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What is graduate school?

Graduate school is an intense and specialized course of study. While your undergraduate education provides you broad knowledge with some specialization in your major area, graduate school focuses exclusively on your area of study. Additionally, graduate degrees are oriented towards either research or professional preparation. Thus, graduate school is not something to venture into if you are not sure what you want to study or what your goals are for obtaining a degree. Career counselors are available to help you with any step in this process.

Types of Degrees
  • Master’s degrees usually involves 1–2 years of full-time work to complete
    • Typical master's degrees: Master of Arts, Master of Science, Master of Physical Therapy, Master of Social Work, Master of Public Health, Master of Public Administration, and Master of Education.
  • Doctoral degrees are more involved and can take 4–6 full-time years to complete
    • Typical doctoral degrees: Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Education, Juris Doctor (law degree), Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, and Medical Doctor.
  • These are just a sampling of possible degrees. Additionally, each degree may be granted from a variety of different programs. For example, a student may receive a Master of Science in Microbiology or a Master of Science in Psychology. Some degrees can be completed on a part-time basis over an extended period of time.

Should you go?

Graduate school is not necessary for a variety of careers. Many students feel that they need to go to graduate school because they won’t be able to find a job with their major but this is certainly not the case. Deciding to go to graduate school should be a process of careful reflection and planning.

Ask yourself these questions
  • Do you know what specialty area you wish to pursue in graduate school?
  • What are you hoping to accomplish through graduate work? It is to find a job that requires advanced study? Is it the challenge of mastering an academic specialty?
  • Are you ready to continue your studies in a more intense and specialized manner?
  • How do you feel about focusing your energies on one subject area for eight or more hours a day?
  • To further your long-term career goals, is it imperative that you pursue graduate training immediately following your bachelor’s degree?
  • What opportunities will open up for you with an advanced degree?
  • Do graduate programs in your field of interest look more positively on applicants with some work experience behind them?
  • Can you acquire an entry-level position in your field and have your employer cover a portion or all of your expenses for graduate work?
  • Can you afford more schooling?
  • What is your undergraduate grade point average? Are you a qualified applicant for the program you seek to enter?
  • Are you tempted to apply to graduate school because you don’t know what else to do?

Timetable for graduate school applications

Allow yourself at least a year from the application deadlines to find, research and apply to graduate schools. This timeline assumes a fall start date and while typical, each individual has their own process for applying to graduate school.

Generally, the earlier you apply to graduate school, the more beneficial to you. At a minimum, submit the application at least a week before the deadline. You may want to consider registered or certified mail so you know your application materials arrived safely.

Timeline for 1 year before programs's start


    • Research and identify programs
    • Identify deadlines
    • Prepare for entrance exams

    Early fall

    • Take entrance exams
    • Begin writing statement of purpose/personal statement
    • Request letters of recommendation
    • Research financial aid options

    Late fall

    • Fill out applications
    • Request official transcripts
    • Polish statement of purpose/personal statement
    • Follow-up on recommendations and gather, if necessary
    • Apply for financial aid
    • Mail completed application packets

    Early/late spring

    • Arrange interviews
    • Evaluate choices

Application directions

As you receive your application materials, note the application deadlines, requirements, and pay careful attention to the directions. Make sure to plan enough time to do research and finish the application. An incomplete and/or late application packet will hurt your chances for admission.

Most graduate school applications will consist of
  • Application form: Fill this out neatly and completely, making sure to follow directions. Some schools may also ask for a resume to complement this form.
  • Transcripts: These usually need to be official transcripts so make sure to stop by the Registrar’s Office to order these.
  • Admission Test Scores – Many graduate programs require scores from a standardized graduate admissions test. The GRE is the exam most often required for graduate school admissions. Admission exams include: Make sure to prepare for whichever exam your graduate programs require. Test-preparation books are available in the Career Center library or at your local bookstore. Two well-known test prep companies are The Princeton Review and Kaplan.
  • Statement of Purpose/Personal Statement - Learn more about these below.
  • Letters of Recommendation – Most schools require at least three letters of recommendation from faculty members. These letters are an important piece in your application packet so make your requests carefully. Ask for recommendations from faculty who know your academic and professional potential, can describe your work ethic, and think highly of your abilities. Provide faculty with a copy of your resume so they can see your entire background and let them know what type of graduate work you are pursuing. Approach faculty early so they have plenty of time to write the recommendation and make sure to give faculty a deadline. Read recommendations FAQs.

