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From molliebatmit (Biomedical Sciences): There are lots of different kinds of graduate programs.
Because each graduate program at a university admits students independently, we can't help you if you don't specify your field (history, IR, English, clinical psych, mechanical engineering, molecular biology) and the degree for which you want to apply (master's, PhD, MPH). And if you can't specify your field and the degree you want, you really have no business thinking about going to graduate school. Grad school isn't something you have to do, and you should be very comfortable with studying in a pretty specific area for several years. (Also note: if you are interested in medical school, business school, or law school, this is not the forum for you. Those are professional schools, and this is the grad school board.)
Graduate schools are looking for future scholars in your field, not "well-rounded" students.
Very broadly speaking, graduate schools care a lot about your letters of recommendation and your statement of purpose -- the essay you write about why you want to attend graduate school in a particular field, and what your qualifications are. In some fields, admissions committees care about things like undergraduate research, writing samples, your work or internship history, or an in-person interview. Graduate schools generally do not care about extracurricular activities whatsoever unless they're directly related to the field you want to study -- often there's not even a place to write about extracurriculars on the application.
Graduate school admissions are not usually as numbers-based as undergraduate admissions.
We can't tell you the magic GPA or GRE score that will help you get into the program of your dreams. And actually, that data's not even generally available on the web -- very few programs publish their average GPAs or average GRE scores. That's because those numbers aren't usually used as major determinants of your status; a bad GPA/GRE score will probably hurt you, but a good one definitely won't secure you a spot. You should try to do your best in college and get a good GPA and good GRE scores, but there's probably no number that's going to absolutely keep you out of every program.
Keep in touch with professors at your school whom you trust and respect.
Since graduate school admissions is so field-specific, you'll get the best advice from professors in your field. (And you need to cultivate relationships with them anyway to get good letters of recommendation, right?) Before you apply to a set of programs, run your list by a trusted professor friend. Does he/she think you're aiming too high or too low? Would he/she suggest any "hidden gems" that might fit your research interests? Your professors will have a better idea of your chances than anyone on the internet, and as a bonus, they often have connections with professors at other schools in your field.
You don't need to have all the answers early.
Enjoy college. You should be thinking about whether or not you'd want to attend graduate school in your junior year. The summer after your junior year is a good time to line up recommenders, pick programs, and study for and take the GRE (although you can take the GRE in the fall of your senior year if it's easier). You can even take time off after college and do something else for a few years before going back to graduate school -- it won't hurt your chances as an applicant, and may even help in some cases. You don't need to start thinking about graduate school in your freshman year of college.
From UCLAri (East Asian Studies) Get out and do.
Spend more time in undergrad "doing" than "worrying." If you go out and do a bunch of interesting stuff, get involved with a professor on a project, and maybe demonstrate some leadership abilities, you will be a much more interesting candidate than the 4.0-GPA-but-no-social-skills-types. Professors have to live with you for 4-x-years, and they usually don't want someone who doesn't do anything but study and regurgitate.
Graduate school is, at least at the PhD level, about original research and producing something "new. Even most MA programs are going to look for research potential. Seriously, a 3.7 with tons of extra stuff on the side is much better than a 4.0 with nothing else.
Consider the payoff.
Not all graduate degrees are made equal. An MA in IR financed completely with loans may not actually offer you any sort of financial benefit in the long run. Always consider the payoff. If you plan on working in non-profit after you graduate, where do you think the money to pay off that $60-100K in loans is going to come from?
You don't need to have all the answers late, either.
If you don't know what you want to do, don't go to grad school. That's a catastrophically bad idea. A couple of years in the workforce will not only make you a better candidate, it will tell you WHY you want that MA, PhD, or whatever. Waiting is usually a good idea.
From WilliamC (Classics): Study the websites of the programs you're interested in.
Virtually everything you need to know will be there or at the university's grad school pages. If you still have questions just call them up. And because every school is a little different, you want to do that for every program you apply to.
Re-align your ideas about "prestige".
For most fields, there are few, if any, reliable rankings and the big name undergraduate institutions will not necessarily have the best PhD programs in your field. Here again, your professors will be the best source of information for you. Remember, most of us are students too - we don't yet have the perspective and experience of even a brand new assistant professor.
From AppleLinguist (Linguistics): Make (real) contact with individuals in the departments you apply to.
These are the people that will be part of the admission decision making process. Communicate your interests clearly and try to arrange a campus visit. Meet face to face with the professors that you would like to work with. Make sure to look at the department website thoroughly because in my experience, profs will just refer you to the website if it's a FAQ.
Grades are not everything when it comes to grad school.
If you are particularly worried about it, it may behoove you to do things that would complement your CV and help to draw attention away from your grades. For example, you might consider getting some work experience after you graduate. That way, though your grades may not be the best in the bunch, it could still benefit you to have that experience. Admissions people like work experience, especially relevant WE.
From ProfessorX (Director of Graduate Studies in an anonymous historyish field) Money matters.
At the PhD level, there are assistantships and fellowships. Assistantships are awarded by the department in which a student will be studying ,and are usually either "research assistantships," "teaching assistantships," or "graduate assistantships." RAs usually carry full tuition remission as well as a stipend, and require, in return, serving as a research assistant to a professor in one's department. TAs also usually carry full tuition remission and a stipend, and require, in return, serving as a teaching assistant in one's department.
GAs also usually carry full tuition remission and a stipend, and can require many different sorts of "service," generally with an inflexible expectation of a certain number of hours a week (often 20). Examples of graduate assistantships are: tutoring in the Writing Center, serving as a resident assistant in undergraduate campus housing, serving as a trainer in the Rec Center, working in the library in some specified capacity, etc. Students who do not receive departmental assistantships can (and do) often apply for GAs of various sorts, so they do not have to fund their own studies.
Fellowships are a cut above assistantships. Unlike assistantships, they are not awarded by the department, but by the university. Departments must nominate their strongest candidates. Fellowships always carry full tuition remission, and often require absolutely no service. Some require only one year of service out of the three to five years for which they are awarded. This service is usually performed as a teaching or research assistant. Because fellowships are university-wide awards, competition is stiffer. GREs are often a central factor in the fellowship committee's decision making, because there are few truly interdisciplinary measures by which to rank candidates.
From DespSeekPhD (History) It's all about your advisor.
Fit is important. Your advisor is going to be the one to get you those jobs after dissertation by writing recs and helping you network. The best scholarly work on your topic may be coming from a person at an institution ranked well below the top 10 or 20. However, academics understand this, and they will respect you coming from that advisor, as opposed to a program that doesn't fit your interests as well. They will wonder, "Why did he go there?"
There are so many distinctions when it comes to your PhD work - take a history PhD, for example. Is it European? African? Southern? If it's Asian, is it East Asia? Southeast Asia? Say it's east Asia. China? Korea? Japan? What about time period - ancient? medieval? early modern? modern? What type of history - social? religious? political? Maybe it's a comparative field - poverty? race relations? economic develpment? What about history of science?
The permutations are rather endless. An advisor that's doing work close to what you want to do can advise you better, making your dissertation better, and giving you better recs for job hunting. Yes, fit matters - a lot.