What is Graduate School?

What is Graduate School?

Graduate school is a place to get “post-graduate” degrees, or degree that is completed after obtaining a first degree (an undergraduate/bachelors degree). These “post-graduate” degrees range in terms of focus, experience, and modality.

Types of Graduate Degrees

Master’s degrees are higher-level education that typically take two years to complete (if taken full-time). The focus of master’s degree is a deeper focus on a particular subject, often requiring more independent study and advanced research methods. The most common types of master’s degrees are:

Master of Arts (M.A.): Degrees of varying subjects that focus on arts and humanities.

Master of Science (M.S.): Degrees of varying subjects that focus on scientific, technical, and research-oriented fields.

Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.): Degrees of varying subjects focused on business-oriented fields.

Master of Education (M.Ed.): Degrees focused on education-oriented fields and subjects.

Advanced Master’s and specialist degrees, such as the Education Specialist (Ed.S), are intended for those who want to further their education past a Master’s degree, but do not wish to obtain a Doctoral degree. These are most common within the field of education.

Professional degrees are graduate degrees that are focused on preparing students for a specific area or profession. The focus in professional degrees is primarily on real-world application of theories, rather than the focus on theory itself. While many of them have doctorate in the name, they are different from a PhD in that they focus more on application, rather than theory. The most common types of professional degrees are:

Juris Doctorate (J.D.): Lawyer

Doctor of Medicine (M.D.): Medical Doctor

Doctor of Physical Therapy (D.P.T.): Physical Therapist

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD): Clinical Psychologist

Academic Degrees are a type of doctorate degree focused more specifically on research and theoretical knowledge. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the most common form of doctorate degrees, and can be studied in a wide variety of fields. For example, you can obtain a Doctor of Philosophy in Education, where you learn about the theories of teaching, and is more focused on academics, not professional “applied” work.


Consider the following advantages for either starting graduate study immediately or delaying the start of graduate study.

Advantages of starting immediately:

  • The momentum of your undergraduate work can be a positive motivator to continue studying. If you start right away you will obviously finish sooner and begin your chosen profession sooner. In lengthier programs like medicine, law, or pursuing a Ph.D., this may be particularly important.
  • Graduate school is easier to finance when other obligations such as marriage, mortgage payments, children, etc. are not currently a part of your life.
  • In some fields, like the sciences (e.g. computer science or the biological sciences), many report the importance of pursuing graduate work before their undergraduate background becomes dated, enabling the student to keep up with the most current advances in their field. Also, because of the sequential nature of some subject areas, e.g. math, some students may prefer to “stay with it” to avoid getting behind or forgetting material after some time out.

Advantages of delaying your start:

  • For some programs, it can be to one’s advantage to spend time gaining valuable work experience within the field. Good work experience coupled with good recommendations from employers can better prepare you for admission into a good graduate school. In fact, many graduate and professional schools will prefer and require experience beyond the undergraduate degree.
  • For those with undefined career goals, it may be better to pursue work experience and take time conducting informational interviews until career goals become more focused, as graduate school forces you to pick a specific program.
  • One’s motivation level is another important consideration. After spending the last four to five years earning an undergraduate degree, one may feel the need for a break from the academic world. After some “time out” students can approach their graduate program with renewed energy and a positive attitude.
  • Even though the fear may be that you would loose touch with the current developments in the field, some ways in which to keep current include reading professional journals, participating in professional organizations (conferences, etc.) and having discussions with those in the field (faculty members, alumni, peers, organizations).

Whether or not to attend graduate school is a decision that deserves careful consideration. Consider your answers to the following questions:

  • Am I considering graduate school only because I don’t know what else to do right now . . . as a way to postpone job hunting?
  • What do I see myself doing ten years from now? Is graduate school going to help me get there?
  • What will my graduate degree provide for me? (Ability to advance in my field, a higher salary, personal satisfaction, etc.?) Can this be achieved in other ways?
  • Have I talked with enough individuals who are accomplishing (or have accomplished) what I think I want to do? (Informational interviews, faculty advisors, etc.)
  • Do I have a realistic idea of the kinds of work and employment opportunities that exist with the type of graduate degree I am pursuing?
  • Do I have the personal and academic skills needed to be successful in graduate school? (Am I focused and self-disciplined? Do I have good time-management skills? Do I have the energy and motivation to survive and thrive in graduate school for several additional years?)

It is important to start gathering information early in order to be able to  complete your applications on time. Most people should start the  process a full year and a half before their anticipated date of matriculation. However, keep in mind that some scholarships have even earlier deadlines. Application deadlines range from August (before your senior year) for early decision programs of medical schools, to late spring or summer (after your senior year) for a few programs with rolling admissions.

A Suggested Timeline

JUNIOR Year, Fall and Spring

  • Research areas of interest, institutions and programs.
  • Talk to advisors about application requirements.
  • Register and prepare for appropriate graduate admissions tests.
  • Investigate national scholarships.
  • If appropriate, obtain letters of recommendation.

JUNIOR Year, Summer

  • Take required admission tests.
  • Write for application materials or request them online.
  • Visit institutions of interest, if possible.
  • Write your 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 data assembly service most programs use.

SENIOR Year, Fall

  • Obtain letters of recommendation.
  • Take graduate admission tests, if you haven’t already.
  • Send in completed applications.

SENIOR Year, Winter

  • Complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form and a financial aid PROFILE, if required.

SENIOR Year, Spring

  • Check with all institutions before their deadlines to make sure your file is complete.
  • Visit institutions that accept you.
  • Send a deposit to your institution of choice.
  • Notify other colleges and universities that accepted you of your decision so they may admit students on their waiting list.
  • Send thank-you notes to people who wrote your recommendation letters, informing them of your success.


You may not be able to adhere to this suggested 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 deadlines are impossible to meet, call the institution to see if a late application will be considered. Decisions are often made by April, but this varies with each school. Decisions can be made as late as June.


U.S. News: U.S. News analyzed more than 10,000 graduate programs and specialties in the ranking process. You can use the filter and browse school profiles based on the programs they offer.

The Princeton Review: Filter by location, enrollment size, and programs offered.

Peterson’s Grad School Search Tool: Peterson’s comprehensive online college search guide helps students discover their best fit educational program. Two-year or four-year. Undergraduate or Graduate. Certificate program or online degree.

Niche: Niche allows you to search for graduate programs within the United States, and view profiles on each school, including student reviews.

Professional Associations: Professional Associations in your industry of interest may have a list of graduate programs that are available to you.

As you create your list of potential schools, there are many important factors to consider. All of these factors need to be considered in the exploration and evaluation of your graduate program options.

  • Department Offerings/Curriculum: Do the courses included suit your professional goals? Is there a thesis or final exam? An internship? How long is the program?
  • Size of Institution: Do you prefer a large or small school? A large or small program?
  • Flexibility of Curriculum & Schedule
  • Admission/Pre-Requisite Requirements: How competitive is admission? Do you have the requirements needed? Does the program favor recent graduates or work experience?
  • Facilities: Library, Housing, Labs, etc.
  • Reputation and Quality of Program
  • Practical Experience Opportunities
  • Cost/Tuition: What is the cost of the program? Are there any hidden costs? Is the cost expected to increase in the near future?
  • Availability of Financial Aid: Assistantships, Fellowships, Grants, Loans
  • Location/Geography: Do you prefer an urban or rural location? What activities/resources does the community offer? Is public transportation available? What is the comparative cost of living for this area?
  • Student/Faculty Ratio
  • Focus on Equity/Inclusion: Does this organization focus on anti-racist teachings? Is the student body diverse? Is the faculty diverse? Is there a social justice mission?
  • Faculty: How many? Does the department reputation rest heavily on one or two professors? What if they leave? What have faculty members published recently? What kind of research is taking place? Ask current students about relative availability of various faculty. Are there a variety of viewpoints within the department or do most faculty share a single point of view? Will that fit with your goals and learning style?
  • Ph.D. Production and Average Amount of Time to Complete
  • Attrition: What percentage of students who begin this program stay to complete it?
  • Placement of Graduates: What percentage of graduates from this program find employment? Where are graduates typically employed? How much help is provided to help the graduate find employment?

Keeping a Log to Stay Organized
Keep a log of which institutions you have made application to, copies of what was sent and when. This record will be helpful in organizing the application process that requires attention to detail and follow through. Keeping track of your correspondence helps the application process run smoothly.

