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Exploring Graduate Study

Personal Interests and Goals to Consider

  • How a graduate education fits into your personal and professional interests and growth
  • Trends, developments, and characteristics of fields of interest; publications describing current research
  • Individuals, programs, and centers teaching and/or conducting research in interest areas
  • Personal considerations of time, finances, and support, as well as necessity to work
  • Interest and ability to travel and relocate

Information to Research when Preparing for Graduate Study

Researching Graduate Programs

A good place to start your graduate school research process on the web is at Career Services: College Information Links

Program of Study

  • Degrees offered
  • Majors or areas of emphasis or concentration
  • Field work or research options
  • Percentage of students attending full-time/part-time

Admissions Preferences

  • Preferences for recent graduates or work experience
  • Degree in subject or course prerequisites
  • Relative importance of test scores, grades, recommendations, statements, experience
  • State residence

Follow Up of Graduates

  • Positions taken by graduates
  • Department and/or campus assistance in job search


  • Size of department; depth in the faculty
  • Diversity and type of research and teaching interests
  • Publications and affiliations
  • Availability for class and appointments

Fellowships and Financial Aid

  • Type and amount of awards available
  • Criteria used for choosing recipients

Internships and Field Experience

  • Availability and type of practical experience


  • Libraries, research, laboratories, equipment


  • Accredited and by whom

Application Process

ADMISSION CRITERIA The specific criteria and their relative weights vary, depending on the academic discipline, the particular institution, and number of applicants. The most important criteria generally include:

Degree and Grade Point Average

  • G.P.A., either overall or in upper division or major courses
  • Bachelors Degree in the field or completion of specified courses
  • Conditional acceptance or nonmatriculated basis if deficiencies exist?

Application, Statement, and Letters of Recommendation

  • Application and clear statement of purpose  Note: There may be school and department forms
  • The application process is centralized for some types of professional schools
  • Two to four references standard (may be required form or format)
  • Official transcripts (2+) from all colleges attended

Qualifying Examinations

Examinations which may be required:

  • Graduate Record Exam (GRE) - general & specific subject exams
  • Miller Analogies Test (MAT)
  • Law Schools Admissions Test(LSAT)
  • Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT)
  • Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)
  • Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT)
  • Dental Aptitude Test (DAT)
  • Veterinary Aptitude Test (VAT)
  • Optometry Admissions Test (OAT)

Personal Interview, Portfolios, Auditions

Screening may address objectives, finances, choice of program


Financial Aid & Support

Much of the financial aid at the graduate level is merit based, often in the form of a fellowship that may or may not have a service-related component (such as an assistantship). Most of the awards are given by the academic department, and many are for Ph.D. students. Types of financial aid available include:

Merit based monetary awards, including grants, fellowships and scholarships 

  • Tuition scholarships or waivers - reduce or fully cover tuition
  • Fellowships - support for college costs, typically with no payback, provided by the institution
  • External grants & funding - private foundation or federal agency

Loans (through banks, the government or the educational institution)

  • Federal loans are typically the most common funding source for graduate students

Federal Work Study - need based Assistantships

  • Graduate Assistantships - 10-20 hours work/week; typically pay full or partial tuition and stipend 
  • Teaching Assistantships - teaching, recitation courses and/or assisting a professor with office hours, ½ time
  • Research Assistantships - assisting ongoing research; can lead to own research project
  • Residence Assistantships - room and board and a stipend in a college residence hall

Timetable for Applying to Graduate School

Approximate Deadline Dates

October - January:

Deadlines for fellowships outside of the school.

January 15 - March 1:

Deadlines for applications and fellowships for fall entry.

You should begin in the summer before your senior year of college or at least a year before you plan to start graduate school. Study deadlines for specific programs carefully since they may vary significantly depending on the institution to which you apply. Financial aid deadlines may be earlier than admissions.

Summer/Early Fall

  • Write draft statement of purpose 
  • Start browsing through guides to graduate programs and college catalogs
  • Meet with Cal Poly faculty members to discuss statement and possible programs
  • Sign up for required standardized tests
  • Visit schools; meet with faculty and graduate students in programs


  • Take standardized tests
  • Request application materials from programs
  • Ask for letters of recommendation (i.e. faculty, advisors, supervisors, mentors)
  • Order transcripts 
  • Research financial aid; complete applications for sources with early deadlines
  • Finalize statement of purpose

Early Winter

  • Complete application and financial aid forms
  • Give recommenders forms to fill out (if provided) or addresses to send letters to
  • Mail applications; watch deadlines for admissions and financial aid
  • Contact programs to set up possible interviews
  • Follow up by phone to verify all materials have been received

Application Checklist

__  Statement of Purpose
__  Letters of Recommendation
__  Transcripts
__  Standardized Tests
__  Applications for Admission
__  Applications for Financial Aid
__  Applications for Fellowships
__  Income Tax Return (if necessary for financial aid applications)
__  Scheduled Visits or Interviews

Frequently Asked Questions

Work First or Go Directly to Graduate School?

Work experience can help with the decision to attend graduate school, to clarify career goals, and focus on an area of specialization. Most programs expect you to have clearly defined interests and an area of specialization. Some graduate programs, such as MBA schools, encourage people to get work experience first. For professions requiring education beyond the baccalaureate level, such as law, medicine or university teaching, going directly to graduate school may be your first choice. If your grades are marginal, you may need to work while taking courses part-time to demonstrate to a department that you are capable of succeeding.

To How Many Schools Should I Apply?

A recommendation might be to consider programs that are desirable to you, though highly competitive, programs that are desirable, with more likely chances of selection, and programs you are confident about getting into which meet your criteria. Apply to as many as you can afford, considering also the number of letters you must ask your references to write.

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