Applying to Grad School

Deciding on whether to go to graduate school can be a lot on you. Here are some helpful things to consider when making your decision:


Things to Consider

Commitment to a master's degree or a doctoral program is a major decision. To be confident in your choice of a program you will want to investigate your options in relation to personal, academic and professional factors. Among the most important factors to keep in mind as you research programs are:

  • Program focus and areas of specialty
  • Length of the program
  • Costs and available financial assistance
  • Program's contributions to your field
  • Reputation of program and faculty - internationally, nationally and locally
  • Research facilities
  • Opportunities for teaching, research or field experiences
  • Student/faculty ratios
  • Professional opportunities after graduation

Exploring Your Options

The University Career Center sponsors several events throughout the year bringing graduate and professional school recruiters to campus. Use these events to speak directly with recruiters and gather more information.

The following comprehensive graduate school sites can help you explore your options more fully:


Most graduate school programs request the results of specific standardized tests as part of your materials. Knowing what tests are required will allow you to prepare well in advance of the test date. Applicants usually try to prepare and take the required tests approximately one year prior to enrollment. For undergraduates this is usually the spring or summer of their junior year, or the fall of their senior year. However, there is not one “right” time to take a standardized test. You are encouraged to take the test when you are most prepared.

There are many ways to prepare for standardized tests. The preparation method you select should complement your learning style as well as your budget. Options include:

  • preparation guides
  • computer programs
  • samples of tests previously administered, and
  • test preparation courses

Although it is important to do as well as possible, keep in mind that your test results are one of several criteria used in evaluating your application.


Admissions decisions are influenced by a number of factors, and each school will have its own set of policies and procedures. Knowing the policies of your target schools can help you develop strategies that work to your advantage.

Admissions Criteria

Typically, admissions committees base their decisions on a combination of grade point average, standardized test scores, personal essays, previous work experience, research, and co-curricular activities. Each program will have a means of weighing these factors to reach their decisions.

Developing A Strategy

Once you are satisfied with the range of programs you have investigated, you will be in a position to create a list of the programs most congruent with your personal profile. To increase the probability that you are accepted to at least one program of your choice you may want to employ a “tier” application strategy. Apply to a range of programs — from those that are highly selective to others for which you would clearly be viewed as a highly competitive candidate.

Application Materials

A typical graduate school application may request a written application outlining biographical information, a written essay, transcripts, letters of recommendation and standardized test scores. In addition you may be asked to participate in an interview. Each of these components should be equally well developed and communicate professionalism.


As part of your application, most graduate schools give you an opportunity to elaborate on your background in a personal essay. The content of your essay will be defined by the guidelines outlined on the application. Some programs will provide little structure, allowing you to choose the aspects of your background you wish to highlight. For others you may be asked to respond to specific questions. The essay is your chance to elaborate on your understanding of the discipline, your academic endeavors, and ideas for future career directions.

Keep the perspective of the admissions committee in mind when writing your essays. They will be reading your essay with some key goals in mind:

  • To learn why you are interested in graduate school
  • To understand how your interests correspond to the interests of their program
  • To assess your writing ability
  • To differentiate applicants who are in the middle range of the applicant pool, with good, although not outstanding, scores and grades

With that in mind, consider these questions before you begin writing:

  • What is unique about your background? Have you faced any unusual hardships or situations? Which of these experiences have influenced your growth?
  • When did you become interested in this field, and what specific experiences have furthered your interests?
  • What have you learned about the program that most interests you?
  • What are your career goals?
  • Are there any inconsistencies or negatives in your record that you should explain?
  • Which personal characteristics and skills will enhance your prospects for success in graduate school and in the professional world?
  • What makes you stand out from the pack? What are the most compelling reasons for this school to be interested in you?

