What sets grad students apart?

As class registration approaches, many students are beginning to urgently consider their future plans. For underclassmen, this could involve declaring a major or taking exploratory classes to find their interests. For upperclassmen it holds slightly more weight, as their futures could rely on decisions that are being made right now. After four years of college many students are burnt out and ready to switch pace by trying to get a “real” job—a career, if you will. However, some students are in fact just beginning their career education, such as seniors Carolyn Cooper and Natalie McCormick, who have committed themselves to even higher education than they have already achieved. Cooper plans to go to medical school, while McCormick will go to graduate school before ultimately attending law school in the future. Both of these students have weighed the options for their futures and have decided the best route for themselves. Their stories and advice may shed some light on the amount of work and determination that it takes to get into graduate school, much less finish it, for students who are still deciding their next steps. 

Both Cooper and McCormick were willing to tell me about their journey into graduate school from Hope. Because they are both seniors, they are still in the process of deciding which schools they will go to, but almost all other aspects of the process are finished. For Cooper, the application process started in May of her junior year with “the ACMAS (analogous to the Common App)… secondary applications from individual schools started arriving in July this year (a little later because of Covid).” After this it is just a “waiting game” as interviews start trickling in. For some schools it may be just a couple weeks until students hear back. For others it could be a few months, which is why it is so important to start applications early. McCormick described a timeline that was almost identical to this one, but she started just a few months later. “I have only applied to one school but I have like five other applications that I am working on, mostly because of the personal statement. I want to get it just right for every school that I am applying to,” explained McCormick. It is important to her that the school really knows who she is before they offer an interview, so she has doubled down to make them perfect. Because there are so many schools with different applications, McCormick has been taking this time to individualize her personal statements. Also during the summer McCormick was studying for the LSAT test, which will help determine whether she is admitted to graduate school. 

If you’re wondering, you chose the right college! Both applicants expressed the positive role that Hope has played in this process. “At Hope, we have the opportunity to get to know faculty quite well,” said Cooper. This helps when applying to graduate schools for two reasons. The first is that if you need a reference, it won’t be very hard to find. Second, the reference letter will be credible. Because faculty and students have such a good professional relationship at Hope, the letters are tailored to each applicant’s specific qualities. Cooper told me that her father once wrote a reference letter when he was a professor but didn’t even know the student. Graduate schools know this, and are more likely to take your reference letter seriously if you have a personal relationship with the professor writing it. McCormick also spoke on this topic, saying, “I asked another professor who I love to write me a letter of recommendation probably a few weeks ago.” She also explained that she has benefited from Hope’s liberal arts education, but she has chosen to go to graduate school so that she can focus on one subject and gain more experience before trying to get into a competitive law school. “I love learning, and I love being a student,” McCormick said as she was explaining her numerous years of education ahead. 

Cooper emphasized that she wants to pursue this career badly, which was striking to me. Most of my friends, myself included, did not know what our major would be until the first or second year of college. I believe that this is probably true for a lot of Hope’s student body because it is a liberal arts school, designed to help students find their major through exploration in college. However, Cooper has had this career on her mind for as long as she can remember. Cooper stated, “The idea of becoming a physician was something I had thought about throughout my life.” One of the big reasons that Cooper decided to become a physician is because she has an older brother who is on the autism spectrum. Additionally, her personal experiences before college and the experiences that she has invested in while at Hope have helped her come to this decision. Her Christian upbringing has also been a big factor in her decision, as she feels called to help others. While “everyone’s process and journey of why they decide to go to grad/med school is different… [you must] keep in mind why you are doing what you’re doing and how you want to use your experiences to accomplish your goals.” This goes hand in hand with her advice to undergraduate students who want to go to graduate school, which is to “invest in your own interests and strengths” to find what you love rather than just doing what you should do or what others are doing. 

McCormick’s advice talked a lot about how to make your dreams come true financially. Some may believe it to be taboo to speak about finances, but in reality, higher education costs money. For students aspiring to go to grad school, it is a big help to have some to personally speak to, which is why McCormick has volunteered to answer any questions and help out students who will soon be in her position. “Nobody wants to talk about it but it’s something that you really have to think about and consider when you’re applying to grad school. Also, the applications themselves are expensive,” explained McCormick. “Am I paying for them to reject me if I don’t get accepted?” McCormick joked. But in all reality, this is a really big concern that many students have to deal with. “If they have any questions, I am constantly checking my email (natalie.mccormick@hope.edu), so reach out.” Along with this, McCormick described her experiences with loans in undergrad and graduate school. She urges students to take advantage of federal loans because you don’t need a co-signer on them. For McCormick, she will be making enough money out of law school to pay for them, but she advises that managing money is very important to consider when deciding which school is best for you. “My financial situation is not good. However, federal loans in the U.S.—you can apply to any program in the world and they will give you up to almost $20,000 a year, I think.” McCormick also explains that limiting yourself to schools in the United States is not a good idea if you are able to travel out of the country. She has applied to a school in another country strictly for the monetary aspect. This is something that is important to consider when deciding which schools you can realistically apply to, so that you don’t waste money on applications that are not going to result in a good financial situation. “Where am I going to live? How am I going to pay for it? Am I going to be able to work while I’m in law school or grad school? Most people don’t work in grad school because it is very demanding,” explained McCormick. These are all important questions that take a lot of thought and conversation before coming to a decision that will be best for you individually. Again, McCormick urged anyone with questions to reach out to her. 

Both Cooper and McCormick had good advice for students who will soon be in their shoes and even those who are just starting to consider going to graduate school. Cooper said to “differentiate yourself from everyone else who is applying” by getting involved in your own activities and hobbies. McCormick urges students to consider finances. Both advised students to get started on the application process as early as possible because it takes so long. These are just some of the pieces of advice that they gave, but I could clearly tell from this advice that they have both worked so hard to be where they are and will be. They never gave up, which may just enable them to bring about the futures that they desire. 

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