Why Graduate School?
While graduate school can be rewarding, it can also be expensive and time-consuming. It’s important to weigh whether it’s the right decision for you before you go. To think this through, 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?
Think about your reasons for attending graduate school. Where do they fall on this scale?
- I want to be a researcher or a college professor.
- Based on my research, I know that a graduate degree will give me better job choices.
- 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.
Interested in moving forward? Read on for tips about selecting a school, applying, obtaining references, and financing your graduate education.
How to Select a School
It is important to select a program and institution 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 collaborations 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 application, and start early.
Many schools accept applications online, but others 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: This 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. 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 GPA: This is an important measure of comparison against other candidates. If you had a particular problem that affected your grades, you may wish to briefly reference it in your statement. If so, explain concisely—do not be defensive.
- Letters of recommendation: 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: These may be 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 for them. When you ask a faculty member for a letter of recommendation, it is helpful to provide:
- All application deadlines
- A transcript
- A resume or CV
- 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, they may decline. If this happens, you should look for another reference rather than trying to convince that faculty member to change their 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. That said, you may receive financial assistance in several forms:
- Fellowships and grants: These are awarded by federal and local governments, private organizations, and schools. In some cases, fellowships provide tuition and a stipend. Because these are granted based on academic merit, you should identify ones that match your strengths and talents.
- Teaching and research assistantships: These 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, these include tuition coverage or reduction for graduate studies. If you are considering pursuing graduate studies part-time, this is an often overlooked funding source.
Columbia-Specific Graduate School Resources
- Meet one-on-one with a counselor to discuss whether graduate school is the right choice for you and your career, and get help with personal statements and other application materials
For CC and SEAS Students:
- Office of Preprofessional Advising: Resources and advising throughout the graduate school application process for law, medicine and other health professions. Sign up for their Prelaw and Prehealth listservs to learn about events and opportunities.
- Fellowships Office: Fellowships database and personal training for students applying for national and international fellowships
- SEAS Bulletin: List of fellowships and scholarships available to SEAS graduate students
For GS Students:
- Graduate School Planning: Resources and advising throughout the graduate school application process, including a semester-long seminar on the application process.
- Pre-Professional Planning: Resources and advising throughout the graduate school application process for law, medicine and other health professions.
- Fellowships: List of fellowships, resources, and advising on the application process.
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 US 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: Ementoring networking between experienced professionals and students in STEM fields
- Graduate Record Exam
- Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT)
- Law School Admissions Test (LSAT)
- Miller Analogies Test (MAT)
- Sample Test Prep Providers (study aids, practice tests, prep courses):
- Finaid: Scholarships, fellowships and private loan information for graduate school
- Fastweb: List of graduate school scholarships
- The Access Group: Non-profit student loan provider with tips on finding and paying loans
- US Department of Education Federal Student Aid: Resources for applying to graduate school, financial aid, and federal student aid programs
- Graduate Admissions Essays by Donald Asher
Graduate School Timeline
First Years and Sophomores
- It’s 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 advisers, professors, career counselors regarding your interest in pursuing graduate school and seek out advice and suggestions.
- Research institutions and programs.
- Contact schools and visit school websites 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 your school’s pre-professional advisers.
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 websites. Think about how this information can be incorporated into application essays.
- Begin writing application essays, allowing time to revise. Ask advisers to critique your essays. Consider using The Writing Center in 301 Philosophy Hall and Butler Library.
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 you to forward 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’ve 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 writers, letting them know your plans for graduate school.