Advice on Applying to Graduate School

Trinity College seniors and recent alumni often ask me for advice on preparing applications to different types of graduate school programs. Here’s my general advice to read online, and be sure to book an appointment on my calendar for us to discuss your plans. See also my advice on How to request a reference or recommendation letter.

First, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everyone must apply to graduate school. I often try to discourage people from leaping into graduate school if they don’t yet have a clear goal of what they seek to accomplish, other than merely “going to school,” which most of you have already done for the past sixteen years. I believe that some of the best applicants to graduate school are people who became more grounded in their ideas and experiences years after their undergraduate education. In my case, going to graduate school was the last thing on my mind after earning my bachelor’s degree. But after five years of working and teaching in different communities, graduate school made sense as a way for me to advance my own learning on schooling, social structures, and possibilities for change.

There’s a tremendous difference between the undergraduate versus graduate school admissions. When you sought entrance to Trinity College, you submitted an application to the Admissions Office for the entire college, and it was reviewed by admissions officers who asked: Is this applicant a good fit for the college as a whole? By contrast, when you seek admission to graduate school, you submit an application to a narrower audience, sometimes an admissions committee for a graduate program, or a specific master’s or doctoral degree program, or perhaps faculty members who might serve as your advisor in a specific academic department you wish to join. For graduate admissions, these reviewers ask narrower questions: Is this applicant a good match for this particular degree program or academic department?

So if you’re serious about applying to graduate school, let’s work together to help you craft your personal statement, to effectively communicate your goals to admissions committee members above. While drafting your statement, reflect on these themes:

1) How clearly does your statement answer this question: Why are you and this particular graduate program a good match for each other? (If you don’t answer this question until the end of your essay, consider revising and placing it near the top.)

2) Show them you’ve done your homework by adding tailored connections to individual faculty members and/or departmental strengths. Consider these sentence starters: “The opportunity to learn with Professor A about topic B will help me to…,” or “Reading Professor C’s article/book on topic D sparked my interest in…,” or “Working with faculty and other graduate students who specialize in topic E in Department F interests me because…”

3) Describe appropriate learning experiences you gained during your years at Trinity or afterwards, especially regarding research, teaching, and leadership. (It’s surprising how many students forget to include important details in their personal statements!) If you designed and wrote a senior research project or thesis, insert the title and add sentences about your research question, sources & methods, and/or key findings if appropriate. If you uploaded your senior research to the Trinity Library digital repository, or published a research-based essay on the public web, add a link to your work in your resume and/or personal statement. If you gained valuable community outreach experience through an internship or community learning project, describe your partner organization and the role you played. If you served as a TA, mention the professor and the course, and describe some meaningful work you did in that role.

4) Getting into graduate school is one thing; getting funding from the graduate school is another. Don’t assume that what you learned about undergraduate financial aid policies at Trinity have any connection to graduate schools, because they operate on an entirely different system. One key difference is that large universities typically depend on graduate student labor to run grant-funded research projects and teach sections of undergraduate classes. Therefore, if you conducted a research project and/or served as teaching assistant at Trinity, highlight these experiences in your personal statement, since graduate schools often look for applicants who they can hire to work as Research Assistants and/or Teaching Assistants, and these jobs might provide tuition waivers and/or health insurance, in addition to wages or salary.

Personal statements from former students

Sara Barrett ‘21 gave me permission to share her personal statement from 2021 when applying to the Master’s Degree program in Special Education at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University

Nicole George ‘18 gave me permission to share her personal statement from 2017 when applying to the Master’s of Social Work program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Samantha Alcala ‘11 gave me permission to share her personal statement from 2016 when applying to the M.A. program in Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Lis (Pennington) Fornaro ‘07 gave me permission to share her personal statement from 2013 when applying to the Ph.D. program in Urban Education at Temple University.