Choosing Graduate School

Many factors will impact your decision to attend graduate school. Below are some guidelines and tips to help you decide if you should go, and if so how to choose a grad program that fits you.

Should I Go?

First, ask yourself this essential question:
Why am I interested in graduate school?

Consider various factors in your answer. For some professions, it's helpful to go to graduate school immediately after completing your undergraduate degree (for example, if you're going to medical school). For others, it helps to gain practical experience before attending graduate school. And some professions don't require graduate school at all.

Weak answers:

  • I want to take a break from a tough job market.
  • I want to figure out a new career path or find career direction. (There are cheaper ways to do that).
  • I don't know what else to do and my parents think it's a good idea.

Strong answers:

  • I'm genuinely interested in my field and passionate about pursuing new knowledge and expertise in a very specific area.
  • My career goals require a graduate degree.
  • I have the resources needed (time, academic record, money, energy) to be successful in a graduate program.

If you do decide to go, note that graduate programs look for highly motivated students with a strong sense of direction. Be sure of your career goals before you apply, and be sure you can communicate those goals to graduate programs.

Getting Started

Before you select a graduate program, research your options. Start with websites and printed information from schools and departments that interest you. After you've done initial research, narrow down the list of programs that appeal to you. Then contact the admissions office, faculty, and/or students to ask questions.

You can usually ask the admissions office many basic questions, and ask them to provide you with contact information for faculty or enrolled students. However, graduate programs vary a lot, and not all schools have admissions staff. Some graduate programs will instead have faculty as your primary contact.

Admissions staff or faculty can also help you plan a visit to campus. Arrange to visit classes and labs if possible, and to meet faculty and students.

When you ask questions about grad schools, be open to different viewpoints, and listen for common themes that come up. Take notes. If you arrange to visit the school, prepare in advance by taking a list of questions you'd like to get answered while you're there.

How Do I Pick a School?

It's important to choose a grad program that fits your needs. Graduate programs vary significantly, so thoroughly research your options! Below are general guidelines to help you identify your needs, narrow your choices, and set a planning timeline.

1) Think about what you want in a graduate program/institution.

Make a list of your top criteria. For example, list out field of study, school size, geographic location, financial assistance, faculty (current research and publications), and degrees offered.

2) Research different programs, ask questions, and compare them to your top criteria.

Peterson's Guide is an excellent resource for information on programs and their locations. Most schools also provide information online. Here is a list of questions to help you direct your research:

Questions About Admissions

  • What is the application timeline (is it early decision, early action, or rolling?) What deadlines should I be aware of?
  • What is the undergraduate GPA range and preference for this program (sometimes referred to as the middle 50%)?
  • If an entrance exam is required, what is the preferred test score? (for standardized tests such as the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, or MCAT)
  • What percentage of students who applied last year were admitted? If the school breaks first-year students into sections, how large are the sections?
  • How many letters of recommendation does the school require?
  • What is the school's personal statement prompt, and how long should the personal statement be?
  • What additional factors most impact acceptance into this program?
  • What previous experience or knowledge (if any) is preferred for this program?

Questions About the Program

  • Is the school public or private?
  • Are there prerequisite courses I need to complete before I start this program?
  • What are the degree requirements? How many required and elective classes are there?
  • How long do students typically take to complete this program?
  • What areas of concentration are available?
  • What percentage of students complete the entire graduate program?
  • How does the department evaluate student progress?
  • What kind of thesis and examinations are required?
  • What practical experiences are students expected to complete?
  • What professional development opportunities exist for students?
  • What kind of licensure/certification will I be eligible for after completing the program?
  • What support is provided to help students fulfill experiential components of the program?
  • What kind of job-search support is provided by faculty?

Questions for Program Faculty
(Connect with faculty for these or check the program's website)

  • What is most important to you in an advisee?
  • When and how is an advisor selected? How difficult is it to switch advisors once you're into your program?
  • How many full- and part-time faculty members teach in this department?
  • What diversity exists within the faculty?
  • What experience have the faculty had outside the academic world?
  • What opportunities exist to work with faculty on their research? On my own research?

Questions for Students Enrolled in the Program
(If you can, talk to students in the program for these)

  • How available is your advisor?
  • How would you characterize the departmental culture?
  • What is the actual time commitment for a teaching assistant or research assistant position?
  • Is the departmental stipend enough to live on?
  • How do students interact with each other inside and outside the classroom?
  • What are some of the politics or current issues within the department?
  • What diversity exists within the student body?
  • How much support do students receive in developing their own approach to the field?
  • How often do students present their work at professional conferences?

Questions About Finances and Resources

  • What is the cost of attendance (tuition, fees, books, cost of living, etc)?
  • Does the application for admission also allow you to apply for scholarships, or is there a separate application for scholarships?
  • How available are teaching assistantships, research assistantships, or fellowships?
  • What resources are available for students, such as graduate student housing, study groups, career services, medical insurance, mental health services, child care, fitness, etc?
  • Are students guaranteed funding throughout their time in the program, or is it awarded on a yearly basis?

Questions About Law Schools

  • What is the bar passage rate for the school? How does this compare to the state average?
  • What percentage of alumni is employed within a few months of graduation? What types of employment (e.g., law firms, public interest, judicial clerkships), and where geographically?
  • What additional opportunities exist (e.g., student organizations, Moot Court, law journals, legal clinics in your interest area)?
  • Does the school have a specific area of law they're known for (e.g., intellectual property, environmental law, public interest)?
  • How many holdings does the library have? (This is worth knowing because you'll spend a lot of time at the library!)
  • What is the general atmosphere of the school like?
  • How are students selected for law journals?
  • What kind of opportunities are available around campus for students?
  • What are interactions among students like?
  • What career services are available to help students find job during and after law school?

3) Based on your research, make a list of graduate schools that match your criteria.

Include 10 to 20 schools. If you'd like more information about any of those programs, contact them and request their graduate bulletin or any other materials they think would help you make a decision. You can also contact the department chairpersons of graduate programs that interest you. They can usually provide information about areas of current research by professors in that program. As you gather this information about the schools on your list, try to weed out some schools and shorten the list.

4) After you've finalized your list of options, add each school's admissions address and the date the application is due to that school.

Give yourself a few weeks to apply to each program. Filling out applications and gathering materials takes time.

5) Decide on your timeline for each step of the application process (ie: testing, application, personal statements, letters of recommendation) and begin applying.

Need More Help?

The CLA Career Services office has many resources to help you assess and apply to graduate programs. Stop by our office to browse books and handouts, or talk to a Peer Advisor (no appointment needed). You can also make an appointment with one of our professional career counselors, who will provide guidance about career and grad school options. To do so, call us at 612-624-7577.