Why go to Graduate School?

Increased earnings are related to degree attainment: someone with a graduate degree earns, on the average, 33% more than someone with only a bachelor's degree. You may need specific skills, knowledge, or credentials necessary for a particular job or profession. A graduate degree can provide greater mobility within your area of interest and/or the flexibility to change careers. Graduate school may be necessary to keep up with advances in your field.

Are you "graduate school material?"

Success in graduate school depends on a combination of academic preparation and personal characteristics. Undergraduate GPA and standardized test scores (e.g., GRE, GMAT, Miller Analogies Test) are generally good predictors of success in graduate school. However, graduate school also requires persistence, self-discipline, and initiative, as well as an ability to work well with faculty and colleagues. It is also important to be strongly motivated and have clear understanding of how a graduate degree will contribute to your personal and professional goals. Additionally, direct knowledge of your prospective career field, through paid or unpaid work experience and/or discussions with working professionals, can both strengthen your application to graduate school and help you make more accurate decisions about what specific degree or program to pursue.


Identify the graduate programs that fit your particular interests, academic background, and goals.

Institutional characteristics to consider include:

  • faculty credentials and reputation
  • institutional and (where appropriate) program accreditation
  • direct and indirect costs (e.g., tuition, fees, books, living expenses) and the availability of financial assistance
  • degree requirements and courses
  • institutional facilities (library, computers, laboratories, etc.)
  • alumni job-search success (job placement)

Be honest about your academic background and potential. How selective is the program? Will you be able to meet their admissions requirements?


Most applications for graduate school require the following documents:

  1. An application form, listing personal data and educational and/or professional background information
  2. Official transcripts of college-level academic work, from each institution attended
  3. Standardized test scores
  4. Letters of recommendation/recommendation forms
  5. Statement of purpose or a personal statement
  6. Other materials may be required by specific programs, such as a resume, writing sample, or proof of professional licensing.

When completing your application:

  • Read the instructions and follow them carefully.
  • Provide complete and accurate information. Your application is not complete until ALL required documents have been received by the school.
  • Type or write neatly. If your application isn't readable, it can't be evaluated.
  • Consistently spell out your full legal name on all forms.
  • Don't wait for deadlines -- get all necessary materials submitted as early as possible.
  • Be organized when compiling materials for your application packet and make copies of everything you send in.

Transcripts and Grades

Transcripts submitted with your application packet must be official. If the transcript is provided to you for inclusion in your application packet, be sure NOT to open the envelope. You should, however, request a student copy to review it for accuracy. Schools usually look for an overall GPA of 3.0 or greater, but can be impressed by a pattern of improvement. Depending on the particular graduate program, the school may also consider your GPA for course work in your major or in grades for individual courses related to the graduate program.

Standardized Test Scores

Check admissions requirements to determine which (if any) standardized tests are required (e.g., GRE, GRE subject, GMAT, Miller Analogies Test). As it may take up to six weeks for a school to receive official test scores, be sure to take tests well in advance of the application deadline. Don't overstress about taking standardized tests. They are just one factor in the admission decision, and you can prepare for them, either on your own or by enrolling in a test preparation workshop. Practice test-taking skills; train to work under pressure and time constraints; and complete sample questions to become familiar with the kinds of questions and the format of the test.


Who should you select as a recommender? Go to those who know you and have had positive experiences with you: use only people who know you well and who know you when you did well. Faculty recommendations are particularly important if you're planning on pursuing a research degree. If you're applying to a professional degree program, a mix of faculty and those who may know you in a professional capacity are usually acceptable. Do not submit recommendations from people who only know you as a family member or friend.

Faculty can't write you a recommendation if they don't know you. Speak up in class and ask intelligent questions. Seek their advice outside the classroom about graduate school and careers. Express initiative and show independent thinking and intellectual curiosity. Ideally, try to work on research projects with them.

Make the process as easy as possible for your recommender:

  • Contact them first to ask if they would be willing -- and have time -- to provide a recommendation.
  • Complete the top portion of the recommendation form and sign the FERPA waiver (see note below).
  • Be sure to tell them the program and degree to which you're applying and include information about yourself: a resume or bio; a copy of your personal statement; a copy of a good paper you may have submitted in their class.
  • Provide the recommender with a preaddressed, stamped envelope.

The Family & Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) requires that you have access to the recommendation, unless you specifically waive access. This is your decision. However, many admissions committees view the accuracy and honesty of a recommendation more favorably if access is waived.

Statement of Purpose/Personal Statement

The statement of purpose is your opportunity to stand out from the rest of the applicants. Let the school know what is interesting or unique about you and why they should want you as a student. Include information that is not on your resume or listed elsewhere in your application materials: interesting experiences, unique characteristics. However, it is important that you carefully read the explanation of what the university wants in the statement. Are they interested in:

  • Your motivation for applying, professional goals, and personal interests?
  • Information on your background and suitability for the program?
  • An understanding of the profession?
  • What influenced your decision to pursue graduate study?

A good statement is honest and accurate; well-written, with no grammatical or spelling errors; and not significantly longer or shorter than the length requested by the school.

A couple of other hints about your statement of purpose:

  • If you are sending your application to multiple schools and mention the school by name in your statement, don't forget to use the right name of the school or university.
  • Don't use the statement to explain about any negative aspects of your application -- put those explanations in a separate statement or letter.
  • Before submitting your application, ask faculty members and family to review your statement and provide comments.
Author: KIRSTIN WILLIAMS, Director Of Graduate Student Enrollment Management, George Washington Unversity


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