Graduate School Guide


Graduate school is a commitment requiring significant time, energy, and potentially money. Before you apply, reflect on your reasons for going, in the context of your overarching career goals. Generally speaking, a desire to merely continue your college experience is not a strong justification for attending graduate school. Evaluate your motivations, abilities, and commitment honestly. 

Consider some best and worst reasons to attend graduate school.

Ask yourself and others:

  • Is a graduate degree or some other professional training required (or highly recommended) for entering my field of interest? For example, in some fields, such as international development and public health, a Master’s degree can be required for entry-level jobs. To teach at the college level, you may need a Ph.D.
  • What kind of program will best serve me and my goals? What is my ideal learning environment? There are often a range of options. An online program can allow you to pursue a degree while working, but may limit your ability to focus. Some 12-month Master’s programs may prepare you for a career, but not allow you to enroll in a subsequent Ph.D. program.
  • Is the timing right to meet my long-term personal and professional goals? Average age and ideal work experience levels vary by field, program, and institution. Your chances of admission improve when your interests and experience align with selection criteria.
  • Do I want to immerse myself fully in this field purely for the love of it? To succeed in grad school, you need a passion for the topic and a lot of perseverance.
    • Your flexibility to choose your exact field will vary. In the humanities you will have considerable flexibility, but many science Ph.D. programs will expect you to contribute to the research of your principal investigator, and these students may not have a lot of autonomy picking their research topic.

Most graduate schools expect you to have clearly defined interests and experiences leading to an area of specialization. Before you apply to graduate school, you should have a focus, or at least some areas you want to study.

Talk to others to ensure you have the pre-requisite experience or education you need to be a strong candidate.

More than 80% of Dartmouth graduating seniors wait five years or more to go to graduate school.
Often alumni wait to go to graduate school until they have clarified their career interests – and know how a graduate degree will move their career forward. 


If you believe graduate school is the right choice for you, your next step is to decide where to apply.

Online resources for exploring programs

Talk to faculty and others who have pursued degrees of interest to you

Consult faculty members who have specialized in the discipline of your choice. Faculty are excellent sources of information about graduate programs in their specialties. They will know the strengths and weaknesses of programs at various universities. Also consider asking your mentors, or any alumni in the same discipline. You can consult a CPD coach to clarify your interests and to discuss career options.

Prioritize your choices and gather information on specific schools

Once you have a list of programs, narrow your possibilities to a manageable number. To evaluate programs, consider the following:

  • Is the institution/program research-oriented or coursework-oriented? 
  • Do faculty members have areas of specialization that align with your interests? The makeup of graduate faculty can shape the content, orientation, and character of a program. Consider the program “fit” in context of your goals. 
  • What is the mentor relationship between students and faculty? Are faculty members accessible to students? Ask graduate students about their experiences in the program and potential faculty advisors.
  • How much financial aid is available in the form of scholarships, teaching assistantships, or research assistantships? Learn how many students receive funding and what criteria are used to grant funding. 
  • Evaluate the acceptance rates.
  • Ask the admissions office and/or program chair if you can communicate with current students via email or phone – or reach out to alumni via LinkedIn.
  • Also consider location for residential programs. What is the community like and how expensive is it to live there?

For Master’s and Ph.D. programs (Arts & Sciences)

  • Does the department’s strength lie in a particular area, or are the subfields equally strong? 
  • For Ph.D. programs, do you need to obtain an M.A. or M.S. before you enroll? 
  • How many Ph.D. ‘s are granted annually? What is the average length of time required to complete doctoral work? How many students drop out of the program? 
  • What is the job placement rate, and what is the program’s history?

For MBA Programs / Business Schools

  • Schools range in specialization and focus – research areas of interest!
  • Research the demographics for programs of interest, including average age and professional experience level.
  • Know the 25th and 75th percentile GMAT scores for the last entering class – gauge your chance of getting in.


Before deciding where to apply, learn about the experiences of Dartmouth alumni, current graduate students, and others who have career paths of interest to you. These people can help you identify programs that might fit your candidacy.

Once you have identified programs of interest, reach out to alums of these programs to gauge impressions and experiences, and to gain further insights. Programs have varied strengths and challenges; be an informed consumer. 

A great way to do this is via LinkedIn’s Schools feature, which allows you to view Dartmouth Alumni on LinkedIn.

1) You can search alumni by keywords or degree programs.

2) Once you identify schools of interest, you can visit the LinkedIn site for specific schools, then review profiles of students/alumni – you can also search for Dartmouth connections.

3) You can see alumni outcomes through an Alumni search.

4)  Next, search that site for “Dartmouth to find alumni.


Graduate schools are looking for diverse, thoughtful, well-prepared, ambitious, and mature candidates who stand out in the applicant pool.

Personal Statement / Statement of Purpose

Many schools require a personal statement discussing topics such as your personal and career rationale for applying to the program, your experiences in your field of study, your level of academic achievement, and what specialty is of particular interest.

  • Tailor your application: explain why this particular program at this particular university is a good fit for both you AND the institution. You should discuss which faculty you would like to work with and which avenues of research you would like to explore. 
  • Your response should show an understanding of the program. Read instructions for personal statements carefully, because different programs will have different expectations for these statements. For example, if you are entering an MA program in the humanities, you will likely need to include a potential project that could serve as your thesis topic. For MS programs, a thesis project is unlikely to be part of your application.
  • Write what distinguishes your candidacy and make sure that your essay is clear and concise. Be as specific as possible.

