It may be ideal to attend graduate school after you’ve become a junior expert in your field through work experience. But if you are determined to go to grad school directly from undergraduate—and in fact, there are some fields in which this is encouraged—this section will help you improve your chance of getting into grad school as an undergrad. (You’ll still want to gain real-world work experience to prepare for your future career, but there are ways to get that while you’re still in school. Keep reading!)
If you set out to enroll in grad school directly after college, preparation is essential. The most important task is getting skills and experience in your field so that you have confidence in your decision and so that the schools you apply to know you are ready. By gaining experience during your undergraduate years, you’ll know the language, leaders, and trends in your field; you’ll know if you really belong there, and be familiar with the variety of ways you can use your graduate degree to shape your future career.
Take advantage of undergraduate life
The simplest way to set yourself up for successful admission to grad school and a smooth career transition is simply by working hard during your undergraduate years. Contrary to popular belief, your grades do matter in college – especially if you’re planning on going to grad school. By being diligent, earning good grades, and participating on and off campus, you’ll attract fans—people in your network who want to help you succeed in your next steps.
Benefits of doing your best work include:
- The organizations you’ve been volunteering or interning with will want to hire you if they can.
- Your professors, club leaders, and peers will want to give you a good reference. They will take an interest in mentoring you, as an extension of themselves. They’ll want you to become part of their legacy.
- You’ll have great experiences to share at your school—or job—interviews. Your accomplishments will be reflected in your resume, statements of purpose, and cover letters.
- You’ll have gained the skills and confidence you need to succeed, in school and in future jobs.
Take advantage of being an undergraduate student. College and university campuses are full of resources and opportunities to help you succeed.
Classes: Choose your classes wisely. Take classes based not only on requirements for your bachelors degree, but also on what you’ll need to know for grad school.
- For example, macroeconomics classes are prerequisites for some international affairs programs. Find out what your priority schools require before you arrive, and work on those classes now. Use your classes to learn the language, current trends, and major players in your field. The authors of studies you are reading now might become your advisors in grad school!
- Some classes have a component that allows you to get practical experience, too—sometimes called practica or practicum.
- Finally, you may be able to enroll in graduate-level courses in your field, which will not only prepare you for grad school, help your professors take you seriously, and allow you to network with current grad students, but will also help you clarify if this kind of work is compelling to you and if you are good at it.
Professors: Visit your professors outside of class, not just before an exam or paper. Going to office hours—of your own professors and even professors you admire from afar—helps professors get to know you by name, and gives them a chance to mentor you in the best field in the world (theirs). They will have connections at graduate institutions, and can introduce you to programs you might not have known of, explain the differences between a Ph.D. and a masters in your field, and talk to you about the realities of life in academia.
Professors who know you better as a person will also be more willing to write letters of recommendation for your grad school applications and be better able to write about you in those letters.
Know before you go
Before visiting a professor, it’s always good to find out about any of their recent publications and at least scan them, so you have something fun to chat about! This is true for teaching assistants, too. Bonus: you might learn what they really want on that upcoming paper or exam, which could help you get a better grade. And who knows, you may become friends, and later, professional colleagues!
Clubs: Take on leadership roles among groups of people doing things you are passionate about—from media (radio stations and campus papers), to environmental activism, to pre-professional groups. Participating in a campus club is a unique opportunity to learn and lead—not easily replicated after graduation. It also demonstrates commitment to and passion for an issue, cause, or field. Commitment to cause and upward movement in related clubs matter!
Service-learning opportunities: After you graduate, you’ll have opportunities to volunteer or serve. As an undergraduate, you have the valuable opportunity to serve while being guided by a syllabus, a professor, and relevant readings.
Career center: Use the free services offered by the people whose job it is to help you find internships, teach you about the job search, and listen to your dreams. After you graduate, your career center may still help you—though sometimes they charge a fee for alumni. Career center staff may also connect you with alumni who can offer advice about what to study and how to launch a career.
Idealist.org can help
In addition to your college career center, you can find opportunities using Idealist’s free services:
- Search for volunteer positions, internships, and nonprofit jobs
- Visit Idealist’s Career Center and Volunteer Center
- Sign up for free email alerts matching your interests
- Read The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers
- Attend our Graduate Degree Fairs for the Public Good
Research funding and resources: In grad school, you’ll lead your own research projects and you may even need to fund your research. Undergraduate research grants may be available to you now, to fund a thesis or other project. Your undergraduate research can showcase the quality of your thinking and writing. This is another reason to get to know your professors and visit your school’s career center—they may be able to help you explore these resources.
On-campus jobs: Campuses are full of interesting paid jobs. Landing one of these jobs as a student is typically much less competitive than it will be after you graduate. Some examples: run a literary journal or edit a section of the campus paper, assist a professor with research, serve as a resident assistant for the school year or summer session, or work in departmental offices where you have close contact with professors.
Events and speakers: Become conversant in your field by participating in events and listening to guest speakers who play a role in your future world. Sometimes special guests to campus eat lunch with a group of select students—if this is the case, find out who is putting together the luncheon, and ask to attend. This may be a wonderful opportunity to begin networking with experts in your field.
Professional associations: Many professional fields have associations with journals, lectures, conferences, and networking possibilities. Examples include the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM). Professional associations often have reduced membership rates for undergrads. Your school may even be willing to pick up the cost.
Competitions: Academic competitions can bring (modest) fame and fortune. And competing in projects in your field can teach you a great deal, even if you don’t win.
Fellowships only open to undergraduates: Fellowships can pay for graduate study, or fund a gap year experience before grad school. If you can, start looking as a sophomore or junior, and prioritize those that require student status to apply. This is yet another reason to become familiar with your career center.
