About one in five St. Lawrence students enroll in postgraduate programs immediately after graduation, and half enroll in a graduate degree program within five years. A Master's or other advanced degree is required for many careers, and it opens up significant avenues of professional advancement. A well-rounded liberal arts education provides a strong basis for graduate study, for which the ability to think creatively, undertake research, and solve problems is at least as important as any specific undergraduate knowledge base.
Whether you are considering graduate school immediately upon graduation or some time later, there is much you can do during your time at SLU to prepare yourself. The information provided here is applicable to a wide variety of graduate programs.
For information specific to your major or a particular field of study, you should consult your major advisor, your department webpages, and pages for any relevant combined or pre-professional track (Engineering Combined Programs, Pre-Health Program, Masters of Business Combined Programs, Pre-Law, etc.). Your academic advisor is one of your most important graduate school resources, as he or she knows your particular intellectual interests and academic strengths, knows about a variety of graduate program options, and will be an important recommender in the application process.
If you are eligible for the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) or the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, our CSTEP & McNair office can be of invaluable assistance in preparing you for graduate study.
Graduate School Resources (from CSTEP & McNair office)
Preparing for graduate school
While the requirements of each graduate program might vary slightly, generally they will all expect the following elements:
- Undergraduate transcript. Graduate schools will consider your transcript closely. While they may take note of your overall undergraduate GPA, they will generally be most interested in the selection of courses you took that are relevant to that graduate program and your grades in those courses. If you are applying to an English creative writing program, they will want to see depth and breadth of coursework in English and in other areas where you might demonstrate your writing ability, and evidence of strong work. Your grade in Calculus will be much less important than your grade in Advanced Creative Nonfiction. That said, the stronger your transcript overall and the more evidence of intellectual breadth you can show, the better. And if you think some area of your undergraduate study is actually relevant to your preparation but that is might not be obvious, you should explain in your application materials.
- Curriculum vitae (CV). The CV is like a résumé, but formatted to emphasize your academic and research accomplishments and the experiences you have had that are relevant to an academic career. Your academic advisor can advise you on the formatting conventions of CVs in your particular field.
- Personal statement. The personal statement is an opportunity to tell the school who you are--what excites you intellectually, what you intend to study, and why you think the particular school is a good fit for you. The personal statement is a chance for you to frame your personal and intellectual journey so far, demonstrating how your education and other experiences have prepared you to be successful in graduate school and how your graduate degree fits into your career plans. In a graduate school application, it is much more important than in an undergraduate application to be specific about the distinctive aspects of the program to which you are applying: Does it have a structure that is especially relevant to what you are hoping to study? Are there particular faculty you hope to work with given their scholarly expertise? What aspects of the school make it a place you will get the most out of, and to which you can contribute the most? You should ask your academic advisor and other mentors to read and give you feedback on your personal statement. The Associate Dean of Academic Advising will also work with you on your personal statement, if you wish.
- Letters of recommendation. Most graduate programs require three letters of recommendation, though some may require or allow four or limit you to two. In most cases, your letters of recommendation should come from your academic advisor or another faculty member with whom you have worked closely, especially on research or another independent project; an additional faculty member in your field, ideally one that would complement your first letter; possibly a third faculty member, in your field or a complementary one, or a job/internship supervisor with whom you have worked closely in an area relevant to the graduate program. Usually you will be able to identify 3-5 candidates for letters, and so you want to think carefully about how their letters might complement each other and the other aspects of your application.
- You should contact your hoped-for recommenders well ahead of time and ask if they are willing to write for you. It is ideal to contact them as you are building your list of schools, months before you will need the letter, and then remind them about a month before the letters are due. And when you are about to fill out the applications, you should let your recommenders know that they will likely receive an auto-generated e-mail message from the school with a link to submit the letter of recommendation. Occasionally such messages get caught in spam filters, so it is good for them to know it is coming. You should also share with them your personal statement and other relevant materials, so they have a clear sense of you are applying to the schools you are and what you hope to do in your graduate school career.
- Some schools may ask for a writing sample, portfolio, or other evidence of undergraduate work showcasing your preparation for graduate study. The kind of sample of work a school may ask for can vary, but usually you will want to demonstrate your ability to do independent work. If you have undertaken a SLU Fellowship or SYE project, that would likely be your best choice, but what matters is that it showcases your ability to undertake work on your own in the field as a budding scholar or creative practitioner. Note that schools often limit the length of a writing sample, so you will likely have to choose a section of a longer work.
- Some schools may require the GRE. Like other standardized tests, the GRE is more and more often optional than required, but unless you have determined that no school you are applying to requires it, it can be a good idea to take it. As with the SAT, it is a broad test of general knowledge and skills. There are many GRE prep books and classes available for you to prepare, and the Graduate Resource Room in Fox Hall (at the entrance to Launders Science Library) contains various GRE study resources.
- Some schools may have an optional or required diversity statement. To move toward better reflecting the full diversity of our society, many graduate schools encourage applications from underrepresented groups in their field (domestic students of color, first-generation college students, students from lower socio-economic status backgrounds, students with physical or cognitive disabilities, in some fields women, students from other countries, members of religious minorities, or students from rural backgrounds). At the same time, they also want members of overrepresented groups to be aware of the value of diversity and their own role in participating positively in a diverse environment.
As you prepare all of your materials, you should look closely at the requirements of each school to which you are applying, as they will vary. You should think carefully about how all aspects of your application work together as a complete package, showcasing all of the strengths that make you a good candidate. You should give yourself plenty of time to prepare your materials, expecting to revise your personal statement and diversity statement multiple times.
- Discuss career plans with campus mentors, alumni
- Hone skills, cultivate connections to prepare yourself for summer experience between junior and senior year: summer research, internship, or job
- Research potential graduate programs in area of interest, as well as scholarships and fellowships
• Apply for summer opportunities: SLU Fellowship, Tanner Fellowship, SLU PIC, internship, job, or other experiential opportunity
- Plan for SYE project
- Prepare for appropriate standardized test (e.g., GRE, LSAT, MCAT)
- Build a list of graduate schools that are a good fit for your interests and for which you are a competitive applicant–keep track of the required components and deadlines of each application
- Discuss your plans with campus mentors and identify potential faculty recommenders
- Contact potential recommenders, providing general details of programs to which you are applying and deadlines
- Engage in independent research, internship, job, or other experiential activity related to your graduate school/career interest
- Take appropriate standardized test (Summer and/or early Fall)
- Develop and revise CV and personal statement, in consultation with faculty mentors, Associate Dean of Academic Advising, and others
- Narrow list of graduate schools to a manageable level (there is no magic number, but 3-6 is a common range)
- Visit schools, if possible
- Take appropriate standardized test, if you did not do so in the summer or are dissatisfied with your score
- Complete and submit applications–give yourself enough time to request letters of recommendation and transcripts, and to tailor your application materials to each individual school
- Note: if a school has rolling admissions, it is marginally more advantageous to apply early
- Apply for any additional funding opportunities through the schools themselves or through outside organizations/foundations
- Keep track of your application status at each institution– in most fields, you will hear back in the winter or early spring
- Carefully evaluate your offers of admission, considering the strengths and weaknesses of each school, as well as the financial offers and cost of each (this includes tuition costs, grants and fellowships offered, TAships or RAships available or guaranteed, cost of living in the location, etc.)
- If you are able to, visit all the schools at which you were accepted–some schools will pay for you to visit
- If you have two or more appealing offers, consider bargaining to see if your preferred school will increase its offer
- When you make a decision, deposit and inform other schools at which you are accepted
- Share the news with your recommenders and other mentors and thank them