There are many important considerations to make when applying to graduate school. These include when in your career to apply, how to decide which programs best meet your career goals, how to prepare your graduate school applications, and identify potential funding resources.
What is Graduate School?
Graduate school is an advanced program of study focused on a particular academic discipline or profession. Graduate degrees are available in almost any subject and come in three levels: master, specialist, and doctorate. Fifty percent of alumni complete a graduate degree within ten years of leaving CMC.
The starting point for selecting possible programs is to gather information online, search graduate school listings, and review individual program websites. You may also want to conduct informational interviews with CMC alumni who have participated in similar programs. Next, you need to evaluate each program using criteria that are important to you.
Reasons to take a Gap Year
Admissions offices typically like to see applications from candidates who have a clear idea of why they are applying to graduate school and how they plan to use their new credential after graduation. If you need help figuring out these responses, then you may need a year or two of work experience prior to applying to graduate school.
Some schools offer undergraduate students the chance to be admitted early into their graduate program prior to gaining work experience. The programs guarantee an early spot in their classes two to six years in the future, so long as these admits secure appropriate professional experience in the meantime. These are highly competitive opportunities and tend to be offered by a small number of MBA and law school programs.
If you plan to go straight to graduate school, then the work begins during your junior year, when you should start researching available programs, exploring financial aid resources, studying for standardized tests, and identifying potential references. Fall of your senior year is when you start compiling your application materials. The spring semester of your senior year is when you would visit prospective campuses and hopefully be invited to interview with them.
Graduate school can be expensive but financial aid is available. Types of funding include paid assistantships, fellowships, grants and scholarships awarded by the program, and loans (both government-funded and private).
There are many reasons to consider attending graduate school:
- A graduate degree or credential is necessary for your desired professional field
- A graduate degree may improve your career (more opportunities or increased salary potential)
- A graduate degree may increase professional options and prospects
- A graduate degree may nurture your intellectual curiosity and spark passion
- A graduate degree can help you be a thought leader in the social impact field
- A graduate degree can help international students maintain their student visa status in the U.S.
Graduate degrees are available at three levels:
- Specialist degrees are usually earned in addition to a master's degree and will require additional coursework, training, or internship experience. This type of degree usually prepares students for professional certification or licensing requirements (e.g., credential for becoming a teacher).
- Master's degrees are offered in many fields of study. Some are designed to lead to a doctoral degree while others are the "terminal" degree for a profession (e.g., Master Business Administration or Master of Public Policy). For full-time students, completing a master's degree usually takes 1-2 years.
- Doctoral degrees are the highest level of credential. They usually require the creation of new knowledge via independent research. Including the time it takes to write and defend a dissertation, this degree may take anywhere from 5-7 years to complete.
There are so many graduate school programs available that it can feel overwhelming. Here are some steps for how to proceed with your selection of possible graduate school programs:
- Gather information, by consulting websites that aggregate grad school programs, such as:
- Create list of schools/programs that interest you and visit each program’s website, paying careful attention to admissions requirements, coursework, and research/practicum opportunities
- Contact departments or programs directly to get more detailed program information and inquire about information sessions for prospective students
- Consider attending grad school fairs where you can meet grad school representatives and learn more about the programs they offer
- Conduct informational interviews with your professors as well as current and alumni grad students of the programs to gain valuable insider information. Career Services can connect you with the CMC alumni who can be most helpful.
There are many factors to consider when evaluating grad school programs:
- Reputation of the program and the faculty
- Financial costs and financial support available
- Admission requirements
- Available course offerings
- Employment outcomes of alumni of the program
- Facilities, geographic location and student life
To talk to a career coach about the grad school selection process, click here.
There are many ways to finance your graduate school program. Most graduate students finance their education through a combination of these funding sources:
- Assistantships are usually campus-affiliated work assignments (e.g., graduate teaching instructor or research associate) that provide an individual a stipend and often waive tuition and/or other matriculation fees.
- Fellowships are typically granted to individuals to cover their living expenses while they carry out research or work on a project. Awards may be single or multiyear. Awards are usually based on an individual's merit as measured by grades, GRE scores, publications, and letters of recommendation.
- Grants are most often awarded to cover expenses associated with carrying out research or other specific projects, such as travel, materials, or computers.
- Scholarships are awarded based on one or more criteria: merit, financial need, discipline of study, career goals or membership within a minority group.
- Loans are available from the government and other private sources.
Here are some useful links to financial aid resources:
- FastWeb: free scholarship searches & financial aid tools
- ProFellow: directory of fully funded graduate programs and full funding awards
- FinAid: the smart student guide to financial aid
- Paying for grad school
- FAFSA for graduate students
For International students:
To learn more about fellowships and national awards and set up an appointment with Brian Davidson, click here.
Graduate School Exams
Most graduate and professional schools require test scores for admission. These are typically the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) for masters and doctoral programs, the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) for MBA programs, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) for law school, the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) for medical school, and the TOEFL English proficiency test for international students.
The personal statement (also known as a statement of purpose or letter of intent) is designed to help persuade the admissions committee that you are a suitable applicant for their program. It is the equivalent of an in-depth cover letter, in which you explain why you are applying to this program, your intended use of your graduate degree, and your unique preparation and fitness for study in the field.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are required for almost every graduate school application and should be written by individuals who know you well and can speak to your suitability for the type of program to which you are applying.
A complete graduate school application usually consists of the application form, application fee, official transcripts from all higher education institutions attended, test scores, personal statement, and letters of recommendation. You may also be asked to upload a resume or curriculum vitae (CV). Most programs will not review your application until all parts of it are submitted.
Graduate school exams (also known as admissions tests) have the longest lead time of any single component of your graduate school application. Many students spend months preparing for the tests to ensure a competitive score. It is therefore very important to prepare for and take these tests early; this means it is a smart strategy to have your final scores during your Junior summer or by the fall of the year in which you will be applying. This will give you time to ensure that your scores are available in advance of the application deadline, and possibly to repeat the test if necessary.
The best way to assess how much studying you need is to take a practice test under realistic test conditions. Career Services can help you register for a no-cost practice test in most instances. Once you are confident in your ability to take the test, sign up early to ensure you can take the test on your desired date. Check with each testing organization to verify their exam dates and testing policies:
- Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT)
- Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)
- Law School Admissions Test (LSAT)
- Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)
- PRAXIS (Professional Assessments for Beginning Teachers)
- Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
Career Services offers a number of options for supporting your graduate school testing, including access to no-cost practice tests, online fundamentals courses, and recommendations for reference books.
To talk to Career Services about graduate school test prep options, click here.
Graduate schools usually require some sort of written statement called a "statement of purpose," "personal statement," or "letter of intent" as part of the application. It is the equivalent of a cover letter for a job application. Some statements require specific information about the applicant's intended area of study within their graduate field and others are unstructured, leaving the applicant free to address a wide range of matters.
You should give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm, reflect, and really dig deep into your motivations for applying to graduate school before writing the personal statement. You also need to allow time to perform multiple edits before you finalize your statement. Students often find this to be the most challenging part of the whole application and this is why we recommend that you start writing your personal statement a few months prior to your first application deadline.
Be sure to answer any questions provided as fully as possible. Analyze the questions or guidance statements for the essay completely and answer all parts. Usually, graduate schools are interested in the following aspects, although the form of the question and the responses may vary:
- Your purpose in graduate study. Why exactly are you applying to graduate school now? If you are unable to answer this question now, you may need more time before applying.
- The area of study in which you wish to specialize. Learn about the field in detail so that you are able to state your preferences using the language of the field.
- Your intended future use of your graduate degree. Include your career goals and plans for the future.
- Your unique preparation and fitness for study in the field. Describe your academic background and your extracurricular experience to show how you are a good fit for this program.
- Any problems or inconsistencies in your records or scores, such as a poor test score or GPA. Explain any issues in a positive light, highlighting the offsetting positive aspects of your candidacy. In some instances, programs offer a separate application essay to cover mitigating information such as this.
- Why you hope to attend this particular program. Research the school and describe its special appeal to you.
- Above all, this statement should contain information about you as a person. All the rest of the application is factual in nature. This statement is your opportunity to use your own voice, be authentic, and show your personality.
Every statement is unique and very personal to your own experience and goals. It is advisable to have many people review your personal statement to provide feedback and help you with your copyediting.
The Center for Writing and Public Discourse (CWPD) offers in-person appointments aa well as some great tips and how-to guides for academic writing, including the personal statement. To learn more about these resources, click here.
Letters of recommendation are an important part of your application. The best letter writers are those that know you well and can provide an evaluation of your ability to perform and succeed at the graduate level. It is always better to select a letter writer who knows you well over a letter writer who has seniority but knows you less well. Consider professors who know you from more than one class, with whom you have conducted research, or who have awarded you excellent academic grades.
We recommend that you set up an appointment to discuss your request in person. Letters of recommendation are written on a voluntary basis so you need to ask potential letter writers if they are willing to write you a strong letter. If you sense reluctance or the answer is no, then you will need to find another person. Be considerate of your letter writers’ time and approach them at least two months before the application deadline. Faculty are especially busy during the months of November and December and they need to put aside time to write a strong letter on your behalf.
You may be applying to multiple programs with different application deadlines, so it is important to keep your letter writers apprised of all the necessary details. We recommend that you provide them with important information to assist them with the task of writing you a strong letter:
- A list of schools to which you are applying
- Due dates for the letters
- Links to or information on where they can submit the letters
- What you would like emphasized in the letter (if relevant)
- Your unofficial transcript, noting the courses you took with them
- A copy of your best work in the course
- A draft of your statement of purpose (for context)
- Your resume
To request a copy of your transcript from the Registrar’s office, click here.
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