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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

Graduate school is one of the ways for not only academics but also professional adults to do advanced learning around a specific subject. Undergraduate programs require students to take classes in a lot of different fields so that the student’s educational experience is diverse. One could start considering graduate school as early as their third year (in a traditional four-year Bachelor’s program) as this would give lots of time for research and preparation. Perhaps you are early in your career or maybe this is a last-minute decision to consider. Either way, I have a few suggestions and tips based on my experience.

Big questions

There are two major questions that I think everyone should consider when evaluating whether they want to go to grad school.

Why do I want to go to grad school? Really, what I think this question should answer is: what would this Masters, PhD, or other advanced degree offer me? Does having this degree contribute to your trajectory as an employee (or employer)? This may or may not be accurate for you depending on the type of work you are interested in. On the other hand, are you interested in a career in academia as a professor or researcher? Postgraduate education in social science is different from humanities and other science degrees, and I can’t speak to an MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) or doctoral program in dance, visual art, physics, or microbiology. Hopefully these questions can still be useful to you, but you will have a different timeline and requirements than I did as a social scientist!

Assuming you are a traditional undergrad student, you are probably 22-23 years old at the time that you graduate. So what sort of lifestyle do you want to have in your mid/late twenties? This is an underrated consideration in this stage of the process! You only get one of these time periods, but graduate school will – theoretically – exist forever. Do you have to go directly from undergraduate to graduate school? I didn’t, I graduated in 2015 and then started the program I’m in now in 2020. In that time, I had so many life changes, and I know I would not be in an excellent program and place in my life today if I hadn’t taken that break to start a career. When I decided in 2019 to apply for graduate school, I had to consider the following:

  • What part of the world do I want to live in and what personal/family concerns go along with that?
  • What kind of school do I want to attend (R1, public or private, etc.) and will I be a part or full time student when I am there? (This is when I need to consider funding!)

When I started the application process, I was in a long-term relationship with someone who had very specific desires around where we should live, specifically that we should leave Colorado. A little bit later on in the process, we broke up. At that point, I got to revisit this question. I had done research on great schools for my program and I applied at the last minute to two of them that I had previously ruled out based on that original restriction. Would you be interested in studying in another country? Do you have family in a specific area? This would inform some of your decision-making here. But if you don’t want to live in a big international city or if you are trying to move to a more urban area that is still close to your family’s rural hometown, you’ll want to find the university that matches your needs. My advisor strongly recommended that I go to an R1 university. This is perfect for my goals but there are other classifications that may work for you. My program invests in graduate students and faculty research with available TA and RA positions and support for conferences and publications. This informs another question about being part-time or full-time. A full-time graduate student takes courses and has them paid for by the department who has hired them as a teaching assistant or a research assistant. If your program doesn’t offer funded placements like these, you may need to consider being a part-time student so that you can work part-time.

Application process

Okay, now that you have done a cost versus benefit analysis and you’ve concluded that grad school is the right path for you, what does the application process look like?

The first thing you should research after you’ve decided where the school you want to attend is located is if they require you to take the GRE. Next, find out where and when you can sign up to take the GRE, and start studying. I had to take it but now my program no longer requires it, so you’ll want to check that. And, of course, these are the parts of the application that I had to complete, your experience may vary!

  1. When is the deadline? My deadline was January 3, 2020 in order to start August 2020.
  2. What goes in the online application?
    • Statement of purpose: This is a paper you’ll write to explain your interest in pursuing a graduate degree in your field. It might include a description of your background or past work that led you to your current interests, as well as a discussion of where you see your interests developing now and in the future. It’s okay if you know exactly what you want, but it’s also okay if you don’t. It’s most useful for the admissions committee to see your thoughtfulness on the issues you are passionate about within your field and the ways in which their specific program will support those passions. You can also describe in this section how you are transferring your skills from your undergrad field into this new one, if that applies to you. You should ask a couple of people you trust to read it over and give you solid feedback. If you already know someone in a postgrad program (doesn’t have to be the same as yours!), that could be a great person to ask. But really anyone who understands your goals as a grad student and understands the function of the statement of purpose in your application would be a great reader.
    • Unofficial transcripts: You’ll need one from each institution that you have attended, including community colleges, summer sessions, etc., even if you didn’t finish the course. After you are accepted you have to submit “official” ones that you request from those same institutions.
    • Three letters of recommendation: These should come from faculty or mentors who know your work and can speak to your past performance as well as their assessment of your promise as a student and researcher. You should share a draft of your statement of purpose with each of your recommenders when you ask them to write the letter for you. It’s an honor and many people will be happy to write for you, just ask them with a good amount of time before the deadline. You can helpfully illustrate some of your background that makes you qualified, or tell them the story of what led you to this path. You will probably never see this letter; most likely your program has an online portal where you input their email address and then you will be able to see when they submit the letter, but not the content of the letter itself. This is an unspoken rule that you don’t get a copy, it’s a communication between your recommender and the school.
    • GRE scores: After you take the test – if you have to take the test – you’ll input the schools that you need in the testing center to send your scores to when they give you your results.
    • TOEFL or IELTS scores: These scores are needed from applicants from non-English speaking institutions and every school will have different requirements for them, so go directly through your university’s website for more information.
    • Writing sample: Sometimes this is optional. I chose to include one because I had a really good paper from my last program! I felt like this was helpful as I was applying for something different than my field in undergrad so I could demonstrate my knowledge and talent as a scholar.
Celina Timmerman-Oversized Tshirt And Cup
Celina Timmerman / Her Campus

The decision to go to graduate school is major, and it’s one that only you can make. You are the person who best knows your situation and can determine whether this is the correct path for you at this time in your life. Maybe you’ll choose to work and then come back like I did, or maybe you don’t need another degree. But if this is your path, I am rooting for you! It’s been positive for me and I wish you the best of luck in this application season.

Sarah Adams

CU Boulder '26

Linguist and cat person, most likely watching a hockey game, but I ought to be working on my dissertation.