Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design pursuing dual masters degrees in architecture (MArch I) and urban planning (MUP). Prior to entering Harvard, Marcus graduated from Swarthmore College with a bachelor’s of art degree. Read Part 1 of the “Applying to Grad School as a First-Generation College Student: The 3 M’s” series here and Part 2 of the series here.
Surround yourself with people who take an interest in you and will provide you with honest feedback.
The last M, mentorship, was the most important for me. Navigating an undergraduate experience as a first generation college student is hard enough, let alone the complexities of grad school, so identify mentors early on in your academic career. Surround yourself with people who take an interest in you and will provide you with honest feedback.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to people who you haven’t met before.
This can mean making use of your college’s network. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people who you haven’t met before. When I was preparing my portfolio for architecture school, I reached out to an alumnus of my college after reading an article about him in The Boston Globe. I sent him a simple email; a couple weeks later, we were on the phone and he was giving me very helpful recommendations in regards to my portfolio. Without taking the initiative to reach out to him and listen to his advice, I may not have had a nice enough portfolio to gain admission to the schools I did. So, don’t just reach out to people who work in your field(s) of interest, but take their words seriously as they know more than you.
Speak up in class, attend office hours, and show your professors you care; one day you may need an important recommendation from them.
You will also likely need 2-3 letters of recommendation for whatever program(s) you are applying to, so start getting to know your professors well. If you are still in school, speak up in class, attend office hours, and show your professors you care; one day you may need an important recommendation from them. This is part of an overarching rule of thumb (not just in terms of applying to grad school, but through life in general): maintain all contacts as you move through your education. You never know when you might need to shoot an email. Don’t just establish mentors for a short period of time, but reach out to them periodically and not just when you need help with something—and don’t burn bridges along the way.
My mother was my biggest mentor despite not having a college degree.
Finally, your mentors are not only academic or professional contacts. My mother was my biggest mentor despite not having a college degree. From sharing simple words of encouragement before I took the GRE to providing suggestions on my essays, she was there pushing me along. Sometimes, you will find that those who never went to college can give you more important information and raise more thoughtful questions than those who have been through the process. I hope this series was helpful in sharing some of the “off-the-books” rules of the grad school application process!