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Tips for a new student?


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Hello everyone,

I am new here, so sorry if I am posting this is the wrong forum. 

I am 26 years old and about to start undergrad for the first time in the fall (when I will be 27). I know this is a grad school forum, but I have specific goals and know I want to attend grad school. As a complete newbie to the college world, I wanted to give some insight about my situation and goals, and ask some questions of people who might know how to help.

So I start this fall as an Economics Major at Saginaw Valley State University. I know I want to go on and get my masters and PhD after undergrad. I also know I want to stay in the state of Michigan, but I want to go to the most prestigious school possible. Right now my top 3 are the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Western Michigan University (in that order).

I have a few questions about this. First and foremost, with a clean slate as a totally new student, what should I be doing from day 1 to give myself the best chance of getting into the best grad school possible? Should I just be concentrating on grades? Courses? What exactly is the best way to prepare myself for my goals?

Secondly, where are the best resources on the internet for finding information about grad school rankings, entry requirements, and reviews? I would like to know as much as possible so I can take direct aim at the things I want to do.

Lastly, any other economics majors or graduates here that might like to offer even more specific insight? 

Thank you in advance for the help and I look forward to participating in this community!

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Some of your questions are program specific, but to offer some general advice...


1. Do everything you can to maintain a high GPA.  This is most important in your subject matter courses, but try to keep everything above a "B".

- Don't do many "W" (withdraw) in courses or take incompletes that you cannot finish.  

- If you need to get help from writing centers, or math tutors, or anything else to help you succeed, do it.

- Don't take any superfluous courses.  If you need to take electives, try to find some that fit your academic interests.  Make each course count.  Yoga might be fun, but why spend money on a class that has nothing to do with your end goal....

- When looking for classes beyond your required core coursework, check ALL other departments. You will find some gems in there that you might not expect.  Anthro might have a class like 'market economies of pre-colonized indigenous cultures', or gender studies might have something like 'immigrant workers in the meat packing industry'.  These are just examples, but as you can see, you can find economic topics in a variety of course settings that will broaden your knowledge base and experience.  They may also assist you in determining what capacity you want to function in or what you want to specialize in as you advance through school.


2. Try to get applicable experience through internships, etc.  This might be more appropriate in your last couple of years but start researching options and interests for when the time comes.  


3.  If you know you want to get into certain schools, at the minimum go to that school website and identify what they consider a strong applicant, and model your undergrad experience to fit this.  You can even contact the department, and ask them what the profile is for their best applicants...i.e. GRE scores, GPA, work experience, etc.


4.  Know what you want to specialize in, and make sure the schools you want to go to can accommodate that specialization in grad work.  Again, this will be easier to figure out after you have been in school for a while.  If you want to stay in a specific regional area and only apply to specific schools, it is good to remember that you are going to possibly need to be a little flexible in your interests.  If those schools that you 'must' apply to don't have faculty that focus on your interests, and you don't have the option to apply elsewhere, it is better to know now so you can tailor your education to that.  


5. Begin to build positive relationships early with faculty mentors in your field. Also foster these relationships in your internship settings. You will need strong recommendation letters when you apply to grad school, and many undergrads have a hard time mustering up 3-4 faculty that know them well enough to write them a strong letter.  


6. Do some sort of service activities with your university, whether it is volunteering in a certain student center, providing tutoring, departmental assistantships, etc. There are many things you can do, but as a student who also started undergrad at 26, some of the options I found very inapplicable to me on campus.  Be creative, and ask your department about things you can do, or faculty that need assistance with projects, etc.


7. Take the GRE without a break from school.  You will most likely take the GRE in the summer or fall prior to your graduation.  I recommend spending the summer studying, and then taking in the fall with enough time to get your scores where you need to get them.  You will apply for grad school somewhere between November and January of your last year in undergrad if you are going to transition to grad school directly after graduation. 


8.  Make a timeline and course plan for yourself, and keep yourself on schedule.  I saw my undergrad much like a checklist.  I made my course plan, and as I completed classes I just checked them off the list.  It was satisfying, especially when you are getting through general ed stuff.  Put stuff on your timeline like internships, GRE prep and test, grad school pre-app visits, etc.  Whatever you need..having that plan makes it real, and easy to follow.

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Expresso shot, thanks for the in depth answer. This seems like a good foundation to start on. I think I will have a clearer picture of what I want to focus on as the get my feet wet, so I guess that could also lead me to look out of state when the time comes. I have just heard that if you don't want to break your bank, the best thing to do is to try to stay in your home state. 

