Navigating the Graduate School Application Process

Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management, Director of Graduate Enrollment Services, Marymount University

So, you made the decision to apply to graduate school. You conducted methodical research into the type of program or degree you should obtain, the length of time it’ll take, the quality of the program and its faculty, and even the location of the campus (or lack thereof!). You’ve made a lot of tough decisions, and you should be proud!

And now you are ready to start the application process. Of course, this part of your graduate school experience can also be confusing and downright overwhelming. That’s why it’s a good idea to create a checklist and timeline to keep the process streamlined and manageable.

There are four basic things you need to know when applying for graduate programs:

  1. Application deadlines
  2. Prerequisite courses, if any, required prior to being accepted
  3. Application materials needed: transcripts, résumé, test scores, recommendation letter(s), essay or personal statement, interview, etc.
  4. Cost

Here we’ll dig a little deeper into what those four elements entail and how you should prepare for them going forward.

1. Application deadlines

Do not wait to begin your application only a week or two in advance of the submission deadline. There are reasons for application deadlines, so submit as early as you can. If you are still finishing your bachelor’s degree, you should start looking at programs during your junior year to give yourself enough time to prepare the materials for your application, including taking standardized tests if necessary and identifying potential recommenders.

If you started late, all is not lost—but you better start collecting all necessary documents to make sure you submit them on time. Admission committees can tell when you have prepared an application in a rush. Also allow yourself enough time to take any standardized tests, keeping in mind that during peak test-taking seasons it can take three to four weeks or longer to receive your scores.

Some graduate programs do not have a firm deadline and offer rolling admission. But this doesn’t mean you should submit your application a week before classes are set to begin. You want to be sufficiently prepared for the next step in your education, not in a mad rush to get started. Call the school or program and ask how long it takes an application to be reviewed once submitted. That should provide you with an idea of when to apply.

2. Prerequisite requirements for admission

Depending on the program you are applying to, you may be required to have taken specific prerequisite courses (usually accomplished during your undergraduate studies but potentially via additional course work on your own). For example, some business programs may require you to have a particular math course under your belt, or a physical therapy program may require certain science classes. Make sure you find out before you apply. If a program does have such requirements and you cannot fulfill them, decide if the timing is right and if you can make the application deadline. In addition to course work, you may also be required to have completed a number of observation hours in a particular field or have experience in a certain area that could help make you a stronger and more competitive applicant. Finally, don’t forget: applying to graduate school is competitive, and you should be receiving A’s and B’s in your courses. If you are not, consider retaking any courses that are required as prerequisites for the program.

3. Application materials

The bulk of your time will be spent gathering and preparing your application for submission. Below you’ll find a breakdown of each area of the application.

Test scores

The most commonly taken tests for graduate school are the GRE and GMAT. There are many others, some discipline specific, like the MCAT for medical school. You will need to allot enough time to take the test(s) required for your program, and you should give yourself a timeline buffer so you can retake them as necessary. Find out what competitive scores will be for the program(s) to which you are applying.


Again, give yourself enough time to have your transcript(s) sent to the graduate programs you are applying to. If you’re a transfer student, it is recommended that you submit all transcripts to the program, not just the school from which you received your degree. 

Personal statements, essays, and writing samples

If the application requires a personal statement, use this opportunity to showcase your intellectual toolbox and highlight what you plan to pursue in graduate school—don’t just write an autobiography. If you’re given a specific prompt, pay attention to the topic or question you are being asked to write about and make sure you are responding to it appropriately. Again, this isn’t about telling your life story.

Some schools may ask you to provide a writing sample. During your undergraduate career, make sure you keep several strong examples of your writing. The sample should demonstrate your readiness for graduate-level work. If you are not sure what’s expected, contact the admission office or faculty to get clarification.

For all of the above, pay attention to the suggested length. If the school expects five pages, don’t submit 20. Be sure to have someone proofread your work before you send it off too, and make sure your name is on all of the pages.

Recommendation letters

Strong letters of reference matter. Don’t wait until the last minute to request them from faculty or a supervisor. Make sure you get at least three references that can speak (well) to your work and talk about your personal strengths in detail. Faculty that are tenured or experts in particular fields are important. Be sure to provide your recommenders with your résumé so they can reflect on additional work you have completed outside the classroom, and give them a deadline for when you or the admission office should receive it. Some schools allow recommenders to submit their letter online; others will have them mail it directly. Providing them with a self-addressed stamped envelope helps expedite the process. And just in case you need reminding, avoid asking family members, neighbors, and friends to write letters of reference.


Some programs require interviews as part of the admission process. They can be relatively informal phone calls or in-person meetings. Either way, you should treat them as you would a job interview. First impressions matter! Dress professionally and do your homework. Find out who you will be interviewing with and what their positions or areas of expertise are. Some admission committees will have you meet with current students or alumni from the program, but this is not the time to relax and forget that it’s an interview—they’re still there to determine if you will be a good fit for the program.

4. Cost

When conducting your research for each program, make sure you understand the cost and funding opportunities available. Don’t wait until you’ve been accepted to figure out how you will pay for school. Ask these questions upfront and explore your options. Some schools offer graduate assistantships or fellowships; some do not. You can learn more about paying for your graduate education here.

What else?

In addition to familiarizing yourself with the application components listed above, you should make sure you both talk with someone in the graduate admission office and visit the school’s campus (and there’s certainly an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone there!).

As indicated above, don’t wait until after you’ve been accepted to ask questions about cost, student-faculty ratio, whether the program is full or part time, etc. Take advantage of open house events to visit campus and meet with students and faculty. Participate in online chats or call the school to learn more. And pay attention to the way the school treats you as an applicant; it is a telling sign of how you will likely be treated as a student.

Graduate school is not something you decide to do overnight. Getting an advanced degree takes time and money. If you are thinking about grad school while you are still in college, develop your timeline now to see when you will need to get started on all the items mentioned here.

If you still aren’t sure whether you want to pursue a graduate degree after all this time and research, don’t dive in—wait. It’s better to plan and prepare a strong application when you are ready. Then once you have applied and are accepted, be sure to celebrate your accomplishment! If the decision didn’t go your way, take a step back and decide how you can improve and if you will pursue the same program again. Being prepared and knowing what you want in the years ahead is going to be your greatest asset.

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