Demystifying the Graduate School Going Experiences and Application Process

Dr. Amber M. Gonzalez
Assistant Professor  
California State University, Sacramento

One in five Latina/o freshmen students aspire to a Ph.D. or Ed.D. degree upon completion of their bachelor’s degree. The number of Latinas/os completing a graduate program in the United States is smaller than for any ethnic group, other than Native Americans.  American colleges and universities must capitalize on these aspirations and work to demystify these post-baccalaureate degrees and encourage Latina/o students to pursue a graduate degree upon the completion of their bachelor’s degree.  HSIs have the opportunity to increase these numbers as they serve more Latina/o undergraduate and graduate students than any other institutions and often have access to resources to provide services to Latina/o students. 

As an undergraduate student at an HSI I remember the day a professor reached out to me and told me I could go to graduate school.  This was the first time I thought enrolling in graduate school was an option for me which led me to wanting to better understand the experiences that support and encourage undergraduate Latina/o students to pursue graduate education.  Moreover, I promised myself that when I became a faculty member at an HSI, I would conduct research on Latina/o student experiences and be an active agent in helping them pursue their aspirations, including graduate school.  As an Assistant Professor I developed and implemented workshops to demystify graduate school and the application process.  Below are descriptions of these workshops and tips to help student become top candidates.

Workshop 1: What is Graduate School?

Initial discussions should include descriptions of post-baccalaureate programs including professional programs, credential programs, and research programs.  Students should walk away from these initial presentations with an understanding of what is expected within the programs and reasons an individual may want to attend such a program including careers, research, and opportunities for further learning. I always begin this workshop asking students what they believe post-baccalaureate programs are and reasons to attend and then build off of their voices and perspectives as I introduce what graduate and professional programs are and how these programs are different from undergraduate education.

Workshop 2:  Demystifying the Graduate School Application Process

Students also need to learn about the application process and requirements, including grade point averages, standardized exams, personal statements, statements of purpose, and recommendation letters.  It is crucial that students understand how to best prepare for the application process and a workshop should include a step-by-step process needed to research graduate schools and determine which schools are the best for each individual. This should occur in a workshop format where presenters take a hands-on approach and provide students the opportunity to use computer stations as the presenter walks them through websites such as gradschools.com. This approach will provide students with an opportunity to ask questions as they navigate through these unfamiliar websites. 

As students become familiar with the application requirements of schools of interest they need to understand how to write a letter of application. This includes understanding the differences between a statement of purpose (statements about research and career interests) and purpose statements (statements about oneself) as many universities and colleges are now asking for both, which can be confusing for any applicant.  Students must also understand how to best present themselves within these statements. Examples include explaining challenges they faced within the educational pipeline and how they were resilient in overcoming such challenges. 

Since faculty review graduate school applications, it is important to include faculty in this workshop. This allows students an opportunity to learn exactly what is being looked for within applications and how they can best present themselves. Students need to be informed of how to best request a letter of recommendation. Faculty can express what they are looking for when they are preparing a letter on behalf of a student, and what they are looking for when reading letters written by other faculty. These discussions help provide students the “insider” information, and can make a difference between a good candidate and a top candidate. 

Workshop 3: The Graduate School Experience – Stories of Success and Challenges

Inviting current graduate students is an important part of the series. These students can discuss their education pathways, their success and challenges with the application process, and the transition to graduate school.  Often, applicants do not know what or how to ask questions about graduate school or the application process, therefore, these current graduate student voices can offer answers to questions applicants do not know they should or could be asking.  An example of possible questions include: “What factors influenced your decision to enroll in the program you are in?”, “What are some critical relationships you should develop and build during your first year of graduate school and why?”, “What does it mean to be a person of color in academia?”, “What are some good strategies for 'staying true to you' throughout the journey?”, “What are strategies have you used when you feel inadequate or not good enough?”, “What are some things you wish you would have known to help you prepare for the application process?”, “How have you funded your graduate education?” and “What are some things you wish you would have known to help you prepare for the first year of graduate school?”  Answers to these questions are critical as Latina/o students begin to understand not only the application process of graduate school but the culture of persisting through graduate school.

These workshops must be grounded in students voices and connect to the students they are serving; therefore there is not a one model that works for all, as many office of graduate studies suggest in their practice.  As one participant stated, “Your workshop helped me to understand that Graduate School is possible with preparation and some time management.  As an AB 540 student, I thought Graduate School would be difficult to achieve, but I am starting to believe that it might just be possible if I follow the steps that you presented during your workshop. I can’t thank you enough for taking time out of your busy schedule to put together such an informative presentation.”  HSI’s can lead this process by creating institutional practices that are responsive to and grounded in students’ cultural patters of learning and knowing which will serve as examples for other institutions to follow.

Dr. Amber M. Gonzalez is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at California State University Sacramento. Her research interests include: Latinas and Latinos in Higher Education; Graduate Education; College Persistence and Success; Student Perceptions and Outcomes; Campus Climate; and the Intersectionalities of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in Education.