Graduate School - Factors to Consider

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Why Graduate School?

While graduate school can be a rewarding experience, it can also be expensive and time consuming. You've got to know if you really want it before you go. Ask yourself and research the answers to these questions:

  • How long will it take?
  • How much will it cost?
  • Am I ready to do the work?
  • Is this going to make a difference for my career and long-term income?
  • If I need to take out student loans, is it still worth it?
  • Should I gain work experience first?

Some good reasons to attend graduate school include:

  • I want to be a researcher or a college professor.
  • A graduate degree will give me better job choices.

These are not-so-good reasons:

  • I do not know what else to do.
  • I can put off paying my college loans.
  • My parents/teachers expect me to go.
  • It is a way to avoid finding a real job.

How to Select a School

It is important that you select a program and institution for your graduate study that matches your interests, abilities and goals. Some of the finest programs may be at schools with lesser known reputations, while better known schools may have weaker departments. Your professors are a good resource because they are familiar with the with top departments in their fields.

As an applicant, factor in your own criteria (e.g., geographic location or size), while also considering additional features, such as:

  • Faculty: What is the faculty/student ratio? Do the faculty members represent a variety of view points within the discipline? Do the faculty research topics interest you?
  • Facilities: How extensive is the lab space? Are there coordinating programs with other educational, cultural, professional and research institutions?
  • Students: What is the composition of the graduate class? What is the attrition rate?
  • Employment: Are there resources to assist graduating students with finding a job? What kind of jobs do graduates obtain?

Sample questions to ask on school visits: 

  • What are the retention and graduate rates for the program?
  • Where do your students obtain employment after graduation?   
  • What services are available to help students find employment after graduation?
  • What kind of academic support programs do you have (i.e. faculty advisors, peer advisors)?  Are they available only after I experience difficulties, or can I use them proactively? 
  • Are there diverse faculty members, administrators, and staff associated with this program? 
  • Are there opportunities for experiential learning (i.e. internships, practice, assistantships)?   
  • Are students exposed to professional associations and/or given an opportunity to become active members? 
  • Are students required/encouraged to do research  and present the information at professional conferences? 
  • What two things are necessary for success in this program? 
  • What kind of financial aid is available to students in this program? 
  • What kinds of services or opportunities for involvement are in place for program alumni?  Is there a strong alumni network associated with this program?   
  • Is on-campus housing available to graduate students? 
  • What kinds of computing facilities are available to graduate students? 
  • What kinds of social outlets are available to students in the area?   
  • Are there opportunities to conduct research with program faculty? 
  • Are there opportunities to conduct independent research within the program? 

How to Apply to Graduate School

Plan ahead. Graduate and professional schools often require specific undergraduate courses, as well as standardized tests.  In some cases, test scores are unavailable for several weeks, which may delay your application. Allot at least one month for preparing your entire application, and start the process early.

Many schools accept applications online; however, many still require hard copies. Some schools receive thousands of applications, so be sure to keep a record of every item sent to each admissions office and to send your application ahead of time. Remember that early decisions and rolling admissions may be available, even if they are unadvertised.

Five main elements are considered in an application:

  • Your personal statement is your opportunity to articulate your experience, interests, and goals, and express your enthusiasm for graduate study. Highlight your preparation and experience, why you want an advanced degree and how it will influence your career path, and why you have selected this institution. This is your best opportunity to speak about yourself, so make sure your essay is concise, clear, and answers any outlined questions. Lastly, remember not to restate your resume. Instead, highlight your interests and emphasize how your skills can contribute to the greater academic community.
  • Your grade point average is an important measure of comparison against other candidates. If you had a particular problem that affected your grades, you may wish to make a brief reference in your statement. If so, explain concisely – do not be defensive.
  • You will need between two and five references – people who can write about your skills and interests. Usually at least one academic reference is required. In some cases, an employer or supervisor may serve as a reference.
  • Your standardized test scores are an important way to distinguish yourself from other candidates.  Many schools require specific standardized tests for admissions (e.g., GRE, MCAT, GMAT, LSAT), which you may take as early as spring of your junior year. While planning your application process, identify specific test dates and how long it takes to score a test.

Guidelines for Obtaining References

Faculty members are usually happy to give a reference, but you need to make it easy to help. When you ask a faculty member for a letter of recommendation, it is helpful to provide:

  • All application deadlines.
  • A transcript.
  • A resume.
  • A statement describing what you are applying for and why.
  • The grade(s) you received in the professor’s course and a sample of your work if applicable.
  • Your contact information.
  • Instructions about how to submit the letter of recommendation.
  • A stamped and addressed envelope so that the recommender may send the letter directly to the school(s) you are applying to, if the letter will not be submitted online.

Faculty members write letters of recommendation as a courtesy. Occasionally, if a faculty member is uncomfortable writing a letter, he/she may decline. In this case you should look for another reference rather than trying to convince that faculty member to change his/her mind. Always thank your references and keep them apprised of the outcome.

Financing Graduate School

There can be a significant cost associated with graduate school; however, you may receive financial assistance in several forms:

  • Fellowships and grants are awarded by federal and local governments, private organizations, and schools. In some cases, fellowships provide tuition and a stipend. These are granted based on academic merit; therefore, you should identify fellowships that match your strengths and talents.
  • Teaching and research assistantships are often awarded to second semester or second year graduate students. These positions usually include tuition waivers and stipends, in exchange for working with a supervising faculty member. TAs typically grade papers, lead discussion groups, and assist in labs.
  • Employee benefits offered through some employers include tuition coverage or reduction for graduate studies. If you are considering pursuing graduate school part-time, this is an often overlooking funding source.

Columbia-Specific Graduate School Resources

CCE Resources

For CC and The Fu Foundation The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science Students:

  • Office of Preprofessional Advising – Resources and guidance throughout the graduate school application process for law, medicine and other health professions; Prelaw and Prehealth blogs and listservs available
  • Fellowships Office – Fellowships database and personal training for students applying for national and international fellowships
  • School of Engineering and Applied Science Bulletin – List of fellowships and scholarships available to The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science graduate students

For GS Students:

General Graduate School Resources

  • Petersons Guide to Graduate Study – Tools for finding and financing graduate programs
  • College Source – A database of college catalogs, institution profiles and course descriptions
  • Graduate Guide – A directory of graduate schools in the USA and Canada
  • US News & World Report – Search engine for top ranking programs by discipline
  • Admissions Essays – Guidance on writing admissions and scholarship essays
  • PhDs.org – A  search and ranking tool for Master’s and Doctorate programs; career resource extras include, Getting into Grad School, Succeeding in Grad School and Postdoctoral Life pages
  • Teach for America – Information on graduate schools offering benefits to Teach for America alumni including two-year deferrals, fellowships, course credits and waived application fees
  • Drew University Career Center (Graduate School section) – A comprehensive overview of all phases of the graduate school application process
  • MentorNet – E-mentoring networking between experienced professionals and students in Engineering, Science, Math and Technology fields

Testing Information

Funding Information

Print Resources

  • The Princeton Review Complete Book of Graduate Programs by Princeton Review*
  • Graduate School Guide by School Guide Publications *
  • Graduate Admissions Essays by Donald Asher *
  • Graduate Schools in the U.S. 2010 by Peterson’s
  • Making a Difference Graduate Programs: Select and Distinctive Education for Socially Responsible Careers by Miriam Weinstein, Ed.
  • Financing Graduate School, 2nd ed. by Peterson’s
  • The Real Life Guide to Graduate and Professional School by Cindy Rold
  • How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School by Richard J. Stelzer

*Asterisks indicate that resource is located in CCE Resource Library


Graduate School Timeline

First Years and Sophomores

  • It is never too early to start brainstorming with CCE counselors about your goals and to begin your research. 

Junior Year, Fall and Spring

  • Solidify what area of study you would like to pursue.
  • Consult with advisors, professors, career counselors regarding your interest in pursuing graduate school and seek out advice and suggestions.
  • Research institutions and programs.  (SeeGeneral Graduate School Resources” section)
  • Contact schools and visit school Web sites for application forms, application deadlines, course catalogs and financial aid information.
  • Gather information about financial aid resources - scholarships, fellowships, graduate and teaching assistantships.
  • Register and prepare for necessary graduate admissions tests.  Applicants to medical and law school will need to register for national application services such as LSDAS for law school and AMCAS for medical school.
  • If you're thinking about law school or health professions, connect with the Office of Pre-Professional Advising.

Junior Year, Summer

  • Take required graduate admissions tests if necessary – GRE, LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, etc.
  • Continue researching and gathering admissions, academic program, and financial aid information.
  • Visit prospective schools, when possible, and talk to admissions staff, current students and faculty.
  • Investigate faculty research interests by looking at schools’ departmental Web sites.  Think about how this information can be incorporated into application essays.
  • Begin writing application essays, allowing time to revise.  Ask advisors to critique your essays.  The Writing Center in 301 Philosophy Hall and Butler Library can also be utilized. 

 Senior Year, Fall

  • Take required graduate admissions tests if have not yet done so. 
  • Request letters of recommendation from faculty and supervisors who know your work.
  • Look into Columbia’s dossier services, which allow the forwarding of designated files (e.g. transcripts, essays, and recommendation letters) directly to graduate schools.
  • Based on the requirements of each school, gather and submit:
    • Admissions test reports
    • Official Transcripts.  You may request these from the Student Service Center or Student Administrative Services. You may also want to ask that transcripts are sent out AFTER your fall grades have been calculated into your GPA.  Currently enrolled students may order a transcript through Student Services Online (SSOL).
    • Letters of Recommendation
    • Application Essays/Personal Statement
  • Complete necessary financial aid applications such as FAFSA, and scholarship and fellowship applications.

Senior Year, Spring

  • Double-check with Admissions departments to ensure receipt of all parts of your application (especially if mailed separately).
  • Find out if admissions interviews are part of the application process.
  • Once you receive admissions decisions, consider visiting institutions if have not already, and reach out to your support system for help with making thoughtful decisions.
  • Form a contingency plan in case there are no acceptances (e.g., working, interning, volunteering, or taking courses in desired subject area). 
  • Once you have made the decision to attend a program, notify the other institutions you are still waiting to hear from of your plans.
  • Send thank you letters to your recommendation letter writers, letting them know your plans for graduate school.