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Six things I wish I’d known when applying to grad school

Looking for tips to get into the graduate program of your dreams at an art and design school? One successful grad student and former CCA graduate counselor shares lessons learned and her expert advice to make your application stand out.

Applying to graduate school, especially at an art and design school, can be a tricky process. Think of it as both an application process and a networking opportunity. At the graduate level, you’re auditioning schools just as much as they’re evaluating you as a candidate. As someone who counsels applicants at a top-ten art and design college, I’ve learned some key strategies and tips I wish I’d known when I was going through the grad school application process myself. Here are my top six:

1. Research, research, research!

Spend time researching not only the programs you're interested in applying to, but also the faculty who teach in those programs. Grad school is the bridge between your academic and professional lives, and the faculty will be the people guiding your education, advising you, and forming the foundation of your professional network. You should feel free to reach out directly to faculty you're interested in working with for a first-hand perspective on the programs that interest you.

2. Attend program information sessions and admissions events.

These events provide a great opportunity to begin developing relationships with the people you’d be working with over the course of your graduate study. Start building those relationships early, before you even apply, and you’ll increase the likelihood that your application will rise to the top. Additionally, in the graduate admissions process the program faculty are the ones reading your application. The more you interact with them, the more mutually beneficial these sessions will be.

These events also give you a direct line to the programs to ask questions about both the course of study and the admissions process. An important part of graduate school is developing one-on-one mentorship connections with your professors, so learning more about the program and the faculty who would become your mentors can help you determine early on if a program will be a good fit for you.

3. Make an appointment with an admissions counselor.

This is a great opportunity to get expert advice on your application—before you even apply. It’s the job of admissions counselors to help you navigate the application process, so you can be confident that your application represents you in the best possible way. And they can also help connect you directly with people in the programs that interest you. Remember, every school is looking for something different, so use this resource to gain the unique insights and connections that will make you a top candidate!

4. It's all about your portfolio and essay.

Think of your graduate school application as having a conversation with itself. All aspects of your application should speak to each other. As you're compiling your materials, make sure you take the time to compare them with one another and see how they fit together. Your essay is your opportunity to provide a narrative that tells the story of your work, your life, your experience, and your future. Your portfolio is your chance to show your work concretely, but make sure it's diverse enough that it showcases all aspects of your talent. Do not rush these two critical aspects of your application—they matter a lot more to the programs you’re applying to than your undergraduate grades do.

5. Speak about your work in a simple but sophisticated way.

You want to write about your work in your statements and essays in a way that directly communicates exactly what you need to say but still situates it in context with the research you've done. Show the programs that you are self-assured and confident in the work you're making and the work you want to continue making in the future.

6. Be yourself!

It sounds corny, but it's true. Graduate programs want to hear your authentic voice and ideas above all else. Don't try to cater to them, think about speaking to the program as if you want to work collaboratively with them.

Making the time to do your research, connect with the programs that interest you, put together a thoughtful application, and let the real you shine through will all help ensure you have a full picture of the graduate programs you’re applying to, and will help you stand out as a top candidate!

Ronika McClain, senior manager of academic programs, Critical Ethnic Studies and graduate program in Writing, California College of the Arts

November, 17, 2021