Applying to Graduate and Professional School

Applying to graduate or professional school can be an interesting, exciting, tedious and overwhelming process, but there are many helpful people and resources at Swarthmore to advise you. Make an appointment with one of Career Services Staff to get started.

Deciding to attend graduate school requires careful thought. Ask yourself:

  • Do I really love the field enough to obtain an advanced degree?
  • Is an advanced degree required to enter a particular profession or advance within the field?
  • Do I have the financial resources to cover the cost of graduate school if I don’t receive enough funding?
  • Am I postponing making a tough decision about a career by going to graduate school?
  • What is the opportunity cost for me?  Will it change over time?

Although approximately 90% of Swarthmore College graduates pursue one or more advanced degrees, only about 20% of the senior  class enrolls  in graduate  programs  immediately  following  graduation.    Most Swarthmore graduates work  before beginning an advanced degree.  There are pros and cons to both choices.

Many students also find it easier to finance graduate school when there are no other major financial pressures in their lives such as marriage, mortgages, and children. Undergraduate loans are typically deferred while you are in graduate school (however the interest will continue to accrue on certain types of loans).  If you are certain about a career path which requires an advanced degree, choosing to go to graduate school right away will allow you to enter the profession sooner than if you took some time off.

If you  decide  to delay  grad  school  admission,  consider  a post- graduate  work-related  fellowship,  a post-graduate  internship,  or a wide range of employment  options  – Career Services and the Fellowships & Prizes office can help.  Furthermore, some graduate programs encourage or even require applicants to have relevant full-time work experience prior to applying (e.g. MPA/MPP, MPH, MBA).

If you hope to begin immediately after graduation, ideally you will begin your  graduate  school  search  in  your junior  year.  Application deadlines for fall admission  will be between November and mid-January  for most competitive  programs. Deadlines to apply for financial aid, including assistantships  and fellowships,  are often  earlier.  Apply (with absolutely all admission materials submitted) at least a full month before the deadline—sooner if possible to increase your chances of acceptance and receiving funding.

Consider what you need from a program to get the education and skill development you need for your career goals.

• The reputation/rankings of the department from which you hope to earn a degree – departments and programs are often more important than the school.

• The curriculum and types of courses and research required – do they focus on your interests?

• The faculty members in the department and their individual research interests (for PhD programs) – can you connect with a supportive mentor?

• The cost of the degree and types of funding available (grants, fellowships, assistantships)

• Statistics on the types of jobs and careers pursued by their graduates

Start Early! Doing your research on programs and pulling together all your materials can take time. Know all the required materials for each program to apply.

You  will  need  to  provide  each  graduate  school  with  letters  of  recommendation  from  current  and/or  former professors and/or employers.  Typically schools require 3-4 letters.  Many schools provide online forms for your recommenders to complete. In choosing your recommenders, remember that above all, graduate admissions committees are evaluating your potential as a student. This is also true for professional schools; in trying  to choose  between  a professor  and  a former  employer  or supervisor,  most programs prefer letters from professors.

Get to know your recommender! Letters are best if they are from people who know you well and are in a position to evaluate your work. Sit down with your professor or supervisor to discuss your graduate school goals and how you think they can highlight your work. Ensure excellent letters of recommendation by providing your recommenders with the data they need – your resume, research papers, and transcripts – and be direct about asking them if they feel they know your capabilities well enough to write a strong letter on your behalf. Give recommenders time to write effective letters – at least 1 month ahead of when you must submit them.

Most  graduate  school  applications  require  a  personal  statement  or  essay,  which  is  an  integral  part  of  the application and criteria for selection.  When all is said and done, your personal statement is about the only part of your application that you can positively affect at the time you are applying (your courses, GPA, test scores and even your recommenders’ opinions are pretty well set).  Take the time to do it well. Ask several people to read it and comment – faculty, career counselors and peer advisors.   When writing your statement, focus on why you are applying to this specific program and why they should admit you.  Graduate programs aren’t seeking “cookie cutter” candidates – they are looking for unique skills, qualities and experiences you will bring to the program.  When writing your statement remember that admissions representatives read hundreds of essays.  Be concise, clear, and compelling. Demonstrate that you’ve carefully considered graduate study and how it will help you accomplish your long-term goals.  Check out Swarthmore Sample Personal Statements.

Whether  you are applying  to law school, medical  school, business  school or a general graduate program many , but not all, programs require you to take  the appropriate  graduate  school  admission  test.   Be sure you know for certain  what exams your prospective  schools  require.

Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)

Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) for business school

Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)

Law School Admissions Test (LSAT)

The following sites offer test prep info, including free downloads of sample tests:


The Princeton Review

Resumes or Curriculum Vitae: You may be asked to provide a resume or curriculum vitae with your application to graduate or professional school. Including a resume/cv in your application package – even when not specifically requested – can be a great way to share additional information about your experience and research interests. Check out our Resume and CV resources.

Interviews: A personal interview is a valuable tool for you as the applicant and for the graduate school admission committee. Graduate school interviews are not always required for admission. Be sure to find out if your program factors an interview into their decision making process and prepare well in advance of the interview. The interview is also a time for you to gather more information about the program.  You may be able to talk with faculty members with whom you would particularly like to study. Check out our Interviewing Resources.

Transcripts: Know what kind of transcript your program requires. Official transrcipts can be requested from the Registrar’s Office. Unofficial transcripts can be obtained through your student link on mySwarthmore.

Funding for Graduate School

There are many types of funding you can obtain for graduate and professional school programs. Most graduate students  seek funding  in the form  of assistantships  and fellowships  from  their academic  departments,  but this funding is typically more available to Ph.D. students than Master’s students and rarely available to professional students (law, medicine and health sciences, business).

Federal LoansFederal Student Aid is the website for multiple federal funding program.

Graduate Assistantships  – Research  or Teaching  Assistantships  are available  in most academic  departments  – these  typically  include  a  tuition  waiver  and  work  stipend.  Assistantships are also offered in non- academic areas as well including residence life, student activities, career services, etc.

Scholarships and Fellowships – Typically these are not associated with your program. An example would be a corporate-sponsored fellowship or the Swarthmore Fellowships for graduates attending graduate school. Check out Swarthmore’s Fellowships & Prizes Office for more information.