Preparing for Graduate School

As they say, ‘timing is everything’ but in the case of applying to graduate school and nationally competitive funding opportunities ‘planning is everything’.  And, the earlier you begin to do your research on graduate schools of interest, faculty you may want to study with, resources available in support of your research interests, and what and when things need to start to take shape on paper, the better off you will be.  And, in terms of actual timing, most of these application processes will have deadlines begining in the fall of your 4th year, including, but not limited to:

  1. Finishing your degree requirements;
  2. BA thesis work or 4th-year capstone projects;
  3. Applying for graduate schools (deadlines beginning in September – January of the programs that begin the following year);
  4. Applying for nationally competitive opportunities in support of post-graduate studies (Fulbright, Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, Gates-Cambridge, National Science Foundation GRFP, Schwarzman, Yenching, etc.) with national deadlines in October and November;
  5. Preparing for and taking your GREs (MCATs and LSATs will likely have been earlier in the year);
  6. Searching for post-graduate plans like internships, jobs, and/or gap-year plans.

In other words, pretty much everything. So don’t miss out on chances simply because you haven’t planned well or anticipated deadlines in advance. Not only do you need time to pull together strong applications for graduate school and funding possibilities, you need to give those supporting your efforts, namely letter writers, plenty of time as well. 

It is relatively safe to assume you should plan on applying to graduate school at least one year in advance of when you expect to begin your program and you certainly should have been thinking about and researching programs during your third year; or, pretty much from the moment you really begin to crystalize your degree plans and identify those areas of interest you would likely pursue at an advanced level.  As with preparing for nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships, a lot of the ‘planning’ has to do with how intentional you have been in developing your undergraduate experience.  So, even before you put pen to paper or begin to research schools, your undergraduate experience should be taking shape in a meaningful way.

Search our on-line database for opportunities to help you fund your post-graduate studies and take time to research other resources to assist in your search for funding.  Often graduate programs will provide some form of funding for their students but that isn’t always the case, so don’t expect that just because you’ve been admitted, the costs are covered.  In fact, you may find some of your funding options don’t present themselves until after your first or second year, and after you have proven your abilities and commitment to your course of study.  

Give yourself time to speak with your current faculty for guidance, reach out to graduate students at UChicago, as well as at the programs of interest for insight into the process and programs that pique your own interest.

FACT: You will be applying for graduate school and nationally competitive scholarship and fellowship opportunities simultaneously.  DO NOT WAIT until after you have been admitted to graduate school to begin searching for funding; you will be too late for nearly all funding opportunities relevant to your first year of graduate study.

Being a Competitive Graduate School Applicant

In truth, much of what makes you a strong candidate for nationally competitive scholarships, fellowships, and other experiential learning opportunities, makes you a strong graduate school candidate.  And, we find that the processes you engage in as an application for national scholarships help you to prepare for what will be expected of your by graduate admissions committees.  You will certainly submit some kind of research proposal, a personal statement or variant, transcripts, a writing sample, and letters of recommendation.  Much of the work you will do for a national scholarship, like writing a personal statement, developing your CV, and soliciting strong letters of support will only aid you in preparing for graduate school and hopefully, compel you to do some of the preparation well in advance of any application deadlines for graduate school.

NOTE to those of you writing BA theses as UChicago students: consider revising your thesis process independent of any particular structure that pushes those efforts out until your senior year.  If you wait to work on and write your thesis until the fall of your 4th year, you will not be able to use that work, or parts of it, as writing samples for graduate schools.  Do your best to at least get a few chapters tucked away in advance of your fall deadlines as ready examples of your advanced undergraduate research work. 

Funding types for graduate school

You will likely encounter of variety of sources offering financial support for your graduate studies and they may all be called something different.  You may see some opportunities called ‘Fellowships’, others ‘Scholarships’, still others simply as ‘Awards’ and if you head overseas you may even find some scholarship-type funding referred to as a ‘Prize’ or ‘Scheme’.  Regardless of the titles used, they are all worth considering and require attention to detail and careful planning.  You may find that you are automatically considered for some simply by applying to a graduate program, but often you will need to submit a separate application to your institution and/or the external funding source.  Treat all applications as you would any national opportunity – with seriousness, careful thought, and attention to detail.

You may also encounter funding options that resemble an actual job; there are becoming more prevalent across disciplines and even in non-academic university programs where you may benefit from gaining experience assisting in running a program, for example an Honors program may hire graduate students on stipends to assist with undergraduate programming or advising, etc.  These opportunities are usually referred to as Graduate Assistantships (GSAs), Teaching Assistantships (TAs), and Research Assistantships (RAs).  For these kinds of opportunities you will likely submit a resume/CV and cover letter as opposed to being automatically placed in a position.

As is the case for undergraduate and graduate students, remember to complete your annual FAFSA by the end of February each year to ensure other funding options like federal and state grants, work-study, and loans.  Often your graduate programs will require a FAFSA in order to determine your financial aid package regardless. 

Resources to support the search: