The Ultimate Guide to Graduate School Applications

Director of Graduate Admission, Roger Williams University

Last Updated: May 8, 2020

So you want to apply to graduate school? Just find a program and apply, right? Not so fast. Your search for a grad program should look a bit different than your undergraduate search—and for good reason. You’re about to pursue a degree that will likely become the foundation for your entire professional life, so you need to get this right.

You’ll want to find the best program that supports your goals and submit a killer application so you get in. I’ve seen great applications and some really awful ones—let yours be one of the great ones. Read on to learn how you can put together your best application to get your name to the top of the admit pile.

Related: The Essential Grad School Application Timeline

Apply to the right place

Let me be loud and clear when I tell you the one thing you need to look for in a graduate school: fit. Something that bothers me as an admission professional is when the wrong student applies to one of our programs. These are the students who have typically never contacted us before or asked questions, have interests that don’t align well with our programs, or are not academically prepared for their intended program or career field.

I’m a consumer of all sorts of things just as you are, and I ask the same questions before buying a product or service: Is it a good brand? Is it too expensive? Will I get a lot of value from it? Will I enjoy using it? What’s in it for me? You’re surely asking those same questions when you invest in a graduate program.

What can be shortsighted about those questions is that we end up treating a graduate degree as a commodity to be bought off a shelf versus something that intrinsically becomes part of who we are. Unlike your undergraduate studies, you are now searching for a degree that, in most cases, will be the driver for your professional career. If you think about your graduate degree as the catalyst for what will become your career, would you ask different questions when choosing a graduate school?

One thing I love about my job is that I can tell students another school is a better fit for them. That sounds odd, doesn’t it? Working with graduate students allows me to literally say, “While I’d love to have you come to my campus, X program at Y institution is better for what you’re looking for.”

Most of my colleagues operate the same way. We’re no longer selling you a campus experience that not only has your program but also has the best food, the most clubs and organizations, or the best nightlife in our local city. We’re focused on the best academic program for you, and that includes aligning your needs with research opportunities or internships, faculty who specialize in your area of interest, and alumni outcomes that match your career goals.

I talk often with students and parents who are fixated on things like cost or proximity to their home. For working professionals, those are key concerns as they juggle work and life outside of school. However, if you’re going to be a full-time student, take advantage of the opportunities you have to find and choose the right school for you beyond just cost, proximity, or convenience. Many students who pursue graduate education right after undergraduate studies or a few years after don’t have the limitations of location or time that often dictate school choices if they go back to school later in life.

And guess what? Graduate faculty are looking for fit too. Just as you’re evaluating our program and faculty, our faculty are looking to determine if you are a good fit for us. For smaller programs, they may be concerned about how a student will fit into the program’s “culture,” while larger programs may look for students who demonstrate an ability to work independently. Most faculty are also looking to determine that your interests align with their work either on research projects or in the field. For programs that value research output (or have a defined deliverable at the end of your program like a thesis), they want to see that you have research skills and an interest in producing high-quality research.

Related: Choosing the Right Graduate Program for Your Goals

Before you apply

The first thing you should do as you prepare your best application for graduate school is to make sure your interests and abilities align well with your intended program. So before you even submit an application to a program, do your research, ask (a lot of) questions of admission professionals and faculty, and even pay a visit to campus if you can.

Use the right application

Technology has changed how students apply to graduate school. Nearly all schools will have you fill out an application online these days, and it’s most likely only a click or two off the institution’s home page. However, many professional disciplines now offer a centralized application service (CAS), similar to the undergraduate Common Application. These CAS systems have you complete an online application through a portal and allow you to identify a series of schools you intend to be considered for admission. You then submit your supporting materials only once to a central address, and these documents are shared with your prospective schools. Institutions have to opt in to participate in a CAS, so be sure to check with your intended program about which application to use.

Related: 5 Critical Reminders Before Sending in Your Graduate School Applications

Keep things honest

I hope it goes without saying that you should never lie on an admission application. If you didn’t work at a particular employer, participate in a research project, or complete a handful of credits at a school that no longer exists, be honest. Admission offices and faculty will find out when you’re not being truthful.

The other important thing to note here is that colleges and universities have the right to revoke admission offers if it is deemed that you provided false information on your application, even if you’re already enrolled.

Write a great personal statement

Most schools have you write some sort of personal statement or letter of intent as part of the application process. Unless a school gives you specific instructions on what to write, this is an opportunity for you to provide more insight on who you are as a student and ultimately who you’ll be in our classroom. Tell us why you want to pursue your intended program and what you’ll add to the classroom and your future career. Talk about what internships or research you might be interested in; read up on the faculty and identify someone you’d like to work with based on their research. (This is suggested for master’s programs and is largely required for PhD programs.) Help us understand what kind of student you’ll be and why you want to be part of our community. Remember, we’re thinking fit.

Do not use your statement as an opportunity to write an autobiography. We think you’re a wonderful individual and would love to hear your stories about growing up and your love of Justin Timberlake or Star Wars—just not now. Sure, a bit of personality in your statement is great so we can get a sense of the type of person you are and how you’ll fit in with our students and faculty. Just avoid too much detail on your entire life and focus on the items mentioned above.

Related: Engaging Ways to Start Your Personal Statement

Send in your transcripts

Your transcripts are a vital portion of your application. Colleges and universities will ask for all transcripts for any schools where you earned college credit. All applicants have to be appropriately vetted, and that includes a full assessment of all your academic coursework. Do not fight us on this; it’s a requirement that we all have, and faculty are generally aware of how students interact with us during the application process. Positive interactions on all fronts will help your case when evaluating you for admission.

When sending your transcripts, you’re at the mercy of how your institution distributes official transcripts: either by hard copy in the mail or through an electronic transcript service. To request your transcripts, you’ll need to complete a formal request with the registrar at your previous institution(s). Just ensure you request your transcripts to be sent to the appropriate email address or mailing address. Check with your intended institution on specific instructions (i.e., address all transcripts to the Office of Graduate Admission to avoid transcripts going to other offices).

Get great recommendation letters

For many students, letters of recommendation can be the determining factor for admission. You will typically be asked for at least two letters for your applications, and each school will have instructions on who should provide them. For some of our programs, we require all letters to be provided from faculty. For others, we encourage students to get letters from a supervisor at work, clients, coaches, or research managers. Note that letters from family members, spouses, or friends are not acceptable unless an institution specifically asks for one.

As for the content of these letters, faculty generally want to know about your ability to perform at a graduate level, clearly and effectively articulate your ideas, work with a team, and contribute to your intended program. We also look for insights into your demeanor and the kind of person you’ll be inside and outside the classroom.

Select recommenders who know you well. No one is getting into graduate school with a two-sentence letter about Johnny being a nice guy and “I had him once in class as a freshman.” Pick people who can attest to things that are important to your intended program. If you’re selecting a graduate program with a heavy research emphasis, pick a faculty member or two who can talk about the research skills you have and discuss any research you conducted during your undergraduate studies. If work in the field is important, pick someone who can talk about your work in an internship or job.

On most applications, you’ll be given the opportunity to waive your right to view your letters of recommendation. By waiving your right to view your letters, you are communicating to your recommenders that they can provide a fully honest assessment and recommendation for you. That waiver is helpful for faculty reviewing your application because they know your recommender was uninhibited in what he or she wrote about you. If you choose not to waive that right, you are communicating to our faculty that there may be information your writers withheld in your recommendations.

Related: How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation for Grad School

Ace your exams

One of the most difficult things for me to see as an admission professional is a student who comes in with a lot of promise and strong grades but who absolutely bombs a standardized test like the GMAT or GRE. Each of your schools will use standardized tests in different ways—some programs may not even require them. However, the last thing you should do is skip studying and treat the test like it isn’t important. Programs that require standardized tests require them for a reason and will use them as an element in your admission decision.

