Higher Education > Advanced Advice

Grad School 101

Introduction to obtaining an advanced degree

By Penn State Career Services Staff

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. Oftentimes, however, new college graduates are unsure of their career interests and goals and view the graduate school experience as a way to “find” themselves.

This perception can present a problem at the graduate level, as many programs and professors expect you to have a clearly defined area of interest. Work experience can help clarify ambiguous career goals and focus your area of specialization.

Consider the following factors when deciding whether or not to attend graduate school:

  • Some graduate programs, including many MBA programs, strongly encourage people to get work experience first. Is this the case for your field?

  • How do you feel about more tests, labs, papers, reading, etc.? Does the thought of additional 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 your personal and professional interests and growth? Try not to use graduate school as a way to postpone making difficult decisions about your future by staying in school. You might feel even more pressure and confusion when you graduate much later then many of your peers.

  • If your undergraduate grades are marginal, you may need to work while taking courses part-time to demonstrate to a graduate department (and perhaps also yourself) that you are capable of succeeding in a more competitive and difficult advanced degree program.

Obtaining Information

The single most effective method for gathering information on various grad programs is to talk to professors and graduate students. Since many of them have studied or worked with professors at other schools, they know about the reputations and research orientations of departments across the country.

Many colleges and universities (especially larger ones) host graduate and professional school events, where recruiters from other institutions come to campus to introduce you to their programs, hand out materials and applications, and answer questions you may have about their programs.

In addition, there are numerous guides about graduate study available in libraries and bookstores. 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, the cost of study, application requirements, and other helpful information.

It’s also beneficial to visit some schools, if at all possible. This will give you a much better feel for the programs you’re considering applying to. Make arrangements in advance to meet with faculty members, the individual who coordinates the applicant review, and some graduate students. If you cannot visit, call someone who is currently enrolled in the program. Speak with them about the research being conducted, course content and admissions criteria.


The specific criteria and their relative weights vary for admissions to graduate school, depending on the academic discipline, the particular educational institution and number of applicants. Faculty, books and articles can provide specific information about grade point average and admission test score criteria. Certain programs have very high grade point average or test score cutoff points, while other programs value work experience and evidence of success in relevant courses as more important. Do not assume that you cannot get into a discipline, and 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 closely related 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 have 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 initially considered.

In addition to the complete application form, items required for the application might include graduate admission test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, an essay or statement of intent.

Admission Tests

The admission tests required for entrance to graduate school vary by type of study. The most common admission tests include the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) for Business schools and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). You can register for many of these tests online.

The schools’ catalogs will specify which test you need to take 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—although many test scores are valid for three to five years.

The Application Process

Transcripts: Official transcripts of your undergraduate work and any other graduate work you have completed must be sent directly 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 applying 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 obtaining letters of recommendation 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 thorough references. Most graduate programs require that you send two or three letters of recommendation. Some programs enclose evaluation forms to be filled out by each reference.

Schools prefer, and sometimes even 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 choosing references, an important consideration is how well and in what depth the individual will describe you in the letter. If a doctoral teaching assistant knows you better than a full professor, for example, s/he may write a better, stronger reference for you.

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 to the grad schools’ admissions offices where you need the letters to be sent, unless the schools have 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 your “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 a way to measure your ability to write, build arguments and think critically. They also assess your enthusiasm for the field of study, creativity, maturity and uniqueness.

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. 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 is a very helpful resource. It 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 institution. 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 grading, 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.

Adapted, with permission, from an article appearing in the Penn State Career Guide 2005-2006. Copyright© 2005 Pennsylvania State University.

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Higher Education > Advanced Advice