Graduate and Professional School

Print the pdf version of preparing for graduate school.

Should You Pursue Graduate School?

For many college students, career decisions about the future include the possibility of attending graduate school.  As you consider this next step in your career, it is important to reflect on your personal motivations and reasons for planning to attend graduate school.

  • Are you ready to continue your formal education?
  • Do you have sufficient financial resources?
  • Do you know enough about the field to make this sort of commitment?
  • Would it be more appropriate to work first and then return to school?
  • Are there other options that you should consider?
  • Is this the best career path toward your ultimate goals?
  • Are you going to graduate school because you lack focus?
  • Are you considering graduate school to avoid the "real world"?

Your motivations may be mixed so it is important to identify what is driving you.

Many students feel they have to go to graduate school immediately after finishing their undergraduate degree.  It’s a myth that you will lose your drive if you do not go to graduate school immediately.  Many recent graduates are "burned out" from their senior year and need some time to take a break and pursue other activities.  Actually, many graduate schools prefer students who have been out of school for some time, as they have more maturity and can be more committed to their studies.

An important consideration is whether a graduate degree is required for you to obtain your career goals.  In some fields it is necessary to go straight through graduate school following your undergraduate studies in order to work in that field.  In other fields some prior work experience is actually preferred before entering graduate school.  Researching your field of interest is critical to understanding how and where graduate school plans may fit in your own career plans.

The decision to apply for graduate school is one that requires much research, thought and introspection on your part. In the final analysis, only you can make this decision. If you know what you want to study, know what is needed or desirable for your career, or feel a passion for the subject, then it is the time to pursue graduate school.

Factors to Consider in Selecting a Graduate Program

Consider the quality of the specific department, not the institution. Many well known and respected universities have some weak departments, while many "lower profile" institutions have several fine departments.  Determine whether the program is accredited by appropriate accrediting agencies and professional organizations.
The reputation of the faculty in your area of specialization is an important consideration.  Attempt to find out what types of research projects and publications have been conducted or produced by department faculty. Much of this information can be found on the web now. Also try to determine if the faculty are available and interested in student contact.  Learn what current student perceptions are regarding the program and the faculty.
Obtain materials from the program to determine the curriculum and types of courses offered.  Find out if there are internships, practicums, independent studies, and other types of opportunities to enhance your learning experience. Consider the type of learning experiences the program offers--lectures, seminars, research, readings, etc.

Find out about the research facilities, labs and libraries available. The breadth and depth of the library collections in your field of interest, labs, equipment, and other resources are all important to consider.  Additionally, any cooperative arrangements with other educational and research institutions are helpful to know about.

Consider the size of the program.  An important aspect of size is the faculty/student ratio in your specific program.  In a large program, one should be concerned about the ratio of active faculty to students and the number of students in first year courses.  In a smaller program, the concern is focused on the number of active faculty, ratio of full-time vs. part-time faculty, and the number and breadth of graduate courses offered.

Thesis, Dissertation, Language Requirements
Some programs require demonstrated competence in either one or two languages before the advanced degree is rewarded. Universities may also require (or permit as a substitute for foreign language) knowledge of a research tool such as computer programming or statistics. A thesis (Masters) and dissertation (Ph.D.) are fairly standard in most graduate programs. Determine the requirements involved in each program you are considering.

Cost/Financial Aid
Find out the cost including tuition and fees.  Many universities are able to provide some form of financial aid to graduate students.  Spend time investigating the various resources within the department to which you are applying, as well as in the Financial Aid Office.  Typical graduate financial aid packages include grants, assistantships, fellowships, work study and loans.  Inquire about all of these as early as possible to determine the process and deadlines involved.

Career Services
Identify what types of career services are offered to students and alumni.  Ask about the availability of internship programs and resources and career counseling.  Inquire about the types of employment recent graduates have obtained.

As you review these criteria, you want to choose a program that ultimately suits your personal and professional goals, interests and needs.  You may want to add a few criteria of your own such as geographic location, availability of housing resources, cost of living, and spiritual values.

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements vary from institution to institution. The common elements that most universities and departments use to evaluate students are as follows:

Official Transcripts
These records of your coursework will be reviewed with regard to grades, difficulty and types of courses taken. A minimum GPA may be an admissions requirement. An undergraduate major in the field or at least successful completion of a group of courses will serve as a sound general basis for advanced study.

