Attend Graduate School

Making a decision about attending graduate school is not easy. It is a decision that requires complete honesty about your motivation, goals, and limitations. Pursuing further study immediately after undergraduate school is only advisable when you are clear about what you want to achieve, both personally and professionally and if a graduate degree is a necessary next step toward your career goal.

Resources for Graduate School

The Application Process

Most graduate programs require Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores as part of the application for admission. Other tests required for specialized fields are the Miller Analogies Test (MAT), Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT), Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), Medical University Admission Test (MCAT) or the Dental Aptitude Test (DAT).

Most programs also require three or more letters of recommendation, official transcripts, a resume, and an application essay. The essay typically involves writing a personal statement of purpose. You must be very clear about why you wish to pursue graduate school. Many graduate programs provide a very specific prompt that helps applicants address the important issues the graduate committee is interested in. The Career Center staff has a lot of experience with critiquing graduate school essays, so make sure you ask them or a faculty member to read your essay before you send it.

Financing Graduate School

Both the federal and state governments offer financial assistance programs for graduate students. Other aid sources come from private foundations, industrial organizations, service organizations, and financial institutions.

Fellowships are prestigious awards that cover educational expenses and sometimes include a stipend for living expenses. Grants are also given in the form of a stipend and are usually based on need. Both fellowships and grants require no work or repayment.

Assistantships are administered and awarded by individual academic departments or colleges and are common ways to finance graduate education. This type of aid is given in return for service, most often in the form of teaching or research. These activities are often integral to your education and can enrich it deeply. Residence Hall assistantships are another option that require living in a residence hall as a director or assistant director in exchange for tuition benefits. Tuition waivers are other common sources of support offered by graduate school.

Student loans are also available from sources such as the federal government, graduate institutions, and private banking institutions. These, of course, must be repaid.

Tips for Writing Personal Statements

The personal statement, your opportunity to sell yourself and tell a compelling and unique story in the application process, generally falls into one of two categories:

  • The general, comprehensive personal statement that allows you maximum freedom in terms of what you write.
  • The response to two or three specific questions; your statement should respond directly to the questions being asked.
  • If you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar.
  • Do not use the same statement for all applications. It is important to answer each question being asked, and if slightly different answers are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.
  • Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you’ll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. Find an angle and distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.
  • Do not, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer, teacher, etc. should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.
  • The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader’s attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.

Questions to ask yourself before you write:

  • What’s special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?
  • What details of your life (personal or family challenges, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
  • When did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
  • How have you learned about this field–through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
  • If you have worked a lot during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that contributed to your growth?
  • What are your career goals?
  • Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
  • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
  • What personal characteristics (integrity, compassion, persistence, etc.) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
  • What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
  • Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school–and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?
  • What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?

Tell a story

  • Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you’ll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. Find an angle and distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.

Be specific

  • Do not, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer, teacher, etc. should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.

 Concentrate on your opening paragraph

  • The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader’s attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.

Seek Feedback

  • Have several individuals read your statement and provide feedback. Faculty, friends, relatives, The Center for Career & Professional Development, and The Writing Center can provide you with varying perspectives.

Talk to your advisor, faculty in your department, alumni in the field, career advisors, and people with the kinds of jobs you are interested in about choosing a program.

External Fellowships and Scholarships

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it OK to take some time off before going to graduate school?
Yes, this is very common, and is a good idea for many people. Taking a year or more off may allow you to gain life and work experience, give you more time to prepare your application and, if relevant, work to enhance your credentials (such as GRE scores or foreign language skills), and give you a chance to reflect on what you want to do. You should not worry that you will lose your “study momentum,” or lose interest in further study. This rarely happens unless your motives for going to graduate school are not very strong to begin with. Graduate schools do not “look down on” applicants who have taken time off, and may even consider them better candidates at times.

I’ve been admitted to a good program. Can I defer for a year?
That depends on the program. Policies on deferment differ. Some school will honor every request to defer, others may ask for your reasons to do so. Some may let you keep your financial aid offer, others will defer your admission and ask that you reapply for funding in the following year. If, in your senior year, you are certain that you want to take a year off after graduation, consider deferring your application by a year instead.

I’m not sure what I want to do, so I’m going to apply to graduate school. Is that a good idea?
Not really. Graduate school should not be a default solution for you, but a carefully considered choice. Graduate school is not a destination, but a journey toward a goal. If you cannot identify your specific goal, you need to do some more thinking.

Will I make more money with a master’s degree than with a Ph.D.?
Not necessarily. Depending on your career choice you could earn less. You should investigate the career paths you have been thinking about and compare earning potential and life style issues.