Pay attention to your writing style as well as your content. Keep these points in mind as you work on drafts of your document:

  • Be clear, concise and organized. Write efficiently, with no ambiguity. Develop your ideas in an orderly fashion, using examples when needed.
  • Be positive. Sell yourself, highlighting positive qualities; approach weaknesses in your background cautiously, keeping the tone of your document positive, not apologetic.
  • Be honest and direct. Don’t inflate your achievements, but also don’t underestimate your potential. Be sure to address specific questions that are asked.
  • Be personal. Essays are your chance to convey a more complete picture of yourself, beyond test scores and grades. Take the opportunity to share something of yourself that will have meaning for the admissions committee.


Letters of reference provide committees with additional perspectives on your past performance and future potential. Consequently, when asking an individual to write a letter, consider who can comment specifically on your skills and abilities related to your chosen career area. Keep these tips in mind when arranging your letters:

  • Request letters only from people who know you well enough to write strong letters of support; you may wish to arrange a meeting with the writer to discuss your future plans for an advanced degree.
  • It is best to request letters when your work habits, skills and interests are fresh in the writer’s mind.
  • Consider the range of possible writers, and which writers might best serve your purposes. Writers could include faculty, teaching assistants, past employers, or supervisors from volunteer and leadership experiences.
  • Allow enough time for the letter to be written, keeping in mind that you may be one of several graduate/professional school candidates requesting a letter from a particular faculty member.

Depending on the type of programs you will be applying to, you may be able to utilize reference letters that were assembled in the past and managed by dossier services such as Interfolio, or you may need to have your recommenders upload their letters directly to specific application services/systems.

It will be extremely important that the authors of your reference letters understand the specific expectations that your targeted programs will have for these evaluations.  For example, see these guidelines  that the American Association of Medical Colleges has developed on how to write effective reference letters in support of medical school application.


Investigating the financial options available to you may prove to be an effective cost-saving measure and, in some cases, may help narrow the list of schools to which you apply. Financial assistance ranges from loans to fellowships to scholarships. You will find that some assistance is allocated on the basis of need while other funding is awarded for merit, special achievements, or service to the institution. Knowing what is available from governmental or private sources will enable you to capitalize on every opportunity to receive financial support.

Some deadlines for financial assistance may be earlier than the admissions deadlines. Pay close attention to eligibility requirements, application procedures, and deadlines. The faculty and staff at the institutions you are considering are excellent resources for learning about financial assistance programs.

Following are several web sites devoted to financial aid information:


Below is a sample timeline to help you plan your application process. While deadlines for programs and financial aid packages vary, in general you want to start the process one and a half to two years prior to enrollment.

Junior Year, Fall and Winter Semester

  • Research schools and programs of interest, using on-line and library resources; pay special attention to early deadlines
  • Talk with faculty and other mentors about your goals and interests
  • Identify recommenders and request letters of reference
  • Register and prepare for appropriate graduate admissions tests
  • Attend graduate and professional school events on campus sponsored by the University Career Center to speak directly with recruiters
  • Research financial aid options, including deadlines

Junior Year, Summer Semester

  • Take required admissions tests
  • Request application materials, school catalogues and financial aid information from selected schools
  • Continue making contact with potential reference letter writers
  • Visit institutions of interest, if possible
  • Begin drafting application essays

Senior Year, Fall Semester

  • Take required admissions tests (if not already taken)
  • Monitor progress of reference letter writers
  • Begin drafting application, including further drafts of application essays
  • Continue to apply for financial aid
  • Attend graduate and professional school events on campus to help finalize your applications
  • Request transcripts and letters of reference to be mailed
  • Complete and mail applications
  • Check to ensure that institutions have received all application materials, including transcripts and letters
  • Make plans to visit select institutions

Senior Year, Winter Semester

  • Visit prospective campuses if possible; interview if necessary
  • Be prepared to consider multiple acceptances, and to evaluate your options based on personal and professional goals
  • Once committed to program of your choice, notify other schools of your decision
  • Send thank you notes to reference letter writers and others who helped you in your search, notifying them of your decision.