Some – but not all – programs require standardized tests. The GRE is common for graduate school; the GMA is required for many MBA programs. Dartmouth’s Pre-Health Advising office can provide information on testing requirements for health professions programs (including medical school).

Graduate Record Exam (GRE)

The GRE consists of two types of tests: a General Test and a Subject Test. The General Test is a computer-based test that contains analytical writing, verbal, and quantitative sections. It is required by almost all graduate programs in the United States. This test is offered year-round at testing centers around the world. Use their website to locate a nearby testing center.

The Subject Test is offered in six major disciplines and may also be required by some programs. The subject areas are: Biology, Chemistry, Literature in English, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology. The Subject Test is a paper-based test offered in April, October, and November. (Note: dates and testing protocols change year to year; check the ETS website for up-to-date information and to find test centers.)

The recommended time frame to take the GRE depends on when you want to apply. At a minimum, you should take the test anywhere from April to October before the dates you apply. GRE scores are often good for five years.

Letters of Recommendations

Faculty letters of recommendation are weighed heavily in admissions decisions. Only ask people who will write a strong evaluation of you, and when you make the ask, it is acceptable to ask if the letter will be a strong one. Before requesting letters, consult the graduate school applications for specific instructions. Usually two or three letters are required. 

Contact your professors early. Make an appointment with each of your letter writers to discuss your course work, and other interests, as well as your plans for graduate school. Remind the professor of every course you have taken with them, as well as any other work you may have done for them. At a minimum, provide them with your application and personal statement draft, your resume, a writing sample, and info about why you are choosing to go to graduate school.

Specify a reasonable deadline; professors are busy. It may take more than one reminder and a longer time than you might expect for them to submit their letters, so allow at least six weeks. 

For additional suggestions, please refer to the CPD guide: How to Ask for a Reference/Letter of Recommendation

Storing Letters of Recommendation

Frequently, faculty are happy to send letters directly to the schools you apply to. If you require long term electronic management of these letters, there are companies that offer this service. Dartmouth has a relationship with Privatefolio, allowing students and alumni to use their services at a reduced price. Check out Dartmouth’s instructions for using Privatefolio.


Most programs will require unofficial transcripts at the time of applying and official transcripts at the time of graduation. If you took courses at multiple undergraduate institutions, make sure you get transcripts from every school. Unofficial transcripts are available in the BannerStudent menu. You can order an official transcript from the Registrar’s Office.

Resumes/Curriculum Vitae (CV)

Resumes for graduate school applications can be longer than resumes for jobs. In the academic context, this format is often called a “CV.” Highlight any academic or research experience. Make sure to include scholarships, or awards, and any language skills. List any publications you have.


Common deadlines are generally between December 1 and February 1. Pay close attention to the deadlines for your program, including deadlines for early consideration and/or assistantships and/or funding. Read the directions carefully about where to submit each part of the application, because materials may go to different offices. For example, applications and transcripts may go to a centralized Graduate Admissions Office, letters of recommendation to the specific department, and financial aid forms to the Financial Aid Office. 

Deferring Entrance

Some schools will admit you and then allow you to defer entrance for a year or two; some schools will not. It is best to learn the school’s policy before you apply.

Financial Aid

Ph.D. students frequently have tuition covered and receive a stipend. Financial aid is often available, but not guaranteed, for other graduate degrees, including: Master’s degrees, law degrees, and medical degrees.

Financial aid is often based on a combination of merit and financial need. In addition, some graduate programs are offered at reduced tuition cost in exchange for participation in faculty research or undergraduate teaching.

Contact the schools to which you are applying to determine what support is available and to obtain the financial aid application forms. Note that financial aid deadlines may be earlier than your program application deadlines.

Look into scholarships administered by agencies outside the universities. Dartmouth’s Fellowship Advising Office provides students with advising and support on issues related to national fellowship processes. This office can also assist students in finding, or applying for, Dartmouth-funded graduate school grants and scholarships.


Note: You can start your research process whenever you are ready. This is a suggested timeline based on application deadlines.


  • Conduct research on graduate schools
  • Talk to professors and other mentors about your interests
  • Study for and take the required admission test
  • Select letter of recommendation writers, make the ask and provide them with information, (where you will apply, what you hope to study, and how the program aligns with your goals/interests)


  • Study for and take the required admission test
  • Research, visit, and select graduate schools (note application deadlines)
  • Prepare several versions of a statement of purpose and/or personal statement
  • Prepare portfolios/work samples, if required, for your area of study


  • Study for and take the required admissions test
  • Seek out information about online information sessions and graduate school fairs
  • Make a short list of graduate schools: create a mix of safety, target, and reach schools based on your credentials
  • Ask a faculty member, a CPD coach, or the Peer Writing Center for Research, Writing, and Information Technology (RWIT) to review your personal statement
  • Ask a faculty member and or a CPD coach to evaluate any additional application materials such as portfolios or work samples. Check graduate schools’ directions for letters of recommendation. Note: Some programs require that the recommender upload the letter directly. Some programs require the letter to be less than a year old.
  • Contact potential advisors. Introduce yourself and why you want to work with them.
  • Complete and submit your applications and all supporting materials


  • Confirm with the school that your application file is complete, including letters of recommendation
  • File your financial aid applications
  • If available, attend a recruitment day or interview on campus or via video


  • Respond to acceptances and pay deposit by deadline