I can use all of this advice though. As a follow up question, do you think where you do your undergrad has a big impact on your grad school application? The school I am attending isn't a dump or anything, but it also isn't highly ranked. Do you think even if I did all of the things well that you listed that the reputation of the school I am attending could hinder my chances?

Also, as someone who started undergrad around the same age as I am, what was that like? Did you feel out of place and uncomfortable? Sometimes I think I will feel like an old man or something. 

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Breaking the bank is really truly only applicable to undergrads for the most part.  If you are a field that gets funded at the masters level, then it won't matter where you go. If you qualify for federal financial aid loans, or are willing/able to do private student loans for grad work, then it also doesn't matter where you go.   Some PhD programs will also take students directly from undergrad, but don't count on this as the norm.  Most grad programs will have some scholarships, grants and fellowships to apply to at the masters level so the more qualified you are in your application, you might actually get full funding at that level.  I guess my point is to not discount any school regardless of where they are at, because there is usually some way to fund it...just depends on whether you need to pay it back or not.  It is more important to go where you are a good fit, and where you will be best served for your area of focus...especially if you want to be a professor or researcher.  Different schools provide different outcomes....for instance, some are better if you want to go into the corporate sector.  You will need to find out which ones are which. But if you are wanting to go beyond a masters to a phd, than my guess is you are more interested in research or teaching and you will need to ensure you go to a school that prepares their PhDs to go into academia and research.


I think your performance in undergrad is much more of a determinate for grad school than where you go.  We generally have less flexibility as to our choices in undergrad institutions, so it matters a bit, but not something you should really stress about. If you are at a lower ranked program, and you can't help that, just make sure you are a very high performer.  If you are concerned that your school is mediocre, ensure that you make up for that a bit with getting good internships and other experience to beef up your application.


Also, pull up the CVs of your area professors, and see what their backgrounds are.  Get a feel for their reputations in academia - but without weirdly stalking them - and try to work with the ones that are more active in your field or have better reputations.  Also see where they did their grad work.  I bet some of them did their masters or PhD work at one of your Michigan choices.  This could help when it comes time for letters of reference.  They also would be good to discuss other potential graduate programs that are out there - see where they are alums. You might find other schools of interest this way. Chances are that some of your 100 and 200 level classes might also be taught by Michigan PhD students finishing up their dissertations.  They would be really good for you to talk to about grad programs, because they are still in them.


Also, as you move through your undergrad, consider unique options to your field..for instance there is economic geography, economic anthropology, law, etc etc...  Stay open minded.  I know I changed directions a few times in my undergrad...not drastically, but enough to make a difference in the long run.  I started in journalism with a focus on environmental foreign policy issues, which morphed into foreign policy focused on water rights, which morphed into geography and environmental science focused on watershed regulation and mitigation. My grad work now is even more specialized. It all ties together and makes sense that I did this, but these slight shifts re-centered my grad work drastically as I am now technically a geographer dealing with land use and agriculture, when I started out a journalist dealing with foreign policy. I still use all that stuff I did before, but in a much different way.  This happens for some people but not for others.  You will be learning learning learning and you might change some things along the way and that is totally okay.  It is easier if you are open to it and let it happen without feeling guilty about doing so.  After all, you are preparing yourself to do something probably for the rest of your life, so ensure you are happy with it.


I think there is a lot of benefit to starting in mid to late 20's.  You will be about 30 when you hit your masters, and you have some real world experience under your belt, which helps greatly.  I think the biggest disconnect you will find, will be in the social aspect of college.  Many of your fellow freshmen will be 18-20ish, although there are more and more people going to school that are a bit older than that.  You will find you are not going to be worrying about frats and partying and angsty new college dating drama, and being away from home for the first time, etc etc.  Not that all freshmen deal with that of course, but the age difference will be noticeable on the social front.  You might find yourself a bit invisible from time to time as you aren't really part of that social sphere, but I personally see that as a plus.  You have far fewer distractions, and I know I was producing much more work than most of my fellow students.  The big difference for me, was that I really felt like I was there for ME and not anyone else.  So many of the students around me were consumed by dating, and hangovers, and impressing this person or that person, and really just transitioning to adulthood - with that came a lot of worrisome energy about everyone else around them.  You will have a whole lot less of that.  Sometimes you will feel 'old' and sometimes you won't...my advice is to stay centered on the fact that you are there for you.  When you hit grad school, you will see a lot more people your own age.

