Graduate School Research and Application

Did You Know . . .

Within the last few years, Wagner students have been accepted to and have subsequently attended numerous nationally prestigious graduate and professional degree programs – including MAs, MSs, JDs, MDs, and PhDs – at such schools as:

Columbia University, Drexel University, George Washington University, Georgia State University, Lehigh University, Marymount University, New England School of Law, New York College of Medicine, New York University, Pace University, Savannah College of Art & Design, Seton Hall School of Law, St. John’s University, Stony Brook University, Suffolk University Law School, SUNY Albany, SUNY Optometry, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Teacher’s College at Columbia University, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia Law School, University of Wisconsin, and Yale University.


Applying to Graduate School

For many students, graduate school is an important step in their process of career development. In some career fields, a graduate degree offers the chance to develop one’s knowledge of the field and to augment relevant skills, while also improving opportunities for promotion and professional achievement. In other career fields, a graduate degree is essential just to begin working.

Applying to graduate school can be a difficult, lengthy, and time-consuming activity – it requires a good deal of self-reflection, research, planning, and writing. Students generally find more success with their applications when they begin the process early, keep careful track of their application deadlines and materials, and try to accomplish their goals in a reasonable and systematic manner.

A graduate degree can open up a variety of career paths for you. In some fields, such as medicine or law, a graduate degree is necessary just to practice. In some fields, the degree is not necessary to begin your career, but you will eventually have to earn a graduate degree if you hope to retain your job or advance professionally. Some degrees allow you to specialize within your field and pursue new positions. And, of course, from an educational perspective, a graduate degree offers the opportunity to explore and better understand your field.

Admittedly, graduate school is not the ideal or even necessary step for every young professional. Before embarking on the fairly lengthy and labor-intensive course of applying to and pursuing graduate studies, students should reflect on certain questions first:

  • What are your career goals? Can a graduate degree help you to achieve them? How? (You will need to articulate this in your personal statement and interviews, if necessary.)
  • Is the degree necessary to have a career in my field? If not, does the degree provide any potential advantages for me or my professional success?
  • Do I really like what I am studying?
  • Do I have the time to spend another 2-6 years in school?
  • Can I afford it?
  • Am I ready for the workload? (A great deal more of reading, writing, and research is expected of graduate students than is expected of undergraduates.)
  • Am I qualified to apply for the programs that I am considering?

Ultimately, the main consideration for potential applicants should be what they will do with the degree. A graduate degree is not an end in itself – it should be a step toward a larger professional goal. Moreover, it is a substantial investment of your time and money. After all of your hard work, where does the degree take you? A good applicant for a graduate program should be able to answer that question before applying.

Your undergraduate studies offer you numerous opportunities to explore your personal interests, professional potential, and life goals.

  • Establish your career goals – This should guide your overall decision to attend graduate school, as well as what programs fit best into your plans.
  • Network – Try to get to know your professors, professionals in the field, and peers. Your network will serve as a source of information about the field, graduate programs, and/or potential recommendations.
  • Get experience – Depending on your field, there are many ways to develop experience, including internships, volunteer work, research, or paid work.
  • Stand out – Application to graduate school can be very competitive. The applicants to top programs in each field all have excellent credentials and grades. Merit-based scholarships and fellowships offer the opportunity to rise above a very impressive crowd.
  • Get to know your field – This, too, should guide your selection of which programs to apply to. Read the academic or professional journals within your field; learn about trends in the field and who is doing some of the more interesting work in it. How do your research, academic, or professional interests relate to this information?
  • Work on your writing – No matter what type of program you apply for, you will have to do more writing than you did as an undergraduate. Graduate students are expected to produce publishable writing.

In short, students who make the most of their college careers and take advantage of the various personal and professional development opportunities available are often the strongest candidates for graduate programs.

It is essential to conduct research on graduate programs before applying to them. Luckily, there is a great deal of information available on the internet. Every graduate program has a detailed website loaded with information on the program, the faculty and their areas of specialization, the facilities, current and recent students, and the application requirements and process. Scholarly or professional publications from the field often provide information on top graduate programs. Program rankings from various organizations and journals (U.S. News and World Report’s is one of the more well-known examples) are available every year, though they should be treated only as a guide and not the final determinant of where you will apply. Your professors and mentors know your field well, so you should certainly ask them for their advice on the schools you are considering or should consider. Finally, it is often a good idea to visit at least some of the schools that you are considering to get a sense of the environment.

