An old Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
I love the wisdom of these words, in both a literal sense and as a metaphor for many situations encountered in life. In a literal sense, the proverb has personal relevance for me, as my wife and I have been growing vegetables in our backyard garden for many years, and I have often yearned to also have a small orchard of apple and cherry trees that would provide a bounty of fruit. I have had this longing for many years, but did nothing about it until I finally planted several apple and cherry trees, two years ago. Pondering this Chinese proverb – especially the second part — helped motivate me to stop delaying and finally plant those trees. We don’t expect significant amounts of fruit for another few years, because trees do not tend to produce very much until they are several years old. But the time will come when our trees are mature and we will have lots of cherries and apples to eat.
The proverb is also a good metaphor for an issue that many college and university students run into when they start preparing to apply to graduate school. Most wait until a few months before applications deadlines before thinking about how they might gain some advantage in the competition for admission, and although it might seem like 4 to 6 months is ample time to put together a winning application, certain essential extracurricular elements can take more like a year or two to put in place.
The best time to begin preparing for graduate school applications is last year
One of the main reasons why certain grad-school applicants are accepted while most are rejected is because the successful ones have effective letters of recommendation from the right people. Most unsuccessful applicants are rejected in part because their letters of recommendation were ineffective. As I have explained in another article, letters of recommendation are highly influential in determining the fate of most graduate school applications – even more so than the applicants’ grades. A professor who only knows a student from the classroom and exam performance will not be able to provide an effective letter recommendation for graduate school. A professor may very well be willing to provide a letter of recommendation for a student who earned an A+ grade in a course, but if the professor knows only about the student’s academic strengths, then there will be very little relevant substance to the letter.
The best time to start taking steps to prepare for grad school is when you still have at least 2 years before you will be applying to programs. This time should be used to acquire relevant experience and set the groundwork for letters of recommendation that will eventually help you get in.
As I have discussed many times before on this blog, the benefits that come from getting relevant experience for grad school preparation usually go far beyond any skills or knowledge that are gained from the experience. Even more valuable is the opportunity to be seen in action and evaluated – to have your best qualities discovered by someone who will later be able to endorse your graduate school application with an effective letter of recommendation.
Everyone knows you need some relevant experience to have a competitive grad-school application, but too many people mistakenly assume the important thing is simply to be able to show evidence of having relevant experience in a CV, in a cover letter, or on an application form. This is a mistake. Just having some amount of seemingly relevant experience does not put anyone ahead in the competition to get into a graduate program, because every applicant will have some.
The most significant benefit that potentially comes from getting the right type of experience is that it’s the best way to set up the influential letters of recommendation. Those recommendation letters should describe how the applicant has demonstrated skills, abilities, and character attributes that are essential for success in graduate school. (Read more about the importance of applicant-evaluation forms in the selection process, and how to make sure you have effective letters from the right people). When it comes to being selected for admission to grad school, it doesn’t matter how much experience you have – it only matters whether those experiences have left the right impressions about you on someone who can help you get into grad school with a great recommendation letter.
All of this explains why getting into any decent graduate program requires one to do more during the final two years of a bachelor’s program than simply earn good grades in the required courses. Successful applicants will not necessarily have higher GPAs than the unsuccessful ones, but they will tend to have two or three persuasive letters of recommendation from professors who have some experience of how the student works in a research context. Rejected applicants often have letters of recommendation that are ineffective because they are from professors or lecturers whose knowledge of the student is limited to classroom and exam performance.
In order to set up an effective letter of recommendation, a student must spend considerable time (at least a few months, but often even longer) working with or under the supervision of a professor who does research. This experience should be one that enables the professor to learn about the student’s character, abilities, and aptitudes that are relevant to success in graduate school. If the student’s performance over an adequate period of time is generally strong, and if they stand out from the crowd in relevant ways, then the professor should be able to provide an effective letter of recommendation to support the student’s applications to graduate or professional school.
A key point here is how much time it takes to set up those essential letters of recommendation. Consider also that most programs require applicants to have three letters of recommendation. Most applicants will have at least some relevant experience, and as a result, at least one somewhat effective letter. In order to have a competitive edge over other applicants, one should have three highly effective letters. This may require making a commitment to helping a professor over a couple of semesters, and to repeat the same commitment again with at least one other professor. It could involve an Honour’s thesis, or a similar credit-based research course, in which a professor supervises the student. Earning an effective recommendation letter requires that students display dedication and reliability over an adequate period of time. There are no shortcuts that can be taken to circumvent the need for either the relevant experience or the time required to gain that experience.
The second best time is ‘now’
So here’s my quandary: I need to convey these key insights to students who want help with their graduate-school applications, but most who seek my advice or counselling won’t do so until they are close to graduating and have only a couple of semesters left to go. The best time to learn what they need to know about preparing a successful grad-school application was last year. Or better yet, two years ago.
Problem is, most of them weren’t even thinking about graduate school back when they could have benefited the most from this advice.
How about you? Do you plan to go to graduate school after you earn your bachelor’s degree? Or, do you at least think you might make the decision to pursue a master’s or Ph.D. at some point in the future?
Consider the Chinese proverb. Don’t delay. Get planting the seeds for your success, as they will take some time to bear fruit.
Do you have questions or comments about anything mentioned in this article? Please consider sharing them in the comment section. I will try to answer any appropriate questions. Alternatively, if you are interested in communicating directly with me to receive personalized guidance and advice on any aspect of your educational or career planning, you might consider using my consultation services.
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