PreGraduate School Advising

Are you curious about the world? Do you like to read? Have you ever wondered what your professors do when they’re not teaching your class? Have you ever wondered about their training? Have you ever thought about working in a think tank, doing policy consulting or creating policies that really work, directing a major library or digital humanities project – in fact doing anything that involves the creation, not just the consumption of knowledge?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then you should find out more about graduate school by meeting with one of the PreGraduate Advisors.

PreGraduate Advisors

PreGraduate Advising Leadership

If you would like to speak to someone for general information about graduate school and the application process, please contact one of the advisors listed below:

Allan Davis, 
Assistant Dean of Advising, College of Arts & Sciences
To schedule an appointment, email

Departmental PreGraduate Advisors

The following advisors can help you with discipline specific questions regarding graduate school.

Anthropology - Kirsten Jacobsen, MFA

Biology - Mitch Kundel, PhD

Chemistry - Rachel Dunn, PhD

Economics - Dorothy Petersen, PhD

English - Jessica Rosenfeld, PhD

History - Sowande' Mustakeem, PhD

International and Area Studies - Jeremy Caddel, PhD

Physics - Mairin Hynes, PhD

Political Science/Public Policy - Ingrid Anderson, PhD

Psychology - Joshua Jackson, PhD

Writing - David Schuman, MFA

The Career Center also has a number of pregraduate advisors with various backgrounds who may be helpful to you.

External International and Domestic Fellowships

Application Preparation Facilitators

Rob Patterson, PhD
Director, The Writing Center
For Statement of Purpose assistance, call or email for an appointment: 314-935-9817,


First-year and Sophomore Year

  • Take your coursework seriously – consider paring down your extracurricular involvement earlier, rather than later in order to be able to really do your best work in classes.

  • Make the leap from high school to college. Stop thinking only about grades and start thinking about what you’re learning, why you’re learning, and how you’d like to apply what you’re learning to the rest of your life.

  • Do your best work in classes: read the material deeply; ask questions as you read and in class.

  • Start talking with professors about their research. Ask them questions about what you’re learning in class and make the leap to applying that material to the world around you. Be curious.

  • Engage your academic advisors in conversations not only about classes and scheduling, but about your intellectual interests and passions – craft schedules each semester that challenge you to think.

  • Read articles about current events, both newspaper and journal articles. Know what’s going on around you and decide for yourself what you think about events, policies, opinions, the global state of affairs, etc.

  • If you are a first-year student: Take your required Writing class seriously. If you are in the College of Arts & Sciences, submit a research paper for the Dean James E. McLeod Freshman Writing Prize.

  • If you are a sophomore, find out about the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, the Merle Kling Undergraduate Honors Fellowship Program, and the Office of Undergraduate Research and start developing your inner scholar!

  • Look into national scholarships and fellowships now, so that you know what’s there, can seek advice, and prevent being surprised by important deadlines!

Junior First Semester

  • Talk with a pregraduate advisor about your coursework, relationships with professors and advisors, research experience, and study abroad experience).
  • Assess what you’ve done – academic, work, and extracurricular experience – what you really like to do, and whether the path to graduate school will help you to reach your goals and aspirations.
  • With a pregraduate advisor, devise a tentative plan for the next two years to support your path to graduate school.
  • Connect with a professor (at least one) in your field(s) of interest as soon as possible. A pregraduate advisor can help you to do this.
  • Plan on presenting a poster at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the fall or spring of this year or your senior year. Make an appointment to speak with someone in the Office of Undergraduate Research about other opportunities as well.
  • Attend Fall Forward if you plan on studying abroad in the spring.

Junior Second Semester (in St. Louis)

  • Connect with faculty regularly. Engage in more serious conversations about your academic path. Elicit more specific advice.
  • Apply for summer funding through the Office of Undergraduate Research (deadlines are early, look into this at the beginning of the spring semester!)
  • Declare your intent to write a senior thesis in your major department.
  • Start compiling a list of possible programs. Begin looking at these programs more closely.
  • Find out about scholars at other institutions who are doing research that is interesting to you. Read their work.
  • Find out about conferences in your field. Plan on attending one either this semester, during the summer, or during the fall semester of your senior year.
  • Start finding out about the GRE
  • Attend Junior Jumpstart in May.

Junior Second Semester (abroad)

  • Before going abroad:
    • Meet with your major and four-year advisors
    • Attend Fall Forward
    • Check in with a pregraduate advisor
    • Look for pregraduate and study abroad pre-departure workshops
  • Stay in touch with both your major and four-year advisors. Remember to get authorized to register for fall semester classes, and to declare your intent to write a senior thesis if applicable.
  • Record your day-to-day experiences in a journal or blog. Record everything, even those cultural experiences that are confusing, frustrating, and uncomfortable.
  • Begin to process these experiences while abroad.. Continue processing when your return. Look for pregraduate and study abroad workshops aimed at helping you to do this.
  • When you return to campus: Make sure to meet with a pregraduate or study abroad advisor, as well as your major and four-year advisors.

