How to Apply to Graduate School

by Sharon Elber | March 23, 2022

Graduate School Application

If you have decided to go to graduate school, then there is no time like the present to start planning for your application. Whether you are a junior in college, a recent grad, or a returning adult, the grad school application process is different than applying to undergraduate programs.

Here is a primer on the various steps you will need to take along the way:

1) Get Organized at Least a Year and a Half in Advance

If you are planning to start grad school in fall of 2020, the time to start planning and taking action is Spring of 2019. If you are currently in an undergraduate program, this would be the spring of your junior year.

Most application deadlines for graduate school will be early in the spring semester of the year you intend to start the program. Before you send in your application, there are plenty of action items to take care of. By starting well in advance, you will have the time you need to make sure all of your ducks are in a row when those application deadlines come to pass.

Research Your Discipline and Each Program

You can start your research with a general online search for master’s and doctoral programs in your field. However, there is no substitute for talking to people that are knowledgeable about which programs have the best reputation in your discipline.

Take the time to approach professors, your advisor, and the people at your campus career center to get the inside scoop on which programs you should focus your efforts on. As soon as you have decided to go to grad school, make your social networks aware as well.

By making as many people as possible aware of your intentions, you are not only increasing your knowledge of the lay of the land when it comes to the different programs, you are also potentially learning of any contacts that may have access to the decision makers who will be reviewing your application materials. Activating these contacts can help your application materials get noticed, an important advantage for the first round of application reviews.

Another research task, once you begin to narrow your list, is to learn more about the specific research projects the professors in each program are working on. Ultimately, a major consideration for your candidacy will rest on how well your research interests map on to the projects already underway in the program.

Identify 5-10 Programs

Even if you feel you are very competitive, it is important to apply to more than one program to increase your odds of being accepted. Plan on applying to at least 5-10 programs (more than 10 is going to be unmanageable).

There are several factors to consider when deciding which programs are the best fit for your ultimate career goals. Here are a few quick tips on what to weigh when choosing your short list:

  • Does the program offer both a master’s and doctorate program?
  • Are there professors in the department working on the specialty that you are most interested in pursuing?
  • What is the overall reputation of the program in your field?
  • Do they offer a stipend and tuition assistance for graduate students?
  • What is the ranking of the university in terms of their research programs?

Carefully Review Instructions for Each Program

Each graduate program has its own process and requirements. Although there will certainly be some overlap, it is critical to carefully review all of the specific guidelines well in advance.

Once you have a short list, start a folder for every program you will be applying to. It is important to not only have files on your computer, but also hard copies in the event that you lose all of your progress due to an unforeseen computer crash.

In addition to assembling hard copies of any materials that you submit along the way, be sure to clearly identify all deadlines and each of the components the program requires for a complete application. Use your virtual calendar to send reminders a month, a week, and a day before each deadline to be sure you do not lose track of these important dates.

In addition, track any correspondence you have with anyone from the program in one place so that you can quickly reference it in the event that you need to make contact. Since you will be applying to several programs, it will be easy to get your lines crossed, making you look unprepared, or worse, unorganized and flighty.

2) 4 Main Components of Your Grad School Application

GRE and Other Standardized Tests

Almost every graduate program will require that you have taken the GRE standardized test. The Graduate Records Exam (GRE) tests verbal, math, and writing skills. You will need to register for this exam in advance. It is usually proctored at a specific location near your university.

One advantage to getting started early with your GRE testing is that if you do not perform well, you can study your weak areas and retake the exam. You can choose which scores the graduate programs will see.

In addition to the GRE, depending on the type of program you are applying for, other testing may be required in order to showcase a more specific knowledge base relative to your field. For example, law school and medical school have their own standardized testing requirements. As with the GRE, getting started early allows you to prepare and do your best on these exams which are a major consideration for your candidacy.

Personal Statement

Your personal statement or admissions essay for each program will be unique. First, many programs offer very specific instructions on what they want to see in your letter. Be sure to carefully read and make note of each so that your letter will follow the rules to the letter.

Second, you will need to tailor your letter to each program. Your primary goal in the personal statement (unless noted otherwise in the guidelines for the program) is to demonstrate that you are qualified, have strong academic performance, possess a high level of motivation, and that the program is a strong fit for your ultimate research interests.

Unlike undergraduate programs, you will be working directly with professors on their research projects. It is important that your research interests fit with their specializations so they will be able to enlist you as a teaching or research assistant. In most cases, your funding for a stipend and tuition assistance will rely on the work you will do in these roles.

Letters of Recommendation

Strong letters of recommendation can make or break your application to graduate programs. Generally, they will be sent directly from the people that provide your reference to the program, often through an online portal.

It is critical that you give your references at least a month’s notice so they have time to write your letter in advance of the deadline. In addition, provide each with information on the program, how to submit their letter, as well as your personal statement so that they can see how you are framing your fit. This can help them write a letter that will best support your application as a whole.

In addition, consider that the strongest letters of recommendation come from well positioned people at your university with whom you have worked closely, where possible. For example, you may have worked on a research project with a professor or spent a great deal of time with your coach on the track team. These sorts of relationships allow the author to write a more substantial letter that can speak in-depth as to your character, academic prowess, ability to work in a team, and drive.


In almost all cases you will need to have official transcripts from the registrar at your university sent to the graduate admissions department of your school. Again, read the instructions for each program carefully to learn where to send them.

In some cases, you can do this online, but some schools still require you to fill out forms and submit them in person at the registrar’s office. Usually there is a small fee of $10-$20, so budget in advance for this step. In addition, sometimes bureaucratic delays will be a factor. As soon as your grades are in from your last fall semester, it is generally a good idea to get this ball rolling.

3) Interviewing for Grad School

If you are being strongly considered for a graduate program, you are likely to be invited for an interview to further assess your qualifications and fit for the program in person. In most cases, you will be invited to attend a multiple day event that involves a group of the top candidates. It will probably include multiple social events such as lunches or dinners to meet faculty as well as some more formal orientation style events.

It is important to prepare for your interview experience. Be sure to get to know the faculty, paying close attention to those professors you are most interested in working with. Prepare a list of questions for each of them, as well as more general questions about what the program has to offer you along your way to your graduate degree.

Make it a point to not only establish meaningful connections with faculty and staff at your program, but also current and prospective graduate students. Be sure to get contact information for current graduate students if the website for the program does not list email addresses. This will come in handy for follow up after your interview.

You want to display that you will be a lively contributor to the academic community.

Graduate school is a much more intimate experience than your undergraduate program likely was, and the ability to perform well in a group is one of the skillsets you will be evaluated for during the interview experience.

4) Follow Up

Finally, make sure that you follow up at each stage of the process to show that you are organized, engaged, and enthusiastic about the program and people you will be working with.

Once you have submitted all of your materials, it is appropriate to check in with the administrative assistant in your program, or the graduate school, to make sure everything has been received and your application is in good standing.

If you have made it to an interview, be sure to follow up afterwards. Focus on the people with whom you had meaningful conversations, and members of the selection committee if you were able to pin that down during your interview.

Craft an email that thanks them for their time and consideration and mention one of the highlights of your time together. This will keep your most memorable moments fresh in their mind as they make their final decision.

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