graduate school

Graduate School Timeline


As October continues, the timeline for grad school continues to tick down for the seniors. Before we know it, January will be here and with it, application deadlines. Then April and May come bearing down and before you know it, the school year is over. Now is the time to get caught up on the grad school applications for the seniors. For you juniors, we’ll outline a timeline to keep in mind for next year. Underclassmen, this is the time for you to think about grad school so that you’re able to be ahead of the game when the time comes.

Preliminary Stuff

The very first step in the grad school decision is, easily enough, thinking about grad school. Does grad school appeal to you? What would you be pursuing? Are you looking for a Ph.D., a Master’s, or some other degree? Are there any programs that you already have in mind? What do you need to do to make sure you can get in at these programs? These are the sorts of questions you want to be asking yourself before you even begin the process. Ideally, this is done before the end of Junior year. Junior year, start talking to faculty about graduate programs that you might want to pursue and get advise on where to look.

Summer before Senior Year

So you’ve picked a subject to pursue at a higher level. Now what? It’s time to pick a few programs to apply to. What are you looking for in grad school programs? That depends entirely on what you want to do after you finish the program. Are you looking to use an MA to get into a Ph.D. program? Look for MA programs that are associated with high-level Ph.D. programs and have opportunities to break into the world of academia. Are you trying to get your MBA to launch your career in the business world? Look for programs that have high job placement rates at top companies.

While you search for specific programs, there are a few things to keep in mind. Be sure to pick a handful of programs to apply to, just in case you don’t make it into your top choice. Remember, graduate school is still very competitive, especially when it comes to scholarships.

1.     Cost. How expensive is this program going to be? Will they give you a living stipend? What kind of scholarships are available?

2.     Time. How long is the program? Be aware that most Ph.D. programs are 5-8 years long, while Master’s programs are typically 2-3 years. You may find some shorter or longer, but it could mean that if you try for an MA-Ph.D., you may have 10 years of schooling left.

3.     Admission requirements. Do you need to take the GRE or other standardized test? If so, how well do you need to score? If the program requires a standardized test for admission, begin preparing for it during the summer. How many letters of recommendation do they want? Are there any prerequisite courses you will need to finish? This bullet point is the exact reason you want to be thinking about the programs before you even get to senior year.

4.     Program requirements. Will you be writing a thesis? Will you be expected to be teaching while you take your graduate coursework? What kinds of classes will you be taking? How closely will you be working with the professors? What kind of opportunities does it provide?

Done to this point: Programs decided upon, registered for and prepared for admissions exams


Alright, you’ve picked a field and you’ve picked a handful of programs you’d like to get into. Now, for your senior year, it’s time to start working on it. August is when you want to register for (and possibly even take) whatever exam you need to take for the school, be it the MCAT, GMAT, GRE, LSAT, or whatever else. Take it for the first time as soon as possible, so that if you need to take it again, you have plenty of time for it. August is about the test.

Done to this point: First exam taken


By the time you get to September, hopefully you’ve already at least registered, if not sat for, entrance exam. At this point, you’re definitely back at school, so it’s time to start talking to faculty. Grad school will need some letters of recommendation, so talk to a few professors and ask about a letter of recommendation. In addition, you should have your exam scores back at some point in September. Check those scores and see if you need to retake the test. In addition, if you took the GRE, look into if you should take any specific subject tests (just like the SAT subject tests). If you need to, register for those.  

Done to this point: Exam results received, letters of recommendation lined up, subject tests registered for


October is the time to get paperwork in order. This means you have your writing sample prepared and cleaned up. You get the application itself ready. Most schools will want a statement of purpose or some sort of academic autobiography. October is the time to get that in order. It’s also time to pay attention to due dates. Some schools want transcripts before Fall grades, some schools want that Fall Semester of senior year on it. Pay attention to which they want and get those transcripts lined up. Follow up with those who are writing your letters of recommendation.

Done to this point: All paperwork in order. Application, statement of purpose, test scores, letters of recommendation, writing sample, transcripts all prepared.


It’s time to start submitting things. You should, by this point, have taken the relevant subject tests and had scores for those as well, and you’ve got all your paperwork in order already. Have a few people look over the relevant pieces of paperwork (statement of purpose, writing sample) to make sure everything is as good as it can be. Finalize everything as much as you can, then hit that fancy submit button. And there you have it. It’s all done, and before you hit your last semester.


Important note: This is not at all a formal “You MUST have it all in by this date” sort of timeline. This timeline exists to try to give you a general sense of how the process should go and making sure it all gets done with as little stress as possible. It’s a flexible timeline that can be shifted to accommodate the needs of different students. But if you want an easy, stress free, timely application process, try to get it done along these guidelines.

Student Spotlight: Caitlin Grant

Caitlin Grant, a senior at Ave Maria University, has been a part of Ave Maria since the campus moved from the Vineyards, in Naples, here to its' new location. While her vocation has not always been clear, she has followed God's call for her life fearlessly and boldly and has decided to pursue a Master's degree in both Russian Studies and International Relations at NYU in New York City. In order to further prepare, this summer, Caitlin will be taking an 8 week Russian Language intensive course in Arizona and spend the remaining month immersed in the language while in the country of Kyrgyzstan. 

Have you always been interested in politics? 

Absolutely. I’ve always been in awe of different cultures and languages. I remember when I was little, I used to check out library books about other kids from around the world and look at what they did and what they wore. It was fascinating. I always wanted to learn languages… I wanted to be able to communicate with the people I saw and read about in the books. As I grew up, I became increasingly interested in what was going on around the world. My friend’s parents used to laugh at me because I would always know what was going on in Africa and Asia and South America. It made me wonder why more people were not as invested in international affairs. I guess that is how I originally got into politics. 

How did you decide to come to Ave Maria?

I looked into a number of different undergrad schools before I decided, but Ave gave me a great scholarship which of course helped my decision. I came down to visit for the first time in February of 2005, and when I sat in on Dr. Seana Sugrue’s International Relations class, I was sold. All I could think was “This woman is worth every penny that I will pay to go to this school”. I took her class when I came here and we read Henry Kissinger’s “Diplomacy”, which changed how I saw the world. I had grown up thinking that America was always “the good guy”, and I still believe that America is good and I love being American, but that book really kick-started my thinking about studying international relations. It's not that Americans are wrong, it’s just that we don’t always look at the whole picture…I want to change that.

I know that you are a non-traditional student. Could you explain the timeline of your studies?

I came to Ave in 2005 and I was here for 3 years before I felt that perhaps I had a vocation. I moved to Europe and discerned a religious vocation, living both in Spain and Italy. After I decided that the religious life was not my calling, I worked in Washington DC for the Art of Being a Woman Project. It was an amazing experience working for an organization with a mission that I felt passionately about. It was awesome to be able to get a feel for DC, but after that, I decided that it was really important to finish school, so I came back! I know that I’m a non-traditional student, but I’m so happy that I decided to earn my degree. I get so much out of learning from the new students, even though there is a big age gap. 

How has Ave changed since you started here in 2005?

I started on Ave’s old campus in 2005, and I was here the very first year that we moved out to the new campus. There were about 10 houses here at that point in time. There was no Publix, no Pub, no Field House… I don’t even think the Bean was here. There were only 3 dorm buildings and about 500 students, so that gives you a sense of how small it was. It’s funny to me now, because every day I see someone who I have never seen before, which is surprising! I think that there is more diversity, insofar as there are people who are coming here for different reasons. I love that. It is also amazing to me how many new majors that there are. Celebrating Tom Monaghan’s birthday last weekend just made me realize how one person can deeply touch so many lives. I hope Ave Maria never gives up on its dream of becoming a big school that is strong spiritually, academically, and athletically.

What did you do during your time abroad that helped you to develop your skills? 

After living in Europe, I really knew how to work with other people that thought differently than I did. I was in Spain for two years and Italy for another two, which was absolutely incredible. I did go to Europe to discern, I just wasn’t a religious the whole time that I was there. Part of the time, I worked for a news agency translating from Spanish to English. It was very humbling because my co-worker was a man whose first language was Portuguese, and he was translating from Spanish to English. We would check each other’s work, and he would correct MY grammar. He was translating from one foreign language to another and he was correcting me in my first language! It is just incredible how smart some people are.

Another amazing thing was being able to help with an organization called Aide to the Church in Need. I was in charge of working the camera or doing the interviewing, so I was able to meet some spectacular people. Being able to see and learn from so many individuals from all walks of life was a very moving experience. The most memorable was a man I interviewed who was from Iraq, who wouldn’t let us take a headshot. He was afraid for the safety of his family back in Iraq, so we had to take many precautions. It made it very real that people are living much differently than we are.

What are your plans for the summer?

I was told about a few different summer intensive Russian language programs when I spoke to Georgetown about grad-school, so I applied to a few of them and got in! The program that I will be participating in this summer is through Arizona State University, so I will be spending the summer in Phoenix! I was blessed to receive a scholarship too, which of course always pulls you closer to something. The neat thing about the program is that 8 weeks of learning will take place in Phoenix and for the last 4 weeks, we will be in Kyrgyzstan! I am super excited about that! Kyrgyzstan isn’t part of Russia, but it used to be, so it has very deep cultural Russian roots. The London School of Languages and Cultures has a satellite school in Bishkek, which is the capitol of Kyrgyzstan. That is where the intensive study will take place and we will be living with host families as well, in order to get the immersion aspect. Every weekend we will do an excursion to a different part of the country, which will allow us to see quite a few cultural sites. I am so excited because I know that this will help me to understand Russia from a different point of view.

Where are you going to grad school?

I have decided to go to NYU, which is an amazing school for politics. They are ranked #3 in networking for their alumni in the country, which is huge in the world of politics for gaining connections. NYU has awesome professors and really great alumni. I’m really open about what I will do with my degree because I know life takes you places and that you never expect, but of course you need goals, so my goal is to work as a foreign diplomacy officer for the State Department. I feel like by knowing Russian, I will be able to work with the people on a personal level. I don’t want to go over there and come across in a way that conveys, “We are the good guys, you are the bad guys, would you please behave?” I have never been to Russia before, but at NYU, you have the chance of going pretty much anywhere in the world that you want to study for a semester. My time at NYU will be two years, and then I’ll see where life takes me! My degree when I graduate from NYU will be a joint degree in Russian Studies and International Relations.

What is a goal that you have for the future?

Continue Reading

When I was in Europe, I discovered that I really love photography. I want to teach the West about the East, so I would love to do something like Humans of New York, but over in Russia.

What is the hardest part about learning a new language?

The embarrassment! When you’re learning a new language, you really need to put down your guard and make the sounds that seem weird to you, because if you don’t make them, you sound weird to them! You’ve got to come out of your shell in that sense. I don’t feel like you can really capture the essence of a country without learning their language. 

What gave you a desire to learn Russian?

Everyone knows that the Middle East is important, but Russia is an incredibly pivotal country as well, and no one thinks about them nearly as much as they do the Middle East. Historically, Russia has had a way of making their presence felt internationally through violence. I just want the West to see that we are open to listening in other ways. I want the world to see that Russia is more than Putin and communism. The passion to make that known grew in my mind and my heart and lead me to choose to learn the language. I enrolled in a Mango language course and have been learning Russian online for the past year, thanks to the Ave Maria library! I am so grateful that they provide that resource. I actually wasn’t going to go to Grad school for a couple of years, but then I realized that most people wait to go to grad school so that they can learn about themselves and I have already had that time to learn about myself. I also want to learn Russian because at NYU you need to be advanced in Russian so that you know Russian by the time that you graduate. In addition to the summer program that I have enrolled in, I will probably audit advanced Russian classes just to immerse myself.


To help support Caitlin in her dream of becoming a U.S. Ambassador to Russia, contribute to her GoFundMe Campaign.


The Low-Down on Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are a critical part of any application process in order to secure a spot in graduate school. College admissions officers take these letters very seriously, and before you are accepted for an interview, you have to come across as a desirable candidate. Letters of recommendation allow you and your character to come to life in the mind of the reader and fill in the gaps of your resume. This being said, you want to ask people to write letters who will be able to craft recommendations that will be compelling and unforgettable for the reader. There are many things that you can do during your undergrad to obtain a glowing testimonial. By following this guide and thinking about the process early on in your college career, you will have a mailbox full of acceptance letters the spring of graduation. 

Letters of recommendation are important for three reasons:

  1. They illustrate your resume - allowing your future employer to get to know you in a way that your GPA and test scores can't.
  2. They attest to your personality and character - you want the writer to be someone who can deeply communicate your strengths and potential and back it up with stories and examples of times that you have excelled. 
  3. They show that professionals, whether professors, coaches, or employers, are impressed by your accomplishments and believe in your future success.

The first step in obtaining great letters of recommendation is to make sure to establish relationships with working professionals early-on in your college career. 

As far as professors go, this is best done by frequently asking questions in class and staying engaged, as well as attending office hours to ask other insightful questions which show that you are doing your own research and putting in the hours after class to make sure you thoroughly understand the material. This will put you on their radar as a student who possesses great potential and allow them to get to know you on a deeper level than many other students. A professor will be more likely to write a letter for a student that is a willing participant and frequent inquirer than a student who sits quietly in class and gets all A's. Don't get me wrong, an A is impressive, but a persistent learner with a curious mind  is even more impressive. 

Talk to the professors in your field of study about the career path that you plan to follow. Listen to them when they give you advice about grad school and make sure that you are doing your own research on each school as well. Before writing a letter of recommendation, a professor will often ask the student, "Why do you want to go into this field?" Be prepared to answer this question. You wouldn't make a $100,000 purchase without thorough research and thought - you shouldn't go into grad school like that either. Weigh your options and make sure that each program you apply for adequately suits the career goals that you aim to achieve. 

Create a time-line during the beginning of your junior year which lists the dates that each of the schools/programs you plan on applying for need your application and letters of recommendation. After this, set a rough date for when you will approach those whom you would like to write your letter. 

Know the specifications for each program - Do you need five letters from professors? Do you need a letter from a past employer? Is it not specified? It is important to know exactly how many letters of recommendation are required by each post-grad institution to which you will be applying. Each school may have different specifications as far as the number of personal and professional references needed, so make sure to double check and make note of that early on!

Choosing the right people to write your letters of recommendation is the most important part of this process. Students will want to follow these five tips when it comes to choosing the perfect candidate to write their letters: 

  1. Choose people that will give strong recommendations - not people that know you vaguely. 
  2. Choose people with high ranking credentials/experience in your field that will explain why you are a good fit for the position that you are applying for.
  3. Choose someone who will speak to your growth.
  4. Choose people that will help your resume come to life (those who will explain why you excelled in either school/work/sports etc. and what you, uniquely, are able to bring).
  5. Choose people that will give insight into both your personality and your character.

Always, Always, Always ASK IN PERSON! It is important to approach the professional that you are asking in the right way when asking for a letter of recommendation. Plan what you are going to say, and most importantly, BE BOLD! You shouldn’t feel nervous about asking your professors to do this for you because professors with juniors and seniors EXPECT to be asked for letters of recommendation.

However, it is important to remember that professors are very busy people. Although most would love to help you out, they may not have enough time if you ask them to write a letter too close to your deadline. Try to ask at least 3 months before your letters need to be submitted in order to ensure that you have allotted more than enough time for the letter be written and sent in to the correct institution.

Here are some steps you can follow to make sure the process goes smoothly:

  • Write down a list of your accomplishments on a “brag sheet”, or provide a copy of your resume, and talk about your plans and goals with them so that their letter is appropriate and reflects upon your achievements 
  • Provide the writer with all necessary information that is given to you by the schools to which you are applying, such as the exact details/website/date for submission. Do whatever you can to make the process easier for them. They are doing you a favor and will appreciate the help.

Waive your right to read the letter. I know it may sound scary and you are probably dying to know what the writer has said about you, but keeping the letter confidential allows the reader to know that all of the information in the letter is candid and truthful.

Write a thank you! Professors or other professionals are not required to write these letters, they do it as a favor! make sure to thank them for their time and detailed recollection of their time with you.



How to Evaluate Graduate School and Job Offers

When graduation is staring you down, it’s easy to feel panic.  Should you go to grad school? Should you enter the workforce? Should you sit in your parents’ basement and play video games?

Part of the problem is that you just don’t know what’s next.  In all honesty, you can’t know.  Your college classes and professors and mentors and friends have done their best to prepare you, but the whole point of graduation is that you are now on your own.  ”Real life” has commenced, and that can be simply terrifying.  You don’t know whether you’ll like your job, or whether you’ll really connect with your course of graduate studies, and you won’t until you actually start.

So how do you make a decision when you can’t know the right answer?  You make the best decision from the options available. 

Judge your opportunities across three criteria:  Power, Potential, and Planning.

Grad School

You’ve decided you need more preparation to enter the workforce.  Depending on your chosen career path, this can be a great choice.  I do strongly advise, however, that you not close your eyes to taking a gap year.  Always leave that option on the table. Evaluate whether you would gain more from a gap year than from going straight to graduate school. If you do choose to take a gap year and work, you may find that you are far more prepared and far more effective when you come back to school.

Take my situation as an example.  Just about a year ago, I was trying to decide between two law schools.  Both schools were great, and both schools had given me the option to defer my enrollment for a year.  Deciding to take advantage of that deferment was the best choice I could have made; I’m now starting law school with a wealth of new skills, experience, and knowledge, including, quite simply, a better understanding of being an adult.

“But, MJ,” you might ask, “how did you then choose between the two schools?”  Let’s look at these three criteria to find out.

