Before jumping headfirst into the application process, ask yourself some important questions:
- What career opportunities exist at the bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD level?
- What is my research question and how have others attempted to address it?
- Can I answer the question “I want to study [field] because . . . “ in a convincing and honest manner?
- Do I understand the time, effort, and expense needed to undertake graduate study?
Career coaching appointments
If you need help with assessing your interests and whether graduate school is the right next step, please schedule an appointment with a career coach.
Explore this page to explore if graduate school is the right step for you:
- Considering graduate school
- Timing your application
- Selecting target schools and programs
- Considering cost
- How to apply
- Personal statement and writing sample
- Requesting letters of recommendation
- Ask the experts
- Additional resources
Considering graduate school
Answering the questions above will give you a sense of where you would like to land once you finish your graduate program, which will help determine what type of study is right for you.
It is also important to talk with people in your field of interest; ask them for advice and find out how they ended up where they are today. This input will not only help you decide if graduate school is right for you, but also will show you what types of programs can help you reach your goals and what other steps you may need to take along the way.
If you plan to take a year or two off between graduation and graduate school, there are a few steps you should take during your senior year:
- Schedule an appointment with a career coach to develop your plan.
- Meet with your major advisor, preprofessional advisor, or someone else in the field to review your options.
- Inquire about recommendations now, especially if you’ve narrowed your options down to a couple of types of graduate programs. It’s okay to ask now if professors and advisors would be willing to write a recommendation for you in the future. Just be sure to hold on to a paper, project, or other course material to share with the writer to jog their memory of you as a student.
Timing your application
While many WashU graduates will go on to get additional degrees, it is important to remember that like any career move, deciding to go to graduate school is an individualized processes as unique as each WashU student. Students almost always benefit from a break between undergrad and graduate school. In fact, many graduate programs see that students benefit from some time working in industry or taking a break from being in school full-time.
It used to be said that if you don’t go to graduate school after undergrad, you’ll never go back, but that just isn’t true! And the average age of a graduate student in the United States is 31 years old – so you’ve got time. Graduate school is also a financial commitment regardless of a program’s funding, and it may be helpful to work a few years before attending for this reason.
Graduate school is not a “now or never” decision. You can always make the choice to go back and can reach out the Center for Career Engagement for support even if you are two, ten, or twenty years out of undergrad!
Selecting target schools and programs
Once you have decided to apply to graduate school, you should begin to write your personal statement. Even if only in draft form, your personal statement will help direct your search process and lead you to consider the best schools for your interests. It also will enable you to talk to others effectively about your graduate school goals.
Deciding whether to pursue a master’s degree or a PhD will focus your search. A master’s degree is generally a two to three year program that involves coursework and possibly a practicum. In certain fields, such as social work and business, obtaining a master’s degree may be a career-oriented decision which qualifies you for specific certification, licensure, specialization or promotion.
A PhD involves original research that culminates in a written dissertation. Most PhD programs include the master’s degree study. Should you decide after completing the master’s portion that you do not want to continue, you may be able to leave the school with a master’s degree.
Funding is a factor that may influence your choice in graduate programs. PhD programs often provide funding, including tuition remission. In almost all cases, you should not pay to attend a PhD program.
Most master’s degree programs are not funded. They may offer a teaching or research assistantship with a partial or full tuition waiver. You may need to rely on student loans to help fund your master’s program if it is not part of a PhD. Scholarship and fellowship options may also be available at particular schools. Furthermore, you will complete the FAFSA with your own financial information, as opposed to your parents’.
Another potential avenue is to study abroad for graduate school. Consider this:
- Queens University: Belfast, Ireland
1 Year MA (across 12 months)
$22,247 + Room & Board
- Georgetown University: Washington, D.C.
2 Year MA
$84,888 + Room & Board
Additionally, federal student aid can be used at 760 schools outside of the US. This won’t be the right choice for every individual or field, but it’s worth considering.
How to apply
Your application will generally consist of an application form, a personal statement, letters of recommendation, official transcripts, and a GRE score report. You should apply to a few different schools to increase your chances of admittance. However, since most applications come with a fee and graduate school is a focused undertaking, it isn’t advisable to apply to schools you would not attend.
Generally you will be applying directly to a specific department or program. Your application will be evaluated both at the departmental and institutional level. Use your networking skills and speak with faculty members in a desired program before applying. At the PhD level especially, you should be familiar with and excited about a particular faculty member’s work.
Personal statement and writing sample
The personal statement is your opportunity to show the admissions committee who you are and why you are a good fit for their program. They want to see that you are prepared for graduate school, have demonstrated intellectual growth, and are focused and interested in a particular field. Specifically, they want to know what has influenced your interests in the field, what study or research skills you’ve gained, how you might contribute to the academic community, and what you would like to do with your degree.
Use the answers to the questions asked earlier to help mold your statement. Be yourself! It is a good idea to start your personal statement early. You should tailor your statement for each application you submit, addressing your fit into each program.
For doctoral programs especially, a department may request a writing sample from you. This would typically be a research paper in your field of interest. Clean up a copy of a paper from a class or prepare a chapter of your senior thesis to submit. The Writing Center is a great on-campus resource for personal statement reviews and offers workshops on this topic throughout the year.
Historically, most graduate programs required you to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Law schools requires the LSAT, medical school requires the MCAT, and business school requires the GMAT. Increasingly, schools are allowing students to submit applications without test scores. If none of the schools you are applying to require test scores, there is no reason to take an exam.
If the GRE is required, there are a few things to know.
- The general test GRE is broken up into three type of questions: verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing. You can learn more at www.gre.org.
- A program may want you to take GRE Subject Tests, which are different from the General Exam. Subject tests in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, biology, chemistry, computer science, literature in English, mathematics, physics, or psychology may also be required based on the schools and programs to which you apply. Subject Tests are given at paper-based test centers in November, December and April.
It is possible, though not common, that a school might require the Miller Analogies Test (MAT).The MAT is a high-level mental ability test requiring the solution of problems stated as analogies. The 120 partial analogies are to be completed within 60 minutes.
Requesting letters of recommendation
Letters of recommendation serve as an objective assessment of how you have demonstrated graduate program qualifications. They also assess your ability to understand the differentiating aspects of a specific program and the skills, backgrounds, and abilities necessary for that program. Deliberately selecting recommenders to respond uniquely to the program’s criteria demonstrates that you’ve reflected on what it takes to succeed in the program, and who can best reveal that to the panel of reviewers. The individuals you choose as your recommenders give graduate programs an understanding of your network and professionalism. Your reach within your current sphere is an indicator of the kinds of opportunities you will take advantage of in their program.
How can you build a solid foundation for strong recommendations?
- Take a number of smaller, upper-division courses in your major or intended field.
- Attend lectures and symposiums.
- Visit professors during their office hours.
- Consider undergraduate research. Inquire about research projects through the Office of
- Undergraduate Research (undergradresearch.wustl.edu).
- Write an Honor’s Thesis or undertake a longer term research experience as an independent study course under the guidance of a professor in your intended area of study.
Making the ask and following up
At least two recommendations should come from professors in the discipline. The third may come from another individual (previous supervisor, student group advisor, academic advisor outside the field) who can speak to your additional qualifications and character.
You want your recommenders to cite specific examples and anecdotes that support the criteria to which you’ve asked them to respond. Give them some information in a conversation or in writing on why you are a good fit for your target program(s).
Remember to give recommenders plenty of time to complete the letter. You may also want to give them an out by asking if they are comfortable writing you a positive letter of recommendation. Don’t take it personally if an individual says no – it’s likely just because they don’t feel they know you well enough, or they don’t have time.
If your recommender enthusiastically consents, be prepared to provide them with relevant information to ensure that they do not write a “form” letter. Even professors who you perceive know you well might resort to a formatted letter if they’re too embarrassed to admit that they don’t remember specifics or are too rushed to give the letter adequate reflection.
On the due date you provided your faculty member (a date that is at least a week before the actual due date), confirm that the letter has been received by contacting the receiving body. If the letter is delinquent, you’ve built in enough padding to allow you to contact the faculty member to check on the status of the letter. Reach out to the faculty member to inquire into the status of the letter. Be respectful and understanding. Once you’ve confirmed that the letter has been received, write a thank you to the professor for their time and thoughtful consideration of your skills and achievements.
The following is a recommended timeline for your graduate school search and application process if you intend to attend graduate school immediately following your graduation from undergrad.
Schedule an appointment with a graduate school advisor, a career coach, an academic dean or a faculty member to talk about how to adjust this schedule to fit your needs.
Spring Semester – Junior Year
- Talk to faculty, especially potential recommenders, about your plans; get their advice
- Start thinking about the GRE
- Create a tentative list of programs and begin to research them more closely
Summer – after Junior Year
- Register for and prepare to take the GRE General Test
- Request letters of recommendation (faculty may have more time during the summer)
- Begin writing personal statement
- Research funding options beyond what universities offer
Fall – Senior Year
- Have your personal statement critiqued by faculty advisors and the Writing Center
- Contact faculty and current students of programs to which you are applying
- Take the GRE
- Apply for scholarships with early deadlines
- Request letters of recommendation at least one month before deadline; give recommenders a copy of your personal statement and other application materials
- Have transcripts forwarded to programs; if possible, arrange with Student Records to send a transcript that includes your senior fall grades
- Submit completed applications by mail and/or online; it’s best to get applications in early!
- Complete financial aid forms and apply for relevant scholarships
Spring – Senior Year
- Visit top choice schools if possible
- Compare financial aid offers; consider negotiating
- Unless your program is fully funded, file a FAFSA with the Federal Government’s loan program.
Ask the experts
WHO can you ask?
- Internship or volunteer supervisors
- Student & professional groups
- WashU alumni (Use LinkedIn, WashU CNX (LINK), and your own network to find them)
- WashU advisors (four year, major, scholarship/fellowship) and faculty
- Current graduate students (at WashU & in your target program)
- Faculty/principal investigator in your target programs
WHAT do you ask?
- Does the school offer a wide variety of courses and disciplines, or is it especially strong in certain areas?
- Is a thesis required for a master’s degree? What about exams?
- How long does it take to complete the program and what is their retention rate?
- Is the program accredited?
- Is this department a priority on campus?
- Does the school have library holdings that relate to your field of interest?
- What is the process to move from coursework to exams to dissertation work for a PhD?
- Is the faculty well balanced in terms of diversity and educational experience?
- Does the faculty have professional experience outside the academic community?
- What is the faculty’s publication/presentation record?
Current Students and Alumni
- What is the size of the student body, cohort, and department?
- Is this a place where I would feel comfortable?
- Will I feel both challenged and supported by my fellow students?
- What sorts of career development support is available to graduate students?
- What are recent graduates currently doing for work? Who could potentially be part of my professional network during and after my time in the program?
Lifestyle & Finances
- What is the cost of living in the area?
- Are assistantships, grants, tuition remission or financial aid available?
- Do I qualify for student health insurance?