Applying to Graduate School

09/08/23 | 7 MIN READ

What Is Graduate School?

Graduate school or postgraduate education is a program that offers advanced studies in your field of study. In graduate school, you will dedicate your time to pursuing additional education that leads to an advanced academic or professional degree. The purpose of a graduate degree is to corroborate your excellence and expertise in your specific field of study. In graduate school, you will gain increased knowledge, hence improving potential job opportunities. As one Professor shares “The purpose of a graduate-level degree is to teach you to become an independent thinker.” Through the lens of one professor “Teaching builds civilizations.” In a graduate program, you are constantly learning to learn, learning to teach, and learning to reflect. Graduate school for that reason, is an academic endeavor that requires mental endurance.


Graduate School vs. Undergraduate 

Before applying to graduate school it is important to understand if graduate school is for you. Knowing the answer to that question is tough, so instead let’s understand what graduate school is and how it is different from an undergraduate degree. Graduate and undergraduate education are similar in the way that you will still be working towards a degree by taking coursework. There are four significant differences, however, that make graduate programs different. These differences include the competitive admission process, what you are studying, your role with the school, and the type of graduate program you are in. The type of graduate program will make all the difference in the degree awarded to you. That being said, let us break apart how each portion contributes to the overall graduate school experience.

Admission Process

Graduate programs are more competitive. It may sound trite, but graduate programs are focused on attracting those who are “The crème of the crop,” in their fields. Therefore, graduate programs are extremely selective. Graduate school requires intelligence that is both measurable and immeasurable. Measurable intelligence might look like your ability to complete a technical degree and other accolades that make you stand out in your field. Immeasurable intelligence might look like strong letters of recommendation that speak about who you are as a person beyond the classroom, your statement of purpose, and your statement. The reason for showcasing your internal character is that graduate programs recognize that excelling in graduate school means that a student will need perseverance, drive, and a willingness to grow.  


When studying in graduate school, you might be pursuing an advanced degree that is the same or aligns with your undergraduate degree. The difference is that your undergraduate degree is noted as more broad. In comparison, when you enter a graduate program you will be asked to specialize and become an expert in a specific topic within your field. Your classes for your advanced degree will be more targeted, rigorous, and focused on expanding your knowledge in the pin-pointed field. For instance, I spoke with a few biomedical engineers and they shared how they had the option between four major tracks. These tracks included: cellular and biomolecular engineering, bioimaging, computational biology, and molecular, cellular, and tissue biomechanics. Within these tracks, there are also subfields such as biomaterials, bioelectronics, bioinformatics, genetic engineering, systems biology, synthetic biology, and biomedical microelectromechanical (biomems) systems.   

School Role 

No matter what your specific chosen field of study ends up being, how you contribute to your school environment will also be very different, and perhaps more important. In graduate school, you can no longer just be a student who studies. Rather you will function more as University staff. One of your major positions as a graduate student is to lead undergraduate students in their education. For some undergraduates at the University, you might be a mentor or someone who helps undergraduates to pursue graduate studies. Thus, your role becomes more impactful and you will be asked to support faculty in their research or work, courses, and campus initiatives. These leadership roles then turn into ones that are much larger and more valuable. You will find yourself being much more functional and involved with your campus community, the environment, and administration efforts.

Types of Graduate Programs 

When deciding if graduate school is right for you, please research all the different types of graduate programs that are available to you. These graduate programs are variable and are school and subject-dependent. For example, some graduate schools might be stronger in specific programs. You will find that these programs can range in strength within the arts, business, biological sciences, chemistry, or engineering. These respective fields will then vary within departments. It is important to research what schools have curriculum, environments, and facilities that meet your needs and individual goals. Depending on your needs and goals, a graduate program might be better suited for your pursuits. 

Below is a list of different graduate degrees you might be interested in earning and the respective degree that is awarded at the end.

  • Master of Science (MS)
  • Master of Translational Medicine (MTM) 
  • Master of Education (MEd)
  • Master of Engineering (MEng)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
  • Doctor of Engineering (DEng)
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD) 
  • Juris Doctor (JD)

You should start by researching these individual degrees and what each one can do for your career goals long term. Questions and answers you should consider looking into include courses offered, what campus life is like as a graduate student, and what each school offers to its students. You can do an information interview to find answers to all these questions.

🔬Learn More: Informational Interviews

Understanding the ApplicationULP conference

Whether you know what program you want to attend now or not, it is never too early to begin preparing for the application process. One piece of advice to take note of is that when you apply for graduate programs you must be admitted by the graduate division of the University and the department of your University. That being said, keep track early on of all the materials you will need for your graduate application. Keep in mind, that every graduate application will have slight differences. Even so, there are common parts of the application that you can guarantee will be requested.

Here you will find a list of the standard application requirements along with a definition of these items—each portion you will need to submit to the graduate division of your respective university.

Personal Statement: The personal statement will put into perspective how your background has prepared you for graduate studies. In the personal statement, you will also use your allotted word limit to describe how your history and experiences have shaped your background. You will then share how your background has helped inform your decision to pursue a graduate degree. This statement should highlight your inclination and capture what independent experiences outside of academia showcase your ability to excel in graduate school. Examples you might consider using include; challenges you faced, leadership roles, cultural, or community activities.  

Statement of Purpose: The goal of the statement of purpose is to describe your motivation for attending graduate school in your chosen field. This statement should describe your purpose in attending graduate school within an allotted word limit. Staying within the word limit, it is key to describe your aptitude and motivation for applying to graduate studies at the specific academic institution and its respective program. For this portion, do not forget to connect it to your area of specialization.

3 Letters of Recommendation: Your letters of recommendation should come from professors or professional colleagues who have supervised you or mentored you. Your selected recommenders should all know in a professional setting and beyond the classroom setting. In other words, the recommender should be able to speak to your aptitude to accomplish projects, your work ethic, and your character. If you choose a professor, it is important to choose a professor that you earned an A from in their class. Earning an A, and receiving a letter of recommendation that complements your inward being, makes the recommendation that much more valuable. 

Curriculum Vitae: The curriculum vitae (CV) is a critical component of your application. The CV is a collective document that details all of your professional and academic experiences. In the CV it is important to document your academic accolades such as honor societies you are part of, research accomplishments, academic awards, and internships related to your field.  

Resume: The resume is similar to the CV, but it compacts everything to a single page, so you need to choose what you want to highlight in your resume. What you choose to highlight should depend on how you want to market yourself to the graduate division and your program. For instance, if you are applying for an MBA you might showcase your skills and experience in the business world. In contrast, if you are interested in a PhD you should include all of your research experiences and symposiums because these will represent your ability to communicate science. 

Official Transcripts: Most graduate schools have thrown out the graduate record exams (GRE), so the official transcript is their main form of measuring your academic progress. Graduate programs understand GPA is not everything, but the official transcript will show that you can compete in your field, it also corroborates and confirms your degree awarded by your undergraduate institution. Without a doubt, you will need to submit an official record of your transcript. 

How to Prepare for Graduate School

Most of the time, applicants do not plan to attend graduate school. It happens more often than you might think, in fact from your blog writer, “I had no clue I wanted to do a PhD.” The reality is that most eighteen to twenty-something-year-olds have no idea who they are and who they want to be. From a graduate student, the best advice is “Enjoy your undergraduate career.” Enjoy your undergraduate career because the commonality between each milestone is being proactive. Just like preparing for the next job position, graduate school is no different. An undergraduate, especially a freshman, might not know they want to attend graduate school. Even if they do, a freshman might not know where to start. Despite what your stance is on graduate school or industry, preparing always requires action and initiative on your part. It cannot be said for certain what you should do or what you need to do to prepare for graduate school, but hopefully, this outline provides a clear navigation map.

🔬Read More About: Relevant Work Experience

Get Involved

More likely than not, an individual geared for graduate school will not just complete their undergraduate curriculum without getting involved with their campus. It is an essential part of graduate school to hold a position that requires greater responsibility. Therefore, you must properly prepare yourself for a graduate career by showing the graduate committee that you are proactive. Your involvement may be within your studies, through extracurriculars, or it can be an integration between the two. It all depends on what you are interested in doing during your college years, and how much time you would be willing to dedicate to each commitment. Your commitments can be as small as joining a campus organization or getting a campus job. It may also be a big commitment, like holding a leadership position for a club or being a campus ambassador. 

ULP conference attendees

Find your Interests 

There are many ways to get involved with your campus, but some communities you might enjoy more than others. Once you learn what these areas of interest are, your activities might help you hone your interests and skills. As you continue to develop your interests, you will learn what is valuable to help you reach your future goals.

Find a Mentor 

In any case, a mentor can help you get to graduate school. A mentor will help you understand how to plan career goals and how to look for resources to help you get there. The mentor can also help you with your graduate application when the time comes. If you know you are interested in graduate school, choose a mentor who attended graduate school. Having a mentor that is in a position you would like to be in one day, means they can better support you. 

🔬Learn: How to Find a Mentor

I wish you the absolute best of luck in whatever your future endeavors may be!


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