  • Power:  What comparative advantage does one school have over the other?  Both schools will give me a J.D., and the same basic skills as a lawyer, but does one school have a better job placement percentage?  Does one school have greater prestige? Have you researched the prestige and experience of the professors in your field at each school? What is the average incoming GPA/LSAT/MCAT/GRE scores? How selective is the school - what is their acceptance rate? Who has a greater alumni network which will open doors and qualify me for opportunities that the other just can’t?  Does one school have a better percentage of graduating qualified students who can pass their professional exams?  Does one school have a better academic reputation than the other? Does one school send graduates onto the type of employment I am considering?

You choose a graduate school in order to position yourself better for your chosen career.  If you aren’t choosing the school which gives you the best position upon graduation, you’re wasting your time.

  • Potential:  What are the median salaries of graduates from the two schools?  Does one school graduate students with far higher debt levels than the other?  If so, is this balanced by a commensurately higher salary?  If one school offers you way more money than the other, it can be easy to be persuaded by the zeroes at the end of the scholarship offer.  But will that be worth it over a thirty or forty year career? 

Choose the school that will give you the best position ten, twenty, thirty years down the road.  Don’t be seduced by short-term gain; your career lasts your whole life, not just the remainder of your twenties.

  • Planning:  Your choice of graduate school will likely determine your future.  The location of your school determines your immediate job prospects and the debt load you’ll shoulder will affect your finances for years, so it’s crucial to pick the school that’s the best fit for how you want your life to play out.  Now, will everything work out exactly the way you want?  Of course not.  Choosing the school that ticks the checkboxes you need, though, puts you in a far better position to be prepared for both immediate job prospects and the debt load you’ll shoulder going right and the potential for circumstances which deviate from your plan. 

Sit down and sketch out a rough outline of the start of your career.  Where do you want to be immediately after graduation?  Where do you want to be in three years? In ten?  Which school gets you to your checkpoints? Check out the Graduate School Guide on the Career Services Website to help you evaluate your decision. 

For me, then, it came down to Notre Dame Law and Michigan Law.  Two great schools.  Two great scholarship offers.  I can’t say a bad thing about either school or either admissions process.  When I evaluated the two schools across the three criteria, however, the answer about which was the right school for me quickly became clear.

Attending Michigan Law was the right choice for me because it positions me better immediately upon graduation for the initial job that I want to launch my career to get me where I want to be in ten years.  I want to be the best lawyer in Detroit; attending Michigan Law is the best way to prepare for that.

Entering the Workforce

Let’s say Grad School is definitely not for you.  You’re so fed up with writing never-ending essays, answering pointless questions on tests, and sitting in boring lectures. You just need to get out, find a job, and spend your time writing never-ending emails, answering the same pointless questions from your clients, and sitting in boring meetings that really didn’t need to happen. Aren’t you glad to know there’s light at the end of the tunnel?

In all seriousness, the work that you do is enriching and should be chosen carefully. Just like you want to have multiple grad school options, you’ll want to have multiple job offers to ensure you make the right choice. Let’s look at the questions you should be asking:

  • Power:  What comparative advantage does one job have over the other?  Will one job give you better training, or let you take on more responsibilities?  Which job will make your head hurt less?  If you’re going to spend all your time at this place, who are the people with whom you’ll be working?  What’s the culture like at the company?  Which supervisor will you have a better relationship with? Studies show that the number one reason people leave a job is because they don’t get along with their boss; will that be you in six months?

You choose your first job in order to position yourself better for your chosen career.  The first position leads to the next one, whether that is internal to your first company or a lateral movement to another company.  Which job kicks your career into gear? 

  • Potential:  What potential for advancement will you have?  Do people often spend multiple years and receive multiple promotions at the company?  What’s your starting salary going to be?  What does the system for pay increases look like?  Are there opportunities for continuing education?  

Choose the job that will position you best to be where you want to be in ten years.  It’s easy to be lured by zeroes at the end of a signing bonus.  Are you trading long-term success for short-term gain? Your career is your life, not just a new car or a slightly nicer apartment.

  • Planning:  Your first job determines so much about the initial course of your adult life.  It, and every job you take over the course of your career, will determine so much about who you are.  Your future starts now.  What choice will you make?  What will prepare you to take advantage of the things that go well, and what will protect you when things inevitably go wrong?

Sit down and sketch out a rough outline of the start of your career.  Where do you want to be one year into your first job?  Where do you want to be in three years? In ten?  Those answers will tell you which job offer to accept.

Make good decisions based on the criterion we’ve established and the insights they provide. Be willing to take chances and strive after something daring. Don’t miss out on something that could make your life better.  Breathe, focus, plan, evaluate.  Talk your thoughts out with your friends, your family, and your God.  Trust your gut, and, whatever you decide, attack each new day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.  I can’t wait to see what great things you can accomplish.  If I can ever help, just let me know.