Applying to graduate school is, in many respects, like applying for a job. Anyone who has ever applied for a job knows the importance of having relevant experience in the same or at least a similar kind of work. It is not impossible to get a job without previous experience — it’s just much harder to do so. All other things being equal, most jobs will go to applicants with experience. It can be like that when a graduate-admissions committee considers which applicants to accept into their programs, too… though not for all the same reasons.
Most students are generally aware that it can be helpful to get experience in research or fieldwork prior to applying to graduate school. But many underestimate just how important one’s experience can sometimes be when it comes to being accepted. For some programs, having the right experience is virtually a requirement!
To understand why, prospective graduate students should be aware that acceptance decisions are based primarily on risk management. There is usually an upper limit on the number of new students that can be accepted into a graduate program, and virtually all programs have more applicants than they can accept. The goal of the admissions committee is to accept only applicants who are going to succeed in the program without running into any problems along the way. (Contrary to the way some people think it should be, selections are not based on who “deserves” it the most).
From the point of view of an admissions committee, the student who has sought out relevant work or volunteer experience has demonstrated the kind of initiative and interest in the field that is needed for success in graduate school. The applicant with experience is more likely to already be dedicated to a particular career path, and therefore, less likely to be discouraged by some of the challenges of graduate school.
From the point of view of a prospective graduate advisor, applicants with relevant experience have a lower risk of failure than the ‘inexperienced’ by virtue of having already shown they can do things that will be required in graduate school. This can include many things, for example, professional skills like writing, public speaking, creative expression, or critical analysis. The similarity to job-seeking is once again apparent — just as the main advantage to the employer is that the experienced job applicant will require less training than a naive one, thus saving the employer time and money, most prospective graduate advisors will evaluate new applicants in much the same way. Students who have already demonstrated some aptitude will probably have a relatively easier time finishing, without causing any grief for the faculty members who supervise and mentor them. It’s all about risk management. Read this post about the Right and Wrong ways to find a volunteer position.
Getting relevant experience is also essential to lining up the best letters of recommendation for graduate school. This is especially true if that experience includes helping a professor with his or her research, because the most influential letters of recommendation usually come from academic people who know what they are talking about when they attest to a student’s suitability for graduate studies.
Stay tuned for our next blog post where I will discuss why not all experience is created equal.