Graduate School

By the time you are a Junior, you may begin to think about what you’d like to do after finishing your undergraduate degree. Some students choose to apply to graduate school or law school immediately, while others may decide to work for a couple of years before applying. In any case, you need to follow these directions for a successful and professional application process.

schedule / personal statement / writing sample / letters of recommendation


In September of your Senior year, you should schedule a meeting with your advisor (or another faculty member of your choice, especially if you're interested in pursuing their specialty) to discuss your interest in graduate school, what programs you are considering, and your time table for the application process. You'll want to do some research into each program you're considering, schedule GREs (or LSATs), polish your writing sample, and give plenty of notice to those faculty members you would like to ask for recommendations, so it is best to begin this process early in the school year.

Gannon University's site has an excellent checklist and discussion about the entire application process. The University of Washington gives an excellent overview as well.

Personal Statement

Your personal statement is a crucial element of your graduate school application and will serve as a central representation of your potential for study at that institution.  You should aim to adopt a tone of professionalism in this document, though you will also want to allow something of your personality to inform the writing style.  Your statement should communicate to readers your academic background, research and field experiences, and career goals and objectives

Most graduate programs are research oriented and you should be sure to familiarize yourself with each program.  Know the program’s catalogue and website.  In your statement, it is imperative that you demonstrate that you understand the general focus of the program and that you articulate how your interests fit with this focus.  Do background reading on the faculty so that you are fully up to date on who is there and what their research interests are.  You should tailor your statement for each program to which you apply and use it to articulate how your interests not only work well within the general focus of that particular program but how they fit with the research interests of specific faculty members in the program. 

Be sure that your statement is well organized and cohesive, and proofread it carefully.  Ask a faculty member to review it before you send it off. 

Ultimately, remember that your personal statement is your space to articulate your professional interests and goals and to demonstrate your readiness to enter that program and your value as a member of that community. 

For Law School the statement should focus on what makes you as an applicant unique rather than reciting your application in narrative form or explaining why you want to be a lawyer.

Preparing Your Writing Sample

If you are applying for a graduate degree in English, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, or other type of analytic program, you will want to submit work of criticism.

Your writing sample should be exceptional work, for which you received an exemplary grade.  You will want to consider what sample you are sending to each school so that it not only best reflects your high level of aptitude, but so that it fits with that program’s focus

You should consult with a faculty member to determine which sample might be most appropriate for each program, and if possible work with the specific faculty member for whom you wrote the sample as you go about revising it before submission. 

In the process of preparing the sample, you will want to carefully review your work. 

  • What comments did your professor make? 
  • How might you adopt those suggestions or reinforce what he/she identified as strengths of the paper? 
  • How might you revise the sample to make it more accessible to a general audience or one not familiar with the course in which you wrote the paper? 
  • What context do you need to offer for the argument or for any of the texts discussed so that a general reader can clearly follow along? 
  • What editorial changes are necessary to ensure correct grammar and punctuation?  Do not overlook this last item as unimportant! Careless mistakes speak volumes about an applicant.

Some graduate programs specify the length of the writing sample, while others do not.  Be sure to follow any prescriptive page limits.  If the program does not specify page length for the sample, you should most likely choose something that is akin to a term paper for a course as an appropriate length and complexity of argument.

Law School applications generally do not ask for a writing sample. Where they do, however, keep these things in mind (in addition to the above):

  • Most important is the overall quality of your writing and the logical presentation of your argument. Select something more analytical than interpretive.
  • Since you will take plenty of legal writing in Law School, it is not necessary to submit a legal analysis (written for a pre-law class, for example)
  • Even when the schools ask for writing samples, they are used mostly as a check on what really matters--GPA and LSAT scores.  If those two meet the entrance requirements everything else is just that--everything else.

Letters of Recommendation

Most graduate programs will request 2-4 letters of recommendation from professors, employers, or other mentors. Be aware of the program’s application deadline. Give your recommenders at least six weeks notice before the due date.

Before you ask your professors to write a recommendation letter, you should provide them with pertinent information about you. Be sure to include:

  • selections of your best work written for your particular professor
  • a description of your professional goals
  • a copy of your resume and/or curriculum vitae or transcript
  • a copy of your personal statement and writing sample

If applicable, also include a list of:

  • honor societies to which you belong, e.g. Sigma Tau Delta
  • Awards you have won while at St. John Fisher College
  • Extracurricular activities in which you have participated (and note any offices held)
  • Work experience/ internships
  • Service activities, such as Service Scholars, or related to SWAV, or any club with a service/ volunteer component

Know too that some professors (or employers) might ask for other information.

For each school/program to which you are applying, provide a stamped, addressed envelope. Paper clip the form(s) to the envelope which the professor must fill out for that school/program to the appropriate envelope. Make sure all of your information is filled out on these forms before giving them to the professor. Most people will suggest that you sign the waiver of your rights to see the letter of recommendation.

Put all of these materials in a large envelope or folder. Some faculty prefer that you include also (on the folder or envelope) a list with each school name and deadline due date.

The more organized you can be, the more likely that your letters will be thorough and will get where they need to be.

Lastly, when you hear of your acceptances into graduate school, notify your referees. We want to hear your good news!



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Last updated Wednesday, October 22, 2008. Web design and maintenance by Prof. Lisa Jadwin.