right out of undergrad, and I didn’t get in… I didn’t have this kind of information.”

Before beginning the application process, Okada advises students to decide on a career path.  “[Graduate school] is not a good place for discernment,” Okada explained. “It’s not a place where you can explore.” She recommends using college career offices, internships, and volunteer work to make this decision. Students can also arrange informational interviews with people whose jobs they admire. “[An interview] takes fifteen minutes of everyone’s time, and people love to talk about themselves,” Okada said.

Okada stressed the importance of finding the right fit in a graduate program. Students should apply to schools that match their funding needs, lifestyle, geographic preference, and, naturally, their discipline. Okada illustrated her point with a story from her time working at Harvard Divinity School. She asked her husband, a software architect, if he would major in computer engineering at Harvard. “You kidding me?” he replied. “Everyone wants to go to MIT.”

For the actual application, Okada believes the most important part is the statement of purpose. “You should be spending longer on a statement of purpose than any standardized exam,” she said. The ideal statement should include three things: what brought you to the point of applying, what you want to do, and why you want to attend that particular institution. The third point—the “right fit” question—is often forgotten. “That’s the part people don’t write about, and I don’t like that,” said Okada.

Of course, sometimes it’s the little things that go a long way with admissions officers.

“When people are nice to me, I really want to go the extra mile,” said Okada.

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