3 Things to Know When Choosing Electives at a U.S. Graduate School

Most graduate programs at U.S. universities require students to take a certain set of classes. Apart from these courses, students are also typically allowed to select a few elective courses from any department that relates to their major or area of research. While some international students may be unaware of this option in U.S. graduate programs, selecting the right elective courses is important.

Considering the competitive career marketplace, prospective international graduate students should plan to “focus on crafting a recognizable specialization or two during their graduate academic experience,” says Matthew Greene, an educational consultant based in Connecticut.

That includes choosing the right electives. When selecting courses, Greene says students should focus on how they can differentiate themselves in order to stand out and find a place in their chosen discipline.

Here are some tips on how prospective international students can plan to make the most out of electives in grad school.

[Read: 3 Biggest Reasons to Choose to Study in the U.S.]

Don’t Enroll in a Class Just Because It’s ‘Advanced’

Many international students may want to enroll in classes with the keyword “advanced” followed by a generic name that relates to their program of study, but experts say that might not be the best option.

“Generally speaking, students tend to think that “advanced” courses will look good on their transcript,” says Lorenley Baez, associate provost for academic advising and career development at The New School in New York. But she says advanced courses tend to require “a great deal of reading, writing and discussion, which can be challenging for students whose first language is not English or if writing or discussion is not their strong suit.”

And just because a course is labeled “advanced” doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for you, says Eric Endlich, founder of Top College Consultants. He advises students to choose electives based on educational and career goals instead.

All graduate electives are considered “advanced” since they contain content above the undergraduate level, says Mark Golkowski, associate dean of education and student success at the College of Engineering, Computing, and Design at the University of Colorado–Denver. What’s more important, he says, is that upon completion of a graduate degree a student has both breadth and depth in their field.

“Employers will want to see specific skills and knowledge, but also an understanding of the whole discipline that undergraduates may lack,” says Golkowski. “It is important to have an appropriate portfolio of courses that make a candidate stand out and not contain any gaps.”

Ask Your Professor for Suggestions

Prospective students may want to consult with their professors on choosing electives, particularly professors they will be doing research with.

“Professors are the best resource in getting advice on the content of courses and their applicability to different careers,” Golkowski says.

This is particularly true in technical fields, where faculty members can provide insight on specific skills and concepts, he says. “Professors also often are connected to industry and employers through their networks and research and can advise on current industry trends,” Golkowski notes.

Students should plan to discuss their academic goals, says Lisa Chuang, assistant professor of communication at Hawai’i Pacific University. She says professors can offer assistance choosing “courses that may help you in developing the skills for your goals or final capstone or thesis.”

Graduate students should aim to identify at least one mentor. Mentors can help guide students through their academic or professional program, including decisions about classes, research specializations and career pathways, Greene says.

[Read: How International Students Can Practice Speaking English.]

Choose Elective Classes That Hone Research or New Skills

Experts say prospective international students should plan on taking elective classes that helps sharpen their research abilities or teach other new skills.

“A strategic way to view a transcript is that it is a portfolio of skills,” Golkowski says.

To get an edge in the job market after graduation, a student’s transcript should emphasize both broad fundamental knowledge and specific skills that employers see as valuable, he says. Having strong research skills can help a candidate stand out.

“Research is the highest form of scholarship and contribution to one’s field,” says Golkowski.

If done right, he says it means students “are pushing the frontier of human knowledge,” which is something that employers want to see.

Students who do not have a current or potential employer should seek the guidance of their academic advisor, Thomas Hassett, associate vice president for global enrollment and engagement at Gannon University in Pennsylvania, wrote via email.

“Academic advisors, at the graduate level especially, should be well acquainted with the industry that is connected to the graduate program,” Hassett says. “They should know what makes one employable based on needed skill sets and what courses should be considered toward this end.”

More from U.S. News

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3 Things to Know When Choosing Electives at a U.S. Graduate School originally appeared on usnews.com

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