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Applying to Graduate School

Attending graduate school, either immediately after graduation or after a few years of work experience, is an option that many people consider part of their career development. If you are considering a profession such as law, medicine or college/university teaching where education beyond the baccalaureate level is required, going immediately after graduation would probably be your choice. Many new college graduates, though, are unsure of their career interests and goals and view the graduate experience as a way to "find" themselves. This view can present a problem at the graduate level as many programs and professors expect you to have clearly defined interests and an area of specialization.

Consider the following factors in deciding when to go to graduate school:

  • Some graduate programs, including many MBA programs, strongly encourage people to get work experience first. See if this is the case for your field of interest.
  • How do you feel about more tests, papers, reading, etc.? Does the thought of more studying leave you cold? If so, you may need a break, even for only six months or a year.
  • How does a graduate education fit into you personal and professional interests and growth? Try not to use graduate school as a way to postpone making difficult decisions. You might feel even more pressure and confusion later on.
  • If your undergraduate grades are marginal, you may need to work while taking courses part-time to demonstrate to a graduate department (and perhaps yourself) that you are capable of succeeding.

Obtaining Information About Schools and Programs

The single most effective method is talking to professors and graduate students. Since many of them have studied or worked with professors at other schools, they know about the reputation and research orientations of departments across the country.

Guides to graduate study are located in the Career Library (Career Services Center). Some books describe graduate admissions and education in specific disciplines such as medicine, law, business and psychology, while others are directories for a wide variety of graduate programs and institutions of higher education. These guides identify and briefly outline academic programs, financial aid resources, costs of study, application requirements and other helpful information. Some undergraduate program offices, such as pre-law and pre-medicine, have small information centers with pamphlets, books, graduate school bulletins and other resources.

Visit some schools if at all possible. This will give you a much better "feel" for the programs you visit. Make arrangements in advance to meet with faculty, the individual who coordinates the applicant review and some graduate students. If you cannot visit, call someone there. Request specific information about the research being conducted, course content, course content and admissions criteria.

Admissions

The specific criteria and their relative weights vary, depending on the academic discipline, particular educational institution and number of applicants. Faculty, books and articles can provide specific information about GPA and admission test score criteria. Certain programs have very high GPA or test cutoff points, while for others, work experience and evidence of success in relevant courses are much more important. Do not assume that you can never get into a discipline. Remember that course requirements differ from one graduate program to another.

You generally do not need to have an undergraduate degree in the same or a closely allied field. Check to see what courses are required, however, the course work can be taken subsequent to graduation, if necessary. At some universities you can complete these courses as a non-degree graduate student seeking to become qualified for a program. If the programs you first investigate are admissions criteria that you cannot meet, look for related programs in other fields with less stringent criteria. You may discover a challenging, relevant program or field that you have not considered. In addition to the complete application form, items required by you for application might include graduate admission test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, an essay or statement of intent.

Graduate Admissions Tests

The tests required vary by type of graduate study. The most common admissions tests include the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) for Business schools and the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). You can register for many of these tests online. The schools' catalogs will specify which test you need and will often indicate average scores needed to be competitive for acceptance. You should plan to take the appropriate test approximately one year before your anticipated matriculation date. You can obtain test information from the locations shown on the following page.

The Application Process

Transcripts

Official transcripts of your undergraduate work and any other graduate work you have completed must be sent to the graduate schools. This may be done at the end of your junior year or in the middle of your senior year or, for those going on later, at any point after you have graduated. Contact the registrar's office to have your transcripts sent; anticipate a fee for this service.

Letters of Recommendation

Ideally, you should begin to think about this a year before applying to graduate school in order to ensure that professors and other relevant professionals have gotten to know you well enough to write good references. Most graduate programs require that two or three recommendation letters be sent. Some programs enclose evaluation forms to be filled out by each reference.

School prefer and sometimes require that at least one and sometimes two references be on the faculty or staff of a university or college, preferably in the same department where you are currently studying and/or in the same field in which you are applying to do your graduate study. If you have worked in a job related to the field, a supervisor may provide an excellent reference.

When approaching people for reference letters, ask each person if s/he knows you well enough to write a meaningful letter. Also provide as much "lead time" as possible, a month or more if possible. If the individual appears reluctant, politely say you can find someone else.

To help the person write a relevant, favorable letter, it is best to provide a copy of your resume, your goals for graduate school, the schools to which you are applying and any forms the person has been requested to complete. Also include a stamped, addressed envelope unless the school has specified a different procedure. Don't be afraid to check with each reference one or more times prior to the deadline to see if the letter has been sent. Many people with good intentions get busy and forget the deadline.

Application Essay

Most schools will require that you write an essay or statement on your background and interests as they relate to your field of study. These are often used as an opportunity to see you beyond the "numbers" in the admissions criteria. Many schools will also ask you to provide short answer essays to specific questions within your field to assess your knowledge and understanding of the field you are entering. These essays are one measure of your ability to write, to build arguments and to think critically. They also assess your enthusiasm for the field of study, creativity, maturity and uniqueness.

Applications differ in the extent to which the writer is requested to write essays or short answers. MBA applications are noted for including one or more long essay questions about the applicant's purpose and direction. Some applications for science programs do not even have short-answer questions about the candidate. In this case, a cover letter addressing the three points listed above will help you "stand out from the crowd." Have someone review your essay for content, grammar and spelling. Often the best people to critique your essay are your adviser or your recommendation letter writers as they will be able to tell you what to stress and what to minimize or delete. Take your time developing your essay(s); they are often the most crucial part of your application.

Financial Aid

Three kinds of financial aid are available:

  1. Work programs, such as graduate assistantships and college work study programs;
  2. Monetary awards, including grants, fellowships and scholarships; and
  3. Loans, usually administered through banks, the government or the educational institution.

"Peterson's Guide to Graduate and Professional Programs; An Overview," located in the Career Services Center, provides a detailed description of each type of financial aid. Because every graduate school has its own application process and system of awarding aid, you must obtain that information directly from each of the institutions to which you are applying. You can check with both the financial aid office and the graduate academic department.

Graduate assistantships pay tuition and a stipend for living expenses. Most are administered by academic departments and involve either 10 or 20 hours of work per week. Teaching assistantships involve assisting a professor with graduating, office hours and recitation sections or being responsible for the entire teaching of one or more courses. Research assistantships involve assisting ongoing research and can evolve into conducting your own research project for a thesis. Administrative assistantships are much less common and can involve managing a small facility such as a computer lab.

Loans and college work-study programs are awarded on the basis of financial need. To determine need, many graduate schools require that the applicant submit the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Education. To obtain the most up-to-date information on these options, talk with a graduate financial aid officer, or visit www.fafsa.ed.gov.

For additional information on financial aid, check out FinAid: The Financial Aid Information Page (www.finaid.org) or the Department of Education's Student Guide (www.ed.gov/finaid.html).

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