Career Development

Considering Graduate School

Students thinking about attending graduate school must consider carefully a number of factors. The information provided here has been developed to help you decide whether graduate education is a good choice for you. As you begin this process, you are encouraged to talk with your Academic Advisor, particularly if s/he teaches in the field you are considering. Also speak with other faculty teaching within your field of interest. Give yourself an early start and allow for a generous investment of time. The information your research yields will enable you to make an informed and confident decision.

What is Graduate School and should you go?

When to Attend Graduate School

How to select a program that is right for you

What does an application include?

Personal Statement

Letters of Recommendation

Interviews, Portfolios, Auditions

Apptitude Tests/Standardized Test Scores

Timeline Considerations

Sample Timetable

What is Graduate School, and should you go?

Graduate study differs from undergraduate study in that it involves becoming more specialized and focused in a particular area of interest. More often than not, graduate programs require not only taking additional courses, but also active participation in research study and/or practica, internships, externships and clinical experiences. Graduate study allows a student to develop specialized skills to practice in certain professions or conduct research.

There are two major categories of graduate degrees: professional degrees and research degrees. While a professional master’s degree typically involves two or three years of study, the research doctoral degree usually takes four to six years of full-time study plus several years to complete an in-depth dissertation. Examples of professional degrees are the M.D. (for medical practice) and the J.D. (for practicing law). The research doctoral degree, Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) involves training in research and prepares individuals primarily for careers in academe or research centers.

Whether or not to attend graduate school is a decision that deserves careful consideration. Some students pursue graduate studies simply because they lack another career focus. However, the high cost of the degree, intense workload, and low rate of completion can make graduate school a costly decision. The average cost of a master’s degree is $15,000 to $25,000 plus living expenses. Additionally, approximately 50% of doctoral students drop out before completing their degree. As you contemplate whether or not graduate school is right for you, consider your answers to the following questions:

  • Am I considering graduate school only because I don’t know what else to do right now . . . as a way to postpone job hunting?
  • What do I see myself doing ten years from now? Is graduate school going to help me get there?
  • Have I talked with enough individuals who are accomplishing (or have accomplished) what I think I want to do? (Informational interviews, faculty advisors, etc.)
  • Do I have a realistic idea of the kinds of work and employment opportunities that this degree will make available to me?

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When to attend graduate school is a matter of concern for many students.

Advantages of starting immediately:
  • Maintain the momentum of your undergraduate work.
  • Certain fields recommend continuing immediately after your bachelor’s degree. (Talk to your advisor to see about your field.)
Advantages of delaying your start:
  • Gain valuable work experience within your field.
  • Take time to focus your career goals.
  • Take a break from academia.

How to select a program that is right for you

Begin your research by consulting with people. Talk with your advisors and mentors at St. Kate’s, and with other professionals in the field. Ask where they did their graduate work and get recommendations about specific programs. It is also important to consult with students currently studying in the graduate programs you are considering. You can meet with representatives of graduate and professional schools at the annual ACTC Graduate & Professional School Fair offered each fall. NOTE: The Career Development office can provide you with names of CSC alumnae who are currently working in a specific field or attending a particular graduate school. Continue your research by consulting reference materials. Peterson’s Graduate and Professional Programs provide a comprehensive listing including degrees offered, enrollment figures, admission and degree requirements, tuition, financial aid, housing, faculty and more. Career Development’s Resource Library includes this resource and others that you may find helpful.

As you create your list of potential schools, there are many important factors to consider.
• Department specialties
• Flexibility of curriculum and schedule
• Admission/pre-requisite requirements
• Facilities: library, housing, labs, etc.
• Reputation and quality of program
• Practical experience opportunities
• Cost/tuition/availability of financial aid
• Location/geography
• Minority students enrolled
• Faculty/possibility of advisor in your field
• Ph.D. production and average amount of time to complete
• Placement of graduates

One of the most crucial things for a prospective Ph.D. student to consider is whether there will be an advisor in your department who can help you advance in your career. When evaluating potential advisors in a program look for the following: tenure/length of time in field, amount of time s/he will be able to spend with you, whether s/he is active and respected in her/his field, and his/her “clout” within the field.

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What does an application include?

After you’ve researched the programs in which you’re interested, make a list of the requirements and deadlines for each one. Each application will include several items and an application fee ranging from $20-$90. (Many institutions have an “application fee waiver program” for anyone needing financial assistance.)

