How to apply for grad school

We spoke to a college and careers counselor to help you get that degree

By Alice Peter-Bhagtaney

KARACHI: For those of you who think acquiring an undergraduate degree is hard, wait till you have to get to grad school.

Applying to graduate school is a tedious process; one that is only made more difficult by the fact that you have a full-time job. Juggling your work life with studies is a situation most young people in Pakistan aren’t great at handling. Unlike the West, children here aren’t expected to work or move out till they’re done with an undergraduate degree or even after that. So it is only when you come to the stage of applying for an MA degree that you figure out what ‘adulting’ is all about.

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And then you just can’t function anymore. You feel stuck and lost.

In order to make this dreadful process that we’re all going to go through at one point or another a little easier, Cutacut reached out to Careers and College Counselor Alizeh Atif.

Atif, who recently started a Pakistan’s first mentorship service Be Guided Now, broke it down for us into four parts:

1. Begin with research 

“Research should be everyone’s first step when prepping for grad-school so you know exactly what you’re looking for,” says Atif.

You can start by deciding which region to apply to, whether you want to study here or abroad. (This is necessary since universities in different countries have different requirements.) While you’re at the research stage, you should also narrow down what kind of specialisation you’re looking to do. And most importantly, know exactly what your budget is since that, too, helps narrow down your search to schools that provide financial aid.

2. Schedule standardised testing

“Ideally, you should give yourself anywhere between six to eight weeks to prep for a standardised test,” shares Atif. “It’s best to get done with these tests at the earliest before you officially dive into your college application process as most universities require certain scores and that way you’ll know where you stand,” she goes on to say.

Standarised tests include entrance admission tests such as Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) as well as language proficiency tests such as International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

3. Share your story

“Sharing your story is a three-part process: this includes choosing your referees, updating your CV, and writing the required personal statement/general essay/supplemental essay,” says Atif.

a. Choosing your referees

These are people who write you a reference letter in which they vouch for your capabilities and future plans. There should ideally be a mix of academic and professional referees. The former refers to your undergrad professors and the latter to your team leader, manager and so on at work. According to Atif, applicants generally fall prey to aiming for the fanciest professional referee (eg. CEO of the firm) when presented with the dilemma. “The best professional referee would be someone who has worked with you closely and is aware of the goals and values that drive you,” she further points out.

b. Updating your CV

If you’re already part of the job market then chances are you already have a document listing your qualifications and work experience. Most grad schools require you to upload a CV along with your application. Sharing her two cents on how to write a compelling CV, Atif mentions the “STAR” approach. Here, the “S” in star stands for situation, “T” for task, “A” for action and “R” for result. “CVs written using the STAR approach tend to have the highest recall value,” she says. What this approach does is help you quantify your achievements in a more comprehensive and accessible for.

“For example, you talk about a situation where you started an internship,” says Atif as she explains writing a components of your CV using the STAR approach, “Then you go onto explain the tasks that were assigned to you, followed by the actions you took to achieve that task and the results”.

c. Writing your personal statement/general essay/supplemental essay

University applications require you to paint your personality sketch through these essays. While some will be basic personal statements or general essays, others will give you starting points: what is the moment you are most proud of?

For Atif, the best essays are those that are written honestly and that show more than they tell.

“If I were to give tips for essays I would say write honestly, start early, write examples for every claim you make and be realistic,” says Atif.

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4. Brand yourself

According to the counselor, the fourth and final step of your grad school prep is branding.

Some universities now required taped interviews to gauge the ways in which you present yourself. “In these taped interviews too, you must employ the STAR approach,” stresses Atif. Another thing to keep in mind is to keep an updated LinkedIn profile. After you submit your application, admission officers might do a social search on you and the first thing to come up will be your LikedIn account so make sure your profile tallies with your CV.

“Colleges are now looking for well-rounded people,” says Atif. “So if you have an interest or hobby, make an online portfolio that reflects that interest,” she goes on to say.

You can reach out to Atif’s counseling service to find out more here

Hope this helps. Good luck!

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