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Choosing a Graduate or Professional School

You’ve decided to apply to graduate school. How do you find the program that is right for you? Sending away for brochures about programs is usually free but sending in your application will cost serious money. The costs can vary depending on the school. You want to be sure to only apply to programs that meet the criteria you have set for yourself.

You should consider several areas when deciding to apply to a graduate program.

Admission Requirements

It is best for you to apply to programs that are at your competitive level, measured by your grades, your GRE or other entrance examinations, and your academic record. If your grades or test scores are not in the higher percentiles, you may not be admitted to the highest-ranked programs. This does not mean that you should not go to graduate school. It simply means you should find a program that is better suited to your academic ability. Make sure you are aware of admission requirements before submitting the application. Admission requirements are often posted on schools’ Web sites or can be learned by calling or e-mailing the school’s graduate admission office.

Length of Study

How long will it take to earn your degree and what kind of work is expected of you? If attending on a full-time basis a master’s degree can take from one to three years, depending on the number of credits required. If you decide to attend part-time, completing your degree can take significantly longer. Make sure you are aware of any time constraints the school puts on part-time graduate students. Many schools require that students complete the degree in a certain amount of time or risk expiration of credits.


One of the most important aspects of a graduate school is the quality of the department and the faculty that will instruct you. Determine if professors at your target schools are well known in their disciplines by consulting with faculty at your undergraduate school. Do the faculty members concentrate on research and publishing? Are they concerned about and accessible to students? Is there diversity in terms of faculty specialty? During your campus visit, arrange to speak with a faculty member.


It is obviously important that you attend a school that offers the kind of program that will get you the degree you need to get the career you want. Again, research and informational interviews are the best way to determine if a school will meet your criteria.

Reputation and Rank

Talk with professors who teach related undergraduate courses. Ask where they went to school and what programs they recommend (and why). If possible, visit campuses and talk with graduate students currently enrolled. You can find guides to specific programs which cover one field in depth, as well as books on medical schools, law schools, MBA programs, etc. Remember, any books you find that rank programs reflect the opinions of the authors and should be only one part of your informational search.


Understand the role that specialized accreditation plays in your field, as this varies considerably from one discipline to another. In certain professional fields it is a requirement to have graduated from an accredited program in order to be eligible for a license to practice. In other fields accreditation is not as important and there are some excellent programs that are not accredited. Universities are required to tell you if a program is accredited.


Find out what resources are available on campus, particularly in the library, labs, computer center, and career services. Are resources current, complete, and easily available to students?


What types of students attend the graduate school in which you are interested? Determine the undergraduate schools where they studied. Talk to faculty and administrators about employment opportunities after graduate school. Many programs advertise their employment statistics, but it’s also good to dig deeper and find out specifics about jobs that alumni acquire.


Consider the size, location (urban/rural, East Coast/South, etc.), average class size, housing, facilities, cost of living, and proximity to career environment (for example, not all graduate programs in Oceanography are located on the coasts).

Graduate School Essays

(also known as Personal Statements)

When completing your application, you will likely be asked to submit an admission essay. Of course, the essay will be about you in some way, but the topics may vary. For example, law and medical schools often ask for a general personal statement. Business or other graduate schools are more likely to be specific in wanting to know why you chose a certain field, what you intend to do when you graduate and why you are applying to their school.

No matter what the essay topic is, keep in mind that the admissions committee members will want to know two things:

  1. Are you realistic about the field in general? For example, the applicant who wants to earn a master’s in social work to “help rid the world of poverty,” or the education student who wants to “mold the minds of youth for the 21st century,” are not being realistic. Someone who does not have a clear view of their field of study is probably not very realistic about the demands and rigors of a graduate program. Most schools look for students who are aware of the challenges of graduate school.
  2. Are you articulate? Can you write well? Graduate schools want students who can express themselves in an intelligent way, using proper logic, form, grammar, and punctuation. The essay is important not only for what you write, but for how you write it. If the directions say to write your essay in a specific place on the application, use that spot and that spot only. Even if the directions allow you to attach additional paper to continue your essay, think carefully about extending your statement. Admission committees must read hundreds of essays. The more concise yours is, the better.

Letters of Recommendation

Most graduate schools require letters of recommendation. These will generally be sent to the graduate admission office either by you (as part of your application) or directly by the people who write them. Choose people who know you and your work, not acquaintances such as friends of your parents, no matter how influential they might be. Members of the clergy or physicians are usually not strong references, even though they may have known you for a long time.

References should:

  • Know what kind of student you are and how you work in an academic setting.
  • Be familiar with graduate schools in general and specifically the one to which you are applying.
  • Work with many students and will be able to compare you favorably to them.
  • Be articulate and have excellent written communication skills.
  • Think highly of you and be willing to put that opinion on paper.

You most likely will not know many people who meet all of these criteria, but you can choose people who come close. Pick people who can attest to the kind of student you are. If you are returning to school after having worked, you may not be able to contact any professors who can address your performance as a student. In that case, graduate schools may accept the recommendation of your employer or a previous employer.

Once you have decided whom to ask for recommendations, talk with them about giving you a good, meaningful reference. If they are not exactly sure what to say about you, give suggestions; remind them of a special project you did, a problem you solved, a good grade they gave you in a course, or anything else that would indicate you will be a successful graduate student. You should also give them a list of your completed coursework and a copy of your resume.

In general, references should address your academic skills, communication skills, maturity, intellect, and motivation. Ask for reference letters early in the fall of your senior year before many other students have thought of it. If the people who write letters are to mail them directly to the graduate schools, be sure to provide them with addressed, stamped envelopes as a courtesy. Then make sure they actually mail them!

Costs/Financial Aid

Ask about tuition and financial aid. Do out-of-state students pay more? If so, how long does it take to establish residency and qualify for lower costs? Ask about grants, loans, scholarships, assistantships, and availability of off-campus jobs. Remember: high cost does not necessarily mean the best education.

Visit the School!

The best way to get a feel for the schools in which you are interested is to visit them in person. You can do this before or after you apply. Either of these times will work, but remember to choose wisely because traveling costs can be expensive. Sometimes a school is more likely to pay travel expenses after a student has been accepted.

Visiting allows the opportunity to explore the campus and surrounding area as well as meet faculty members and current students. Remember to make an appointment through the graduate admission office before you plan your trip. You will want to make the most of your time there. It is important that the school is expecting you so they can arrange the appropriate meetings.

While you’re there be sure you check out other administrative offices, the library, laboratories, and other facilities. Look into the cost of living in the surrounding town. Can you afford to live there? A good idea is to buy a local newspaper and the student newspaper so you can get a feel for local events and check out housing costs.

Go with a prepared list of questions and topics you want to cover. Of course you’ll want to include financial aid and housing in these questions.