The application itself may contain all or most of the following parts. Each is important.
• Application form
• Personal statement
• Letters of recommendation
• Transcripts
• Aptitude tests/standardized test scores
• Interviews, portfolios, auditions
• Financial aid applications

Personal Statement:

The personal statement can be one of the most important components of your application package. The statement should be tailored closely to the program for which you are applying, and should give a clear and concise description of your motivation for completing this degree, and your plans for going on to work in the field. Remember that this is not your autobiography, and keep your description focused and professional. It is important that you convince the department to which you are applying that you have clear career goals and will be able to successfully complete the program. Be sure to have a career counselor and your advisor critique your personal statement, and allow yourself plenty of time to revise. The Career Development Library has a number of books and resources that offer help with writing graduate admissions essays.

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Letters of Recommendation:

Your recommendations should provide the readers with a balanced perception of your academic skills and personal abilities. You should make an appointment and spend time individually with those writing letters of recommendation for you, in order to provide them with an understanding of your goals and motivations for graduate work. Provide each recommender with a copy of your personal statement and a current resume so that they may refer to them in their letter. Be sure to give the writers at least three to four weeks lead-time prior to the deadline. After the letters have been written, show your appreciation by sending the writers a thank-you note.

Interviews, Portfolios, Auditions:

Some graduate schools (especially medical and business) will require an admissions interview. You should prepare for a graduate school interview just as you would for an employment interview. Learn about questions that you are likely to be asked, and practice answering them. Dress as you would for an employment interview.

Fields that are creative in nature (M.F.A., for example) may require you to submit a portfolio as part of your application. Likewise, programs in music, theater, and dance will often require an audition. Both the portfolio and audition are means to show your skill and ability to do further work, and should reflect the scope of your training and abilities.

Aptitude Tests/Standardized Test Scores:

Review the requirements of your target schools to determine which tests you need to take and when the scores are due. There are many methods for preparing for these tests. You can buy (or check out from the library) test preparation guides, take sample online tests (for example see, or enroll in test prep course. Kaplan and Princeton Review are two major test prep companies, but they can be pricy. Contact the O’Neill Center for more information about test prep. Note: The U of MN offers Grad School Test Prep for the GRE and the LSAT. Prices range from $540.00 to $580.00. For more information regarding these courses see

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The most common entrance exam is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test, which measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills. Do not plan on taking the GRE twice, using the first as a “practice test” and then taking it again for a higher score. Institutions will average both scores together rather than counting only the highest score. The GRE General is offered in computerized testing format only. Contact a testing center near you to schedule a test date and time. Find your nearest testing center at
In addition to the general test, certain graduate programs may require a GRE Subject Test, which measures achievement in a particular field of study. The GRE Subject test is offered in the following fields: Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology; Biology; Chemistry; Computer Science; Literature in English; Mathematics; Physics; and Psychology. Check with the programs to which you are applying to see whether they require a subject test.

If you are applying for law school, you will need to take the LSAT and register with LSDAS (Law School Data Assembly Service. (See for complete information on LSDAS and for LSAT test center information.)

After years of study and preparation, the MCAT is retiring the paper-and pencil delivery method after the August 2006 administration. Beginning with January 2007, the MCAT will be delivered exclusively at Thomson Prometric computer-based testing sites. For more details on testing dates, times, locations, and questions about the computerized MCAT and the new, shorter format, see The test will be offered on 19 different days between the months of January and September.

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Timeline Considerations

It is important to start gathering information early in order to be able to complete your applications on time. Most people should start the process a full year and a half before their anticipated date of matriculation. However, keep in mind that some scholarships have even earlier deadlines. Application deadlines range from August (before your senior year) for early decision programs of medical schools, to late spring or summer (after your senior year) for a few programs with rolling admissions. Most deadlines for classes entering in the fall are between January and March.

The timetable that appears below represents a sample of how you might plan; it has been adapted from Peterson’s Guides to Graduate and Professional Programs: An Overview.


• Research areas of interest, institutions and programs.
• Talk to advisors about application requirements.
• Register and prepare for appropriate graduate admissions tests.
• Investigate national scholarships.
JUNIOR Year, Summer
• Take required admission tests.
• Obtain application materials.
• Visit institutions of interest, if possible.
• Write your application essay.
• Check on application deadlines and rolling admissions policies.
• For medical, dental, osteopathy, podiatry, or law school, you may need to register for the national application or data assembly service most programs use.
SENIOR Year, Fall
• Obtain letters of recommendation.
• Send in completed applications.
SENIOR Year, Winter
• Complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form and a financial aid PROFILE, if required.
SENIOR Year, Spring:
• Check with all institutions before their deadlines to make sure your file is complete.
• Visit institutions that accept you.
• Send a deposit to your institution of choice.
• Notify other colleges and universities that accepted you of your decision so they may admit students on their waiting list.
• Send thank-you notes to people who wrote your recommendation letters, informing them of your success.

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Admissions Testing

Free and Low-Cost, Official Test Preparation Materials: