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Graduate School Preparation

Are you thinking about applying to grad school but not sure where to start? The Career Center has a list of resources for you to reference and use as a guideline for graduate school preparation. Feel free to also make an appointment with a Career Specialist for additional guidance.

Choosing a Graduate School

Graduate school allows you to examine a particular field in a focused way. Some masters degrees are designed to lead to a doctoral degree while others are the “terminal” degree for a profession (e.g., MBA, Master of Library Science). Completing a masters usually takes 2-3 years for full-time students. Doctoral degrees usually entail the contribution of new knowledge to a field and a written dissertation; it usually takes 5-7 years to complete.


Purpose

Clarify why you want to pursue graduate school. Some people don’t know what area to focus on, or they feel pressured to attend grad school now. Others want a higher salary and don’t see any options other than grad school. Others aren’t ready to enter the work world. Make an appointment with a career counselor if any of these scenarios fit you.


Timing

It’s important to assess whether you’re ready for it. Ask yourself: Have you counted the costs in terms of time, energy and money? How will you cover living expenses? Can you stay interested in a narrow range of topics for 2-7 years? Do you need a break from school? Are you ready to sacrifice work experience for school?


Choosing a Graduate Program

Program Comparison

Consult the following resources, visit school websites, read catalogs, and attend our graduate school fairs and workshops.


Abroad Programs


Program Decision Criteria

  • Faculty – degrees/credentials, research specialties, student/faculty ratio
  • Program Quality – measured by different factors but may differ from your priorities
  • Price – opportunities for fellowships, assistantships, scholarships, other aid
  • Admission Requirements – GPA, exam scores, undergrad coursework, experience
  • Course Offerings – desired courses frequently offered?
  • Employment – where graduates of the program are working; how much they earn
  • Facilities – quality of libraries, computer labs, research facilities, etc.
  • Location – will it help you meet personal or professional goals?
  • Student Life – diversity of students, student organizations, housing, support services

Application Timeline

Sophomore/Junior Year

  • Research programs
  • Explore financial aid resources
  • Sign up for required standardized test and take a practice test
  • Attend Career Center grad school workshops
  • Identify potential letter writers
  • Order unofficial transcript and correct any discrepancies
  • Take required standardized test


Junior/Senior Year

  • Write your statement of purpose
  • Request letters of recommendation from faculty
  • Order official transcripts
  • Complete and mail your applications
  • Apply for aid available through program; assistantships, fellowships, scholarships, etc.


Senior Year

  • Submit financial aid applications
  • Visit campuses, talk to faculty/students
  • Follow-up with schools to make sure file is complete
  • After receiving school’s acceptance, send required deposit

Application Materials

Typical Application Materials

  • Application Form
  • Application Fee
  • Official Transcripts from all institutions attended
  • Entrance Exam Scores
  • Personal Statement
  • Letters of Recommendation

Personal Statement

Also called a “statement of purpose” or “letter of intent.” The overall purpose is to persuade the admissions committee why you should be chosen for the program and why you want to pursue a graduate education. You are telling a narrative of who you are and how you fit into the specific program that you are applying for. Some schools require statements with specific information about an applicant’s target area of study, while others are open to a wide range of content.

Listed below are content ideas and guidelines that you can use as you brainstorm and gather your thoughts for your personal statement.


Content Ideas

  • Follow the prompt
    • If there is a prompt, read over the questions thoroughly. Make sure you are answering the questions throughout your essay.
  • Your purpose of graduate study
    • Some questions you can ask yourself is why this program? What about this program intrigues you? Why do you want to study this subject? What is your overall goal or purpose upon finishing this graduate program? How did you learn about the program? What do you know about the program? What is different about this program compared to other programs you’ve researched?
  • Who you are as a person, your passions and motivation
    • Tell us who you are. How are your passions and motivations unique from other applicants? What are your passions and motivations, and how do they align with this graduate program?
  • Future use of your graduate study, including educational and career goals
    • What would you like to achieve upon finishing this program? What would you like to accomplish during and after the program? What are your ultimate career or educational goals? Share how the program that you are applying for will help you reach your career goals.
  • Your unique preparation and propensity for success in target field
    • What have you been doing to prepare for this program? Have you taken a gap year between your undergraduate and graduate studies? Have you been working? What different organizations have you been a part of?
  • Any conditions in your records, scores, or background explained in a positive manner
    • If you feel like your GPA and test scores are low, the personal statement can be a space where you have the opportunity to explain your academic journey and circumstances that might have affected it. Be honest, but be sure to share your commitment to this program as well.
  • Why this school and program has special appeal to you
    • Is there something special about this program compared to others? Share why. What is the appeal? Why are you applying to this particular program?


Writing Process

After you’ve brainstormed, make a general outline for yourself. It will help if you organize your ideas, and list them all out. Figure out a theme or thesis statement for your personal essay, and use it as a guideline for your writing process. Remember, everyone’s writing process and style are unique, and it is best to find your own voice. A personal statement is a chance for the admissions committee to get to know you outside of your application, GPA, and test scores.

  • Write a draft
    • Your first draft does not have to be perfect. Jot out your ideas, and let your voice flow. You will be able to edit and structure out your key points after reading it over and receiving feedback.
  • Read the draft and check if you’ve answered the prompt and included your desired themes
  • Revise the draft
    • After reading the draft, make any edits that seem fit. This is your chance to sharpen your personal statement by deleting, rewriting, or adding more content.
  • Ask a faculty, Career Specialist or the Writing Center for feedback
    • Don’t be shy! Make an appointment via Handshake with your Career Center, and ask for feedback.
    • If you need further feedback on grammar and syntax, make an appointment with the Writing Center.
  • Revise again and proofread
    • Before you officially submit your personal statement, be sure to revise again and proofread. You want to refine your essay as much as possible before submitting.


Style

It might be tempting to write your personal statement based on a template, but figuring out your style and using your own unique voice will make your essay stand out. Remember, the admissions committee wants to get to know you outside of your application and scores, so use this opportunity to share your aspirations, experiences, and reasons why you want to join the program. The following are some tips for you to keep in mind as you start writing:

  • Write in frank, concise language (non-academic) about your background
  • Explain what you’ve learned about yourself, target field, and goals based on your life
  • Be specific, and get to the point early to catch reader’s attention
  • Keep length to 2 pages or less
  • Don’t give a laundry list of achievements
  • Don’t write statements that are self-evident to readers (e.g. writing skills are important)
  • Words to Avoid: significant, interesting, challenging, satisfying, satisfaction, appreciate, invaluable, exciting, excited, enjoyable, enjoy, feel good, appealing, I like it, it’s important, I can contribute, meant a lot to me, stimulating, incredible, gratifying, fascinating, meaningful, helping people, remarkable, rewarding, useful, valuable, helpful.

For more guidance on Statement of Purpose, visit www.statementofpurpose.com or read some sample statements.


References

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — Writing Tips: Personal Statements

University of Connecticut — Personal Statements

The Career Center at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — Write Your Personal Statement

Letters of Recommendation

Recommendation letters are important in the application process and could be a deciding factor in getting accepted into your program of choice. Three letters are often required from such people as (a) someone who knows you well, (b) a professor, or (c) a previous supervisor.

When choosing references, consider which recommendations would ultimately strengthen your application. If you are more experience-heavy, then ask a faculty member or professor to write your recommendation letter to showcase your strengths and performance as a student. If you lack experience, then ask your work or volunteer supervisor to write your letter to emphasize your work ethic and extracurricular experience that will highlight you as a holistic applicant.

It would be helpful if you provided a resume for your references, so they can reference your background and experiences. Be mindful of their time, and give at least two months advance notice when requesting letters.


Who should I ask?

When asking for letters of recommendation, it’s best to ask professors, previous supervisors, or current supervisors that you have a relationship or strong connection with. Professors will be speaking on behalf of your class performance, and previous or current supervisors will be speaking on behalf of your work ethic, collaboration and interpersonal skills. Both types of recommendations will also be evaluating your overall character and fit for the graduate program.

Some graduate programs require only two recommendations, and some require three. Make sure to check the application details prior to reaching out to your references.


What is the best approach when asking for recommendations?

Give your recommendations at least a 1-2 months advance notice. Keep in mind that professors receive multiple requests for recommendations from other students as well throughout the year. If your request has been accepted, make sure to supply your references with a resume, a brief statement of intent, and information on the graduate program.

After recommendations have been submitted, send a handwritten “Thank You” card, and keep them updated on your status. Maintain a positive relationship with your references. It will help you in the long run!

Tests

Most graduate and professional schools, but not all, require entrance exams. The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) General and Subject tests are required by many academic programs (Master and Doctoral degrees). MBA programs usually require the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Other tests are required in other fields such as the LSAT for law school, the MCAT for medical school, the DAT for dentistry school, the OAT for optometry school, and the TOEFL English proficiency test for international students. Grades and entrance exams are often weighed heavily in the admissions process.


Why do I need to take a test?

The purpose of entrance exams is for admissions committees to have a broader picture of your overall application. Your test scores are another component outside of your GPA that programs take into consideration. Typically, if both your GPA and test scores are high, you are considered a strong candidate. However, if your GPA is low, you have the opportunity to make up those imbalances through high test scores. Tests are just another opportunity to showcase your aptitude to complete the program.


Where do I start?

It is recommended for you to research on what test score requirements. Each school can be different and may have differing expectations from their applicant pool. It is highly advised for you to schedule your first exam early enough, so that you have enough time to prepare, study, and retake (if necessary) prior to submitting your scores to the program.

The following is a list of different tests that applicants must take in accordance to a specific industry:


Prep Courses

Preparation courses normally charge significant fees. We would recommend for you to take a free practice test before making a decision on whether or not to register for a prep course. Biola hosts free practice tests on campus frequently, so you can also be on the lookout for that! Here are some additional resources:

Financing Graduate School

Financial Aid


Fellowships

A fellowship is a grant used to fund graduate study in certain fields.