What is Graduate School and How Do You Get In?

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So you’re thinking about applying to graduate school! It’s an exciting time, but it may also be an overwhelming one. But don’t worry! Whether you’re wondering, what is graduate school? or how to get into grad school once you’ve made the decision to apply, our experts are here to answer your questions. Read on to learn about what is grad school, requirements to apply and get in, and how to plan everything out.


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What Is Graduate School?

Before you even start considering which graduate programs to apply to, it’s important to step back for a second and ask: what is grad school?

What is graduate school? is a question that has a number of different answers, depending on your field. However, generally speaking, graduate school is higher education that focuses either on developing your research skills or your professional skills in a particular discipline. Of course, this division between research and professional skills isn’t always clear-cut, and some programs involve training in both areas.


Types of Grad School Programs

Graduate studies break down into four categories: professional programs, specialist programs, master’s programs, and doctoral programs. These degree programs take different amounts of time and involve different mixtures of research and coursework.

  • Professional programs train you extensively for a specific field. Usually, graduate students enter a professional school with just an undergraduate degree, though advanced degrees in another or related field may help your application stand out! These are programs like medical school, law school, and business school. Degrees include MD, JD, and MBA.
  • Specialist programs provide you with in-depth education in a particular area. These are programs like those offering teaching credentials. People usually enroll in them to qualify for a particular job. One example is the EdS, which school principals may need.
  • Master’s programs offer a more specialized education in a field than you’ll receive in undergraduate studies. A wide variety of disciplines provide masters’ degrees, from social work to social sciences to hard sciences. Note that there can be some overlap between master’s degrees and professional degrees (as in the Master of Business Administration, or MBA, which is also a professional degree). Master’s degrees vary a lot in terms of the academic work they require: some require only coursework, while others may require you to complete research or internships, as well. Examples of master’s programs in the United States are those leading to the Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), or Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees.
  • Doctoral programs are the highest level of graduate school. Students normally enroll after completing a master’s degree, though some doctorate degrees offer a master’s degree en route to the Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D. (i.e. after one or two years of coursework). For a doctoral degree, you’ll be expected to contribute to original research, producing a dissertation after 5-7 years. A doctoral program traditionally leads to a Ph.D., though it may also lead to an EdD or other doctorate.

No matter what level of program you’re looking at, though, graduate school will involve a deeper dive into your area of specialization. Grad school requirements are generally more challenging than undergraduate requirements. Compared to your undergraduate studies, you’ll find that studies are more focused, with few (if any) electives. Similarly, in comparison to undergraduate programs, graduate program classes are much smaller, and you’ll be expected to participate extensively. Finally, it’s likely you will be expected to produce or contribute to original research. Along with this comes a higher level of evaluation—an A in a Ph.D. course is much rarer than an A in a bachelor’s degree course!

Graduate school can take as little time as nine months or as long as seven (or more) years to complete. How long it takes will depend entirely on the program and how much time you’re able to commit to it, as well as the options (part-time, online courses, summer semesters) for meeting grad school requirements the program provides.

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Why Should I Go to Grad School?

After understanding what is grad school?, the next natural question is: why go? The answer is as varied as individuals are, but one thing is for sure: there are a ton of benefits to graduate education.

You may find that, within your field, a graduate degree is needed to progress to the next job level. This is particularly true in areas like academia, where upper-level jobs demand graduate degrees. Professors are usually required to have “terminal degrees,” or the highest degree in their field. In many cases, this is a Ph.D., but it can also be a JD for a law school professor, an MFA for a creative writing professor, or a variety of other degrees depending on the area.

However, many business settings also have degree requirements for particular positions. in some corporations, managerial positions can require MBAs—just one reason among many that you may want to check out business schools. With these kinds of opportunities, an associated benefit is also higher pay.

For many people, the reason they seek out graduate education is the same reason that grad school can open up more opportunities and higher salaries: it offers the chance to obtain extra training, particularly specialized training, and credentials in their field.

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How to Get Into Grad School: Tips and Requirements

How to get into grad school depends to a large extent on the program you’re applying to. However, most graduate school programs will look at the same basic factors.

Grad School Requirements

How to get into grad school will depend to some extent on the level of study and field you’re applying for. Whether you’re applying for an MA, an MS, or a PhD, you’ll need to submit some of the same materials to graduate schools. These include:

  • Undergraduate transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Essays/personal statements
  • Work experience
  • Standardized test scores (such as the GRE or GMAT)

Depending on your program, you may need to submit other materials, as well. For research-heavy programs, such as the Ph.D., you may be required to submit a summary of your previous research or a proposal for future research, for example.

How does GPA and test score factor into grad school applications?

Notice that, of the above factors that contribute to how to get into grad school, there are only a few that you still have the power to change once you leave college. A lot of potential grad school applicants wonder if their undergraduate degree really matters for grad school. The degree itself does; the extent to which your grades matter will depend on how competitive the programs you’re applying to are.

But even if your college grades aren’t what you wish they were, there are still ways ways to deal with your low GPA, even once you’ve finished your undergraduate education. This will involve focusing on what you can control: getting your test scores up, writing awesome essays, and getting letters of recommendation from professors who can really speak to your strengths.

Beyond grades and test scores, though, there are a few things that grad schools look for in applicants that can change how they see your application. Primary among these is your interest in—and demonstrated passion for—the field and your subject. Close behind these are how good a match you are for that particular program in terms of your goals and history and how they align with the program of study offered. Emphasizing these elements of culture fit can go a long way towards getting you into the program of your dreams!

