If you are considering applying to graduate programs in political science, there are several factors which you should carefully weigh when making such a big decision about your future. Here is a guide for how to select a graduate political science program that is appropriate for you and also a timetable to follow when applying to their programs.
In selecting a graduate school, first arrange a meeting with one of your political science professors. He or she will give you guidance as to what kind of graduate programs exist and their strengths and weaknesses. Keep in mind that graduate programs will vary considerably in their focus. Hence, it is not a good idea to solely base your choice of a program on the general reputation of the school alone. You must research the school to find out whether the particular department is strong in the areas or sub-fields that you want to study.
Get a copy of the APSA's Graduate Faculty and Programs in Political Science, and read about the schools your professors suggest. Discuss these choices with political science professors. They may know some things about the department that could affect your decision to apply. Most departments of political science will be glad to send you a brochure about their graduate programs which will provide you with more detailed information to help you pare down the number of schools you are considering. It is not unusual to apply to anywhere from five to fifteen different graduate programs. By applying to a number of schools, you increase the likelihood of being accepted and also receiving financial assistance.
There are a number of both academic and personal factors that weigh into your chances of being accepted to a graduate program in political science. In order to gain acceptance into a higher ranked school, you will need a strong overall GPA (at least around a 3.5) and also good grades in your political science classes. Many of these graduate programs recommend GRE scores of 600 or more in each category, 1200 verbal and quantitative combined. Realize that applicants will often have scores that are much higher than these minimum expected GPA and GRE scores.
A strong research background shows graduate programs that you are able to think analytically. Look to complete an independent senior research project that will highlight these skills, and you might want to try to publish an article in one of the scholarly undergraduate journals such as the Undergraduate Review, Res Publica, and The Park Place Economist. The research project that you start in senior seminar will most likely become your writing sample for graduate school. Be sure to develop a strong research project that will show your ability to write, to analyze data, as well as conduct meaningful research. Talk to your senior seminar professor before choosing your topic so that he or she can help you create a really strong research paper. You should also consider continuing your research project through an independent study the spring of your senior year so that you will be able to defend your results at the Spring Research Conference as well as to a committee for Research Honors. Both of these opportunities are excellent ways to highlight your commitment and maturity to conduct academic research.
Campus activities also are a good way to show commitment, leadership, and creativity. Organizations such as Debate, Pi Sigma Alpha, College Democrats, College Republicans, Habitat for Humanity, Student Senate, etc., are also possible organizations to join and commit to during college. Another way to show aptitude and a sense of maturity in your decision to go to graduate school is to find an internship that somehow relates to the fields that you want to pursue in graduate school.
It is not too early to start talking to political science professors about possible graduate study in your freshman, sophomore, or junior year. It is imperative that you give yourself enough time to complete all of the applications. You must start this process no later than the beginning of the fall semester of your senior year. Following is a schedule you could follow in your senior of college:
Talk with professors in the political science department about graduate school in general and specific programs which may be best for you.
Search through books on graduate programs in political science and make a list of programs that interest you. Review this list with your professor. Determine what kind of financial aid packages the department usually offers its incoming class. How many years do they financially support their students? Do students compete for funding the first year or not? These are important questions to ask the department that you are researching.
If you talk to the secretaries of a particular department, be nice. They can really help you out in a bind, or else make your life miserable if you are rude to them. Treat the staff with respect and courtesy at all times.
If you have not already done so, find out when the Graduate Record Examination is being administered by contacting the Career Center. You need to find out if the graduate departments you are considering require the specialized political science portion of the GRE, and if necessary make arrangements to take it. Since the GRE is a very important factor in receiving financial aid from a graduate school program, you might want to consider taking a prep course offered by Stanley Kaplan at ISU. Other options include picking up some practice books and working over vocabulary, analytic reasoning, and math. It is to your benefit to prepare for this three-and-a-half hour long exam. The latest date that you can take the GRE by pencil and paper and still apply to graduate programs is the Mid-October date. Computerized GREs are also available, but they do not offer you some of the same testing conditions as the pencil and paper exams, and therefore are generally not recommended.
Send for program brochures and applications from the political science departments of the graduate schools that interest you, and pick out the programs you will apply to. Shoot for a range of programs that vary in their admissions criteria by choosing some schools that you have a strong shot at getting into and also a couple that are more selective.
Decide who among your professors might recommend you for graduate school. Personally visit your recommenders to ask them to write a letter. Bring a briefing sheet for each recommender listing the course or courses you took with them, the grade your received, the titles of the papers you wrote in that class, your resume, and anything else that might help them write a meaningful letter for you. Be sure to ask them if they feel comfortable writing a good letter of recommendation. The last thing you want is a mediocre or poor letter from a professor as that could seriously harm your chances of getting into your selected graduate programs. Be sure to also make them aware of the deadlines for the letters of recommendation because some are as early as December 15. Click here for more information on requesting letters of recommendation from faculty.
It is your responsibility to make sure that your recommenders complete the letters for you, so gently remind them throughout the semester about your letter.
Take the GRE and have the scores sent directly to the graduate schools that you are applying to so that they receive them in time.
November or December
Write a draft of your personal statement. It is imperative that you have your personal statement reviewed by political science faculty as they know what graduate school admission committees are looking for in this letter. Do not underestimate the importance of the personal statement. It is a crucial part of your application because it is the only thing that the admissions committee will receive from you that reflects your personality and also your choices for pursuing graduate study. Consequently, it requires a lot of thought, many rewrites, and also input from other qualified people.
Type your applications and make sure they look neat. You want to turn your application in with some time to spare so they arrive before the deadline. Do not rely on next day air shipping unless your are rich-and you won't be after you've paid for your GRE scores, your application fees, transcript fees, and phone calls to the department requesting information.
Turn the applications in and RELAX. There is nothing you can do not except wait-and enjoy the second semester of your senior year.
Sign up for independent study 402 to prepare you for Research Honors and the Spring Research Conference.
February, March, or April
You will start to hear back from your schools by mid-February at the earliest. Keep the political science professors abreast of what you hear back from the programs, and be sure to discuss any financial packages you receive with them.