Study, volunteer, and travel abroad: Most campuses have an office of study abroad with staff who can alert you to opportunities to learn in another country. International experience allows you to learn or test your foreign language abilities, hone cross-cultural skills, and see the world in a different light. No matter what your future field, expanding your horizons by spending time abroad will help bring you closer to your goals.
Gap year opportunities: Taking a year off of school, either before your first year, or some time before senior year, is another way to get the experience you need to be successful in grad school. Examples include participating in a year of service (AmeriCorps, for example), or serving as a volunteer in a foreign country through a third-party service or network.
Take advantage of time off: Interning and volunteering
Sometimes the skills you want simply can’t be gotten in on- and off-campus jobs. Few better ways exist to get a good feel for a particular work setting or career field than to intern or volunteer.
While you are extremely busy as a college student, for the sake of lifelong happiness it really makes sense to clear an evening or weekend morning per week to volunteer or take an unpaid internship that lets you explore your interests. At the very least, use your summers and breaks wisely by looking for internships and volunteer opportunities in your field. For example: If you are interested in fundraising or grantwriting, try to find a local after-school youth mentoring program in need of your time and energy. If you want to explore your feelings about direct service, try volunteering to help low-income or limited-English-language adults prepare their tax forms, or volunteer in a free urgent-care clinic.
You can balance a part-time unpaid internship by taking on a part-time job elsewhere if you need to earn money during your summer.
Such opportunities will also connect you to a broader network of public service professionals—people who will be priceless resources as you look to your future. You can ask these contacts for informational interviews, and for guidance in choosing a field or a grad school.
Finding volunteer and internship positions
- Search Idealist.org
- Chapter Five of the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers has lots more advice on finding these positions.
- Talk to people your peers about interesting organizations they know
Document your accomplishments
In addition to getting involved during your undergrad years, it is a really good idea to document your accomplishments. By keeping track of what you have done, you can later remember achievements better, be more specific in interviews about them, and show examples of what you have done rather than simply describing them. Besides, by doing the work now you’ll save time later when you’re deep into applying for schools and jobs!
Documenting your accomplishments might seem tough while you are working so hard in school. One way to simplify the task is to find a good-sized box and add “artifacts” to it. Artifacts are examples like photographs, writing samples (published or not), position descriptions from internships and jobs, programs, flyers, newspaper articles, thank you notes (print or email) you received for a job well done, screenshots of webpages you have designed, etc.
By saving the artifacts, you’ll be giving yourself two important gifts:
- Visual aids to jog your memory about the breadth and depth of your achievement
- Contents to include in a portfolio (professional scrap book) you can bring with you to interviews
At the very least, it is a good idea to keep a running list of your accomplishments including, for example:
- What clubs and meaningful campus jobs you’ve held, your titles, duties, and dates of service
- What internships and meaningful summer jobs you’ve held, your titles, duties, and dates of service
- Which scholarships or research grants you’ve earned and their monetary value
- How many and what kind of meetings you have facilitated and for what size groups
- How many partnerships you’ve initiated, and the positive outcomes of these relationships
- How many and what kind of events you’ve managed, for how many attendees
- How many public speaking engagements you’ve held, for what size audiences, and on what topics
- What kind of awards you’ve won, names of awards, and for what achievements
- What courses you’ve taken and your grades
- Where and when your writing has been published
Quantifying your accomplishments wherever possible will help prospective employers and others evaluate your performance accurately. Additionally, you’ll provide data that many others lack.
Ways to use your artifacts and list of achievements
Create a permanent portfolio (professional scrap book) by dividing your artifacts by skill area and putting together pages with writing and work samples, photos of you at work, thank you notes, your resume, etc.
You can also compile a few different samples of your work in a manila file folder to leave behind at an interview or submit with your application (if asked). Finally, include summaries of these accomplishments and statistics in your resume.
Build relationships and “networking”
Building relationships is of key importance during your college years. The value of a strong social and professional network is impossible to overestimate, especially in the nonprofit sector. Start building relationships early on in a purposeful way. You never know if a connection you make in college could help you later on in life.
Take on experiences, responsibilities, and tasks that you may not yet be good at, or that take you out of your professional comfort zone. If you study journalism, use a writing assignment to tackle a topic you are unfamiliar with. If you are an engineering student, try an anthropology or poetry class (or vice versa). You might discover something new about yourself that will help drive your next steps in a direction you hadn’t predicted. Your worldview will expand, and you will set yourself apart from other students in your field.
Set professional goals
No matter what year of college you are in, it’s a good time to either establish or revisit your professional goals. Going to grad school isn’t easy! When you hit tough times making the grade or finding time for all the reading, remembering your broader or alternative goals will help you see that this is all leading somewhere and that you are working toward a better life!
Professional goals help you:
- Seek the professional experience you need to get into graduate school or to land a job
- Accept feedback from your professors, supervisors, and others
- Shape the direction of the classes and projects you take on at school
If it helps, think of the direction you’d like to go in professionally, and steps you can take during your college years to move you in the right direction. These are your professional goals. It might also help to look at your resume: do gaps exist that you can fill during college? These are also professional goals.
Conclusion and further resources
This article listed many actions you can take as an undergrad to help prepare for grad school and increase your chances for success in your chosen field. The most important thing is knowing what your goal is, and with that in mind, taking the initiative to pursue every opportunity to learn, gain relevant experiences, and build as many relationships as you can from the resources available to you as an undergrad student.
- Read our article about differences between undergraduate and graduate school
- Consider some good and bad reasons to go to grad school
- Read our articles about financing your graduate education
- Learn how to share your story with the admissions office