Top Tips for Getting Into Grad Programs

Grad school applications can be stressful. As you work on crafting your perfect pitch to your dream schools, here are Magoosh’s top tips for getting in!

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Grad School Application Process

Whether you’re a procrastinator who rushes to do everything at the last second or someone who thoroughly plans every minute of your life, you’re going to want a grad school application timeline to prepare your materials. Applying to grad school is no easy task, and it requires a thorough grad school timeline. Nobody wants to be scrambling to send in a forgotten form right before a deadline closes! What should you do to avoid those kinds of hiccups?

TimelineWhat You Need to Do
2 Years Before Grad SchoolFigure out what you want to study.
1+ Years BeforeMake a concrete plan.
9-12 Months BeforeBegin applying.
3-6 Months BeforeMake your grad school decision.

2 Years Before Grad School: Figure Out What You Want to Study

As many as two years before you plan to start graduate school, you should start thinking seriously about what grad programs are right for you. How long you need to spend on this process will vary, but it depends on how decided you are about your career. You should know the approximate field you want to work in at least two years before you plan to begin school. If you’re still deciding whether to become a brain surgeon or a Shakespearean actor, then you’re going to need to do some narrowing.

Here are some resources that can help you narrow down your search:

  • US News – Every year, this website releases the “Best Graduate Schools” rankings. It’s a great place to start your preliminary research about different programs.
  • 7 Critical Steps to Find the Right Grad Schoo – This article gives step by step instructions on how to find the perfect grad school. It’s really helpful!
  • Beyond the Rankings – How to Choose a Ph.D Program – This post from our friends at Accepted outlines important factors to consider before choosing a program (and you can read Part II here!).
  • Get Your Game On – Accepted also offers a free downloadable guide to help you understand what factors matter in your search for the right grad school program.

Once you’ve chosen a field, you have to decide the depth of your graduate studies. Do you want a Master’s, a PhD, or some other kind of professional degree? Do some research into grad school factors, such as the length of time to complete the grad degree, the career and earning potentials, whether you have the appropriate qualifications for a program, and even geographically where you might want to go to grad school.

1+ Year Before: Make a Concrete Grad School Timeline

Once you’ve decided on the broad strokes of your grad school experience, you should proceed in your grad school application timeline to making some concrete decisions. These include decisions about which schools to apply to, which professors will write your letters of recommendation, and what you want to articulate in your statement of purpose. At this stage, you should also start making a week-by-week plan, keeping in mind some important deadlines:

  • Application deadlines for the schools you decide to apply to.
  • When you want to take a standardized test like the GRE, and how long you need to study (our Magoosh study plans can help!). Allow enough time for your exam scores to reach schools by the application deadline, and leave room for a potential retake.
  • Schedule the GRE, allowing enough time for your scores to arrive at your programs.
  • Financial aid deadlines and applications for outside scholarships or funding.

9 to 12 Months Before: Begin Applying

This will be the most rigorous period of your grad school timeline. You might find yourself a bit overwhelmed – juggling test prep, statements of purpose, application forms, and daily life! That’s why making a week-by-week plan is so important. If you follow the plan, you won’t have to even think about missing anything, because you’ll have planned everything well in advance to ensure that the process goes smoothly.

If you need to take any standardized tests, this is when you’ll take it. You may even need to take it more than once. Don’t let that frustrate you — it’s common to take the exam more than once. In addition to prepping for tests, you should draft, edit, and finalize your statement of purpose. Keep in mind that you’ll likely be able to repurpose one document for all your applications. Have a friend or colleague edit the statement for you.

A lot of the application process can seem tedious, but doing everything thoroughly to meet grad school requirements for application is important. You’ll need to gather documents like transcripts, professors’ recommendations, application forms, and test scores. You should also make sure you submit the appropriate financial documents for financial aid and scholarships. Plan to send everything in at least one week in advance to ensure it meets the deadline.

3 to 6 Months Before: Decision Time!

Three to six months before you start graduate school, you’ll start to get acceptance letters. It can be an exciting time, but also a disappointing time. You’ll likely experience wild swings of emotions. So it’s more important than ever that you not let your emotions cloud your decisions during this time.

Before your acceptance letters arrive, make sure your grad school timeline includes some key metrics you want to use to evaluate which school to attend. Do you care most about cost? Curriculum? Location? Faculty? Think about these things before your acceptances arrive, so you know what you want to consider during a period when things can get pretty emotional.

Once you choose a school, you’ll need to start looking for a place to live, choosing courses, planning your finances, developing your personal and professional skills, and, best of all, making new friends! Grad school will be an exciting time in your life. You’ll learn new things, meet inspiring people, and prepare for an exciting career. Once you’re solidly moving in the grad school rhythm, think back about how important your grad school timeline was in getting you there!

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A Final Word

When you’re applying to graduate school, planning ahead is key. You’ll need time to gather materials, such as undergraduate transcripts and letters of recommendation, as well as to prepare yourself for standardized testing and creating amazing essays that show your passion and interest in the program and your field!

The requirements for grad school applications can seem overwhelming. But by crafting a grad school application timeline based on your current situation, your goals, and your needs, you’ll be able to get each piece of the grad-school applications puzzle into place while ensuring that you create a dossier that really shows off your skills and talents. Good luck!

More Grad School Resources

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