Unlike a liberal arts education, which emphasizes critical thinking across a range of disciplines, graduate study is characterized by focused training for entrance into a specific academic field or profession, often characterized by the production of new research. A central question to ask oneself is whether graduate study is necessary (as opposed to employment, volunteerism, travel, etc.), given one’s short- and long-term goals. University rankings (such as the US News & World Report) should not be the decisive criteria about where you should apply for graduate school. The choice of a graduate school program is a highly personal decision that you will need to research thoroughly, seeking advice from experts in the field: both here at the University of Chicago and your prospective graduate programs.
Graduate study is a considerable investment of time and financial resources. Many students choose to work directly after college in order to better define their goals. Work experience can offer an opportunity for reflection and clarification in a way that was not possible during undergraduate years.
Career Advancement encourages students to make an appointment with a career adviser to discuss whether attending graduate school would support their professional goals. Students should also consult with faculty and graduate students in their academic department.
Students interested in applying to law school and medical school should get involved with Careers in Law and Careers in Healthcare.
Preparing Your Graduate School Application
A graduate school application generally consists of seven parts:
- Online application/Questionnaire
- Statement of purpose or personal statement
- Resume or Curriculum Vitae (CV)
- Letters of recommendation (3)
- Writing sample
- Standardized test scores
As you assemble a list of schools to consider applying to, you may want to keep a centralized database (Excel spreadsheet, or something similar) to keep track of deadlines, action items, etc. You might also keep notes from faculty, graduate students, administrators.
Applications should be neat, accurate, complete, and thoughtful. Graduate schools are increasingly moving towards online applications, which sometimes include a section for recommenders. If your faculty member does not want to submit a letter online, you must contact the school to which you are applying to see if they will accept paper recommendations and how they want you to indicate on your application that you are submitting the letters separately.
Resume or Curriculum Vitae (CV)
A professional resume may be appropriate for many master’s degree programs as well as MD and JD programs. A Curriculum Vitae (CV) is the academic version of your resume. It speaks to a largely academic audience and is generally used when applying for academic positions, research, grants, and admission to some graduate programs. It allows you to provide an extensive list of these accomplishments and, therefore, often spans several pages. The focus of a CV is on you: your training, your interests, and your work. Your professors may ask for you to send them a copy of your CV, for example, if you ask them for a letter of recommendation. The CV serves as a kind of intellectual passport in the realm of higher education, helping the academic community know you better and see what you’ve been doing. Even within a single discipline, there is no singular “correct” formula for writing a CV. However, there are general guidelines. Overall, get advice within your intended field of academia (among other sources), and strive for clear, consistent formatting.
Statement of Purpose
Good statements vary by discipline, but any statement should provide a clear picture of your interests, your background, and your plans. Your academic interests should organize your statement. Avoid a strictly chronological presentation of your academic development. Instead, offer an explanation of how relevant experiences (BA project, work, research, coursework) have shaped your interests and relate this explanation to your general statement of purpose. You may want to consider including some of the following:
- Discuss subfields within your discipline that interest you most and how they interrelate
- Include relevant experience: courses in your discipline and related to your discipline, papers you have written (hypotheses, data, theory, and method used), a synopsis of your BA paper, as well as any relevant research assistantships, jobs, and/or internships.
- Describe how your interests fit with the particular school to which you are applying or match particular strengths of the program
- Keep your statement brief (probably no more than three single-spaced pages) and adhere to the guidelines provided by the school.
Please review the Career Advancement personal statements handout in our resume and interviewing toolkit.
Letters of Recommendation
Recommenders should know the applicant well in an academic context. Senior faculty have the potential to write the strongest letters because these faculty are able to compare candidates to their peers over time (it is difficult for graduate students to write letters of equivalent strength). These letters should support the application by offering detailed commentary about the applicant’s academic achievements and potential for research. It is therefore essential that students who are bound for graduate school get to know faculty in their discipline.
Make an appointment with a potential recommender by e-mail or telephone for the purpose of discussing a possible letter of recommendation. At a minimum, provide one month’s notice before the deadline, and remember that many faculty are away during the summer. If faculty agree to write for you, you may have to remind them as your deadline draws near. Give potential writers a polite way to decline if they are unable to write the kind of letter that is needed.
Confidentiality and Letters of Recommendation
The Federal Education Right to Privacy Act provides students with the legal right-of-access to letters of recommendation written on their behalf unless the right-of-access is waived. In deciding whether to waive or retain access, keep in mind that recommenders will probably feel more comfortable (and recipients will most certainly regard letters as candid) when the right-of-access is waived.
For more advice on recommendations, look at this piece written by Professor Charles Lipson.
Some programs require a writing sample. Submit a clean copy of any writing sample. You may want to include a brief abstract of your sample to provide context. Talk to your faculty and mentors about what to submit as a writing sample. Be sure to keep within the stated page length. A completed BA Thesis (or some other thoroughly edited piece of professional writing) is often a great writing sample to send. If you use some other sample (a term-paper, for instance) the piece should be thoroughly refined/proofread before you submit it as a writing sample.
Standardized Test Scores
The GRE (Graduate Record Examination) is required for admission to various master’s and doctoral programs, as well as some veterinary medicine programs and certain fellowship/scholarship competitions. Most students take the general exam, which is divided into three sections to evaluate verbal skills, quantitative skills, and analytical writing aptitude. Subject tests are currently administered in eight areas and evaluate knowledge in a specific field. Not all graduate programs require subject tests.
The general exam is a computer-based (CBT), adaptive-learning test and is offered throughout the year pending seat availability. Study guides and subject test date information is available at the GRE website.
The GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) is required for some public policy and other professional schools as well as for business schools. The GMAT is divided into three sections to evaluate verbal, analytical, and quantitative aptitude. The exam is a computer-based test (CBT) and is offered throughout the year pending seat availability.
Information about the exam and about business school is available at MBA.com.
To have a transcript sent out, you may order one in my.uchicago. Electronic transcripts can take 1-2 business days to process, and hard copies can take 1-3 business days to be sent out (plus however long it takes to actually reach the destination), so plan accordingly! Order a personal copy well before the application deadline to check for inaccuracies. Always have an extra, sealed copy of your transcript on hand, as you never know when you may need another copy.
- Choose a Thesis Research Project Topic (or refine a term-paper from a specialized class that you’re taking)
- Cultivate academic ties to potential faculty recommenders (ask for their letters around Spring of your 3rd year)
- Start working on a draft of a statement of purpose
- Start contacting programs you’re interested in (after you’ve talked to UChicago faculty), develop a shortlist of prospective graduate schools
- Take necessary exams (twice if necessary)
- Finalize statement of purpose
- Apply in advance of deadlines
If taking a gap year (or several years), you have more time to work on these items; however, before you leave Chicago, secure faculty recommenders.
Schedule a Career Advancement appointment to discuss any of these matters. Lauren Faucette advises students interested in Humanities/Social Sciences Graduate School. To discuss STEM fields, please make an appointment with Careers in Science, Computation, Innovation, and Engineering.