Once you have put together a rough list of potential programs for application, there are many factors you should consider in narrowing down the list, including:

  • How many schools to apply to
  • How much money to spend on applications
  • How you plan to pay for school
  • Moving/commuting
  • Campus environment
  • Requirements for applicants
  • Facilities/faculty/program concentration
  • Assistance with job placement

Each program has its own deadline for receipt of your application materials. These deadlines can be as soon as late October/early November or as late as the March before you start. For some programs, such as medical school programs, it is advisable to submit your application materials no later than the end of the summer a full year before the semester in which you plan to start. Many business schools have multiple “rounds” of application, which vary in terms of their competitiveness.

In general, however, the window for most applications is December 1st to February 15th. The following is a theoretical schedule for a student applying to a competitive PhD program that starts in the fall semester; it should give you a sense of when you need to begin assembling certain parts of your application.

Start practicing for GRE – January 1
Take the GRE – September 15
Request your letters of reference – November 15
Start developing personal statement – December 1
Have all letters/essays in hand – January 15
Application deadline – February 1
Start the program – September

Each program has its own application requirements, and programs in certain fields require some materials that are not requested in others (a portfolio of your work for an MFA in graphic arts, for example). However, in general, the following materials are requested by virtually all graduate or professional degree programs:

  • Formal application form – These include most of your basic information: address, grades, classes taken, work and volunteer experience, references’ contact information, etc. They could include supplemental application essays on specific subjects of relevance to the program. These are almost exclusively completed online.
  • Personal Statement – more on this below
  • Letters of Recommendation – more on this below
  • Standardized admissions examinations – Programs in different fields ask for different admissions exams. Medical schools require the MCAT. Law schools require the LSAT. Business programs ask for the GMAT. Many graduate programs, both Master’s and doctoral, ask for the GRE. Many biochemistry, biology, chemistry, computer science, English, math, physics, and psychology programs require the GRE subject test in their respective areas. You will need to give yourself ample time ahead of the application deadline to prepare for these exams and take them.
  • Transcripts – These should be your official transcripts, requested directly from your schools. You will need transcripts from every college that you have attended. Most often, graduate admissions offices request that the schools send them directly. You should request these in advance from the Registrar’s office and follow up to make sure that they arrive. Depending on the application deadline, you may want to wait to order them until after the previous semester’s grades have been officially recorded and posted.
  • Résumé/CV
  • Application fee – Programs charge money simply to “process” your application. This could range in price from $50 to more than $100. Sometimes, a fee waiver is available to students who can demonstrate financial need.
  • Writing Samples – These are usually required for programs that are more writing intensive. For creative writing programs, you should provide an example or excerpt of your fiction, poetry, playwriting, etc. For other programs, such as English literature, you should provide a strong example of your academic writing. (It does not necessarily have to be your thesis.) Programs that request writing samples have their own requirements for length, but in general, they often ask for a sample between 15-20 pages.

There are certain tasks that your personal statement must accomplish in order for your application to be favorably received by a graduate program. You should make a dedicated effort to craft your personal statement into one of the finest examples of your writing, in which your rationale and preparation for graduate studies is as clearly articulated as possible. Bear in mind that the admissions committee at each program is looking for particular qualities: clear understanding of the field, enthusiasm for the subject matter, the potential for successful scholarship, and the commitment to a career in the field.

The personal statement is a piece of writing, so there are many ways of organizing it, depending on its content and your writing style. However, virtually every essay should address the following questions:

  1. What are your career plans? Though you are not expected to have completely mapped out your future, you should think through this question enough to have formulated a couple of rough ideas.
  2. How have your experiences prepared you for these career plans? This may include several of your experiences, including your studies, work, research, volunteer activities, leadership activities, or extracurricular activities. Make sure to establish a clear connection between each experience and your overall plan. Emphasize what you learned, whether it is about yourself, your skills, or your life plans. This section will likely make up the largest part of the essay.
  3. Why is this school (each school to which you are applying) the best environment for you to pursue your career goals? You need to do some research on each school, focusing on what makes that school uniquely significant to your future plans. You can focus on professors and their research or publications or the school’s special programs or facilities.

Here are some other suggestions you are strongly encouraged to follow:

  • Be sure to establish a theme that ties the essay together. Make sure that each paragraph, regardless of its own main idea, is explicitly tied back to this theme.
  • Avoid ambiguity and be specific. Illustrate all of your claims about yourself and your experiences with examples.
  • Remember that the personal statement is an opportunity to discuss your achievements, work, and plans for future; it is not a record of past hardships or a sequential list of your activities. However, if there was a traumatic event that figured into your plans for your studies or career, or if some of your activities were relevant preparatory experiences, then you should feel free to write about them.
  • Did you have a couple of poor grades or a rough semester? Many students worry about drawing attention to any weak points in their record. The fact is that the admissions committee will see them anyway, so you might as well provide your side of the story. Describe the situation positively without making excuses: what happened, how did you correct course, and what did you learn from the situation?
  • As is often the case, you should use the active, not passive, voice.
  • Each program has its own requirements, but in general, the personal statement should be approximately 500 words long, or two pages double-spaced.
  • Your personal statement should be drafted and revised several times before you submit it.
  • Many students are often uncertain about who and how they should ask for letters of reference. To a certain extent, it depends on the field, your experience, your network, and the type of program to which you are applying. However, in general, letters of reference should be written by full-time faculty who have taught you in class, and who know you well outside the classroom. This means that they should be aware of and able to testify to your character, work, capabilities as a student, long-term plans, and the likelihood of achieving those plans.
  • Sometimes letters from non-faculty may be appropriate. Specifically, if your field depends heavily on non-academic experience—as in business, social work, or public administration—then it may be wiser to have a letter from your supervisor in a relevant internship or full-time employment.
  • The letters must address your particular character traits and your preparation for your goals. They should supplement or round out the picture of yourself that you are painting in the rest of the application materials. For this reason, it is a good idea to give your referees (your recommendation writers) drafts of your résumé/CV, personal statement, transcript, and other application essays.
  • Different programs have their own unique requirements, but you will most likely need at least two letters, if not three.
  • A good letter of recommendation cannot be written overnight. It requires thought and reflection. Give your referees everything they need a couple of months ahead of the first deadline.
  • Letters of recommendation are, or should be, private. Many programs will ask your references to mail them directly or to enclose them in a signed-and-sealed envelope if they are included in your packet. Many applications ask for you to simply provide your references’ contact emails, to which they will then email a link to which their letter must be uploaded – you should be prepared to assist your references with any sort of problems that one usually encounters with website applications.
  • Start early on preparing the application materials. Traditionally, students who have the most success with their applications have begun working on them during the summer prior to their deadline dates.
  • Keep careful track of your deadlines. You don’t want to rush a part of the application just to get it in on time.
  • Ask ahead of time for everything that you do not have direct control over – letters of recommendations, transcripts, etc.
  • In the event of an emergency, have at least one backup recommendation.
  • For each school that you apply to, make sure that your application directly reflects that school’s priorities and areas of specialization.
  • Be realistic about your qualifications and the quality of your application materials.
  • Apply to a couple of safety schools–these are schools that might not be your top choices, but are ones that will realistically admit you.
  • If you are initially unsuccessful: Prepare yourself for the next time. Retake tests, get more relevant experience, bulk up and polish your CV or résumé, and rework your essays. Remember, you don’t have to go right into graduate school after finishing your undergraduate studies. But above all, if you have the qualifications, you should not be afraid to try again.

Graduate School at Wagner College

Wagner’s select yet comprehensive graduate programs are offered at convenient times and provide small class settings for educational excellence. Classes are small and scheduled year-round in late afternoons, evenings, and weekends. Our faculty are superb, combining theoretical expertise with practical experience in the field. Wagner’s graduate programs are committed to the “learn by doing” philosophy embodied in the Wagner Plan, based on experiential learning and interdisciplinary study. These exclusive programs strive to foster core competencies, cutting-edge technologies, and critical thinking. They remain responsive to the needs of the external community, and in turn, provide the most innovative and highest caliber graduate education in the region.

Learn more about the graduate programs offered at Wagner.

Need Help?

Not certain where to start?  Do you need your application materials reviewed or revised? Having trouble figuring out where to apply? Don’t be afraid to ask for some help or advice from our staff. Make an appointment with us, send an email to — or you can just stop in.