Graduate Admissions Tests
Most programs will require a general graduate admission test, and some will require an additional subject test.  The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is the most widely used test, comprised of three sections: quantitative, verbal and analytical. Each university will indicate the score required for admission.  Other tests that one may be asked to take include the GMAT (Business), MCAT (Medicine), PRAXIS tests or CBEST (Education), LSAT (Law), and the MAT (often for Social Science, Education, Psychology).  Costs for these tests vary. Both the GRE and the GMAT also offer computerized testing throughout the year for your convenience. Author Donald Asher, who has researched the successful application of students to competitive graduate programs, recommends taking the GRE in the month of June, prior to the senior year.  For the best and most current information on the above tests look online..

It is to your benefit to prepare for the graduate test you will take.  Familiarize yourself with the types of questions and with the available test taking strategies. 

Letters of Recommendation
These reference letters are written by faculty who can comment on your undergraduate academic preparation, potential for success in graduate study, commitment to your field of study and possibly your involvement in co-curricular or community activities.  It is suggested that you obtain at least three references from faculty.  Additional employer or internship references can be sent as well.

Essay/Statement of Purpose
An essay of this type is evaluated in a number of ways.  Determining one’s motivation, passion, and commitment to a field of study is a primary use of the essay.  Thinking and written communication style, creativity, personal uniqueness, breadth and depth of a person are also evaluated.  This essay should convey educational and career goals, substantiated interest and preparation in your academic field, passion for the field of study as well as your personal vision of your future in the field.  It is also beneficial to include how each specific graduate program will assist you in obtaining your goals.  Career Service’s library has helpful materials that will assist you in writing an essay/statement of purpose.

For some types of degrees (i.e. MBA, MSW), work experience is often preferred or even required.  This experience may be gained through full-time work, internships, summer or part-time employment depending on the program requirements.

Some graduate programs may suggest or even require personal interviews prior to admission. Additionally, some programs in the fine arts or communications may require a portfolio including samples of your work.

Remember that each school may have different requirements for admission.  It is the applicant’s responsibility to be clear on the requirements and to make sure that they are met. 

Resources for Researching Graduate Programs

To begin your research of graduate programs, the following are several resources that are worth considering:

  • Talk to faculty in the discipline you are considering. Look at The Gourman Report: A Ranking of Graduate and Professional Programs
  • Peterson’s Annual Guides to Graduate and Professional Programs
    (Six volume series includes Humanities; Art & Social Sciences; Biological & Agricultural Sciences; Physical Sciences & Mathematics; Engineering & Applied Sciences; Business, Education, Health & Law, as well as an Overview volume - CD ROM version of these directories is available at Honnold Library.)
  • Best Business Schools - Find and compare the best business schools and MBA programs based on overall ranking, acceptance rate, median GPA admitted, areas of concentration, tuition, average post-graduation salary and more.
  • Best Law Schools - Review statistics, admission rates, and Bar Exam results for Law Schools across the nation.
  • Best Medical Schools - Find and compare the best medical schools by US News ranking, enrollment, tuition, average MCAT and GPA scores, demographic and more.

Once you have identified potential schools and programs of interest, contact those schools for more information and review their web sites.  They will send program, campus, and application materials.  To request information, call or send an email to the Graduate Admissions Office or the specific program office.

Funding Graduate School

If you plan to apply for financial aid, many schools require the Graduate and Professional School Financial Aid Service (GAPSFAS) form or the Financial Aid Form (FAF).  Some schools also require that you fill out institutional forms that are used to assess your need and eligibility for aid.  Tax forms may also be required.  Each school will have guidelines of requirements for financial aid application.

Types of Aid

Grants and Fellowships
These awards usually require no service in return.  They are based on merit, financial need or a combination of both.  As a rule, grants are awarded on financial need, and fellowships/scholarships are often based on merit.  Sources of grants and fellowships include: federal support, state support, institutional aid, corporate aid, and aid from foundations.
Loan Programs
An amount of money loaned that will be repaid with interest over a defined period of time.  They can take 8-12 weeks to process.  The following are common private and federal loan programs: the Stafford Student Loan, Supplemental Loans for Students (SLS), Carl D. Perkins Loans, Health Profession Student Loans, Law Access Loans, M.B.A. Loans, PEP Loans.
Work Programs
Types of financial support that require service to the university in exchange for a salary, stipend or tuition break, these vary from school to school.  Work programs such as teaching assistantships, research assistantships, administrative assistantships, and part time on-campus employment are often offered.

