Applying to Graduate or Professional School
Applying to graduate school is an exciting and complex process. You will need to juggle a lot of details about requirements for applications, deadlines, fees, entrance exams and recommendations, all of which are likely to be different for each program you are considering. In order to manage all these details, it will be necessary for you to have a plan for how to tackle all of this with timelines and checklists for the schools you select. If you create a plan and stick to it, you will feel confident and proud of your application rather than compromised and stressed. The more organized you are, the better you will feel about your application and the more you’ll improve your chances of gaining admission. It’s never too early to start learning all you can about the process.
What follows is a brief overview of some of the most important elements of applying to graduate school to help you get started. There are likely other issues you may want to consider depending on your personal circumstances and pursuits. Take the time and effort to get all the information appropriate for your own personal goals.
Advising – As you near the end of your junior year, schedule an appointment with your faculty advisor as well as a staff member in your campus career center. They will help you determine if you’re ready and how to begin. If you decide that you are going ahead with the application process, your faculty will provide the most relevant information about strategies and advise you about which schools will best meet your needs and academic objectives. Research each suggestion carefully and thoroughly and develop a list of potential programs for consideration. Go over the list with your advisor. Once you have decided on an appropriate list of programs, the next step is to check university websites, request information, catalogs or departmental brochures and applications from each program. Applications usually become available around August each year. Many universities now have online applications.
Deadlines – An application consists of several different documents, some that are submitted by you and some that are submitted by other agencies or individuals. Start the planning process with a clear understanding of what is required and the deadlines for each process and each program. Note the deadlines for receipt of the application, exam scores, letters of recommendation and transcripts from each university or community college you’ve attended. Does the university require two applications, one for the graduate office and one for the department? Will you have to request two sets of transcripts?
You must meet all the deadlines for each university in order to be considered for admission. Also be aware of the deadlines to register for and take entrance exams in time to meet admission deadlines, bearing in mind how long it takes to process, issue and receive exam scores.
Planning – Buy a calendar and work on filling in your deadlines for each aspect of the application process. Here are some things to include:
- Think about the time you will need to study and prepare for the entrance exam. A good resource for this is The Princeton Review.
- Allow enough time for writing several rough drafts of your statement of purpose. Include enough time to have your professor and academic advisor review it and make comments.
- Factor in the time it will take to prepare and proofread each application.
- How long does it take to get an official transcript request processed by the Registrar’s Office? If you’ve attended more than one college, you will need to check on each one.
- Find out how much time your professors need in order to complete letters of recommendation and schedule those timeframes into your calendar.
- Be sure to plan for fellowship and other financial aid deadlines, which are separate processes and forms.
Remember that during this whole process you will also be enrolled in your senior year and working to meet all your graduation requirements, so it’s best to get started early and plan accordingly. A suggested timeline is available to help you get organized.
Fellowships – There may be foundation or university graduate fellowships for which you will be eligible. Research this carefully in your career library and with your department. Financial assistance will more than likely be a central factor in deciding to accept an offer to attend graduate school, so research this carefully.
Statement of purpose – This is one of the most important elements of your graduate school application. You should sound knowledgeable about your chosen field, the graduate program and the faculty in the program. This means you will need to revise the statement for each school on your list.
As with any piece of writing, consider your audience. Look online for advice and guidelines at each campus. Some areas you will need to cover are personal motivation, research interests, maturity to complete the program and how the particular program specifically fits your academic and professional goals. Your statement needs to reflect that your interests are in alignment with the faculty at your school of choice, so make a commitment to research and reference faculty work where possible and appropriate.
The statement of purpose must be focused and concise. The most important thing is to allow yourself enough time to write a draft of the statement, have your advisor read it, have time to revise it, proofread it and then put it down to get some critical distance from it. Do not rush this process!
Exams – Most graduate and professional programs require a Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or some sort of entrance exam, such as the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) or the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) for Masters in Business Administration (MBA) programs. Find out about the testing schedule in your city. Base your decision about when to take the exam on whether the scores can be obtained in time to meet the deadlines for each program.
Budget – Applying to graduate school can be expensive. Make sure you plan for and put aside the money you will need to pay for the application process. Application fees, transcript fees, exam fees, exam report fees and mailing costs will all need to be in your budget.
Letters of Recommendation - Select faculty members who are most familiar with your work and who can give you a strong recommendation in your chosen field. Make sure you can rely on them to meet your deadlines. Remember that each faculty member will likely have several letters of recommendation to write, so out of courtesy, allow plenty of time for them to respond and then check in as the deadline approaches to see if they need to be reminded. Provide each one with an unofficial copy of your transcript and a draft of your statement of purpose so they can be as informed as possible about the strength of your application.
Requesting transcripts – Each university has its own process and fee schedule for requesting transcripts and every Registrar’s Office is inundated with requests each fall. It will be very important to request transcripts well ahead so your request can be processed in time to meet your program deadlines. Inquire with the Registrar’s Office at each school you’ve attended.
Writing samples or portfolio – Some programs require a sample of your work. Get advice on selecting your best samples from your faculty advisor. Be sure to follow the guidelines for submitting your work.
Review committees – Graduate schools typically receive hundreds of applications each academic year. Review committees are typically made up of a few members of the tenure-track faculty of the graduate program. They are your primary audience.
To optimize consideration of your application, make sure you have met all the application requirements and turn everything in as soon as possible. Once your application and fee are received and matched up with your transcripts, letters of recommendation and test scores, your file will be complete. Some universities have what is called rolling admissions, which means that as soon as your file is complete it is reviewed by a graduate admissions committee. Good luck and let us know how you're doing!