Financing graduate school

One of the questions you should ask each graduate school to which you are applying is how their students pay for their education. There are several ways to finance your graduate studies: loans, grants, scholarships, fellowships and service-related programs (e.g., students who work for a government program receive a stipend in payment).

Read more
  • Financial aid (i.e., loans): Need-based loans are available for graduate students through the Federal Stafford and Direct Loan programs. Federal work-study money is available to graduate students as well. Check with the financial aid office of the school to which you are applying for details. For additional information check out FinAid! or the Federal Student Aid website.
  • Grants and scholarships: Some states and many private groups and foundations offer grants and scholarships to graduate students. If you are a Vermont resident, check with the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) for information on state and private sources. In addition, there are books in the Career Center library and at Bailey-Howe that are useful in locating funding sources. A Web search may also turn up several options. There are many websites that will allow users to search for appropriate scholarships (e.g., Fast Web).
  • Fellowships and Assistantships: Many colleges and universities offer scholarships and fellowships at the institutional level to newly admitted students. Departments within each school may also offer teaching, research or graduate assistantships and tuition awards to students accepted into their programs. Often this results in tuition remission and a living stipend. Each institution has different policies and options, so you must get information from each school. Check into financial aid options early to better ensure your chances of receiving assistance.

Writing a statement of purpose/personal statement

While some graduate schools have guidelines for the required personal statement, others do not. Make sure to read carefully, answer the question asked and stick to any length requirements given. If there are no guidelines for length, consider keeping your statement shorter (1–2 pages) as most admissions committees do not have the time to read something longer.

This is your chance to highlight your writing skills and the only chance you have to demonstrate your passion for your chosen field of study. Write personally and use specific examples. Make sure to proofread and have someone else read your essay as well. The Career Center library also has several books with sample personal statements that may be helpful as you write your own.

Potential topics to address
  • Academic influences - comment on the most inspiring writers/articles in your field of study, favorite professors and how they influenced you, best paper/project you ever wrote, single most important concept you learned in college.
  • Academic background - discuss the rigor of your academic program, special study or laboratory skills, and relevant knowledge of your field of choice.
  • Motivation - explore the evolution of your interest in your career choice, turning points, contributing factors, challenges or hardships that influenced your decision, and what you have done to test your commitment (work, volunteer, internship, research, etc. experiences).
  • Personal endeavors - include leadership opportunities, contributions to community service, maturity and self-knowledge.
  • Career goals - identify specific post-graduate career plans, role of graduate education in those plans, five-year or ten-year goals, additional educational plans beyond this graduate program.
  • Academic record - You may want to discuss any significant fluctuations in your academic record.
Resources for preparing your personal statement

Identifying and researching graduate programs

Finding the graduate school for you
  • Ask the advice of UVM faculty, staff and graduate students in your field of interest. Ask which programs are a good fit for you and offer a quality education.
  • Contact professionals working in your field of interest. There are many ways to connect with professionals to identify graduate schools. UVM’s Alumni Career Connection allows you to contact alumni in your field of interest for advice regarding career issues such as graduate school. Additionally, if there are professionals whose work you have studied and admired, contact them directly to ask about graduate programs.
  • Investigate professional associations. Many professional associations will provide graduate school advice on their web sites.
  • Explore graduate school search websites. There are several websites that allow searching for programs by topic and geographic location and include information about financial aid and test preparation. If graduate school rankings are included, remember that you are looking for the graduate school that is the best fit for you - not "the best" based upon someone else's evaluation.
  • Use the Career Center library and Bailey-Howe. Many publications list graduate programs. Peterson’s Guides to Graduate Study and the Barron’s guides are the most comprehensive. There are also specialty guides on specific programs if you search for them.
  • Do your research! You want to make sure that the graduate schools you apply to will prepare you to meet your goals. Explore websites of graduate programs and ask for information to be sent to you. Contact professors, current students, and alumni from graduate schools that interest you. Ask questions and get as much information directly from the people involved in the program. Evaluate which graduate programs you wish to apply for based upon the information you’ve gathered and what you know about yourself and what you want.

More graduate school resources

Last modified September 27 2017 09:59 AM