Resumes and grad school applications: Tips from those who know

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Students share experiences of getting into grad school

As the class of 2012 looks out on the world beyond the halls of academia, the big question of what’s next can be intimidating. Students looking to join the work force in a professional line of work may be worrying about whether their degree will get them an opening in their field. For those looking ahead to graduate school, it can sometimes be hard to know how to go about the application process and what kinds of trip-ups to avoid.

In terms of readying an application for a graduate program or tailoring a resume for a specific job, there are many things students can do to show their merit to perspective employers or increase their chances of getting accepted to the program they want.

Application Tips

Utilize experience
Keep track of any extracurricular activities or experiences. Even experience that does not initially appear to be relevant to what you’re applying for can give you a leg up in the competition—they’ll show off advanced communication and management skills.

Tailor resumes
In terms of resumes, one size does not fit all. Resumes should be altered to emphasize skills and experience that are specifically relevant for each job.

Get a second opinion
Resumes, cover letters and any additional documents should be grammatically perfect when submitted. Utilize resources such as the Career Center or ask someone to proofread documents before submitting them to a potential employer.

For recent or pending graduates submitting resumes, Portland State’s Career Center offers weekly workshops on constructing resumes with the right presentation and content.

“A resume is your chance to show an employer that you have the skills and experience necessary to do the job. Your resume needs to be tailored specifically to the position and focused on the required and preferred qualifications outlined in the position description. Your resume also needs to be well written and visually perfect, this will communicate you professionalism and how serious you are about your application,” said Associate Director of Career Services Gregory Flores.

As the job market shifted into creating more informationally focused jobs, the emphasis on specific skills has, in some cases, begun to be trumped by skills that serve in an interactive setting. Though extracurricular activities are not important to some employers, any project in which students demonstrated people management skills or even coordination could be considered useful experience.

Activities such as student government, publications, music ensemble work or business clubs all show experience with commitment to planning ahead and working in groups. Experiences that demonstrate communication skills such as second language classes, study abroad and work in technical or published writing all show essential communication skills.

Career Center resources are available with free access to PSU alumni for up to one year after graduation. The center also networks with employers looking to hire college-aged employees, with job postings updated weekly.

Other organizations such as the Oregon Career Development Association provide similar resources for navigating the job market and developing a resume, with job postings, scholarships and internships. Even if an internship is unpaid, it adds experience to a resume and is a way to accumulate experience and make connections with professionals in the field.

“An important thing to remember is that the best way to find a job is through connecting with people. Well-crafted materials are essential, but it is relationships and your ability to connect with people that will win you positions,” Flores added.

In regard to getting ready for graduate school, Undergraduate Advising and Support Center Associate Director Becki Hunt Ingersoll said: “I would suggest students think of graduate school applications like we traditionally think of the application process for college-bound high school students—start researching in your sophomore or junior year of college (or for those on the less-traditional path, a year or two before you plan to enter graduate school). This lays the ground work for knowing what is required (pre-requisite courses, letters of recommendation, standardized tests) and allows time to be prepared for the application process itself which typically has deadlines of six to 12 months in advance.”

Graduate student Jenni Johns, who is majoring in English, discussed the surprises she found in applying to programs and what was helpful in retrospect.

“The deadline for my program was much earlier than the school application deadline, and it was not a well-published piece of info. I actually missed it the first time I went to apply. I thought I was being proactive by getting things together three months ahead of time, but really I was a couple days late for the cut-off date. I had to take another year off from school, but I think it ended up being good to have the extra time to prepare,” Johns said.

“Save everything—all your papers, projects and assignments. You will likely need to supply grad programs with samples of your work. It is good to have a good variety to choose from so that you can show off all your attributes,” she added.

“Keep in touch with instructors who know your good work—every program requires letters of recommendation and you will need several instructors who know your potential. Participate in volunteer work in your field—that will help you be sure you want to keep pursuing your field of study and give you real life experience to talk about in your application essay,” Johns added.

Richard J. Gould Jr. was a post-baccalaureate student in creative writing at PSU when he started applying to Master of Fine Arts programs at PSU and surrounding universities. After a rejection from his first choice program, Gould was accepted at two other programs and will be starting a low residency MFA at Pacific University.

“I would suggest to any grad student to throw out at least several applications to places you really want to go to and to places you think you may have a shot at getting into. I think it’s important to be realistic too,” Gould said. “I was surprised at how tight the programs are to get into, how many slots there are. I think the more well-chosen applications you put in, the chances are higher that you’ll get something that you want. I probably should have sent out more applications,” he added.

“All you can do is the best you can do on your end in being your own advocate and get everything in on time and accurately so you know you gave it your best shot,” Gould said.

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