You can make a copy of this spreadsheet to keep track when searching and applying for programs.


Some programs–especially academic or research oriented programs–will ask for a Curriculum Vitae (CV). A CV is a detailed document that, much like a resume, is meant to give an overview of your experiences, education, and accomplishments. However, different from a resume, CVs are meant to be a detailed document that outlines your professional and academic history, and are often longer than 2 pages. You can learn more about building a CV here.

Programs may also request a resume, which is a one or two page document that outlines previous education and work experience. If the program requests a resume instead of a CV, make sure that you include all of the content that they ask for. Click here to learn how to build a resume.

There are multiple different essays that one may need to write when applying to graduate school. Typically, they will ask about one that is focused on your professional/personal experiences (Personal Statement, Statement of Purpose, Research Statement) and an often optional one about a specific topic (Diversity Statement). They may have overlap, but each have distinct differences.

Personal Statement

Personal Statements are essays that are written in order to give the admissions team a better understanding of you as a whole person. It is important to focus on your motivations and your successes. Think of it as a roadmap of your professional self. These can typically be more approachable in their tone, but should still be written in a way that is “professional.”

For more information on personal statements, visit this article on Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.

Statements of Purpose

Statements of Purpose are essays written in order to convince the admissions team that you are a great candidate for the program you are applying for. Compared to the personal statement, statements of purpose are more focused on experiences (e.g. research, courses, academics, internships, jobs), and the skills that are needed to succeed in the program.

For more information on personal statements, visit this article from Northeastern University.

Research Statement

Research Statements are essays that are written in order to show the admissions team that you are capable of conducting research, especially independent research. This should include information on past research projects, techniques/theories guiding research, any funding/awards received, and goals for future research. Unlike the Statement of Purpose and Personal Statements, you will want to avoid focusing on anecdotes, instead listing concrete information.

For more information on personal statements, visit this article on Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.

What is a diversity statement & why do I need one?

It is becoming increasingly common for graduate programs to have a diversity statement on their application, either as required or optional. Diversity statements are papers written during admissions applications, which are typically about an applicant’s knowledge of and experience with topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Diversity statements are an opportunity for Universities to get an understanding of a candidate’s lived experiences, outside of what can be found elsewhere on the application. Universities typically request a diversity statement to: a) show their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and b) navigate the legal balance of considering one’s identities in the application process.

Writing a diversity statement can be a great way to tie in your unique life experiences, and demonstrate your commitment to equity and inclusion through describing your experiences. On the other hand, it can also be a difficult topic to navigate, as some folks may feel like they have to tokenize themselves. It is important to personally reflect in order to determine if there are ways you can comfortably talk about your experiences.

You do not have to disclose your identities in your diversity statement. If you do not feel comfortable disclosing an identity you hold, you can instead focus on ways that you have helped promote equity through your actions, work, research, etc.

It’s important to focus on what you do, not who you are. While it is obvious that who you are may impact what you do, it’s important to focus on the concrete actions that you take within your life to promote equity. Ultimately, you are trying to show that you are a great candidate for graduate school, so focus on the qualities that they will be looking for. (For ideas on this, make sure to look at their mission statements, news, and the faculty’s research interests.) This is a great article to learn how to narrow your focus when writing.

For more information on writing a diversity statement, see this comprehensive guide from the University of Chicago.

Admissions Interviews. Some graduate schools (especially medical and business) will require an admissions interview. You should prepare for a graduate school interview just as you would for an  employment interview. Learn about questions that you are likely to be asked, and practice answering them. Dress as you would for an employment interview. For more information on interviews, click here.

Portfolios. Fields that are creative in nature (M.F.A., for example) may require you  to submit a portfolio as part of your application. Likewise, programs in  music, theater, and dance will often require an audition. Both the portfolio and audition are means to show your skill and ability to do further work, and should reflect the scope of your training and abilities. For more information on portfolios, click here.

The most common entrance exam is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test, which measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills. The GRE General is offered in computerized testing format only. Contact a testing center near you to schedule a test date and time. Find your nearest testing center at ets.org/gre.

In addition to the general test, certain graduate programs may require a GRE Subject Test, which measures achievement in a particular field of study. Check with the programs to which you are applying to see whether they require a subject test. 

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a computer-based standardized examination for prospective medical students. It is designed to assess problem solving, critical thinking, written analysis and knowledge of scientific concepts and principles. For more details on testing dates, times, locations, and questions about the MACT see aamc.org. Information available about the MCAT, registering with AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service), testing dates and more.

If you are applying for law school, you will need to take the LSAT and register with CAS (Credential Assembly Service). See lsac.org for complete information on CAS; and for LSAT test center information check LSAC website for registration deadlines and testing dates.

Most MBA programs require applicants to take the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test). For information about the assessment, registration process and prep materials go to mba.com.

Your recommendations should provide the readers with a balanced perception of your academic skills and personal abilities. You should make an appointment and spend time individually with those writing letters of recommendation for you, in order to provide them with an understanding of your goals and motivations for graduate work. Provide each recommender with a copy of your personal statement and a current resume so that they may refer to them in their letter. Be sure to give the writers at least three to four weeks lead-time prior to the deadline. After the letters have been written, show your appreciation by sending the writers a thank-you note. For more information about references, click here.

Some colleges/universities offer an opportunity for applicants to provide “additional information” or “extenuating circumstances” on your application. In this section, it is recommended that you provide context that explains things like low grades, gaps in experience, etc. This section is to explain extenuating circumstances, NOT reiterating your skills, achievements, etc. 

Unlike your personal statement, you will have less space to write, and will thus need to be straightforward with your language choices. We recommend that you:

  1. Clearly explain what happened
  2. Why it happened (if applicable)
  3. Explain the effects (be specific)
  4. If it still impacts you, explain changes you’ve made and preventative measures you’ll take

Here are a few examples, adapted from an article by Shemmassian Academic Consulting:

Commuting to school by bus from central New Jersey to Philadelphia 90 minutes each way, 5 days each week made it difficult to participate in more than 2–3 demanding extracurricular activities.

My single mother works two jobs. I have spent 6 hours every day caring for my two siblings after school since I was 14. Unfortunately, I am not able to participate in extracurricular activities because I need to leave school early enough to pick up my siblings from the bus stop. Nevertheless, caring for my siblings has helped me become a leader, as I need to make decisions that impact their development and well-being.  

When I came out as bisexual my junior year, my parents did not receive the information well. They are both devout Mormons and believe that homosexuality is a sin. The stress at home made it difficult for me to focus on my schoolwork. This caused my grades to be lower than normal during the fall of my junior year. Though my parents have not accepted me fully, I am handling the stress better, and my grades returned to normal during the spring semester of junior year.


Scholarships, Fellowships, and Grants are awards that are given with no service or payback required.

Fellowships and scholarships are usually awarded on the basis of merit, and competition can often be higher. Grants are made on the basis of financial need or special talent in a field of study. Fellowships, scholarships, and grants may vary in the number of years they are awarded, and may or may not have restrictions or terms attached.

Tuition reimbursement is an arrangement between an employee and their employer, wherein an employer will cover a certain amount (part or all) of the employee’s tuition.

See this article by Harvard to learn more about employer tuition reimbursement.

Assistantships are opportunities to work on campus, in your field of study, in exchange for reduced/waived tuition and a stipend. Assistantships are often available through your planned program of study. They usually involve 10-20 hours a week, with a corresponding amount of tuition waived based on expected work hours. For example, 10 hours/week could equal 50% tuition waiver, 20 hours/week could equal 100% tuition waiver.

Examples of common assistantships include teaching roles, research roles, and administrative roles. These are typically applied to through the same system as job postings, or will be announced by staff/faculty. They may also be awarded along with admission to the program.

Typically there are a limited number of assistantships available, and they are not necessarily awarded on need-based criteria. It is common that doctoral students will be prioritized over masters students in the acceptance of these roles.

Loan options may include:
Stafford Loan. A government loan obtained through the school and with a local bank willing to make arrangements with you. Low interest, repayment starts six months after graduation. Not based on financial need.
Perkins Loan. This loan is awarded through the school, although not all schools award this loan to graduate students. Based on financial need as determined by your FAFSA application.
Health Education Assistance Loan (HEAL). This loan is made to assist students in health professions. Call the United States Public Health Service at 1-800-638-0824.
MN Student Educational Loan Fund (SELF) Program. This loan requires a credit-worthy co-signer.

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