On to the next one: Going to grad school

Emmanuelle Benkoski '10 began filling out medical school applications at the end of her junior year. She is just one of many Stanford students who chooses to continue their education post-college. HELENA VILLALOBOS/The Stanford Daily

For high school students, the three months between pressing the gut-wrenching “submit” button on college applications and receiving admissions decisions is a nerve-wracking, but fairly lax waiting period. But for college seniors applying to graduate or professional schools, the research, application and decision-making process is intensely hands-on and drawn-out.

“I sent in the first part of my application last June, and it’s still not over,” said Emmanuelle Benkoski ’10, who started filling out medical school applications at the end of her junior year and has yet to choose between her top two schools, Boston University and Tufts University.

Because of the multitude of prerequisite classes and extracurricular activities expected of med school applicants, students often have to begin the preparation process in the fall or winter of their freshman year. Benkoski, along with other medically minded undergraduates undeterred by the organic chemistry series, spent a significant part of her junior year studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)–the MCAT Web site recommends beginning to study at least three months in advance of the planned test date–and moved onto formal applications the following summer.

Law school is also a popular option after Stanford. Although academic preparation for law school is generally less rigorous than that for medical school–law schools admit students from a wide range of undergraduate majors–the application process itself is equally demanding.

Mohammad Ali ‘10, a coterminal student in sociology who majored in international relations as an undergraduate, called applying for law school a “horrendous process” dominated by a personal statement that took four months to perfect, the search for professors who could write the best letters of recommendation and the bureaucracy of transcript requests. Like Benkoski, Ali started his applications in June and didn’t submit the last one until November.

Ali plans to attend UC-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law next year, unless he is accepted at Stanford, which he has yet to hear from, or gets in off the waitlist at either Columbia University or the University of Chicago.

“I applied only to top-10 schools–that was my basic criterion,” Ali said. “I’m going to go to the best school I get into, and right now that’s Berkeley.”

According to Law School Admission Council statistics, 82 percent of Stanford students who applied to law school last year were accepted into one or more schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Georgetown, Columbia and UC-Berkeley.

However, the number of Stanford students applying to law school has dropped significantly in past years, from 318 applicants in 2007 to 268 in 2009. Kathryn Wright, the primary pre-law advisor at Undergraduate Academics and Research (UAR), suggested that this might be a symptom of the recessed economy.

“Usually in an economic downturn, applications to law school increase,” Wright wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “In this recession, however, Stanford students seem to be more cautious.”

The decision to continue on to graduate or professional school can be made at many points during a student’s education, from freshmen who come to Stanford determined to be doctors, to science or humanities majors who decide mid-way through junior year that graduate school is the place to be.

But at Stanford, it seems that many of the students who go on to earn various higher degrees begin their undergraduate careers knowing that it will not be the final step in their education.

“I wasn’t sure how far I wanted to go [master’s degree or Ph.D.], but I knew I wanted to go to grad school long before I got to Stanford,” wrote Taylor Cone ’10 in an e-mail to The Daily. Cone will continue next year at Stanford as a coterminal student of mechanical engineering.

The coterminal degree program at Stanford allows students to begin work on a master’s degree while still finishing their bachelor’s degree. A far cry from the intensive, time- and soul-consuming applications for professional school or traditional master’s and Ph.D. programs, applying to co-term was a fairly smooth and straightforward process, Cone said.

“I think that applying to the coterminal program as a current Stanford student is different, because you’re already here,” he added. “It’s not as big of a deal for the department to add you as a student.”

According to Judith Haccou, director of graduate admissions at Stanford, the process is very decentralized and run primarily within each of the more than 65 admitting departments. The individual departments, Haccou wrote in an e-mail to The Daily, “maintain their own admissions processes, application deadlines and admission standards based on… faculty research and availability, department fellowship and assistantship funding availability [and] professional experience.”

No one was short on advice for potential graduate or professional school applicants.

“The main thing I learned is that applying to medical or graduate school requires a lot of organization,” Benkoski said. “I’ve never made so many spreadsheets in my life!”

Haccou stressed the value of early planning when applying to graduate school. Applying undecided is not an option, and standardized tests such as the LSAT, MCAT and GRE have considerably more weight in most grad school admissions offices than they do in undergraduate admissions. In addition, generic letters of recommendation will not sufficiently support an application to a competitive institution–she said students should think hard about which professors they’ve interacted with most frequently and effectively, and put less weight on name recognition than on positive personal and academic history.

Ali echoed the importance of being organized and getting an early start on professional school applications. He explained that law and medical schools mostly operate on a rolling admissions basis, so the earlier one applies, the better his or her chances.

He added that current law, medical and graduate students–anyone who has recently gone through the same process and has a good grasp on the students’ side of applying–have consistently been the best sources of advice for him and his friends during this often stressful and confusing time.

“I’d say to figure out what you want and where to get it, sooner rather than later,” Cone said. “You definitely don’t want to make a decision based on a deadline rather than your heart.”