Summer following Junior Year

  • Register for and prepare to take the GRE General Test
  • Contact faculty about letters of recommendation.
  • Contact scholars of interest at other universities. Seek advice from your major advisor or a pregraduate advisor before sending an email.
  • Begin writing your Statement of Purpose. Get feedback from faculty, pregraduate advisors, The Writing Center, etc.
  • Make sure you know about outside sources of funding
  • Firm up your list of schools and programs and understand what will be required of you during the application process. Reach out to advisors and mentors with questions.

Senior Year

  • September

    • Make sure you have spoken about recommendations with faculty members and advisors
    • Be working regularly on your Statement of Purpose – remember, feedback is critical.
    • Develop a personal timeline for the application process, if you haven’t already.
    • Register for the GRE if haven’t done so already
  • October

    • Take the GRE
    • Finalize your list of schools to which you plan to apply, and request application materials
    • Reach out to faculty and current students of programs to which you wish to apply.
    • Request letters of recommendation from faculty members and others as previously agreed upon.
    • Finish your personal application time-line based on each institution’s application and financial aid timelines.
    • Have a completed draft of your statement of purpose.
    • Order transcripts from all colleges attended. Make sure that your first-semester senior grades will be included.
  • November

    • Give all recommenders the information they will need to write letters.
    • Work on your applications
    • Finish your Statement of Purpose, adjusting it to meet each application’s specific requirements and needs.
  • December/January

    • Submit all completed applications.
    • Check in with all recommenders to make sure that they are aware of your deadlines.
  • February

    • Visit schools.
  • April

    • If you are applying for need-based financial aid, you may have to file a copy of your federal income tax return in order to complete a FAFSA form for the Federal Government.

**Make sure to be checking in with an advisor or mentor at each stage of this process, especially if you have more than one offer!

**Make sure to thank everyone who helps you during this process and let them know your final decision! This is rarely done and always remembered!

Letters of Recommendation

How many recommendations do I need?

A minimum of 3.

Whom should I ask?

First, think about professors and advisors who know you well – people you have spoken with not just about course material, but about deeper questions of concern, especially questions relating to your research, their research, applications of what you’ve been learning at Wash U, your intellectual passions and goals, etc.

  • Your major advisor
  • Professors in your field who have had you in class
  • Your thesis advisor
  • Professors in a related field who have had you in class
  • Professors from any class that you’ve done well in and who also know you
  • A professor you’ve done research with
  • Your four-year advisor

How do I ask for a recommendation?

  • This becomes easier if you have already established rapport and engaged your professor and/or advisor in conversations about general questions that matter to both of you (ie: if you already see your professor and/or advisor as a real person!)
  • For professors you know, but not well, set up an appointment to discuss graduate school. Let the professor know you are thinking about applying, and then ask if he/she would be willing to write a strong recommendation for you.
  • For November – January deadlines ask in early to mid October and ask your recommenders when they would like to actually receive the recommendations. Some prefer to have them very early, some do not.

When should I ask for recommendations?

  • Make sure you know about Interfolio on the Career Center Website. Pay special attention to the recommendation cover sheet. Make sure to sign the waiver.
  • There are different types of recommendations, depending upon your plans: General graduate school, specific recommendations for graduate schools, recommendations for jobs.
  • ALWAYS ask for recommendations before you graduate, regardless of when you think you might want to apply.
  • Talk about having your recommender update the recommendation in a year or so and sending periodic updates.
  • Give your recommender a specific deadline.

What to give your professors once they’ve agreed to write a recommendation for you:

You will want to present your professors with all the materials they will need to write you a strong and detailed recommendation. Keeping in mind that they will probably be getting multiple requests, here is what you can do to ensure that they are thinking very well of you when they sit down to write this very important letter:

  • A cover page that lists
    • all of the schools and programs you are applying to. Do not abbreviate school or program names and state the degree program you are applying to (ie: Ph.D. or M.A.).
    • application deadlines (bold these)
    • whether or not the application is an online or paper submission
    • If paper submission, write either “to be picked up” or “send directly to school”
  • A couple of sentences for each specific school and program about your reasons for applying.
  • A copy of your statement of purpose. It does not have to be your final draft (just make sure to let your recommenders know this!)
  • A resume that covers only what you’ve done in college
  • A copy of your student record printout
  • Any recommendation forms, with waiver portion completed, that will need to be sent by mail.
  • Make sure to ask whether your recommender wants all of this as hard copies or electronically.

Send a Thank You Note

Make sure you send a THANK YOU note and ALWAYS let your recommender know the outcome of your application process.

Statement of Purpose

Unlike medical or law school, statements of purpose for PhD programs are rarely about telling the story of how and why you became interested in your field. Instead, the essay is a relatively straightforward document that communicates the following:

  • Your research experience (2-3 paragraphs)
  • Your research ambitions (1-2 paragraphs)
  • Why the particular program to which you are applying is suitable for your research goals (1 paragraph)

Statement of Purpose Template

Why do you need to write about your research experience? This section is not necessarily about demonstrating your research skills. Instead, graduate committees want to see that you have explored what it is like to commit to a life of research in your particular field, and your desire to pursue a graduate degree is based on an informed decision. Too often, graduate students do not complete their degrees. This is sometimes due to the realization that research is not for them. Committees would much rather accept those who have already seen what they are getting into. So remember to communicate not only what you were researching and the role you played in the lab but also what you found interesting and exciting about it. What about a particular research experience left you wanting more? By demonstrating a real motivation for research, you are showing your readers that you have the drive to get you through a long program. If you are writing or have written an honors thesis, be sure to include that information!

A PhD program is about research – conducting your own research and making an original contribution to your chosen field. That is why your readers want to know what kind of research ambitions you have. If you know what kind of research you would like to do right down to your approach, great! But many applicants have not had the chance to fully develop a research project for graduate school before getting there, so instead, pose the questions you are interested in exploring as a graduate student. By writing questions, you are demonstrating that you already think like a researcher. By starting with the questions, you may find yourself beginning to figure out how you would like to go about exploring and answering those questions.

Finally, it is absolutely crucial to talk about why the particular program to which you are applying is a good fit for you and for the work you want to do. The biggest factor here is faculty. Which particular faculty members would you like to work with? Usually, this means they are working on something similar to your own research interests. Sometimes you might want to work with faculty who are not doing research exactly like yours but instead on research that would inform or speak to your work. Aside from faculty, consider the resources available at the university (labs, archives, centers), opportunities available to graduate students (funding, conference and research travel support, teaching opportunities), and partnerships (between the university/program and other academic, government, and non-government institutions relevant to your interests).

Though the above describes the three essential components of the statement of purpose, if possible, it is nice to conclude with a paragraph describing what you bring to the table. This might be academic – another major or area of study that would add a new voice to the conversation in your field. It might be personal – something about your background or experiences that would bring an interesting perspective to work your field. The point is that everyone has something they bring to the table, and committees are interested in what applicants can bring to their department and to their field.

Unless a program says otherwise, aim for a 2-3 page essays (double spaced). Start drafting early and do not write alone. Be sure to include your faculty advisors and recommenders. It is also important to have someone outside the field you can go to. Resources like The Writing Center can certainly help review drafts, but they can also help before you write anything at all – when you are trying to figure out what your research ambitions are or which experiences you should include.

Ultimately, the process of writing the statement of purpose is a process of self-discovery in which many applicants figure out for the first time why they really want to go into a PhD program and what they want to do when they get there. So starting the drafting process as early as possible can be helpful in more ways than one.


Grad School 101

This session is for any student considering getting a Master’s or PhD after graduating from Washington University – whether or not you are thinking of taking a gap year or two or applying this coming fall.  In this session, Dean Human and Dr. Heath-Carpentier will explain the resources available to you as you consider the graduate school path and give you essential information for navigating the application process and beyond.

Amy Heath-Carpentier, PhD, Assistant Director, Pre-Graduate School and Career Development, Career Center, Washington University in St. Louis

Helen Human, PhD, Assistant Dean, Pre-Grad Advisor, College of Arts & Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

Application 2020: Ready to Apply to Graduate School

This session is for any student considering getting a Master’s or PhD after graduating from Washington University – whether or not you are thinking of taking a gap year or two or applying this coming fall.  In this session, Dr. Patterson provides an overview of the application process, including tips on the Statement of Purpose and the resources available to you as you write.
Please note:  the application essay for graduate programs is quite different than personal statements for law and medical school. This recording focuses specifically on graduate school application materials.

Rob Patterson,  PhD, Director, The Writing Center and The Speaking Studio, Washington University in St. Louis

Video Presentation

PowerPoint Presentation

PhD Statement of Purpose Guidelines and Advice

Rob Patterson,  PhD, Director, The Writing Center and The Speaking Studio, Washington University in St. Louis

PhD Statement of Purpose Guidelines and Advice