Career Center


Graduate School and You: What to do and when to do it

Applying to graduate programs can seem like a daunting task.

With so many decisions to make and so many different and often contradictory sources of information to consult, it may feel like you’re trying to walk a tightrope without a safety net. The purpose of this article is to:

  1. help you decide whether or not you should apply to graduate school,
  2. show you how to choose a program that suits your needs,
  3. offer advice on what your admissions essay should and should not include,
  4. let you know when you should be doing all of these things.

The names of other publications from which you can glean more specific information are included.

Should I go to graduate school?

Before you apply to a graduate program, ask yourself why you want to go.  Postgraduate education is not an alternative to getting a job, nor can you be certain that your advanced degree will increase your earning power. It’s much easier to write a resume and get a job than you might think; in fact, if you fear that the real world is going to be difficult and terrifying, the best thing you can do for yourself is jump right in and get an internship or some other kind of work experience. There are a number of publications and online resources within the Career Center’s Career Resource Library and website detailing internship opportunities; if you need assistance, ask a staff member for help. If you do not need a graduate or professional education to reach your eventual career goal, why spend the time and money required to earn it when you’d be better served by obtaining hands-on work experience?

Graduate schools will want to know that you are focused and serious about the field. Delaying graduate school for a year or two while you gain related experience is a great way to demonstrate your commitment. Let your passion for learning more about a subject drive your decision to apply.

On the other hand, if your career goal requires you to study a particular field in greater depth than an undergraduate education allows, or you need an advanced degree to reach your eventual career goal, then a graduate program it is. Also, if you are driven to attain an advanced degree simply for the joy of learning, go for it!

Where can I go for information?

A number of useful resources are available in the Career Resource Library. Specific information on Master’s and PhD programs can be found in the Peterson’s Guides. There is a guide for each general category of academic study, including humanities, medicine, social sciences, and business. These guides list programs alphabetically by field and offer statistics such as acceptance rates, price per credit, application deadlines, and the size of the departments. (The most recent edition can be found in the Trexler Library)

To narrow down the possibilities and evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of various programs, Educational Rankings Annual and the U.S. News and World Report Guide to Graduate Schools (found in the Trexler Library) can be good resources. Each of these rates graduate programs in most academic fields according to overall strength and value for money. Educational Rankings Annual provides 3500 rankings and lists on education; The U.S. News Guide intersperses ratings of the largest fields with articles on such topics as current employment trends and the relative competitiveness of various programs. You can find similar information in field-specific guides as well. Ask faculty in your department for resource recommendations. Note: While rankings can be helpful, they may not be the complete story since the criteria used by each source may or may not be criteria that are most important to you. Rankings should not be used as your sole decision making tool.

Websites listed in this guide can be a good starting point for gathering information. Individual university and program websites are essential to visit as part of your research process.

Don’t forget to consult faculty members in your intended field of study. Not only will they have advice for you, they can also connect you with their colleagues. Your professors and their contacts at other institutions can provide you with a wealth of knowledge concerning various graduate programs.

It is also a good idea to visit the institutions in which you are interested. Some criteria to focus on include faculty reputation, career placement opportunities, the size of the department, the quality of their facilities, the availability of financial aid, and teaching and research opportunities, as well as any other factors you determine to be high on your priority list.

A good rule of thumb is to apply to 6-9 Masters or PhD programs, 10 medical schools, or 6-9 law schools. See "Tips for Evaluating Graduate Schools" for more information.

How do I get in?

Typically, the criteria for admission into a graduate program are as follows:

  1. Satisfactory undergraduate GPA and success in relevant courses (varies)
  2. High admission test scores (vary)
  3. Detailed letters of recommendation
  4. A well-written admissions essay
  5. A strong personal interview (required by some programs)

As the particulars of each institution’s entrance requirements vary, be certain that you examine each separate university’s literature carefully.

Though you do not necessarily need a bachelor’s degree in the field you wish to study in graduate school, there may be a preference toward candidates with relevant courses and/or work experience in the discipline. Many programs have prerequisite requirements; if you can’t meet them immediately, don’t panic. At some universities you can complete these courses as a part-time, non-degree student before you actually apply to the program.

Like it or not, most institutions will require you to submit your scores on a graduate admission test. These include:

  • GRE (Graduate Record Examination; general and subject tests)
  • MCAT (Medical College Admission Test)
  • LSAT (Law School Admission Test)
  • GMAT (Graduate Management Assessment Test)
  • MAT (Miller Analogies Test)

For more information on tests, go to Check the requirements of the program to which you are applying so you know which admissions tests are necessary.

Be sure to obtain letters of recommendation from your professors; some programs will require more than others, so make sure you review the admission requirements for each institution you intend to apply to very carefully. When asking professors for letters of recommendation, it is important to set up an appointment to discuss it; don’t just show up at their door and ask them to do it. Be sure to take along a copy of your resume and a list of courses you took with that professor. Discuss your long-term goals with the faculty member, and make certain that s/he can write you a positive recommendation. Remind her/him of specific papers/projects/characteristics you hope s/he can mention that will be relevant to your application. Give her/him an addressed and stamped envelope to mail it, and send a nice

thank-you letter when it’s done.

See "How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation" for more information.

Perhaps the single most important part of your application will be your admissions essay; this is also the part of the process that you have the most control over. The essay provides an excellent opportunity for you to sell yourself to a graduate program. This is your chance to display your critical thinking and writing skills; the people on the receiving end use it to gauge your level of interest, commitment, and maturity. It should include, first and foremost, an answer to the question posed on the application. No matter how well you express yourself verbally, if you dodge the question your commitment will be in doubt. Assess your reasons for pursuing this field of study, relate your goals, and show that you are ready to undertake this demanding course of study. You cannot afford to write a superficial essay.

Since the essay is such an integral component of a graduate school application, don’t leave anything to chance. Show it to faculty members, the career counselors in the Career Center, and/or a tutor at the Writing Center to assess its strengths and weaknesses and to check for proper grammatical usage.

See "Tips for Writing Graduate School Essays" for more information.

Not all graduate programs require a personal interview for admission; if yours does, you need to be prepared. Candidates who are offered an interview have met the basic requirements with regard to grades and test scores. The interview is the graduate school’s way of selecting the best candidates from among the group of qualified applicants. Therefore, it is important that you prepare and practice before going to the interview. Be ready to discuss what makes you uniquely qualified for this program, your career and academic goals, and why this program is the best match for you. Attend the "Gearing Up for Graduate School" events and our "Interview Power" workshop to learn more about researching and interviewing. Schedule a mock interview in the Career Center to practice your approach before the actual interview.

How do I pay for this?

Begin researching scholarships, grants, loans, and other sources of financial aid as early as possible – ideally, you should begin this process in the fall of your junior year. The Career Center has a number of publications in the Career Library that can help you find the means to finance your education. The Harvard College Guide to Grants is an excellent source that details a number of merit-based awards. As You Enter Graduate School . . . A Guide to Managing Student Loans, Paying for Graduate School Without Going Broke, Free Money for Graduate School, The Graduate School Funding Handbook, Dan Cassidy’s Worldwide Graduate Scholarship Directory, Scholarships, Grants & Prizes, and Getting Money for Graduate School and many other resources are available in the Career Center library.

Another option that may exist for you is a graduate assistantship. These typically come in two specific types: research and teaching assistantships. In most cases these will involve 10 to 20 hours a week of undergraduate instruction and/or faculty research. You may receive tuition remission and/or a stipend to cover living expenses. Not only do these programs provide an inexpensive means of financing your education, they also provide valuable experience in your chosen field. If this sounds like an option you would like to explore, apply directly to the program in which you are seeking admission. Some deadlines for funding are earlier than the application deadlines, so make sure to request the proper information from the program and read it carefully to keep all the dates straight.

See "Tips for Keeping Graduate School Costs in Check" for more information

The Career Center, Muhlenberg College
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