Information to Collect about Graduate Programs

If you’ve begun to collect graduate school information, you already know that the process can be overwhelming. The following list will help you to identify specific program areas you will want to know more about. Use it to develop your own list of questions and criteria for graduate programs. Make use of guidebooks, catalogs, brochures, Internet Home Pages, campus visits, conversations with graduate faculty, advisers, and students. 

  • Program Focus
    Obtain listing of faculty research interests.
    Obtain course descriptions.
    What are the department’s areas of expertise or specialization? 
    What are they well known for?
  • Student Profile
    Obtain or develop profile of typical graduate class (size, average student age, work experience, academic preparation, racial/ethnic makeup).
  • Faculty/Student Ratio
    What is the faculty/student ratio?
    What are primary instructional methods used by department (Lecture, independent study, seminar)?
    What is the ratio of full time to part-time faculty?
    What are the perceptions of current students?
  • Cost/Financial Aid
    Program cost including tuition and fees?
    Are assistantships/fellowships available?
    Are grants and loans available?
    What is the application procedure for assistantships, fellowships, grants and loans?
    What are the deadlines?
    What percentage of students are awarded financial aid?
    What is the cost of living (rent, food, transportation)?
  • Experiential Learning Opportunities
    Are internships/summer jobs available?
    What types?
    Popular sites?
    Internships for credit?
    Assistance provided in locating summer jobs and internships?
  • Campus Life/Facilities
    Quality, quantity and availability of library resources in your field?
    Computer resources, lab equipment available?
    Recreational/health and counseling facilities?
    Housing options for graduate students?
    Graduate Student Association? 
    What social and extracurricular opportunities are there for graduate students?
  • Job Opportunities
    Employment profiles of previous year’s graduates?
    Career services resources?
    Obtain list of recruiters, if available. Use of alumni networking in job search process?
    Starting salary ranges?

Application Timetable

Application deadlines may range from August (before your senior year) for early decision programs of medical schools using the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), to late spring or summer (after your senior year) for a few programs with rolling admissions. Most deadlines for the fall’s entering class are between January and March.

You should plan to meet formal deadlines.  Beyond this, you should be aware of the fact that many schools with rolling admissions encourage and act upon early applications.  Applying early to a school with rolling admissions is usually advantageous, as it shows your enthusiasm for the program and gives admissions committees more time to evaluate the subjective components of your application, rather than just the "numbers."  More financial aid may also be available to early applicants.  Applicants are not rejected early unless they are clearly below an institution’s standards.

The timetable that appears below represents the ideal for most students.
Junior Year

  • Fall and Spring
    Research areas of interest, institutions and programs.Talk to advisors about application requirements.Register for appropriate graduate admission tests.Prepare for graduate admissions tests.Investigate scholarships, fellowships, and grants.
    If appropriate, obtain letters of recommendation or identify sources for recommendations.
  • Summer
    Take required admission tests.Request application materials.Visit institutions of interest, if possible.Write application essay.Check on application deadlines and rolling admissions policies.
    For medical, dental, osteopathy, podiatry, or law school, you may need to register for the national application or the data assembly service these programs use.

Senior Year

  • Fall
    Obtain letters of recommendation.Take graduate admission tests if you have not already.Send in completed applications.
    Register for Graduate and Professional School Financial Aid Service (GAPFAS) if required.
    Check with all institutions before the deadline to make sure your file is complete.
    Visit institutions that accept you.Send deposit to institution of choice.
    Notify other colleges and universities that accepted you of your decision so that they may admit other students on their waiting list.
    Send thank you notes to people who wrote you recommendation letters, informing them of your progress.

You may not be able to adhere to this timetable if your application deadlines are very early, as is the case with medical schools, or if you decide to attend graduate school at the last minute.  In any case, keep in mind the various application requirements and be sure to meet all deadlines.  If the deadlines are impossible to meet, call the institution to see if a late application will be considered.

Standardized Test Information

Test Preparation Information

Please note: We do not endorse a specific method of preparation or test preparation company. Test preparation courses are also available at local colleges and universities.

Career Oriented Comparison tools from Find the Best

Princeton Review
Get Prepped
Knewton GMAT Prep

For pre-law advice, please contact Linda Bunch..