Bottom line: study for your exam. If you’re an undergrad, take it toward the end of your junior year or in the summer and see how you do. Then retake the exam in the fall of senior year if you want to try to improve your score. Trust me—admission officers and faculty don’t care if you were “too tired” or sick to do well on your exam that day. Your score is your score, period.

Related: Top 5 Grad School Test-Taking Strategies

Nail the interview

Some programs will require you to complete an interview on campus or online. This is an opportunity for your personality to shine and to articulate your passion and interest in the field, your understanding of the program and how you fit in, and what you will contribute now and in the future. Take the time to prepare for these interviews: research your programs and faculty, familiarize yourself with an institution or program’s mission and how you may support it as a student, dress professionally, and plan your schedule so you are on time (read: early) for your interview. Every interaction you have with faculty members or staff during the application process can help or hinder your chances for admission.

If you’re asked for additional materials…

Some graduate programs will request additional materials like a portfolio, résumé, or writing sample. You should pay close attention to what programs are looking for when they ask for these items, as requirements will vary. Follow the specific instructions each school provides about submitting supplemental material.

A portfolio is common for Architecture, Art, or Design programs with specific requirements. Be sure to determine these requirements prior to submitting your portfolio. A résumé is a fairly common request for Business programs or programs geared more toward working professionals. In most cases, programs aren’t looking for you to create a specific résumé for them—they simply want to assess your work experience as it relates to fit (there’s that word again) for your intended program.

A writing sample is common for programs that conduct a lot of written research or ones that don’t require you to write an essay exclusively for your application. Faculty are generally looking for a sample of a research paper or thesis produced during your undergraduate studies. Again, there will be specific requirements for each program, so be sure to ask what they are.

Related: 6 Things You Should Know Before Applying to Grad School

Bringing it all together

The ultimate goal is for you to apply to the right program by presenting the best possible application. We want you to succeed just as much as you do—that just requires some effort on your part to apply to the schools that are a good fit for you and follow the appropriate steps to submitting a high-quality application.

A few final thoughts for you:

Follow instructions

Most institutions and programs will make it clear what you need to submit and how you need to submit it. Students who don’t follow instructions and submit the wrong materials or miss steps stand out to the faculty, and not in a good way.

Put your name on everything

I can’t tell you how many times I have received a personal statement, writing sample, or other document emailed to our office that doesn’t have the student’s name on it. Put your first and last name, intended term, and intended program right in the header of the file you send. In the file name itself, put your first and last name and name of the item you’re sending (i.e., Jane Smith Resume.doc).

Meet all deadlines

I’m not saying submit your application on February 1 when it’s due February 1. I firmly believe there is a subconscious message you send when you apply at the last minute. Faculty and staff want to know you’re really committed to a program. Applying at the last minute suggests that we’re a backup choice for you, so try to submit your application and materials in a timely manner. Don’t submit a year in advance and forget about us, but definitely try to start the process at least a couple months before the deadline, particularly if you have to take any standardized tests.

Related: 7 Ways to Stand Out as a Grad School Applicant

Visit campus or attend a virtual event

We occasionally have students apply to us, receive acceptance to the program, and then enroll without ever visiting campus or connecting with us. Would you buy a car without driving it or at least seeing it first? You’re making a big investment of money and time in your graduate education, so spend a few extra dollars to come visit us while you’re applying, or at the very least, join us for a webinar or call for a one-on-one conversation. Some schools even provide travel grants or pay for travel to come to campus. We don’t just do that because we want to be nice—we know how vital a campus visit is for you.

Ask questions

This should be a no-brainer, but call, email, or stop in with questions. Meet with us at graduate fairs. Email the faculty. Ask to talk to current students. No question is off limits when you’re applying to graduate school. And if you ask a question and get a difficult response (or none at all), that should tell you something about the program. Remember, you’re looking for the right fit.

If you’ve made it this far, hopefully you’ve gained some helpful advice as you take the next step toward your graduate degree. Best of luck in your grad school endeavors.

Find the perfect grad school for you on CollegeXpress! And if you need more help getting organized, check out our essential grad school application timeline!



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