How to Excel in Grad School

You see a lot of stuff out there to help new freshman deal with college, but very little advice for the graduate student embarking on a new path. This is unfortunate because just as the undergrad faces new and difficult situations that he or she may feel unequipped to deal with, so too might the new grad student, because even though he or she may be quite well versed on what it takes to get through college, they may find that there are surprises in store nonetheless.

The first thing most grad students find surprising is the shift from rote memorization that dominates undergraduate testing, to concept testing through the use of writing. This is actually two things in one. The first is that students discover that simply studying hard and spitting back facts won’t cut it in grad school, because this process doesn’t really achieve much in the way of true understanding of a topic. This is why so much of grad school is centered around research projects; which by the way, are done as research papers. So, this means that grad students not only need to learn to understand better what it is they are learning about, and to do most of it on their own, they also need to learn to write better, or at least in ways that better convey that they’ve come to really understand their topic and are able to convey not only that thoroughness in understanding but the information they have garnered in the research itself so that the paper that is written and turned in demonstrates not just a deep understanding of the topic, but an ability to convey that understanding in ways that are reasonably interesting to a reader.

To put it another way, if you want to excel in grad school, teach yourself to dig deeper into the things you are studying so that you get more than just the facts. Figure out how to get at the deeper meanings and to discern what it is that others have been trying to tell you. Ponder concepts and ideas and consider alternatives viewpoints. Also, become a little skeptical of what you read as not everyone is right about everything they write.

And, while you’re doing that, do whatever you can to brush up on your writing skills; no other skill you bring with you to grad school will be more important. You will need to write a lot of papers, and those papers will have to have a high degree of English skill and usage ability. You will need to learn to write in ways that sound as if you are a professional person, not an undergraduate spitting out the minimum requirements necessary to pass your course.