How to apply to grad school

Applying to graduate school may seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be!  The whole process can be broken down into 7 key steps:

  1. Choose which programs you want to apply for.
  2. Plan out the timeline for your application.
  3. Request transcripts and recommendation letters.
  4. Take any standardized tests that the program requires.
  5. Write your resume or CV.
  6. Write your statement of purpose and/or personal statement.
  7. Prepare for interviews, if relevant.

Specific graduate school application requirements may vary between type of program and school, so be sure to check carefully on each school’s website. However, the main steps are usually the same.

Choosing programs to apply to

Choosing a program is the first step of the process. Start by talking to alumni and current students of the programs you’re interested in, as well as individuals in the career field that you’re hoping to pursue afterwards. Ask them questions like the following:

  • Do I need a graduate degree at all? It might be possible to pursue this field using the experience and education that you already have.
  • How important is school prestige in this field? In fields like law, prestige is extremely important, whereas it matters very little in many medical careers, like nursing or physical therapy.
  • Do the faculty and staff of this institution make adequate time for their students? Especially in research, the quality of supervision and teaching determines how much you get out of a program.
  • Do I have a realistic shot of getting into this program? Aim high, but don’t waste application fees on schools out of reach, and make sure you have a few backup programs you’re pretty sure you can get into.
  • How much will the program cost? Many graduate programs offer some sort of financial aid, but others expect most students to front the whole cost through loans and other forms of financing.
  • What is the job market like for alumni of this program? Many programs list the career outcomes of their graduates on their websites. If one doesn’t, you should feel free to contact an administrator of the program and ask for it.

Master’s vs. PhD

One of the biggest choices you’ll have to make is whether to apply to a master’s or a PhD program. Master’s degrees, which take 1–2 years to complete, usually develop skills for a particular career, whereas PhDs, which can range from 4–7 years, are meant to prepare for an academic or research career.

Master’s programs focus mainly on coursework, although they usually also include a semester-long thesis or capstone. In the US, most PhDs include the coursework required for a master’s in the first two years of the program. Afterwards, you’ll spend most of your time preparing a dissertation, a long piece of original research.

Both master’s and PhD programs provide a wage premium (the extra amount that you’ll make over someone with just a high school diploma) of 23 and 26%, respectively. Master’s programs sometimes provide scholarships, but this is rare. PhD programs, on the other hand, often waive tuition fees and provide a living stipend in exchange for being a teaching or research assistant.

Though the master’s degree premium is lower and the upfront cost is usually higher, master’s programs allow you to enter the workforce—and earn the higher wage—much faster than PhDs.

Planning your application timeline

The most important tip for applying to graduate school is to start early! No matter which type of program you’re applying to, you should start considering your plans around 18 months before beginning your program.

Most programs have strict deadlines—usually 6–9 months before the start date. Others have what are called “rolling” deadlines, meaning that the earlier you send in an application, the earlier you get a decision. Either way, you should usually aim to get in all your applications before the new year for a start date the following September or October.

Make sure to carefully plan out your timeline for applying. Each step will take longer than you think it will, so leave plenty of extra time! Below is a table giving an idea of how much time you’ll need for the essential application tasks.

Task Amount of time
Studying for standardized tests 2–5 months, depending on the number of attempts you need.
Requesting recommendation letters Start 6–8 months before deadlines to give your recommenders plenty of time.
Writing a statement of purpose Start the first draft at least a few months before the deadline, as you’ll want to do plenty of redrafting and editing. If the program requires more than one essay, start earlier!
Requesting transcripts Do this early, in case something goes wrong—at least 1–2 months before deadlines.
Filling out the application forms Give yourself at least a month for this—there will often be extra details you need to look up, so it’ll take longer than you think.

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Requesting transcripts and recommendation letters

As well as transcripts of your grades, most graduate school applications also require you to provide 2–3 letters of recommendation from former professors or supervisors.

Transcripts

You’ll normally need to provide transcripts from every postsecondary institution that you attended, even if you weren’t a full-time student there. This includes time spent studying abroad or classes taken at universities while still a high school student.

Make sure to check the language requirements of the transcripts. If yours aren’t in English and you’re applying to a US or UK university, you’ll most likely have to get them translated by a professional translator. You can usually find services online where you upload your transcript and receive a translated and certified copy within a few days.

Recommendation letters

The letters of recommendation are one of the most important parts of an application. You should think carefully about who to ask and how to do it. These steps can aid you in finding the best letters possible for your application:

  • Decide who to ask. This should ideally be a former professor that you knew well outside of the classroom, but can be a manager or research supervisor who can speak to your ability to succeed in graduate school.
  • Request a meeting. It’s best to discuss the recommendation letter in person if possible. If you know your recommender well, you can skip this step and go straight to:
  • Ask for a recommendation. It’s a good idea to ask if they can provide a “strong” letter of recommendation, which allows them an easy out if not!
  • Share your resume and statement of purpose draft. These can help your recommender write a strong letter that fits with your application’s overall story.
  • Remind your recommenders of upcoming deadlines. If it’s within a few weeks of the deadline and you haven’t heard back yet, send a polite reminder.

        Taking standardized tests

        Most American graduate programs require that you take a standardized exam, while most non-American programs do not, although requirements have shifted greatly in recent years.

        Exam What does it involve?
        GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) General
        • Most graduate school programs in the United States require the GRE.
        • Tests verbal and math skills, as well as ability to write a well-argued and logical essay.
        • Usually administered on a computer in a test center, showing the test taker his or her preliminary scores at the end of the session.
        GRE Subject
        • Specialized exams testing students on their knowledge in one of six areas: biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, mathematics, and English literature.
        • Many graduate programs that require a high level of math require their applicants to take one of these exams.
        LSAT (Law School Admissions Test)
        • Required for law school admissions in the US or Canada.
        • Tests logical and verbal reasoning as well as reading comprehension.
        • Administered digitally, usually in a test center with other students.
        GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test)
        • Digitally-administered exam for business schools admissions in the US and Canada (although many now also accept the GRE).
        • Tests verbal and math skills.
        • Adapts to the test taker, showing harder questions as questions are answered successfully and easier ones if they are answered incorrectly.
        MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test)
        • Exam of choice for medical school admissions.
        • One of the longest standardized exams, at 7.5 hours.
        • Tests chemistry, biology, and psychology knowledge, in addition to verbal reasoning skills.

        Writing your resume

        You will most likely be asked to submit a resume or CV. Make sure to pay attention to the length limits. If none are given, try to keep it to one page if possible or two pages if necessary.

        You don’t need to include every activity you’ve participated in, but make sure to include those relevant to the type of program you’re applying for.

        You could include things like:

        • Publications
        • Awards and honors
        • Skills (such as computer programming or language skills)
        • Professional experience
        • Volunteering experience

        If you’re applying to a professional program, such as business school, you should focus more on your professional accomplishments. For other programs, you’ll want to concentrate on your academic and research accomplishments.

        You can download our resume templates as Word documents and adapt them for your own use.

        Resume template 1 Resume Template 2

        Writing a statement of purpose

        Your statement of purpose is a short essay that should tie together the rest of your application. Aim to give the admissions committee a clear idea of why you’ll be a good fit for the program and your motivations for applying.

        Make sure to carefully read the instructions for your statement of purpose. Some programs provide prompts that you have to respond to in your essay. If you’re applying to multiple programs, tailor your statement to each one.

        A strong statement of purpose should include:

        • A introduction to your academic and personal background
        • Your experience and accomplishments
        • Your motivations for applying to this particular program
        • Your academic goals for the program, including specific topics you’d like to explore
        • Your career objectives for after the end of the program

        The statement of purpose should not just be your resume in paragraph form. Add value by describing how you personally contributed to any projects or learned from classes that might be listed on your resume.

        Finally, make sure your statement reads well and is free of language errors. Have a friend look it over, and don’t be afraid to use a professional proofreader if you’d like another set of eyes.

        Writing a personal statement

        Some graduate school applications also require you to submit a personal statement.

        A personal statement can usually be a bit less formal that a statement of purpose, giving more space to your personal background. It should craft a narrative of who you are and how your life has led you to apply to graduate school.

        Here are some tips for writing a strong personal statement:

        • Start with an attention-grabbing opening.
        • Describe your personal and academic development over time.
        • If you’ve faced obstacles in your academic path, describe how you’ve overcome them.
        • Discuss why you’re interested in this field, connecting it to your past experiences.
        • Look forward by describing your career ambitions and how this program will help you achieve them.

        Preparing for interviews

        The graduate school interview is the last step of the process. Not all schools conduct interviews, but if yours does, make sure you’re prepared:

        • Read the website of the program you’re applying for.
        • Talk to previous students about their experience interviewing.
        • Prepare answers to commonly asked questions.
        • Read papers in the field of study that you’re interested in.

        Many interviews ask the same questions, so you should have a clear idea of how you’ll answer these. The most common questions include:

        • What would you bring to this program and why should we admit you?
        • Tell us about the research you’ve completed or contributed to.
        • What interests you about this program?
        • Who would you like to work with in this program?
        • What are you planning on doing after you complete this program?

        You should also come with a few questions prepared for your interviewers. You may want to ask about funding opportunities, access to advisors, other access to resources, and job outcomes after graduation.

        Frequently asked questions about grad school applications

        What do I need to include in a graduate school application?

        In the US, most graduate school applications require you to include:

        Some programs may ask you to write a personal statement in addition to, or instead of, a statement of purpose. You may also be asked to an interview.

        Always carefully read the application instructions for the specific program you’re applying to.

        When should I begin my applications for graduate school?

        A good starting point to aim for is about 18 months before you would start the program, or 6–9 months before the applications are due.

        In the first few months of the process, research programs and study for any standardized exams you might need.

        You can then begin writing your personal statements and statements of purpose, as well as contacting people to write your letters of recommendation. Ensure that you give recommenders plenty of time to complete their letters (ideally around 2–4 months).

        What’s the difference between a personal statement and a statement of purpose?

        A statement of purpose is usually more formal, focusing on your academic or professional goals. It shouldn’t include anything that isn’t directly relevant to the application.

        A personal statement can often be more creative. It might tell a story that isn’t directly related to the application, but that shows something about your personality, values, and motivations.

        However, both types of document have the same overall goal: to demonstrate your potential as a graduate student and show why you’re a great match for the program.

        Do I need a master’s degree to apply for a PhD?

        This depends on the country. In the United States, you can generally go directly to a PhD with only a bachelor’s degree, as a master’s program is included as part of the doctoral program.

        Elsewhere, you generally need to graduate from a research-intensive master’s degree before continuing to the PhD.

        Which types of graduate programs require interviews?

        Most medical school programs interview candidates, as do many (though not all) leading law and business schools.

        In research programs, it depends—PhDs in business usually do, while those in economics normally do not, for example.

        Some schools interview everyone, while others only interview their top candidates. Look at the websites of the schools you’re applying to for more information on whether they conduct interviews.

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