How to Apply for Grad School

Your first challenge of graduate school is the application process. Applying to grad schools takes time, energy, and organization. Let’s get started right away.

How to Apply for Grad School

The very first challenge you’ll face as a graduate student is the application process. Applying to grad schools takes time, energy, and organization. Let’s get started right away. After all, you’ve got a lot to do!

Selecting Grad Schools for Application Submission

The first step, of course, is to select your top grad school picks. You may already have a top choice, a school that offers a reputable program, excellent professors, and an ideal location. Still, it’s a good idea to apply to more than one school. In addition to your top choice, you should select at least two schools that are “safe” choices, as well as one or two that are more of a longshot.

See also: What to look for in a grad school

What makes a school a “safe” choice?

Undergraduate Enrollment

If your college offers a graduate degree in your discipline, and your undergraduate performance meets their expectations, you would likely be considered a strong applicant.

Equally (or Less) Competitive School

Using your undergraduate 4-year college as a benchmark, consider some grad schools that are equally or less competitive than your undergraduate institution. Presuming you’ve performed well in your undergraduate studies, you would be a strong applicant to schools with comparable admission rates.

Why choose a “longshot” school?

Why bother applying to an extremely competitive program that may very well reject you? As the saying goes, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

Gathering Your Materials

Requirements may vary from school to school, but there are several common elements to most grad school admission processes:

  • Applications—When applying for graduate school, you will often have to submit two applications: one for the university and another for the specific department where you wish to study. Carefully review both the university and graduate school websites to find application fees and requirements.

    Be warned that application fees won’t be your only expense. Official transcripts, test scores, reports, and travel will also cost you money.

  • Résumé—While some students will move straight into graduate school after their undergraduate studies, many applicants are already working in their field. Your professional experience is a relevant part of your admissions package. Use your résumé to highlight the professional experience that qualifies you for admission into your chosen program. Some graduate programs may even award you credits for relevant work experience.
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  • References—Most graduate schools require at least two written references. You should ask for references from professors who know you well and can speak to your capabilities. This can be challenging if you’ve been out of school for a few years, so be proactive. Get in the habit of asking for written references from your professors while they still remember how awesome you are and can provide specific and meaningful examples of what made you an exemplary student.
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  • FAFSA—Your Free Application for Federal Student Aid is an important part of your admissions packet. You will find that many financial aid options are no longer available after you finish your undergraduate work. Make sure you get your application in early so you understand what you do have available to you. The Department of Education advises completing your FAFSA according to the timeline below:
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    October—Create your FSA ID and file your FAFSA.

    November—Apply for relevant scholarships or grants.

    December—Receive your Student Aid Report and use that information, as well as your personal finances and any other grants or scholarships, to determine your overall financial picture for college.

    April—Notify the school of your choice that you will be attending.

    In order to receive financial aid for the upcoming school year—2020-2021—you will need to file your application by June 30, 2020. You don’t want to wait that long if you can help it. The sooner you can get a realistic view of your financial picture for graduate school, the sooner you can make an informed decision for your future.

  • Test scores—Depending on the program and school, you may need to provide GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) or GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) test scores. Remember to give yourself plenty of time to prepare for and take these tests. You will be permitted to retake these tests until you have achieved the score you want.
  • Be warned, these tests can be costly. The GRE, for example, costs $160, and it takes several weeks to get your official scores each time. If possible, take your first test at least 18 months before you anticipate beginning graduate school, in order to allow time for retesting if necessary.

    Make sure you are prepared for the expense. Don’t let budget constraints saddle you with a lower test score.

  • Writing sample—Your writing sample may come in the form of a traditional admission essay prompt, or you may be expected to provide examples from your personal portfolio. The writing sample gives you an opportunity to show the selection committee who you are and what makes you a unique candidate.
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  • CV—The CV, or curriculum vitae, is a chronological account of your academic career. This should include any published works, noteworthy academic awards or commendations, and a summary of your educational experiences. Prior educational experience in the field may be a requirement for some programs. Be sure to review the terms of eligibility for each school on your list.
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  • Transcripts—You will need transcripts from all colleges you have attended, and possibly your high school transcripts as well. Make sure you allow plenty of time for this step. Schools are generally inundated with transcript requests during application season, so get your requests in early.
  • Note that transcripts must be official, which means they must be sealed, unopened copies delivered from your institution. If the transcripts are delivered to you directly, do not open them. If opened, transcripts are no longer considered “official” and will not be accepted.

How can you make your application stand out from the competition?

Selection committees go through hundreds or thousands of applications every year. How are you going to stand out from all the rest?

Graduate school admissions are generally more competitive than undergraduate admissions, so it may not be enough to simply have good grades. Most applicants for graduate school are, like you, excellent students who care about receiving a good education.

Your challenge is to grab the attention of a committee that reviews an endless parade of well-qualified applicants. Take every opportunity to make your application reflect who you are as both a student and a person. Emphasize unique life experiences where possible, and demonstrate that, in addition to being an excellent student, you are a well-rounded person who is capable of personal growth.

Simply being an excellent student won’t get you noticed. Excellence is the basic threshold for graduate school. You must compel the selection committee with evidence of your leadership, compassion, boldness, or any other traits that you feel make you an excellent fit for your intended academic community.

Understand the selection committee

In order to speak the language of the selection committee, you must first understand what they are looking for. Try to think of a graduate school selection committee as the manager of an academic fantasy league. They want to build a powerful team with complementary skills and interests.

Selection committees differ from school to school, and even from program to program. You won’t get far by submitting the same essay to every school on your list. Get to know the specific program you are applying to. Find out who the faculty are, what they are looking for, and what they hope to achieve.

The members of the selection committee will have a deep understanding of:

  • The goals of the department, including high-priority subdisciplines and subjects due for future exploration
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  • The goals of the university, including the kinds of students the university wants and needs
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  • Who is looking for students, including the departments where you plan to apply

To this last point, you should begin by finding out if the faculty in your field has space for more students. If all the slots in your discipline are taken, this is likely a dealbreaker. Look elsewhere.

On the other hand, if you learn that there is demand for qualified applicants in your department, some preliminary research could tip you off on the best skills and experiences to highlight in your application.

In other words, get to know your audience. You could contact the school directly for more information, or even reach out to current grad students or alumni for tips on how to stand out to the selection committee. Direct outreach is perhaps one of the best, but least used methods, for getting to know what a department is really like.

If you do contact current students, faculty, or alumni, always be respectful of their time. Assume you are reaching out to a busy person. Make contact only if you have something meaningful to say or important to ask.

Where and how to shine

So again, how do you set yourself apart? How can you shine in what appears to be a somewhat sterile, analytical process? You will have only a few opportunities in your application to share who you are as a person, what matters to you, and what unique skills, abilities, and perspectives you have to share.

  • Personal Statement—Your personal statement is your first opportunity to show them who you are. Share your interests, values, and reasons for choosing their program. Show them through your writing what makes you a suitable candidate, one who will make valuable contributions to your academic community and chosen field.
  • You should avoid redundancy. Don’t go overboard with details of your academic or professional experience. That information will be readily available in your transcripts, résumé and CV. Focus on the features that make you uniquely qualified for the intended program.

    You’ll also use your personal statement to show the committee how invested you are in attending their school. Identify the reasons you have selected their program, including any influential faculty you aspire to work with, or research interests that align with current projects. Show the committee that you haven’t just chosen their program at random. You have done the research and have concluded that their program can set you on a path to success in your chosen field.

  • Statement of Purpose—Some schools will ask for a Statement of Purpose, either in lieu of, or in addition to, a Personal Statement. These two statements may sound similar, but each has a different focus. The Personal Statement is about you, and the Statement of Purpose is about your intentions. This is where you’ll outline your goals, what you hope to achieve, and how the intended program will make those goals attainable. Again, be specific about any faculty you would like to work with and why.
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  • Interview—Some graduate schools use interviews to vet students. The selection committee is looking to evaluate your abilities, your compatibility with the program, and to an extent, your personality. As the interviewee, your goal is to make the case that you have something unique to contribute to your intended program, academic community, and field.

Nailing Your Grad School Interview

Prepare for your interview by learning more about the program and the department culture. You may interview with just the selection committee, or you may meet with other faculty, or even current students. Your interviewers may not be intimately familiar with the details of your application. Be prepared to discuss your personal background, academic achievements, professional experience, and any challenges you’ve overcome. Show them you have the persistence and tenacity to succeed in their program.

The standard rules of effective interviewing apply here as well. Show up on time, dress professionally, and prepare insightful questions to ask your interviewers. While you are the one being interviewed, this is also a time for you to learn more about the school and your intended program. This is your chance to determine if the program is the right fit for you.

Above all, find a way to be both humble and confident. You certainly want to impress the selection committee with your skills and abilities, but avoid coming across as arrogant or entitled. Also take note that interviews may represent an additional expense. Interviewing schools rarely cover travel costs. Attending your interviews in person is, however, worth the investment. This demonstrates that you are serious and committed, and it gives you the best chance to make a lasting impression on the selection committee.

Be Yourself

You have something special that they don’t have, and that thing is you. Your unique talents, experiences, and perspectives have much to add to their program, but they won’t know that unless you show them.

Move to the top of the selection committee’s list by humbly exhibiting the following traits:

  • Personality – Earning a graduate degree will require you to work closely with faculty and staff. Focus on what makes you a good collaborator and share some of the experiences you’ve had working with others. You want them to be excited to work with you because you’re a good teammate, a conscientious scholar, and an all-around likeable human being.
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  • Originality – The graduate school experience is enriched by a diversity of opinions and approaches. Show them that you aren’t afraid to think outside the box. What is it about you that is different and interesting? Do you have unusual skills or speak other languages? Did you take an unusual path to your area of study? Explain what distinguishes your perspective or approach from that of your peers.
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  • Passion – Do you want it? Why? What do you hope to achieve? What problems are you trying to investigate? Are you a pre-med student trying to find a cure for a disease which has impacted a loved one? Are you interested in promoting social justice through your sociology work? Show your selection committee why you are driven to lead in your chosen field.
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  • Compatibility – Academic departments represent a subculture within the larger university culture. Talk about your values and motivations, as well as your approach to learning and research. These are important indicators for how you will fit into a department’s culture.
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  • Tenacity – The selection committee is looking for people who can go the distance. Graduate school takes a lot of hard work, persistence, and self-motivation. Graduate students must be able to juggle hundreds of pages of reading and writing per week, all while managing adult responsibilities, work and life in general. Show them that you have what it takes to succeed. Share some of the challenges you’ve overcome and the strategies that have helped you succeed in the face of adversity.

Begin the Selection Process

Now that you know what to expect from the application process, you’re ready to begin your search for the perfect graduate school. Get started by researching the most influential graduate schools in the world, or begin your search by finding the most influential schools in your discipline.