By: Rachel Grider, College Success Program Mentor
As your last year of college approaches, you must consider the ultimate question: What's next? What will you do after graduation? Will you apply to a graduate program, or do you already have the necessary tools you need to start working at your dream career? If the former, do you want to take a year off between college and graduate school to gain some perspective?
This is an important decision which you should not make lightly. In many cases, depending on one's major and career choice, graduate school is an option but not absolutely necessary. For example, a music major who dreams of a career as a full-time performer may decide to forego additional schooling and go straight into the job market; if that same music major wants to also be marketable as a teacher, however, he or she definitely should consider getting a graduate degree or a teaching credential.
In many jobs, a graduate degree is not only recommended, but required. Because of this, it is extremely important that you prepare yourself and be aware of the challenges in preparing and applying for graduate school.
Start Your Research Early
Just as when you applied for college, begin researching graduate schools as soon as possible; have a list of schools you are considering at least two semesters before you wish to start attending. Contact the professors who are over your major area, and, if you have the time and resources, take a trip to visit the schools. Learn each school's individual requirements, and network with professors and students. Just as when applying for a job, networking is everything. Case in point, when I had my grad school interview, the department head mentioned that she had heard about me from one of her students and that the student's recommendation had helped my application to stand out.
I would recommend applying to at least three graduate programs. Unlike most undergraduate schools, graduate professors are not merely viewing you as a potential student but as someone who has the potential to give back to the school in some way, not only after graduation, but also while a student. Graduate programs are usually of a more specific scope than undergraduate programs, and space is limited; also, there are usually opportunities to be considered for an assistantship or fellowship to add to your resume and to help with expenses. Because of this, applying for graduate school is very much like applying for a job.
Present Your Very Best Impression
Make sure your application materials are grammatically flawless and present you in the very best possible light. Ask your current professors for advice along the way, and have someone you trust review your materials before submitting them so that you can get a more objective perspective.
Acing the In-Person or Virtual Interview
Usually, if your application passes preliminary screening, you will be asked for a personal interview with the department. This is your opportunity to shine, and it can make or break your chances of being accepted. This is also when you may wish to address your blindness for the first time.
Always be prepared for questions, both spoken and unspoken, to come up about your blindness, especially if you are applying for a program which may require numerous adaptations, such as anything STEM related. Make a list before your interview of possible challenges which the program may present and ways you can address them. If you also wish to be considered for an assistantship, be sure to take all of the practicalities of that into consideration as well, having ideas on adaptations you might need to consider. For example, my assistantship required me to teach a music theory class, and in order to put the minds of my panel at ease, I had to explain just exactly how I would be able to teach in front of a classroom using music notation that was accessible to both myself and my students, not to mention how I would be able to grade homework and tests. Yes, it seems unfair to have to think that far ahead when your sighted peers may not have to, but that is the reality of our situation.
If possible, visit or talk with your prospective school's disabilities services office (DSO) before your interview to find out more about the specific resources available to you prior to your interview. You may feel that, as a graduate student, you should be responsible for securing your own accommodations - which is true, of course - but the DSO may still help you with things like getting your materials in an accessible format or paying for a reader.
During your grad school interview, conduct yourself with poise and confidence. Most likely, there will be a panel of faculty members in attendance; introduce yourself to them and take the initiative. Smile and relax. Answer their questions honestly.
If the question of your visual impairment does not come up, I would strongly advise that you bring it up yourself in a professional, diplomatic way; do not assume that simply because it is not brought up, there is no concern about how you will complete the program. It is my experience that once I start talking about my blindness in a situation when others have been reluctant to bring it up, questions which have been on everyone's mind begin to surface, and an open, enlightening discussion follows. Let them know that it is OK to ask questions, and don't allow yourself to become offended if a concern is addressed which you had not thought a problem. At the end of your interview, there will probably be an opportunity for you to ask your own questions. Take advantage of this; remember that not only are you being considered as a potential student, you are also considering whether or not this school would be the best school for you.
Waiting for What?
After your interviews comes the most painful step of the graduate school application process - waiting. Try very hard not to obsess over your application. Instead, keep yourself busy with an academic, professional or volunteer project if you can.
Hopefully, when the wait is over, you will receive an acceptance letter from your dream graduate school, complete with a beautiful scholarship (or stipend) and an assistantship. Unfortunately, however, this does not always happen; sometimes, the acceptance letter does not come with any financial benefits, or, worse yet, it isn't an acceptance at all. While this may be difficult and frustrating, hopefully, you have applied for multiple schools and have at least two others on which to fall back. If, in the unlikely event you are not accepted into any schools to which you had applied, don't think that graduate school is closed off to you forever. There is absolutely no shame in taking a semester or two to gain some work experience or in taking some courses to better prepare yourself for the next time you apply to grad school.