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The Ultimate Guide to Graduate School Applications

Applying to grad school is a huge step, and you want to prepare the best application possible for admission. Here's some advice on how to do just that!

Thinking about graduate school? You’ll want to find the best program that supports your goals and also submit a strong application so you get in. I’ve seen some 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.

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: a good fit. As an admission professional, it bothers me when the wrong student applies to one of our programs. These are the students who have typically never contacted us or asked questions before, have interests that don’t align well with our programs, or aren’t academically prepared for their intended program or career field.

I’m a consumer of many different 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? Surely you’re asking those same questions before you invest in a graduate program. What can be shortsighted about these 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’re now searching for a degree that, in most cases, will be the driver for your professional career for the rest of your life. If you think about your graduate degree as the catalyst for what will become your life purpose and career, would you ask different questions when choosing a graduate school?

The right place is looking for you

One thing I love about my job is telling students that 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 across the US operate the same way. We’re focused on the best 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 often talk with students and parents who are fixated on things like cost or proximity to their home. For working professionals, those are really key concerns as they juggle work and life outside 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 cost, proximity, or convenience.

Graduate faculty are looking for the right 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. First and foremost, faculty want students who align well with the intended outcomes of their programs. For example, if your goal is to conduct research and earn a PhD, you likely wouldn’t select a master’s-level program rooted in fieldwork and internships. Similarly, if you aren’t a fan of research, you shouldn’t be spending two or more years in master’s or doctoral study conducting research. Program size is also a factor; with smaller programs, faculty may be concerned about how a student will fit into the program’s “culture,” while larger programs may look for students who can demonstrate an ability to work independently. Most faculty are also looking to determine that your interests fit well with their individual work either on research projects or in the field.

Related: Choosing the Right Graduate Program for Your Goals

Use the right application

Technology and innovation have 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 at which you’d like 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(s) about which application to use.

Keep things honest

It goes without saying that you should never lie on an admission application. If you didn’t work at a particular employer, never participated in a research project you claim, or completed a handful of credits at a school that no longer exists, be honest. Admission offices and faculty will find out when you aren’t being truthful. The other important thing to note is that colleges and universities have the right to revoke admission offers if it’s determined you provided false information on your application, even if you’re already enrolled.

Write a great personal statement

Most schools require you to 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 some more insight into who you are as a student and, ultimately, who you will be in the classroom. Tell us why you want to pursue your intended program and what you’ll add to the classroom and your 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 most PhD programs. Help us understand what kind of student you are as well as why you want to be part of our community. Remember, we're thinking good fit.

Do not use your personal 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 giving too much detail on your entire life and focus on the previously mentioned items. 

Related: Engaging Ways to Open Your Personal Statement

Send in your transcripts

Your transcripts are a vital portion of your grad school application. Colleges and universities will ask for all transcripts from 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. Don’t 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 aid your case when we’re evaluating you for admission.

Get great recommendation letters

For many students, letters of recommendation can be the determining factor for admission. You’ll usually be asked to submit at least two letters for your graduate applications, and each school will have instructions on who should provide them. Some programs may require all letters to be provided by faculty. For others, students may need to get letters from a supervisor at work, clients, coaches, or research managers. (Note: 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 abilities to perform at a graduate level, clearly and effectively articulate your ideas, work with a team, and contribute to your intended field and program. We also look for insight 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 talking about how Johnny is just a nice guy and “I had him once in class as a freshman.” Pick people who can actually attest to things that are important to your intended program, like your character as a student.

On most applications, you’ll be given the opportunity to waive your right to view your letters of recommendation. By waiving this right, you are communicating that your recommenders can provide a fully honest assessment and recommendation. That waiver is helpful for faculty reviewing your application because they know your recommender was uninhibited in what they wrote about you.

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 absolutely bombs a standardized test like the GMAT or GRE. Each of your schools will use standardized test scores in different ways—in fact, 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 do require standardized test scores require them for a reason and will use them as an element in their 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 require you to complete an interview either on campus or online as part of the admission process. This is an opportunity for your personality to shine and for you to articulate your passion and interest in the field, your understanding of the program and how you’ll fit in, and what you’ll contribute now and in the future. Take the time to prepare for your interview: 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’re on time (read: early) for your interview. Every interaction you have with any faculty members or staff during the application process can help or hinder your chances for admission, so always present yourself as a model student.

Bringing it all together

The ultimate goal is for you to apply to the right grad 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 schools that are a good fit for you and follow the appropriate steps in 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.

Provide 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 these items.

Put your name on everything

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve 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 each file you send. In the file name itself, put your first and last name and the name of the item you’re sending (e.g., 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’s 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. 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.

Visit campus or attend a virtual event

We occasionally have students apply to our program, receive an acceptance, then enroll without ever visiting the school’s campus or connecting with us. Would you buy a car without ever 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 and come visit while you’re applying if you’re able to. Some schools may provide grants or pay for your travel. We don’t just do that because we want to be nice—we know how vital a visit experience is for you to make a decision about graduate school. 

Ask questions

This should be a no-brainer, but call, email, or stop in with questions. Meet with us at graduate fairs or virtual events. 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.

Related: Essential Grad School Search and Application Timeline

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

Start looking for the perfect graduate program for you using our Grad School Search tool.

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