Timetable and Importance of Grad School Campus Visits
Question: My daughter is a college sophomore and plans to attend graduate school after she gets her bachelor's. Should we start touring grad schools next year? Is "intent" as important in grad school as it is in undergrad?
Students typically apply to far fewer graduate schools than they do to undergraduate colleges. Thus, grad school admission officials usually don't scrutinize “demonstrated interest" (or “intent," as you've called it) the way that undergrad admission folks often do in order to figure out if a prospective student is likely to enroll.
Moreover, while sophomore year and the start of junior year are not too soon for students to be looking ahead, this is way too early for them to know which grad programs will best fit their needs and, especially, where they are likely to be admitted. Grades in upper-level courses, especially in their major (or in their intended grad school field, if it's different) as well as standardized test scores will play a key role in determining a grad school list.
So if your daughter's primary reason for touring campuses next year is to make an impression on admission officials, her efforts will be unnecessary and might possibly even work against her. (Grad school admission officials may not view her as a serious candidate until she is further along in her schooling.)
If, however, your daughter wants to see campuses just so that she can start eliminating some universities — or parts of the country — and to get a stronger sense of what's “out there" than she has right now, then there's no harm in taking some trips.
At this point, however, the most effective steps she can take are to “visit" grad programs electronically by reading websites and other materials so she can begin to make some very preliminary decisions. She should also talk to faculty members at her current college and ask for school suggestions. This is particularly important if she plans to go to grad school in her current area of concentration (English, chemistry, psychology, anthropology, etc.). If she's interested in a grad program that attracts students from varied majors (e.g., law school, med school, business school), then she should be meeting with the appropriate advisor on her campus who can recommend target colleges and also let her know how her profile (grades, extracurriculars, test scores once she has them) stacks up against those of potential competitor applicants.
Thus, spring of her junior year, not the fall, is probably a good time for her to schedule some visits in earnest, once she has a clearer sense of her goals ... and her grades. Unlike the undergrad college admission process, where students commonly visit lots of campuses before compiling a list of finalists, grad school aspirants are more likely to visit later in the cycle ... after a short list has already been created, or sometimes after acceptance letters have been received. (The timetable will also be influenced by whether an on-campus interview is expected.) Different, too, from the undergrad process is that parents should really stay in the shadows. Most grad school candidates don't see campuses with mom or dad in tow, and if the parents do come along, they should steer clear of official meetings with faculty and staff.
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