Applying To Graduate School
arts & sciences programs
FAQ: Applying to Graduate School
Insights from a BC professor
What is Graduate School?
Graduate school is more than simply an extension of undergraduate coursework. Whether a masters or a doctoral program, graduate school is a specialized and demanding study of a field of interest in the arts or the sciences. The pursuit of graduate study within the arts and sciences is most often driven by a love of knowledge for its own sake. Many students who pursue such studies find work in academia as teachers and/or researchers, or pursue work related to their chosen field in the corporate world.
For added perspective, read Phil Agre's Advice for Undergraduates Considering Graduate School. It is a thoughtful essay discussing many considerations and realities associated with graduate school.
The Importance of Research and Relationships
Graduate school is, above all else, driven by research. Whether pursuing a doctorate in history or biology, the bulk of graduate work involves performing intensive research, either in a laboratory or a library. One should consider this reality carefully before pursuing the application process further. Ask yourself if you enjoy doing research, and if the answer is no, you may want to reconsider applying.
The other aspect of graduate school that is important to remember before, during, and after attending a program, is that it is fundamentally a relationship-intensive pursuit, and the development of relationships among other academics and scholars is a key part of the whole experience. A good relationship with a professor as an undergraduate, for example, can lead to a satisfying independent study or thesis, which can be a strong demonstration of interest in and competence for graduate research. Relationships developed with fellow students in graduate school is also critical, as these relationships will form the nucleus of your professional network in academia.
Choosing a School
Often the most valuable sources of advice regarding graduate programs are professors, staff and graduate students in those programs.
- Speak with professors, staff and graduate students here at BC - tell them what your most important criteria are and ask their opinions about the best programs.
- Email those scholars whose work you have read and admired, and ask their opinion about the best programs. You may be surprised by the number of responses you receive.
- Visit the Boston College Career Center. You can speak with a Career Counselor about graduate school and gather more information on specific schools and programs from the Career Center Library.
- Speak with the Arts and Sciences deans.
Information about graduate schools can also be found from a variety of sources, including books that profile graduate schools, prospectus materials from the schools themselves, and web sites.
Grad School Catalogs Online
NOTE: you must be on the BC campus or logged onto the Internet through BC to use this system.
The World-Wide Graduate School Directory is an excellent starting point for graduate school information on the Internet covering over 23,000 graduate programs around the world. Peterson's Education Center also contains information on graduate school and other topics, including Careers and Jobs, Financial Aid, and Testing.
The H-Grad Home Page offers a discussion forum for graduate students as well as a comprehensive listing of graduate school links by topic. Browsing this page can help convey what graduate school is really like by reading about it from the perspective of graduate students themselves.
There is no "right" age or length of work experience necessary for applying to an graduate arts and sciences program. Incoming students range in age from 22 to 42. Many graduate students have just completed their undergraduate work. Some take a year off to travel or perform volunteer work before re-entering the academic world. Others work for several years in a variety of career fields before deciding to pursue graduate studies.
Graduate school admissions are based on five basic criteria:
- Undergraduate GPA
- GRE scores
- Personal Statement
- Work experience and/or prior research projects
Experience is not limited to work history, but also includes relevant personal life experiences, travels, volunteer work, and hobbies. These experiences should be reflected in the personal statement and recommendations.
GPA and GRE scores are important, but experiences outside the classroom also count. Remember that you must convince an admissions committee that your abilities and experiences will make you a valuable addition to that program.
For general information about applying to graduate schools, check out Getting In: An Applicant's Guide to Graduate School Admissions by David Burrell. It is a helpful guide written by a former Kaplan tutor who successfully completed the graduate school application process.
The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is required by most graduate schools. It is a standardized test, similar to the SAT, with two parts: the General Test and the Subject Test.
The General Test includes a variety of multiple choice questions to test verbal, mathematical, and analytical abilities.
The General Test is now administered on computer terminals at test centers throughout North America and can be taken by appointment on any one of several days each month.
The Subject Test is a section with specific questions in an academic discipline. You choose which Subject Test you wish to take, based on the field of graduate study you intend to pursue. Subject Tests are available in the following disciplines:
- Biochemistry: Cell and Molecular Biology
- Computer Science
- Literature in English
The Subject Tests are administered as paper-based tests only. About half of the Subject Tests are offered on a predetermined date in November; all Subject Tests are offered on fixed dates in December and April. More information on the GRE is available from GRE Online, the official website of the Graduate Record Examinations.
Several test-preparation resources are available. Many different books are published annually with GRE practice questions and test-taking strategies, and are available at any bookstore. It is recommended that you use one of these books to aid you in your preparation. If you find yourself needing further GRE preparation, you may elect to enroll in a course offered by one of several test prep companies. These courses can often cost several hundred dollars, so gauge your progress and preparation needs carefully before choosing a prep course.
Also see our Test Prep Resources page.
Ask people who know you and your abilities well. If you did outstanding work in class for a professor, or if you undertook a significant research project or thesis with a faculty member, these people are in the best position to write compelling letters of recommendation for you. Generally, graduate schools are looking for recommendations from people who can describe your interests and abilities, and can support their comments with specific examples.
Ask people only if you are reasonably certain they are willing to provide strongly favorable recommendations. When asking, be sure to allow them several weeks, but stipulate a firm deadline. Check to see if the recommendations must be completed on a special form, or if attaching a letter of recommendation will suffice. Find out if the recommendations should be returned to you for inclusion with the application or mailed directly to the school. Be sure to waive your right to see the recommendations; graduate schools prefer to see "blind" recommendations because they feel that blind recommendations can offer a more honest assessment of a person's abilities.
Provide the recommendation writers with some background materials, such as a resume and a copy of your personal statement. These materials can help the writers tailor the recommendations to complement the rest of your application package. For example, if you discuss in an essay a research project of which you are particularly proud, you will want to be sure your professor includes a reference to that project in a recommendation. This background material, including your reasons for applying and your career goals, helps recommendation writers focus on your specific strengths, accomplishments, and interests.
College faculty are pressed for time to complete recommendations along with their regular workload, and would welcome your help. In fact, do not be surprised if a faculty member were to tell you, "Draft a recommendation letter for me, and I will make a few changes and sign it for you." In this instance, use the supplemental material yourself to craft a letter which your recommendation writer can then modify as necessary. Linda Abraham's website Accepted.com offers sound advice for recommendation writing, whether the letters are prepared by you or someone else.
The Personal Statement
Most graduate school applications have a generally worded question asking for a personal statement on a topic of your choosing. This statement may include your reasons for choosing the graduate school and/or field you are pursuing, some related accomplishments in academics or other extracurricular activities, or something unique about you that may not be covered elsewhere in your application. As a rule, this personal statement should be about two typed, double spaced pages in length.
When writing the personal statement, be yourself. Show, rather than tell, what you can offer and why you are a compelling candidate for admission. Find your "voice" and write honestly without forcing a particular style or tone. The most compelling essays have a ring of authenticity to them, whether they are serious, funny, sad, or some combination of the three. Write from personal experience, and write honestly. Review your personal statement carefully and proofread the essay for proper syntax, grammar, and spelling.
Linda Abraham's page Accepted.com contains helpful suggestions for writing graduate school application essays.
Timetable of Key Events
When to Request Applications: Try to get them as soon as they are available, usually late summer/early fall.
When to Take The GRE: Since the GRE is now offered on computer terminals at testing centers every month, there is more flexibility for taking the test. Try scheduling the GRE in the spring; ideally, you could take the paper-based General Test and your chosen Subject Test on the same day at the April administration. If you think you did not do well on the General Test, you can cancel the scoring immediately after the test and take it again. Since official reports arrive at the schools four to six weeks after the test, November is generally the last opportunity to take the General Test and still be sure the schools receive the scores before the first application deadline. Schedule the GRE early because popular days and times book quickly. It is best to take the GRE only after you have had a chance to prepare for it thoroughly.
When To Solicit Recommendations: Basically, as soon as you know you will be applying. If you are asking someone for recommendations to more than one school, try to give them all to the writer at the same time and set a deadline. Aim to collect the recommendations 1-2 weeks before you submit the applications.
When to Write the Personal Statement: Start thinking about the personal statement as soon as you know you will be applying to graduate school. Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm for ideas, and polish the essays. Try to finish the personal statement by mid-November, if possible.
When to Submit the Application: Many schools have rolling admissions, which means your application will be reviewed as soon as it is received. Other schools have several staggered deadlines (for example, December 1, January 15, and March 1).
If the schools are using rolling admissions or staggered deadlines, it is to your advantage to apply early because fewer acceptances will have been made. If you apply just before the last deadline, a school may only have a handful of spaces available and a large number of candidates, reducing your chances.
Applying early can also work in your favor because, in the first few weeks, admissions committees have relatively fresh minds and have read fewer applications, making it easier for your application to stand out. In the later stages, after they have read through several thousand applications, admissions committees can get fatigued, and may be less likely to re-review a borderline application. Try to put most applications in the mail before Thanksgiving or Christmas, depending on the deadlines.
Submit the application at least one week before the deadline to make sure it arrives on time. Consider sending the applications using certified mail, which gives you a written receipt confirming that the applications arrived at the schools.
- Visit the schools that interest you, if possible.
- Develop an appropriate mix of schools to which you will apply. Select one or two "reach" schools, two or three schools at which your admissions chances are competitive, and one or two schools at which your admissions chances are likely.
- Visit BC's Financial Aid page for links to helpful sources for financing your graduate education.
- FAQ: Applying to Graduate School - Insights from a BC professor
- Use the Career Advisory Network to interview alumni about their graduate school experiences.