Preparing for Graduate School

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Is Grad School Right for Me?

Earning a masters, Ph.D or professional degree after completing your undergraduate education can be an excellent opportunity to:

-Gain expertise in a particular academic field

-Earn qualifications for certain career pathways

-Pursue careers in academia

There are many good reasons to consider graduate education, but it’s important that you first identify your career or academic goals and then decide whether graduate school will help you. Careers in the biological sciences, business and engineering have different expectations of what degrees are necessary for advancement, and the process of evaluating which programs might be best for you vary by field as well.  Meeting with a career counselor in your college to discuss your career goals can be helpful in understanding which options might be best for you.

Choosing Your Program

Choosing a graduate school as an international student could be an intimidating process. Below are some factors to consider when making your program decision:

Location: Location can be a factor when choosing a program. Consider the different cultural components of different states in the US. Determine if you already have an existing support network in the locations you are considering or if you could easily access one (other international alumni, groups from your home country, etc.). Finally, also take into account the career options that might be available in that particular location, cities might have more employment opportunities than smaller towns and some schools might only be recognized regionally.

Finding the right person to work with: For most Ph.D programs, choosing faculty who are doing research of interest to you is the most important factor when deciding where to apply. Conducting and writing your own original research (known as a dissertation) is the final step to earning your Ph.D and it’s important that you are doing research that connects to your academic interests. You can learn about faculty research by:

-Reading academic journals in your field of interest

-Speaking with professors at the University who are in your field

-Attending lectures by visiting faculty on campus

Program support for international students: Learn more about the services and programs available for international students by visiting the international student services website of the schools you are considering and talking with other international students attending the same school.

Career outcomes: Learn more about employment outcomes from graduates of the programs you are exploring, where do alumni work? Are they in the US or abroad? How strong is the alumni network? Talk to recent alumni or the program’s career center office to learn more and if available check the school’s LinkedIn alumni page.

Research Funding: Depending on your program, there may be a number of opportunities to  fund your education experience. For example, many Ph.D students’ education is funded and includes a stipend based on the work they do in research labs, and serving as teaching assistants for undergraduate coursework. Asking a program how previous international students have funded their educational experience is a great question to ask during an interview or informational session.

Preparing Application Materials

TOEFL and IELTS requirements are not all the same, so it is important to make sure you understand the requirements for each school where you are applying.This information may be available on the specific program website or on the graduate school website for the university.

Resources on application materials – Writing personal statement resources

U of MN Center for Writing
-Free one-on-one support
-Online quick help resources especially for multilingual students

Writing a Personal Statement for Graduate School
From the career center at the University of California–Berkeley, step-by-step advice on planning and writing a personal statement

Minnesota English Language Program
-MELP provides English as a Second Language (ESL) courses that can help non-native English speakers develop their reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills.

Creating Effective Personal Statements
In-depth advice on writing personal statements for graduate school applications from CLA Career Services at the U of MN.

Guided Brainstorming Exercises for the Personal Statement
-This online tutorial from the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Writing Center helps writers to generate ideas for their personal statements. Writers can answer the brainstorming questions online, then have their responses emailed to themselves for further use in their drafts.

Entrance Exams (ETS)
Depending on your program of interest, you may be asked to take an entrance exam. Below is a list of commonly requested entrance exams and website links for more information.

Graduate Record Examination (GRE): used by most academic graduate programs and some professional programs. Be sure to check the requirements of each school to which you are applying.

Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT): used by most business/management schools.  

Law School Admissions Test (LSAT): is the only test used for application to law schools.

Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT):  

Dental Admission Test (DAT):  

Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT):

Optometry Admissions Test (OAT):

Letters of Recommendation
Letters of Recommendation are letters from specific people such as professors, internship and work supervisors, and Principal Investigators in a research lab who know you professionally and can comment on your ability to be successful in graduate school. Programs may request letters from specific individuals so it is important to know which letters each program requires. It may feel intimidating to ask for a letter of recommendation, but remember that professors know that students need these letters to apply and want to help you. To help make the request easier, consider:

-Attending office hours and actively participating in courses

-Sharing your interest in going to graduate school with professors and supervisors

-Providing a resume or C.V., and a draft of your research or personal statement when requesting letters of recommendations and giving your writers plenty of time (at least 6 weeks) to write a letter for you

When you are ready to ask someone for a letter of recommendation, you can make your request by e-mail and ask to follow up with an in-person conversation to discuss additional details. When you make your first request, it is important to ask if the person is willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation. Letters of recommendation should be in support of your application.

Who can help me navigate this process?

Career Counselors
Meeting with a career counselor is a great first step. Career counselors in your college can help you think through your decision about applying to graduate school and help you decide whether your long-term career goals align with the programs you’re considering. They can also support you throughout the application process by providing feedback on your application materials and preparing for interviews.

Faculty in your field of interest are an incredible resource throughout your process. They can help you identify programs and faculty you may want to consider researching based on your interests, help you understand how to navigate networking based on social and professional norms of the field, and provide support though letters of recommendation. If there is a professor doing work of interest to you at the University, consider sending them an e-mail requesting to meet with them to have a conversation about your academic interests and future plans.

Mentors in Your Field
During your preparation for graduate school, you may have other individuals who can support you throughout the process. This may include graduate students you’ve interacted with in a research or classroom setting, supervisors in internships, co-ops or jobs you’ve held, or people you’ve met at professional conferences in your field of interest. Gaining insight from these individuals is also a great way to build confidence in your candidacy and gain knowledge about your field of interest.


Feeling overwhelmed?

Many students decide they want to go to graduate school in their third or fourth year of college. You may feel that you do not have the time to complete all of the tasks in the application process by the time you graduate. You may need more time to:

-Explore and research graduate programs

-Take required classes

-Gain additional research or other experience

We encourage you to speak with a career counselor about how you can have a productive gap year(s) and continue to be  a competitive applicant. You can also speak with ISSS to discuss Optional Practical Training (OPT) if you would like to work in the US during your gap year. For more information visit our page regarding the US Job Search.