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I started my undergrad career when I was 10 years older than you.  There were times I felt like the odd woman out, but they have been few and far between.  "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." is one of my favorite quotes.  Substitute "old" for "inferior" in this instance.  I have really good relationships with some of my fellow students, and barely speak to others.  I suspect the relationships would be much the same if we were of similiar ages.


I won't offer advice on admittance to grad school as I don't know if I'm in anywhere yet!

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First things first: while it is nice to have a grander plan, you shouldn't be counting your chickens before you hatch. It's hard to gauge whether grad school is right for until you get a few years of undergrad in you and especially get some research experience under your belt. Focus on doing your best during your undergrad while keeping your options open, but don't get ahead of yourself.


Before anything, it goes without say that you should shoot for a 3.5+ GPA. The higher the better but it does't have to be perfect.


First piece of advice: get your foundation in order (micro, macro) + statistics/quant methods done as soon as possible. Economics is a social science, but it is probably the most heavy math focused social science out there. You need to take some introductory statistics classes, then move to more complex math courses like linear algebra. 


Then, once you get your foundation down, transfer out of Saginaw, to ideally, University of Michigan. There is a couple of reasons for this: 1) your chances of getting research experience at Saginaw is limited, and 2) for better or worse, getting a BA from a prestigious university does matter. Actually, starting off and getting intro course done at small public or community colleges can be better; its nice to ease into the undergrad level (especially since you haven't been a student for so long) + the class sizes are smaller and you can actually learn more.


Once you get to a higher level of school, the key is research experience above all else. This is what separates the cream from the crop. Having at least 6 months of RA experience is going to give you a huge leg up on competition. You don't have to be an RA to get research experience, but it's the best form of it. Other ways are honours theses, independent reading and research courses, or research seminars.


How do you get an RA position? Well, a few things to watch out for...look for, especially, junior professors (assistant professors who haven't gotten tenure yet) that are doing research + looking for students to help them with their research. Get in their classes, go to their office hours and build a relationship with them, do well in their classes, then ask if you can help in some way. If you prove to them you are a capable student and you work hard, they might give you a RA position (keep in mind these are where the best letters of recommendation are garnered from as well). 


The rest is complete window dressing.


Build foundation, lots of math/stats and economics fundamentals > transfer > try to get research experience. That would be the general path of an advanced undergrad in economics in your position. 

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I finished my BS a decade (nearly) older than you are, at a lower tier state school, with a crappy GPA, and now find myself in one of the best programs in my field. My suggestion is to leverage your age and life experience as much as possible. Talk to your professors like an adult, tell them up front what you want to do, and ask about opportunities that will supplement your plans. Find those editing gigs, unpaid event staff, assistantship opportunities and take every one you can handle. Look for guest speakers and conferences at the Michigan schools (UM, EMU and MSU all host a major event or two in every field, it seems) and start meeting people in the field. People are going to automatically assume you carry some experience and knowledge, because of your age, and while that can be uncomfortable in the classroom, it will pay off while networking.

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Thanks for all of the great advice.

A lot of people seem to think that being older can be a pretty big advantage, and definitely outweighs it being kind of awkward once in awhile. That is pretty reassuring. 

Due some advice here I also realize that I should be casting a wider net when it comes time to apply for grad school. My goal is to get into one of the top three tiers for grad school. According to the American Economics Association, they are: 

  • Tier 1 (ranked 1-6): Chicago, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Yale
  • Tier 2 (ranked 7-15): Columbia, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Pennsylvania, Rochester, California-Berkeley, UCLA, and Wisconsin-Madison
  • Tier 3 (ranked 16-30): Illinois-Urbana, Boston University, Brown, Cornell, Duke, Iowa, Maryland (UMD), Michigan State, New York University (NYU), North Carolina, Texas-Austin, Virginia, California-San Diego, University of Washington, and Washington University in St. Louis (WashU)

    So in my home state, that is Michigan and Michigan State. I was including Western Michigan as kind of a back up plan in case I can't get into my preferred schools. However, due to some advice here, I am thinking I shouldn't have such a narrow view, and applying out of state to some of these other schools could be beneficial to me. Of course, I have to focus on doing the best I can in undergrad first. 
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