Graduate School

Applying to schools, personal statements, and more!
Connect with a Coach

The Piper Center is delighted to support current students and St. Olaf alumni in pursuing further study at the graduate level. We supplement the work of the St. Olaf faculty, who provide primary guidance on graduate school, by offering individual coaching, workshops, and a broad array of resources to assist you in discerning your post-graduate path and in submitting a strong application. If you are unfamiliar with the world of graduate study, please explore these pages, and then reach out to faculty or to the Piper Center’s coaches for further discussion.


Academic vs. Professional Degrees

Academic degrees (MA, MS, PhD) involve acquiring and communicating new knowledge through original research.  These degrees are awarded in virtually all disciplines of the liberal arts (e.g., arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences).

Professional degrees stress the practical application of knowledge and skills and may be acquired in areas such as business (MBA), law (JD), medicine (MD), and education (MEd).  Other fields offering professional degrees include the fine arts (MFA), library science (MLS), public policy (MPP), social work (MSW), nursing (DPN), and many more.

Medicine Law Business

Is graduate school right for me?

Graduate school is a significant investment of time, money, and hard work.  Before making a decision to attend, think carefully about three basic questions:  

  • Is a graduate degree necessary to achieve my personal and professional goals?
  • Am I a competitive candidate — at this time — for graduate school?
  • Is now — or later — a better time for me to attend?

How do I choose a graduate school?

If you have decided to apply to graduate school, St. Olaf faculty members can support you in choosing schools that will suit your goals and aspirations. Piper Center coaches can also help you reflect on the schools to which you may want to apply.

COVID-19 has reframed the landscape for online education in the United States and internationally, as many institutions have switched to online education as the only or primary mode of delivery.

If you are deciding whether to attend graduate school online, you will need to keep the following three factors in mind:

  • Is the program regionally accredited?
  • Does the program have a traditional campus where students attend in person?
  • Does the program have a reputable academic brand?

In other words, it is not how you earn an online degree but where you earn the degree. If you attend a regionally accredited program at an institution that has a traditional campus and a reputable academic brand, employers will likely view the degree as being equal to one earned in person. Employers continue to be concerned about for-profit institutions that offer online learning; many have been criticized as “diploma mills” that have questionable recruiting practices, low rates of completion, and degrees of questionable value.   

The pros for attending graduate school online are flexibility and applicability: you can attend from any location, you can fit your coursework into a busy schedule, and you can begin to apply what you are learning immediately to your employment (assuming that you are not making a career change). The cons are a lack of in-person communication with faculty and fewer opportunities to network with your classmates. You must also be very disciplined and well-organized.  

For a good discussion of online graduate education, please review the following article:

Other important ways to evaluate programs


Applying to graduate school

Applying to graduate school takes time, a significant amount of time. The best advice is to start early and to follow the steps below, which outline the process that students typically follow when applying to graduate school. 

You may also want to take a look at the following article, “Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process,” which surveyed admissions committees for graduate degrees in psychology and summarizes the characteristics on applications that decrease an applicant’s chance of being accepted to a program in psychology. The advice applies well beyond degrees in psychology, and we recommend that you take the time to reflect on the perspective offered by the admissions committees surveyed.

This section addresses the following topics:

  • To how many schools should I apply?
  • Application requirements and deadlines
  • General timeline for applying to graduate school

Application requirements

Once you’ve decided to go to graduate school, you will most likely need to complete the following components for your application.

Funding your graduate study

Attending graduate school in the United States can be expensive, and therefore as you think about applying, you will need to consider how you will fund your graduate education. Read more about graduate study outside of the U.S. here.

Universities will ask you to submit an application for financial aid with the overall application, with sources of funding usually including the following:

  • Grants and fellowships
    • Grants may include full or partial tuition and full or partial living expenses, and they are typically awarded to applicants on the basis of their academic achievement
    • Many universities have their own fellowships, and there are national fellowship programs as well 
  • Loans
    • Loans are available both from the U.S. and state governments (for U.S. institutions) and from other private funders. If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, you will need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
    • International students are not eligible for federal or state loan programs.  Most private funders will require a U.S. citizen  or permanent resident to co-sign the loan.
  • Teaching or research assistantships
    • These assistantships are typically paid positions that enable you to earn money to cover some of the costs of graduate education
    • Assistants are paid a stipend or wage, or they are given a reduction of tuition 
  • Resident assistantships
    • Resident Assistants typically live in undergraduate or graduate residence halls and receive room and board for monitoring the health and safety of residents in a particular building or complex
  • Employer-financed support

  • Other part-time employment

Applying early (as institutions often dispense financial aid on a first-admitted, first-served basis) and undertaking intensive research on sources of funding are critical steps that you will need to take to give yourself the best possible chance of securing funding.

Applying to grad school as an international student

Applying to grad school as a student from a marginalized group

The Council of Graduate Studies report on Graduate Enrollment and Degrees from 2007 to 2017 advises that among “first-time U.S. citizens and permanent resident graduate students in the Fall of 2017, about 23.9% were underrepresented minorities, including American Indian/Alaska Native (0.5%), Black/African American (11.9%), Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander (0.2%), and Hispanic/Latino (11.3%).”

All groups, with the exception of Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, are underrepresented in graduate school compared to the national demographics for these groups: American Indian/Alaska Native (1.3%), Black/African American (13.4%), and Hispanic/Latino (18.5%).

These groups are particularly underrepresented in STEM fields.

If you are a student from a marginalized group, you may wish to look at a recent article in U.S. News and World Report, “Advice for Minority Students Considering Med School,” which describes the challenges that these students face — challenges that are present in all graduate and professional school programs — and steps that you can take to help you achieve success.

You will note that finding a mentor is the most important step that you can take to achieve your goals in graduate school. Thus, when considering graduate schools, you will need to find out from the Admissions staff, from faculty, and from current students if the kinds of mentors that will enable you to flourish are, indeed, present and if the environment is one that supports students from marginalized groups. Doing your research about the faculty, studying their publications, and finding out about their students are critical steps to help you determine whether you will receive the support you need.  

You may want to research whether the institutions that you are considering have a Graduate Diversity Officer or a similar role, someone whose role is to increase the presence of students from marginalized groups in graduate programs and to support them in achieving success. 

You can also ask the Admissions staff for data about admissions and completion rates by demographic group, which will enable you to compare rates of success. Undertaking research about the racial climate on campus will also give you a sense of how the institution is responding to recent events in the U.S. challenging systemic racial injustice, including in undergraduate and post-graduate education.

Please see, which amplifies the voices of “Blackademics” to speak truth about racism in academia.


We wish to acknowledge and thank our colleagues at Amherst College’s Loeb Center; Bates College’s Center for Purposeful Work; Carleton College’s Career Center; Grinnell College’s Center for Careers, Life and Service; Hope College’s Boerigter Career Center; Pomona College’s Career Development Office; and Union College’s Becker Career Center for their thoughtful and comprehensive websites on graduate study, from which we have drawn much of our advice.