Graduate admissions get personal

Universities admit to consulting social networking sites in applicant evaluation

Career Services Career Information Co-ordinator Debbie Mundell says students applying to master’s programs should spend time working on applications every day.
Career Services Career Information Co-ordinator Debbie Mundell says students applying to master’s programs should spend time working on applications every day.

A glance at the empty bookshelves in the Career Services library this week makes one thing clear: deadlines for graduate school applications are fast approaching. But admissions tests and reference letters aside, the digital age has brought forth some additional considerations for those applying to master’s programs.

Higher education company Kaplan, Inc. issued a press release last week cautioning university applicants against posting questionable material on social networking pages such as Facebook. According to the release, a survey of 320 admissions officers from the top 500 schools in the U.S. found one in 10 had visited a social networking site as part of the decision process.

Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions Pre-Law Director Glen Stohr said most schools don’t have an official policy on gathering input from social networking sites during admissions.

“Seventeen per cent said that developing a policy was something they were working on,” Stohr said, adding that it’s hard to say what shape those policies will take.

He said when it comes to law school applicants, admissions officers take into account the very public life an attorney is required to lead.

“When you’re in the profession of law, people will be looking to discern who you are … so it doesn’t strike me that this is something way off the chart,” he said, adding more law school admissions officers admitted to using social networking sites than those for business and medical school.

“Just be aware and be cautious,” Stohr said. “Don’t put yourself in a situation to have people come across info that’s going to put you in a bad light.”

Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, a professor in the political studies department, said it can be difficult to portray a student’s character in a reference letter.

“It depends how well I know the student, how many times I’ve taught the student. I’ve been asked to write reference letters for students I’ve had in one third-year course and … obviously, I can’t portray that student in any type of realistic way,” she said. “It really depends on the nature of the relationship.”

Goodyear-Grant said she writes reference letters for students every year, providing she can give them a good reference.

“In cases where my reference would be kind of lukewarm … I always tell the student, ‘I’m probably not going to be able to give the type of reference you need,’” she said.

In July 2009, Educational Testing Service—the company that administers the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)—is introducing a new component called the Personal Potential Index (PPI), which will measure non-cognitive skills. At the request of the student, the PPI will be e-mailed to professors, who will fill out a survey based on categories including knowledge and creativity, communication skills, teamwork, resilience, planning and organization and ethics and integrity.

Goodyear-Grant she would only participate in such a survey if she felt comfortable assessing the student’s personality traits.

“Even for a student who had really done well in a course … if I didn’t know them, I probably couldn’t do it,” she said.

Mark McNutt, Educational Testing Service media relations manager, said the PPI assessment will supplement letters of recommendation.

“Students who, for whatever reason, don’t do well on standardized tests … we see this as a tool that will really help to sort of portray the full picture,” he said.

McNutt said 5,200 students took the GRE—an admissions requirement primarily for American graduate schools—in Canada in 2006. Between 2000 and 2006, there was an increase of about 1,000 students tested in Canada, he said.

ETS is launching a campaign to encourage undergraduate students to take the GRE while they’re in school, rather than waiting until a year or two after graduation, McNutt said.

“The tests are good for five years,” he said. “If you’re in school and you’re already in the zone, you know, take it—get it over with.”

McNutt said 185 students requested their GRE scores be sent to Queen’s for the fall 2007 and spring 2008 semesters. The University of Toronto received scores from 574 students over the same period.

Director of the Queen’s School of Graduate Studies and Research Office of the Dean Shelley Aylesworth-Spink said overall, Queen’s doesn’t require the GRE for admissions.

“There are some departments that we know do require it depending on the program,” she said, adding she wasn’t sure which departments. “For some departments, what they tell us [is] if there’s a GRE available, they’d certainly like to see it.”

Aylesworth-Spink said it’s up to students seeking admission to find out what the requirements are for their desired program.

Jesse Reid, MA ’09, did her undergraduate degree at Queen’s and decided to come back for a master’s degree in religion and modernity.

Reid said she didn’t consider taking an admissions exam like the LSAT or the GRE.

“Law school’s really not for me and GREs … it honestly didn’t even really cross my mind,” she said. “I guess I figured it was more of a U.S. thing and I know that the U.S. doesn’t fund masters programs nearly as well as Canadian schools.”

Reid said she considered a number of universities, but only applied to two—Queen’s and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. She said she chose Queen’s because there are so few people in her program, because it has good funding and because there’s no doctoral program in the Religious Studies Department.

“They don’t offer PhD programs so the master’s students are treated really well,” she said, adding that professors in the department helped her with her graduate school applications.

On Friday, Career Services Career Information Co-ordinator Debbie Mundell gave the Journal an informal counselling session on the application process.

Mundell, who works with a number of third- and fourth-year students trying to make sense of their futures, said she’s running low on LSAT study guides and how-to books about writing personal statements.

“Normally there are 35 books on these shelves,” she said, pointing to a row of nearly-vacant shelves. “There’s hardly anything left because everyone’s doing the same thing.”

She said for those who are thinking of applying to graduate programs, it’s important to start early.

“It is a very lengthy process—or it can be,” she said, adding it’s much different than applying to university for an undergraduate degree. “There are so many things that you need to get together.”

Mundell said potential applicants should be compiling academic prerequisites, minimum marks, work and volunteer experience, personal statements, scholarship applications and financial consideration—such as application fees, admission tests fees and the cost of transcripts—now if they plan to apply for programs beginning next fall.

She said for students who are committed to continued education, it’s a good idea to designate time to research the options.

“Set aside half an hour every day to just do this … so that you’re not in a big panic at the very end, trying to do it all at once—and probably not doing a very good job at it,” she said.

Mundell said although there’s nothing wrong with applying to 20 different graduate programs, it’s usually a good idea to narrow it down to five or six.

“I would start to research individual professors that are doing the same kind of research that you may want to approach to be your advisor,” she said. “You want to make it a good fit for you.”

Although many students thrive in an educational environment, she doesn’t think a master’s degree is required to get a good job.

“I think that your undergraduate degree is very, very valuable,” she said. “Students can definitely get employment in a field that they’re interested in with an undergraduate degree.”

Robert Sowell, vice-president (programs and operations) at the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Graduate Schools, which includes 12 Canadian universities, said changing requirements in the professional world have been a big draw for graduate education programs in recent years.

“A master’s degree today is more like a bachelor’s degree maybe 20 years ago, in terms of entry,” he said, adding that data shows the earning potential of students with master’s degrees increases over that of students with bachelors degree.

“Certainly a graduate degree is required in many professions to make any significant investment.”

Career Services is hosting its annual Graduate and Professional Schools Fair tomorrow in Grant Hall from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Putting it to the test

Career Services Career Information Co-ordinator Debbie Mundell said many students begin studying for admissions exams such as the MCAT six to eight months in advance. Admissions officers consider exam scores in addition to marks, reference letters and other requirements, depending on the program. Mundell said students should research the programs they’re applying for to see whether they need to register for an exam. Here are some common admissions examinations:

•Dental Admission Test (DAT)
•Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)
•Graduate Record Exam (GRE), which is often required for programs such as engineering, business, science, health studies, humanities, social science, computers and psychology .
•Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
•Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
•National Council Licensure Examination-Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN)
•Optometry Admission test (OAT)
•Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT)

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