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Preparing for Graduate School

Graduate school is a division of a university offering advanced programs beyond the bachelor's degree.

Approaching the Graduate School Decision: The Calendar and Considerations Involved

Are you thinking about going to graduate school? This decision requires time, planning and the help of faculty and staff at Marist. Making the right decision requires that you ask yourself: "Why should I go to graduate school?", "Where do I want to attend graduate school?", and "What might I contribute to a graduate program?".

There are several extremely good reasons to consider continuing your education after Marist. In terms of future employment, the pay scale is significantly higher for those with advanced degrees as compared with the salaries paid to those with just the baccalaureate. For some occupations (law, medicine, teaching, to name a few), some form of graduate training is mandatory. For other careers, such training may not be required for all positions, but does ensure advancement to positions of greater responsibility and remuneration (social work, psychology and counseling, business). For some students who are quite strongly attracted to the debates and themes within a specific discipline, attending graduate school is a very personal yet important decision. These kinds of students very often enroll in doctoral programs to obtain the PhD.

For every good rationale for pursuing graduate study, there is a flawed or poor reason to do so. You should not decide to attend graduate school because you haven't figured out what you want to do after graduating from Marist. The graduate study decision requires as great a sense of direction as do career choices. Students who apply to graduate school just to give themselves a bit more time frequently are not accepted. If they are, these students often end up floundering or becoming intimidated by the demands of graduate study. This is a shame because, with a little time and some job experience, these individuals might very well have identified their own interests and come to thrive in a graduate program. Similarly, you shouldn't go on to graduate study to "try it out." The application process for advanced study is a fairly searching one, and being a grad student is an expensive and demanding proposition. It's definitely not for amateurs.

When you make the decision that graduate study is the right choice for you, it's time to begin identifying the appropriate schools at which to apply. Ideally, you should begin this process around the spring semester of your junior year.

Throughout your undergraduate career, Marist faculty members are essential resources. In the process of researching graduate programs, professors are fundamental. Of course, you may have geographical preferences about the school you attend. Or you may feel more comfortable either with a larger program with potentially more resources or with a small department, which may ensure more individual attention. These are important considerations, and will help you to develop a short list of graduate schools. To identify those graduate programs that offer the best fit with your goals and the most qualified training in your field of interest, you will also need the counsel of faculty members.

Graduate study is the stage of specialization and depth. Academic disciplines have sub-fields and emphases that shape the structure of specific graduate programs. In economics, for example, the field is broken down into finance, international economics, micro- and macroeconomics, to name the more commonly mentioned subfields. Political scientists may investigate domestic politics, international relations, comparative politics or political theory. The structure of graduate study will reflect these distinctions, but not all graduate programs will teach all subfields equally well. In order to identify the best programs for your specific interests, you will need to consult with Marist faculty who work in the discipline you wish to pursue. In the course of these consultations, you will receive good direction and you will also develop further the contacts you will need for graduate school letters of recommendation.

Once you have received this guidance, you can begin to examine more closely the specific attributes of the programs you have identified. Go online and research the course listings, the faculty biographies and the special features of your short-listed programs. This research will almost certainly call out aspects of some programs that have particular appeal to you. While narrowing your graduate school choices, this information will also be highly useful in crafting your application to individual programs.

The time will come to assemble your graduate school application materials; this generally happens in the fall semester of your senior year. What goes into an application? It is commonly made up of four components:

  • your Marist transcript (where admissions committees will pay greatest attention to your coursework in the field to which you are applying)
  • graduate school admissions test scores (the GRE, the GMAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT are the most common)
  • letters of recommendation (usually three; depending on your proposed field of study, these come from faculty and/or from internship/job supervisors)
  • your graduate school personal statement

When graduate school admissions committees review applications, they are looking through all of these materials for evidence of a serious commitment to the field and to making significant contributions to it.

Your application essay or "personal statement" is a big deal that can make or break your chances of getting into a school. Most essays can be written in a standard format, but that doesn't mean it's easy! ThoughtCo has some great insight on writing that perfect personal statement essay.

The undergraduate transcript is self-explanatory in this regard: your Marist coursework in the graduate school field (and any other academic discipline which relates to it) will be examined not just for the grade you earned, but also for the degree of challenge presented by individual courses. As a rule of thumb, a minimum undergraduate grade point average of 3.0 is considered acceptable for graduate school applicants.

Graduate admissions exams are standardized tests measuring your potential for success in graduate study. While they do largely measure aptitude for such study, some parts and some exams in particular (the MCAT for medical school) also measure knowledge acquired over time, particularly as an undergraduate. It is highly advisable to prepare well for these exams, either by taking a test preparation course or by using sample tests (on exam websites) and test prep books to identify areas that need extra work. These tests can be taken more than once, but all of your test scores will be reported to the schools to which you apply. The summer before your senior year is a good time to prepare, and you should plan to take the test by approximately October of the senior year, depending on the application deadline of the individual graduate program. Following is a list of the most common graduate admissions exams.

  • GRE (Graduate Records Examination) - there is a General exam and also Subject exams for specific programs. Check the requirements for each school you apply to
  • MAT (Miller Analogies Test) - this is accepted by some schools in place of the GRE
  • LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) - required by all law programs
  • GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) - most common exam for business programs
  • MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) - required by all American Medical Association-approved medical schools
  • OAT (Optometry Admissions Test) - required by graduate optometry programs
  • DAT (Dental Admissions Test) - required by graduate dental programs
  • NTE (National Teacher Examination) - required by some graduate education programs

Faculty recommendations weigh heavily and, with your statement of purpose, give you the opportunity to address or counterbalance any perceived weaknesses in your college transcript or test scores. They also are the means by which you acquire an individual identity in the eyes of the admissions committee. It is therefore highly important to pick your recommenders with care. These should be faculty members (or supervisors) who know you and your work very well, and who are able to speak to your potential for significant contributions in your chosen field - in graduate school and beyond. When you request letters, sit down and describe to these individuals the specifics of the programs you've chosen and your aspirations for the future. Be sure to give your recommenders plenty of time to prepare these letters.

Your statement of purpose for graduate study essentially tells the committee how you have evolved as a potential scholar in the field to which you are applying, how their graduate program fits - and fits extremely well - with your profile as a scholar, and where you hope to take your graduate school training five to ten years after receiving your advanced degree. It is essential that your statement be sincere and that it convey your true voice. Barring an on-campus interview, which a few programs do request, the statement is your one opportunity to introduce yourself personally and directly to the admissions committee.

Graduate study is an expensive enterprise, but there are different options for funding your studies. In general, it is harder to find monies for master's programs than for doctoral programs, but individual schools often have specific programs to support their master's students. Depending on your field, there may be national fellowships that will cover all or a significant part of your graduate studies. At the graduate level, there are also financing possibilities similar to those available to undergraduates: campus work-study, Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for New York residents, and federal student loans (the Stafford Student Loan and Supplemental Loans for Students). A large proportion of graduate programs offer Teaching or Research Assistantships that pay at least part of the program's tuition and some even include a stipend. As you research potential programs, you should consider their options for tuition funding and how heavily these considerations will weigh in your final decision.

Additional information and support for graduate school applications are available from the Graduate School and Fellowship Advisor in the Career Services Office.

The Career Services Library (Library 332) has a comprehensive selection of volumes on:

  • graduate school listings
  • graduate school culture, expectations and survival
  • graduate school admissions essays
  • graduate school admissions exams

Career Services also refers to a number of web resources which we instruct our students in how to use. These include: