The application process varies from school to school. In many cases an admissions committee of faculty and administrators makes the selections, using criteria beyond just grades and test scores. They may also set goals for in-state versus out-of-state candidates, gender, and other desirable ratios.
At the other extreme, individual faculty may select candidates that match the department's needs for certain expertise or interests.
It is important that you find out the selection procedure for each school to which you apply and tailor your application to show how you fit.
Request Information. Call or write for applications, catalogs and financial aid information approximately one year before you intend to enter graduate school.
Application requirements differ substantially among institutions and programs. Read each school's material conscientiously to make sure you file a complete and timely application.
Some institutions use self-managed applications which mean the applicant is responsible for obtaining and submitting all supporting documents, such as transcripts and reference letters.
Apply Early. Application deadlines can range from August 1 (before your senior year) to July (after your senior year for schools with rolling admissions). Admission and financial aid decisions are often made well in advance of stated university deadlines. Departments in heavy demand may close applications as early as October. If admissions are handled on a "rolling" basis (i.e., qualified applicants are accepted as they apply) it is to your distinct advantage to apply at the earliest possible date to receive maximum consideration.
Since approximately one-half of graduate school candidates apply during the last month before deadlines, an early application can set you apart from the competition.
The Application Package
- Application form, including personal essay or "statement of purpose"
- Non-refundable fee
- Separate financial aid application
- Letters of recommendation
- Standardized test scores
- Personal interview
How To Apply
For graduate school, you apply to a specific program or department, even though you may send your materials to a central admissions office.
A General Rule of Thumb: apply to at least two or three departments with programs that match your interests. Select at least one highly prestigious and highly competitive research university, and one major university with fairly large graduate programs where you feel you have a reasonable chance of being accepted. As insurance, apply to an institution where you feel certain you feel certain you will be accepted. If you are accepted at more than one, so much the better. You will have choices.
Completing the Application Form. It should be filled out clearly, accurately, and free of typographical and grammatical errors. Be consistent in spelling out your full, legal name on all forms.
The Personal Essay. Every graduate school application contains an essay portion or a "statement of purpose." Your essay should specifically address questions posed in the application, and express your enthusiasm for the field of study, your motivation, creativity, maturity, and person uniqueness. The essay is a key measure of your ability to communicate, so it pays to be meticulous about spelling, grammar and writing style.
Most applications will state the length of the essay or provide space. Keep your essay within these boundaries; a longer essay can work against you. Admissions committees evaluate the quality, not the volume of the essay. Use at least 10-point type or larger.
Application Fees vary, ranging from $20-50 in most cases. Most schools have an application fee waiver for students with financial need. Call the admissions offices and ask how to get one.
Transcripts and Grades. Have your registrar's office send a transcript of your undergraduate work directly to the admissions office of the schools to which you are applying. The minimum GPA required at most universities is 3.0 on a 4.0 scale.
Grades are of overwhelming importance, but a GPA that does not quite meet that minimum can be offset with good letters of recommendation, high test scores, and a well-written statement of purpose.
If there is a valid reason why your GPA is low (e.g., your freshman year grades pulled down your overall average, you worked 30 hours per week in addition to a heavy course load, etc.), it may be advantageous to re-compute your GPA based on your last two years of study or course work in your major. You should discuss the recomputed GPA in your essay.
Undergraduate Grade Point Average (UGPA). Most institutions require the equivalent of a 4-year bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university prior to registering for your first term of graduate study. The admissions committee may consider several components of your UGPA when reviewing your transcript:
- Cumulative UGPA
- UGPA in your major/concentration
- Final 2-year UGPA
- UGPA in courses relevant to your intended field of study
- UGPA from year-to-year, or semester-to-semester
Graduate Grade Point Average (GGPA). If you have a master's degree, your GGPA will be an important consideration for doctorate program acceptance.
Financial Aid. An application for financial aid will generally come either as part of your application packet or in a separate mailing from a campus financial aid office. You may have to apply separately for fellowships and for loans. Since financial support varies widely from institution to institution, the best advice is to read all financial aid materials carefully and to file documents on time.
Letters of Recommendation. Most institutions will request between three and five letters of recommendation. It is best to obtain recommendations from faculty members and employers who are qualified to evaluate your academic and/or work potential and performance, based on personal observation. Approach your recommenders early in the fall of your senior year to give them time to write before their other academic pressures mount.
Give them the school's recommendation forms with stamped, addressed envelopes and enough supporting material to enable them to write detailed letters on your behalf. This may include a cover sheet reminding them of classes taken under them, projects you have done for them, a transcript, a resume, and a copy of your essay.
Be sure to discuss with them your reasons for going to graduate school and why you are applying to specific programs
Test Scores. Most schools require that you take one or more standardized admissions exams before they decide upon your application. The GRE (Graduate Record Examination), GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), and LSAT (Law School Admission Test) are among the more common standardized tests. The school's catalog will specify which test you need and will often give some indication of the score needed to be competitive for the program.
Due to increased competition for admission and financial assistance, it will work to your advantage to take the appropriate standardized test early in your application process. Test registration deadlines are well in advance of the actual test dates, and most are given only a few times a year.
Information bulletins with test dates and application procedures are available from the testing services listed below, as well as at the Placement and Career Planning Center.
Generally, you should plan to take the test approximately one year prior to matriculation. Policies regarding taking the test more than once, whether scores are averaged or if the highest score alone is considered, and other related issues vary from institution to institution. It is appropriate to ask about the policy.
Personal Interviews. Some graduate and professional schools will grant an interview as part of the application process. The interview gives the admissions committee an opportunity to determine if there is a match between what their institution has to offer.
The interview provides an excellent opportunity to "sell yourself." In addition, take this opportunity to discuss your qualifications, personal goals, and why you think you're a perfect match for the program.
Here is some advice to help you make a strong impression during your personal interview:
- Don't ask questions that are answered in the school's brochures or catalogs.
- Be prepared to answer standard questions, such as "Why do you want to attend graduate school?" "What are your long-range goals?" and "What makes you believe that you will be successful in the program?"
- Save the preferred school for last. If you have interviews at several schools, you'll improve your interviewing skills as you go along.
- Follow up with a thank you note. It can be quite short, but mention something specific about the interview or your qualifications.
The Notification Process
You may receive replies as early as March or April, or as late as June. In some cases, you may be placed on a waiting list from which you may be selected as vacancies occur. These could be filled as late as immediately prior to the beginning of a new term.
Before you begin receiving acceptances and rejections, rank the schools according to your preferences. As soon as you receive two offers, politely decline the less attractive one. Continue this process until you make your final choice. This may make it difficult if you have heard from School #2 but are still awaiting a response from School #1.
Before being pressured into sending a fee to a second-choice program, try to speed up the first-choice school with a polite inquiry about the status of your application. If they intend to notify applicants shortly, try to stall the other school. If there will be considerable time between the deadline for one school and the notification date of another, you may have to decide if you're willing to pay for a guaranteed spot you may not use.
The "Wait List"
Being on a school's "wait list" or "holding list" is similar to being at the end of a long line for tickets to a popular event. Your chances of getting in depend on how many are ahead of you.
Here are some proactive things you can do if you end up on a wait list:
- Apply to more schools.
- Take an intermediate degree, especially if you're switching your area of concentration.
- Take additional classes and reading in your major field of study.
- Attend summer school at your target institution.
The Personal Essay: Tell About Yourself
The audience for your "personal essay" is an admissions committee composed of members of your future profession or academic discipline. When they read your essay, they will be seeking depth and substance, along with a true passion and commitment to your area of study. They will also be looking for individual traits or characteristics that make you an outstanding graduate school candidate.
- Convey your long- and short-range career goals.
- Present yourself as an individual with desirable personal abilities, background, interests and plans.
- Describe the nature and significance of your relevant experiences, and give concrete evidence of your knowledge, competence and motivation in the field of your choice.
- Explain your special interest in this particular graduate program.
- Account for any conspicuous weaknesses in your record.
- Demonstrate your writing ability and communication skills in general.
How to Get Started
It is imperative that you conduct a thorough self-assessment of your interests, motivations and career goals before you begin to write.
Consider these questions about your own abilities, background, interests and plans:
- Why do I want to pursue a graduate school program?
- What are the special features, approaches, or values of this particular program?
- How do my interests, values, strengths, experiences, ambitions and plans relate to what this program offers? Why do I want to be a part of this program? Why would this program want me?
- What is my interest and motivation in this field? What have I gotten out of it so far and what do I hope to get out of it? Can I trace my interest and motivation to any concrete experience?
- What are my strengths related to this field, personal, academic, and experiential?
- What experiences demonstrate my competence and motivation in this field?
- Do my relevant experiences fall into any pattern? Broad exploration? Increasing focus? Tackling greater and greater challenges?
- What kinds of experiences have taught me the most?
Here are some general tips to help you write an effective personal essay:
- Before you put pen to paper, make lists of information that may be pertinent to the admissions decision. Lists may include professors, courses, books, research projects, ideas, travel, and other experiences that have been important. You should also list work, extracurricular and volunteer activities, special skills, honors and awards.
- Give yourself plenty of time. Start thinking about your essays early. The admissions committee reads essays thoroughly and carefully. Make sure you've given it your best effort.
- Be sure to read the essay questions on the application carefully. What information, approach or emphasis is the question asking for? Make sure you answer all questions and address issues outlined.
- Although you may formulate a general essay in advance, make certain that each application contains an essay which specifically answers the questions asked by that school.
- Your spirit, character and uniqueness should come through but your writing should be formal and correct. Refer to The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.
