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Graduate & Professional School Guide
Successfully selecting graduate or professional school options and submitting applications to these institutions is a personal process that requires research, reflection, and hard work. The suggestions included in this guide are based on research and years of experience providing guidance to students moving through this process. Conducting a graduate or professional school search can be very satisfying when given time and attention.
The Career Services Center is available to help you learn how to navigate the process of applying to graduate/professional school. 50 minute appointments range from assisting with researching graduate/professional school programs to making a decision about where to attend. Career Counselors are available year-round by appointment.
Deciding whether to pursue a graduate degree should involve consideration of several factors. Graduate or professional school might be the right choice for you if a graduate degree:
- Is required to enter your career field of interest
- Will help you advance in your current career field
- Will create more options for you to explore in a career field of interest
It is inadvisable to choose graduate/professional school to avoid repayment of student loans, a difficult job hunt, or a decision about a career field to pursue. If you are uncertain about whether graduate/professional school is for you, begin by discussing your career goals with trusted faculty/staff, mentors, and Career Services Center professionals.
Define Professional Goals
It is best to enter into graduate/professional school with an idea of your future professional goals. Not only will this help you avoid wasting time and money, but it will guide your graduate program selection process as well. To begin defining your professional goals, consider where your interests, skills and values align. Reflect on experiences in coursework, internships, jobs, student organizations, and volunteerism. Consider the type of life you desire and personal factors that will influence your direction. Speak with family, friends, mentors, and faculty/staff to exchange ideas. Defining professional goals is a process that takes time and evolves as you move through life.
Investigating career options will help you determine if and/or what type of additional schooling will bring you closer to your professional goals. Conduct career research through online resources such as O*Net Center, Occupational Outlook Handbook, and even through YouTube searches and by speaking with professionals in your field of choice through informational interviews or meetings with faculty, advisors, and students in your major.
Develop Selection Criteria
When you are clear about your professional goals and what you need to do to achieve them, you will have most of the information you need to develop your selection criteria. Some graduate/professional school selection criteria may include, but is not limited to:
- Type of Program Offered
- Program Culture
- Size of School
- Cost/Financial Aid
- Admissions Standards
In order to make an informed choice about graduate or professional school, you will need to consider a variety of programs and institutions. Depending on the university, your degree program of interest may be housed in a different department, under a different name, or with a different time to completion. Taking this into consideration, you will need to perform adequate background research to discover graduate and professional programs that will help you reach your goals.
There are many ways to learn about graduate and professional school programs. Graduate school fairs host representatives from a variety of institutions (usually from a specific geographic region) so that prospective students can connect with admissions counselors and learn about multiple programs of interest at once. Oftentimes, graduate schools will also send representatives to career fairs, so be sure to check to find out if any events are being offered in your area. You can also find information about graduate and professional school programs in guides, which may be published online or in paper. Consult the Additional Resources section at the end of this guide for places to search. Finally, professional associations in your area of interest often have graduate and professional school directories on their websites. Pay extra attention to these listings if your field requires graduate programs to be accredited by specific agencies or governing bodies.
When you have identified programs of interest, you will need more in-depth information before you can decide to apply. You can learn more about the specifics of each program (including timeline, curriculum, areas of specialization, faculty, funding opportunities, etc.) by visiting the program website. You may wish to schedule a visit to tour campus and meet any faculty that you may work with or learn from during your graduate/professional study.
Finance Your Studies
Because financial support varies widely from institution to institution, it is best to read all financial aid materials carefully and to file documents on time. You have until April 15 to decide whether you will accept admittance offers when there is a financial package involved.
Funding varies by program, so be sure to take note of what is available from each institution of interest. If funding does not cover the entire cost of the program, federal student aid is available for students in graduate/professional programs. Learn more about federal student aid for graduate/professional students online.
A scholarship is money awarded to an individual for educational purposes with no expectation of repayment; they are available through colleges and universities, corporations, and private organizations. Organizations award scholarships based on criteria such as year in graduate school, academic merit, race, ethnicity, military affiliation, etc. Conduct an internet search to begin researching scholarship opportunities that fit your unique situation.
A fellowship is a financial award that is distributed by a university, independent organization (such as a foundation or professional association), or the federal government. Some fellowships are awarded to individuals based upon academic focus as well as persona characteristics (for example, a fellowship for women seeking graduate education in biomechanical engineering). A fellowship from a college or university is an institutional fellowship, meaning it is awarded for an applicant to pursue studies at that institution only. A fellowship that can be applied at the institution of the recipient's choice is called a portable fellowship. Applications for fellowships can be competitive and may be evaluated based on financial need, merit, leadership, professional experience, as well as academic record. A fellowship application may require a personal statement, references, and resume, among other documents. Thus, it is advantageous to begin fellowship research and applications as soon as possible in your graduate/professional school process.
You can find more information as well as a list of fellowships to start your research online.
A grant is very similar to a scholarship in that it is money you can use towards your graduate/professional education that you do not need to pay back. While scholarships may be merit based, grants are more likely to be need based. They also may be associated with particular student identities or courses of study, especially if you are seeking graduate/professional education to enter into a field with high demand for qualified workers, such as nursing and teaching. Grants can be federally funded, state funded, university funded, or funded by outside organizations—similar to fellowships. To learn more about grants, start your research online here.
An assistantship is a type of financial aid where a graduate/professional student works part-time in exchange for tuition remission and/or a living stipend. Assistantships are offered by the institution or department in which the student is enrolled and can serve different functions depending on the nature of the position. In a research assistantship, the student may assist with the current research endeavors of one or multiple professors. In a teaching assistantship, the student may be responsible for teaching sections of undergraduate or graduate courses, as well as holding office hours, creating syllabi, and grading assignments. In a graduate assistantship, the student may work in an administrative capacity—though this term can also be used to describe the concept of assistantships in general. To find out if you program(s) of interest offer funding through assistantships, check the website or contact the admissions department.
If you take out loans to pay for graduate/professional school, you may be eligible for loan forgiveness programs depending on your field of study and employment after graduation. If you are pursuing a career in teaching or public service, among others, loan forgiveness programs may cover your outstanding loans so that you are not obligated to pay your remaining balance and interest. Each person's situation is unique, so you will need to do some research before determining your eligibility.
More details on federal loan forgiveness programs can be found here
Your employer may also offer loan assistance or loan repayment programs, wherein the employer contributes a monthly sum or percentage of your salary towards your student loans. If you are already employed, ask your employer if they provide this service through your benefits package. If you are seeking employment, research the company’s benefits or ask your recruiter about loan repayment benefits after you have received an offer. Employer loan assistance is becoming more and more popular, so even if your employer does not currently offer this benefit, they may add it in the future.
Once you know why you want to go graduate or professional school and you have researched the best programs to help you achieve your professional goals, it is time to begin submitting applications. Typically, you will submit about five or six applications. About one-third of your applications should go to schools you love, but that may not accept you; one-third should go to schools you really like, and that will probably accept you; and one-third should go to schools you like and would very likely admit you. As you decide how many schools to submit applications to, keep in mind which schools will be your best fit, as well as how much time and money you have to devote to this process.
Devise timeline and tracking system
Create a way to keep track of important dates related to your graduate school applications. Dates you may want to track include entrance examination date, application deadlines, and interview dates.
Managing applications for multiple schools can quickly become confusing. Consider devising a system to keep track of the programs you apply to and their application requirements. For example, you may create a spreadsheet to check-off each step as you complete it. Some schools have an online tracking system for applicants, as well.
Take standardized tests
Just as you had to submit SAT or ACT scores to Marquette for your undergraduate application, there will also be graduate programs that require standardized test results. Standardized tests are useful for admissions representatives to compare applicants and are one piece of information offering evidence of your abilities and potential for success in the program of study. Often graduate and professional school admissions materials will include information regarding the score you need to earn to be a competitive applicant.
There are quite a few graduate-related standardized tests; therefore, it is important to determine which test your target schools require. Some of the most common tests include the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT), Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), Dental Admission Test (DAT) and Miller Analogies Test (MAT). Conduct an internet search to find the official website for the program’s required exam; there you will find current test information, practice test information, and registration instructions.
Make sure to register for the required exam during a time frame that allows enough time to prepare, while ensuring that your test scores arrive at your target schools on time. Online preparation software, study guidebooks, and test preparation courses offer different ways to prepare for standardized tests. Regardless of how you decide to study for the exam, be sure to take practice tests via the same administration method as the actual test in order to become familiar with the test taking experience (e.g. if the exam is administered on a computer, practice on a computer).
Submit application forms and fees
You will generally submit graduate and professional school applications online. Some programs require that you submit parts of the application via mail, however, so it is important to read the application instructions carefully. Also, for electronic submissions, you will apply to some programs directly through their website, but some fields use a central application service (e.g. Physician Assistant degree programs generally use CASPA); admissions websites will instruct you on where to apply.
It is very important to set aside time when you can concentrate on completing applications accurately. You must also proofread your application; check for spelling/typing errors and ensure you have completed all required fields accurately.
Most graduate and professional schools have an application fee that can range from $25-$100 or more. To manage application costs, make sure you intentionally select programs (it is not a good idea to “apply everywhere”) and be sure to check into fee waivers. Admissions websites will often have information about how to have application fees waived; if you cannot find this information, it never hurts to call and ask if fee waivers are available.
Write a graduate admission essay
Also called a “statement of purpose” or “personal statement,” the graduate admissions essay is where you will explain your rationale for pursuing graduate school. You may be asked to answer a specific question(s) or the topic might be presented more broadly with a lot of room for you to decide how to convince the admissions committee that you are right for their program. Remember, the graduate admissions essay can also be one of your best opportunities to demonstrate written communication, critical thinking, and organizational skills.
Important points to consider
- You must answer the essay question. Each school may ask a different questions; in that case, you will need to write a different essay for each application.
- Be sure to include what you want to study and why, how you will contribute to the learning environment, and how the program fits with your professional goals.
- Share your story and use examples. Convey what makes you unique; be authentic and confident.
Proofread your essay carefully and then have several other people review your essay. Faculty, mentors, Writing Center staff, and Career Services Center staff can assist you with editing your graduate admission essay.
Writing your essays will take time. Start early and come back to them several times with a fresh eye.
Revise your resume
Some graduate and professional schools request a resume as part of your application. A graduate school resume is similar to a job search resume because it includes a list of higher education, a summary of career-related experiences, and listings of extracurricular activities, honors/awards, and any other relevant involvement. Resumes created for graduate school may be a little longer than a job search resume and are, typically, one or two pages in length. Please see the Resume and Cover Letter Guide for more information about how to write a resume.
Order your transcripts
Most graduate and professional schools will require a copy of your undergraduate transcripts as a part of your application. Your undergraduate transcript is a complete list of all courses attempted and grades earned at Marquette.
Transcripts are available through Marquette Central. Marquette will need your written consent before releasing this information to any person or institution. You can request transcripts online, via mail, or through an in-person request; you will need to pay a small processing fee for each transcript you request. Because of processing time (typically three business days plus delivery time) and unforeseen delays (e.g. possible unknown holds on your account), order transcripts well ahead of the application deadline.
Request letters of recommendation
Letters of recommendation are written evaluations of an individual’s performance whether at work or in the classroom. This information is an integral part of the world of education, health care, social services and many other industries. You can gather letters of recommendation from instructors, advisers, supervisors or anyone who has witnessed your abilities.
If you will be utilizing a letter multiple times, please direct your letter writer to keep the letter general and do not address the letter to anyone in particular.
Choosing your letter of recommendation writer(s)
- Be sure to ask individuals who will provide honest, candid, and positive recommendations
- Select professionals; do not select friends
- Provide the individual an opportunity to decline your request. Some individual may not feel capable due to not knowing you well enough, may not have the time, or may feel uncomfortable writing a letter of recommendation for you.
When to ask
- The sooner the better. If you are planning to apply to graduate programs, you may want to let your letter writer know when you will applying.
- Many letter writers are not usually writing for just you. The may be writing letters of recommendation for other students so keep this in mind.
After they have agreed
- Have a conversation with your letter writer and discuss your career goals or your reason for wanting to attend graduate school.
- Tell them what you have been doing while in school and/or working.
- Explain the graduate program so they have an understanding of what you will be doing.
- Inform them of what is valued in candidate for the program or job you are seeking.
What to provide
- Cover Letter or Personal Statement
- Any other helpful documents you provided to the school or employer
- Deadline for letter submission
- Transcripts (optional)
When you accept your new opportunity
- Always follow up with your letter when you have accepted. Send them a thank you note telling them about your new opportunity.
- Be certain to know the school’s letter of recommendation submission process. Some schools will contact your letter of recommendation writer on your behalf with instructions.
- Remember that people have busy lives. If there are deadlines, be sure to tell your letter writer. Check in with them if necessary while being respectful and gracious.
Prepare for Interviews
Some graduate and professional schools include an interview as part of the application process. The interview gives the admissions committee an opportunity to determine if there is a match between you and their program, is an excellent opportunity to sell yourself, and discuss your qualifications, personal goals, and why you think you are a perfect match for the program. Please see our Interview Guide for more information about how to prepare for an interview.
After your application is complete, take a deep breath and prepare yourself to wait patiently. Generally, notifications from schools will come two to three months after a school has your completed application, however depending on the program, number/quality of applicants, type of admissions (hard deadlines versus rolling admissions), etc. this estimate can vary widely. Often programs will post information on their website about applicant notification; if not, it is acceptable to contact the program and inquire about the applicant notification timeline.
While you are waiting to receive your notification letters, rank the schools according to your preferences (revisit your selection criteria as a guide). As soon as you receive two offers of acceptance, politely decline the less attractive one. Continue this process until you make your final choice. Each school will outline exactly what to do to accept or decline their offer of acceptance.
Sometimes applicants receive an offer from one school, which will expire before hearing from a more preferred school. In this case, it is acceptable to contact the preferred school to explain your situation and reiterate your interest in the program, politely inquire about the status of your application, and ask for updates on timelines for decisions. If you will not find out about your status with your preferred school, you may contact the school who extended the offer and explain that you have not yet received notification from other schools to which you applied and ask for an extension so you are able to make a fully informed decision about your graduate school offers. If an extension is impossible, you may need to decide if you are willing to pay the non-refundable deposit to guarantee your place in the program, even though you may ultimately be accepted in your preferred program and withdraw from the less preferred school (therefore forfeiting your deposit).
- Idealist Graduate School Information Center
Advise and insight regarding graduate school
Graduate school directory and resource center
- Peterson's Graduate School Guide
Graduate school directory and resource center
- US News & World Report
Graduate school rankings data repository
Asher, D. (2012). Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way into the Graduate School of Your Choice. New York, NY: Ten Speed Press.