Guide to Getting Into Graduate School

Leading Indigenous Thinkers (LIT) Webinar Series

First year college students: American Indian Graduate Center has teamed up with Native Student Affairs professionals and alumni across the US to bring to you our 🔥Leading Indigenous Thinkers (LIT) 🔥webinar series!

Exploring success strategies for graduate students navigating their first year of higher education, this webinar will feature industry professionals and current students who can offer real time advice and personal experiences.

American Indian Graduate Center is your guide and support system as you navigate your higher education journey. Below our team has compiled resources and guidelines tailored to your graduate needs. With our support, you have the opportunity and advantage to achieve your highest potential in college and beyond.

For more information, contact us today!

What is graduate school?

Graduate school offers advanced academic degrees such as master’s (MA, MS, MBA, etc.), professional (JD, DDS, MD, etc.), and doctoral degrees (PhD, EdD, etc.) allowing you to specialize within a field. Most graduate programs consist of the following: coursework only, coursework and a special full-term project or capstone, or coursework with writing and presentation of a thesis or dissertation.

Purpose of Going to Graduate School

To learn material that you expect to use professionally or want to know for personal satisfaction.

  • Career advancement: A graduate degree can open a wider array of career opportunities
  • Career change: An advanced degree can help transition into another career
  • Enhance your education: Graduate programs can provide opportunities to explore theories you may have about a topic
  • Research opportunities: You can participate in funded research
  • Because you want to: To learn, to think critically and to accept the academic challenge

How long do graduate programs take to complete?

A master’s program typically requires a year and a half to two years of full-time study to complete. Master’s programs entail coursework, exams, internships or other applied experience. A written thesis, team project and presentation, or comprehensive exams are required.

A doctoral degree is a more advanced degree. There are research doctorates, like the PhD and applied doctorates which include:  MD, JF, EdD, DBA, DPT, DNP and others. Doctoral degrees can take four to eight years to complete, depending on the field.

What to expect in graduate school:

Preparing to enter graduate school is a lot different than preparing for undergraduate studies. Professors who teach graduate-level courses assume you have been prepared for graduate school during your undergraduate program through your internships or professional experiences, which is not always the case and that is okay. 

No one expects you to be 100% prepared for graduate school. In fact, no one can be 100% prepared for what lies ahead, but we compiled a few things to think about as you begin the next phase in your college journey. 

You will be expected to:

  • Write papers – One of the most significant learning curves is learning to write critically and analytically. Paper lengths are going to increase, and professors will expect you to write at a graduate student level.  You need to be prepared to learn from professors and peer criticisms of your writing. If writing is not one of your strong points, most college campuses have writing centers or graduate student services that can help you find writing coaches. Graduate papers are not something that you can start the week they are due!
  • Lead discussions and/or participate in seminars – Another big difference between graduate and undergraduate coursework is the structure of the classes. Up until now, you may be used to lecture-style classes where you come in and listen to your professor talk for the duration of the class and take notes or labs where you are expected to work through your assignments by yourself or in small groups. However, many graduate classes focus more on group lead or student lead discussion. While the professor may provide a lecture or overview of the readings or assignments that week, you will be expected to be able to talk about the readings and your takeaways. Strive to be a leader and independent critical thinker in your classes. 
  • Take good lecture and reading notes – The reading load in graduate school is going to increase not only in difficulty, but in size. Taking detailed and structured notes from your classroom lectures is important, but even more important is learning to take quality notes from your readings. While you may have mastered this in your undergraduate classes, the need to take succinct reading notes will help you organize your thoughts and provide you with talking points during your classes. 
  • Socialize – Graduate school can be isolating. You will spend a great amount of time studying and working. This does not mean that you need to sacrifice spending time with other graduate students. It’s just going to look different than what you might be used to. Take part in practicums, internships, research teams and other activities offered through your program. However, don’t be afraid to socialize with students outside of your program and at other institutions. Become active in national organizations in your field; this is where you will meet many of your future colleagues, partners and possible clients as you finish your program and enter your profession. 
  • Don’t fear to engage in research – While you may have been introduced to research as an undergraduate student, you will potentially play a much larger role in research studies as a graduate and professional student. Engaging in research studies and projects as a student will give you valuable insight that will help you if you conduct a thesis or dissertation project. 
  • Ask questions and take the initiative to get answers – Graduate school is difficult; it is okay if you are unsure of certain concepts. There is no shame in asking for help. If you don’t understand something, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or be proactive and search for the answer.  

Some Things We Wish We Would Have Known Before Going to Graduate School:

  • One of the largest obstacles that graduate students and young professionals come across is Imposter Syndrome. Trust us; it’s real. There will come a time where you will question whether you belong in your program or if you cut out for graduate school because you don’t understand a concept, or you feel overwhelmed. You are not alone! This is Imposter Syndrome, and it affects nearly every graduate student. If you didn’t belong in your program, they wouldn’t have accepted you.   
  • Know your worth, and don’t be afraid to negotiate. Learning the art of negotiating is something people really don’t talk about when discussing graduate school. If you have been accepted into multiple programs look at what the program is offering you to attend. Does the program offer any graduate assistantships or research assistantships? Does it include any tuition waivers? Are there any research or travel funds that you are eligible for? These are all questions that you should think about asking when researching graduate programs. If you’re accepted into multiple programs, you can leverage what one program offers you with another one. It never hurts to ask.
  • While graduate school can be more difficult compared to undergraduate programs, all the courses you take will be geared toward your interests. Unlike your undergraduate program, you won’t have to take general education courses that are not tied to your program. In most cases, graduate students come to find they are more invested and interested in their classes because their coursework is related to their passion and career. 

Application Process:

What does the graduate school application involve?

    • Transcripts – Your transcript provides a valuable indication of your ability to succeed in a specific field of study.  
    • Admissions test scores – GRE (Graduate Record Examination) scores. This GRE test measures verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills.
    • Letters of recommendation – Select three or four people (professors, advisors or supervisors) who know you well and will communicate positively about your work habits, your academic ability and your character.  
    • Work/Research Experience – Many doctoral programs, specifically public health and education, require a certain length of work experience and/or research in their respective fields.
    • Statement of purpose – This is an essay in which you should be specific about your educational and professional goals and background that relate to your goals and commitment to pursue a graduate degree. It should be well written.
      • Outline strengths in your educational and professional background
      • Define your education and professional goals
      • Explain how and why you came to set these goals
      • Describe how the goals will fit into your family and professional life
      • Draw from life experiences and professional experiences that are significant in your decision to return to school

How Can I Finance Graduate School?

Graduate school can be costly and should involve research into the types of financial assistance you might qualify for as you decide which graduate program is best for you. Several types of financial assistance are available to you including:

  • American Indian Graduate Center Opportunities
  • Tribal Scholarships
  • Tuition fee waivers
  • Teaching and graduate/research assistantships
  • Employer education programs
  • Federal and private loans
  • Scholarships (departmental, minority, etc.)
  • Fellowships


Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies. (2012). Getting in Tips for Students Applying to Graduate School [Booklet]. Washington University in St. Louis. A Guide for Potential Grad Student:  Should You Go To Graduate School? Retrieved from