- Each essay should contain at least a sentence or two which tells why you have chosen that particular institution. Does it have an excellent specialization in your area of interest? Is there a particular faculty member with whom you expect to work? Is the program recommended to you by a faculty member?
- Strive for a strong opening line or paragraph. Look for something beyond the predictable, something that demonstrates the qualities that set you apart from other candidates.
- Specific knowledge, skills and insights acquired through internships and other work experiences--paid or volunteer, and related to your proposed field of study--are particularly strong material.
- Any experience that demonstrates interpersonal talents, entrepreneurial skills, ability to perform under stress, unusual background, some important lessons learned, or a genuine commitment to a worthy cause could be appropriate if you demonstrate the relevance.
- Draft! Draft! Draft! Good writing is writing that is easily understood. Have one good writer critique your essays, and another proofread them.
Faculty Recommendations: Points of Reference
Graduate school recommendations really come into play when an admissions committee is trying to decide between you and one or more other candidates. Most departments will request three to five letters of recommendation. Who should you ask for letters of recommendation? At least one letter, and preferably two or more, should come from faculty members in your major field. You may also wish to obtain a recommendation from a professor in an unrelated discipline (perhaps your minor field) in order to show the breadth of your academic interests. These guidelines can give you the edge:
- Begin developing a relationship with your recommenders several quarters, or even years, before you need the pieces of paper. It's important that they know several facets about you: your character, your course work, your initiative, and your communication skills. Keep them up to date on your achievements, either verbally or in writing.
- Determine who will be your best advocates. If you hear reticence -- complaints about not having enough time to write the recommendations or not knowing you well enough or long enough--be ready to back off. If someone feels forced into writing you a recommendation, you can bet it will be less than glowing.
- Discuss the references with your recommenders. Inform them of any points you would particularly like to get across. Ask them to use as many specific examples as possible.
- Consider using the recommendation as a place in which to explain away a negative that you didn't address in the main essay (e.g., a bad grade.) The recommendation also could be a place to highlight a smaller accomplishment that you didn't include else where in the application.
- Give your recommenders' telephone numbers on applications. More than ever, admissions officers are inclined to place a phone call to a recommender for more details.
- Don't use references from friends or relatives, or recommendations from people who do not know you well.
- Give your recommenders all of the necessary forms, plus addressed, stamped envelopes.
- Give your recommenders at least a month in which to write the reference and ask them to meet a deadline.
- Let the recommender know when you will submit your applications so he or she can send the reference letters at the same time.
- Reference letters can be confidential or non-confidential. Admissions officers may give more credence to a reference if you've waived your right to read it; you will need to decide the advantages or disadvantages of either choice.
Financing Your Graduate Degree: Where to Get Money
Graduate or professional school is an expensive proposition. The cost of a year of graduate education, combining tuition and living expenses, can range from over $10,000 for a state resident pursing a degree at a public school to over $30,000 at some private schools. You can expect tuition costs to increase an average of 10 percent a year while you are earning your degree. Most financial aid for graduate school is based on the candidate's academic performance and promise. Decisions regarding funding are frequently made by faculty members, usually in the student's department. Obviously, getting to know a department chair or dean is an important strategy. Merit-based financial aid for graduate school is available from universities, the government, and private foundations. New sources are continually being developed, and in the case of government aid, the amount varies depending upon current executive and legislative policy. As a prospective applicant, it is critical to thoroughly investigate the availability of financial aid in all its various forms as you go about the admissions process. Both the sources and the amounts are important considerations.
Basic Types of Financial Assistance
Fellowships & Grants. These awards, granted on the basis of academic achievement, normally include a stipend for living expenses, and pay registration fees and tuition. They can be either portable (i.e., offered by an organization for study at any institution of the student's choice) or institutional (i.e., offered by the university or department for study there). Many universities have their own fellowships which generally go to the students the institution or department wants most to attract. Assistantships. Teaching and research assistantships usually involve working 10-20 hours per week in exchange for a stipend or monthly salary and/or tuition reduction. Requests for information on assistantships and applications should be made directly to the department of program of interest to you. Resident Assistantships. Some institutions have programs in which graduate students earn a stipend, room and board, or both by working as assistants in undergraduate residence halls. To inquire about such possibilities, contact the school's director of residence halls. Long-term Educational Loans. About 75% of all graduate financial aid is now in the form of loans. In addition to major financial programs such as Stafford Student Loans (formerly Guaranteed Student Loans), Perkins Loans, and Plus Loans, each graduate discipline has loan and aid programs tailor-made to suit the situation. Many private lenders have entered the loan market. Decisions are made according to pre-set policies and formulas, and are based on a student's financial need. The institution's financial aid office will be able to explain these loan programs to you. Employer-financed Schooling. Many companies provide partial of full tuition reimbursement, depending on the grades the employees achieve and the relevance of the course work to their current jobs. Part-time Employment. Check with the career center on your graduate school campus for part-time employment opportunities.