Postgraduate Explorer – the world of North American “grad schools”

With each progressive year, every time we take another step into the world of academia, we find that what we thought was specialized, was in fact general. What we thought was complex, was in fact relatively simple. This is no less true of the step from undergraduate to postgraduate study. Even a major only gives an introduction to a particular field. It is at graduate school that we finally specialize and narrow our field of study down to something really very specific and personal.

When choosing a grad school it is paramount - more than at any other time - that you consider your interests and talents very carefully. These are the greatest determiners of success. Success in being accepted to a program, and success in completing that program.

Choosing a Masters or Doctoral program should be a considered and thoughtful process. It is another commitment to study, and it is a commitment to study at the highest levels. Use all the resources of information open to you, such as a career counsellor, family, current graduate students and professors. You must excel at reading, writing and analyzing, and have a high level of intellectual curiosity, if not passion, for your chosen subject. Of course, you also need the time and financial ability to commit. You should have a clearly defined area of interest as a basic requirement. The program may also be necessary for further study or a career, or may offer rewards for combining your work experience with a return to study.

If you are thinking that you: 1) Wish to avoid the world of work the “real world” for as long as possible; 1) Are happy as a student and don't want to stop; 3) Feel it's “now or never” for you and grad school; 4)  Or have pressure to go to grad school from peers or family, then stop now. These are not good reasons to go and will often lead to failure. Grad school is hard work and takes real commitment and motivation. Without strong foundations for being there, you will likely give up when it gets tough.

What to study at grad school

Some career paths are very clear in what they require, e.g. law and medicine. If you have any aspirations to follow a career in such a field then that should be motivation enough. Grad school is simply part of the process and your study choices will be defined within those parameters. But if you don't have a clear purpose or if you are motivated by the love of learning, then you do need to evaluate yourself quite closely in order to make a good choice. Don't try and do this alone. Enlist the help of those who know you, or even better, see an experienced career coach or counsellor who is trained in eliciting these things from you. You should be thinking about this in your 3rd year of undergraduate study. Your choices and applications will need to be done through the summer holiday vacation, and at the beginning of Year 4.

Types of degrees

Graduate school leads to one of 4 types of degree qualifications:

Research Master's are designed to develop research skills in a particular field and will usually be undertaken as part of a plan to go on to a Ph.D.

Professional Master's are usually complete areas of study for a particular professional field such as engineering or education.

Research Doctorates (Ph.D) are a major piece of academic work which would usually be published. They may be undertaken for pleasure, to start a career in academia or as a prelude to a research career.

Professional Doctorates (e.g. M.D. or J.D)


Choosing a school/program

Undergraduate degrees in the USA and Canada are relatively broad. There are several elements to your choice of program. The first benchmark is whether you qualify. What is your academic achievement to date? Can you meet the entrance requirements with test scores etc.?

After that, it is much more a case of what you are looking for as your outcomes:
Do you have professional needs? Do you prefer examination or thesis? Is there practical experience? What is the success rate? What is the employability of graduates? What is the nature or culture of the faculty?

If you know you will be accepted, and a program meets your study needs then the decision takes on a practical or logistical nature. Consider additional factors, such as: Cost of tutoring, if available. Cost of living. Additional expenses and more. If cost is an issue, are there scholarships and awards? How do you access them? Can you access them? Or will you have to work while studying? Is that allowed under your visa/school rules?


All applications require a personal statement. The Personal statement speaks to the admissions committee of each school. It is a highly personal document and is specific to each school you apply to. You cannot get away with a single generic statement sent to multiple schools. It must use certain language and be structured in a way that the admissions committee wants to see. Expect to spend many hours producing multiple drafts.

All applications also require letters of reference and possibly a Curriculum Vitae (CV). Your referees should be employers or teachers who know you well, particularly as a learner. Help your referees by giving them additional information about yourself, such as your CV.

Many applications also require an essay. It goes without saying that this should be an excellent example of what you are capable of. You have to prepare it in a resource rich environment. Make it good!!

Standardized Entrance tests, such as GMAT, GRE and LSAT, are commonly a requirement for admission. You should ideally take the required tests before you choose a school. They will help you choose schools for which you know you are qualified. As a rule of thumb it is best to take a test only once or at most, twice. Most students taking it more than that, find their scores decline!! Plus, many schools receive these test scores. So repeatedly taking these tests multiple times, looks unfavourable upon a student’s admission; a waste of time and money chasing something unattainable. Make sure you only take the tests you need but don't miss any!! And keep up-to-date with a reputable study guide and tutor. These tests are changed frequently.

Getting help

ITS Education Asia is a premier professional education organization providing dedicated counselling and support. ITS provides a range of support options in choosing and applying to graduate programs in the USA and Canada. We help identify the best fit for you - the student. The strength of our consultancy services lies in our diversity and ability to cater to the needs of you and your family. We believe that this requires pragmatic and sensible planning. With this in mind, ITS provides comprehensive information and support. Our international consultants are experienced educators within the North American education system. With a wide-ranging knowledge-base of universities and curricula, as well as an in-depth understanding of a students' needs, our consultants offer a wealth of advice and information to you for finding the right university. We search for the very best university and the most suitable environment where each student will thrive.

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