Graduate School & Gap Year

If you’re considering graduate school or a gap year, this page will help you get started and guide you through common timelines to be aware of when planning ahead.


Ideal Timeline: Several months to one-year (or earlier) before you apply

Is grad school or a gap year the best option for you? To find the right program, you need to have ideas of what you want to do. Continue to explore your interests in order to inform your decisions to pursue graduate school. It’s not uncommon to take time to explore your interests, gain experience, build your skills, and research graduate program options. Learn more about pursuing a gap year here.

When should you go to grad school? Choosing to wait versus going straight in after undergrad depends on many factors including what you want to do afterwards and your level of experience as an undergrad.

What is the right type of program based on your interests and what you want to pursue? Understand the differences between a professional master’s vs. a research master’s degree or PhD program. Research multiple graduate schools, review course offerings, read professors’ biographies (pay attention to their research, check if they match your interests, and contact professors associated with each research-based graduate program before applying), and find out about specific program requirements (like whether or not a standardized test is required).

Figure out how much graduate school will cost. Assess the cost of tuition, fees and living expenses. The competition for graduate financial aid is often intense! Research fellowships and assistantships in your field and stay on top of all application deadlines.

Get to know your professors. Have a favorite course you’ve taken? Utilize office hours to chat about a current project, an assignment, or your career options. Make a contact or two before graduating, if possible, and ask about a letter of recommendation so that you’ll have them at a later time when you’re ready to apply to graduate school.


Ideal Timeline: 4-7 months before deadline to apply

Research graduate program requirements and find out if a standardized test is required for admissions or not. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is one of the most common tests; some programs require it, others do not. Preparation and studying is recommended at least a few months in advance, and practice tests are a good way to be prepared! Check out to apply for high-quality, low-cost live online courses. Questions? Email

Find out when applications will be available what the deadlines are. Some programs have a single portal for multiple schools, so you’ll want to learn the process of whichever programs you are pursuing.

If you’re pursuing a research-based graduate program, we recommended that you ask for letters from at least two faculty members – preferably one from your research or other hands-on experience and one from your courses.

For non-research based graduate programs, follow the programs instructions on what types of letters they would like to receive and from whom. Most will want at least 1-2 faculty member(s) who can speak to your academic skills and can honestly speak to why you would be a good fit for a graduate program. Depending on the graduate program, advisors, mentors, and work supervisors might also be good options. The UW Center for Pre-Health Advising has great advice for your letters of recommendation that can be applicable to many types of programs.

Allow yourself time to reflect on your experience, skills, and interests as you share why graduate school is the next right step for you. Use our handout for advice on writing your application essay, use this Application Brainstorm Exercise to get you started, consider making an in-person or virtual appointment with the Writing Center to request feedback, or you can upload your draft and get written feedback from the Writing Center within 1 business day.

The registrar’s office manages transcript requests. Make sure that you request a transcript from every institution where you have received college credit, unless credits have already transferred over to UW-Madison.

Many graduate programs require you to submit a CV. We recommend looking at general guidelines that the Writing Center provides explaining the differences between resumes and CVs.


Ideal Timeline: 1-3 months before deadline to apply

Start applying! Submit your applications and double check deadlines — many are due at the beginning of December or January, while some programs have rolling admissions.

Continue to focus on doing well academically as you wait to hear back from programs, and look for notifications for admissions interviews.

Don’t forget to practice interviewing beforehand! Consider making an appointment with SuccessWorks for a mock interview, and utilize Big Interview to create a customized practice interview. Find more interview prep resources here!

You got accepted to grad school? Congratulations! If not, see alternative plans below.

Once you’ve made your decision, inform the school that you have decided to attend. Unsure about which program to choose or your funding options? SuccessWorks can help you with the decision-making process, so consider making an appointment with us!

Send email thank-you notes to those who assisted in the application process: professors, advisors, supervisors — they’ll want to hear your efforts to enter graduate school were a success!

Didn’t get accepted the first time around? That’s OKAY! Graduate school is competitive and career advisors are here to help you brainstorm your next steps for a gap year and figure out how to gain more experience and clarify your goals for the next time around. See the Canvas module for gap year resources and ideas.

Canvas Module

Check out our free canvas module for an in-depth guide to making grad school or gap year decisions, including:

  • Is grad school or a gap year the best option?
  • When should you go to grad school?
  • Types of grad school programs, funding options, and timelines
  • Potential benefits of taking a gap year

Start the Module

Taking a Gap Year

Interested in taking a gap year or semester? This website is a great resource for learning about gap years in general. Learn more about gap year programs below.

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Well-known Gap Year Programs

AmeriCorps – Federal entity that helps Americans improve the lives of their fellow citizens through service, with numerous programs including:

  •   VISTA – serve with organizations that help fight poverty
  •   State/National – thousands of opportunities in a variety need areas and locations
  •   NCCC Programs – 11-month team-based experiences for ages 18-26

National Health Corps – help build healthy communities by providing essential health education and access services to individuals throughout the United States.

Student Conservation Association – intern in national parks, public lands, and urban green spaces to make improvements and learn conservation and sustainability practices.

WWOOF – linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences, thereby helping to build a sustainable, global community. As a volunteer, you will live alongside your host helping with daily tasks and experiencing life as a farmer.

Public Allies – folks from diverse backgrounds serve in full-time apprenticeship positions at local nonprofits focusing on youth development, education, public health, economic development, and the environment. Allies also participate in a leadership development program and receive individual coaching.

Peace Corps – live in another country for two years, working at the grassroots level to help solve some of the most important challenges facing the developing world. UW-Madison has its own recruiting office on campus.

Education-focused programs

Teach for America – commit to at least two years serving as a lead teacher in one of 51 low-income or underserved communities across the U.S.

City Year – serve as a student success coach, helping students build on their strengths and cultivate social, emotional, and academic skills that are important in school and life.

College Possible – recent college graduates serve for one year in a role dedicated to empowering students from low-income backgrounds on their path to and through college.