Getting into graduate school can be a nerve-wracking process. Applications can be long and confusing, and the pressure to perform is high. It’s never too early to start thinking about graduate school and ensuring that all your hard work leading up to graduate school actually pays off. Take your time going through this guide and learn what you need to do to build a solid academic background and gracefully navigate the graduate school application process.
TABLE of CONTENTS
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Build a Strong Record
If the first time you think about your grad school application is when you’re sitting down to fill it out, you are in for a rough ride. Building a strong record that graduate schools respect takes time and effort. If you’ve slacked off in this department, don’t panic. There is always something you can do to make your application stronger, but the sooner you get started, the better off you’ll be.
A high GPA, good scores on the GRE, and high-quality recommendations are all important parts of your application, but they should not be the only things you think about. Real-world experience, volunteerism, travel, conferences, a compelling personal statement, and research will all strengthen your application.
Boost Your Undergrad Grades and GPA
Counteract a Low GPA
If you dropped the ball in undergrad, but know you can do well academically, try to ace the GRE to prove your skillst to potential grad schools. In fact, some grad schools will only ask for the GRE if your GPA is weak. This is a second chance to show your academic potential.
Earning a certificate in your field, taking a few graduate level courses before getting into a program, or taking failed courses again to take advantage of your undergrad’s grade forgiveness program (most schools have them) is another way to demonstrate academic potential outside of your GPA. If you’re just not good at taking tests you will have to prove your worth in other areas, such as experience and dedication.
Turn a Disadvantage Into an Asset
If your grades dropped because you were holding down a full-time job to support your family or because you were suffering from some kind of illness, put that information in your personal statement. Sometimes a compelling tale of overcoming adversity is more appealing to an admissions board than high grades alone.
If your grades were low the first and second year of undergrad but came back up for junior and senior year, be sure to point that out too. It shows that you’ve matured and grown, and are now ready to take on the academic world.
Prepare for Grad School as an Undergrad
Start making a short list of grad schools you’re interested in and start checking out their requirements. There is usually some leeway, but don’t expect to get into a top-tier school with a 2.3 GPA. Check university websites for acceptance statistics, or if they are not offered on the site, email and request them. These statistics will show you what kind of qualifications the program demands of its applicants. Armed with this information, you can either up your game to meet their qualifications or move on to a different school.
Tackle the GRE
The GRE can seem complicated and intimidating at first glance. I’ll dispel some of your GRE myths, explain how the test itself is set up, and give you the information you need to get your best possible score.
How Significant Is the GRE?
If your GPA is low or your desired program requires it, the GRE is important, but it is still only one part of a whole picture. As long as you meet any minimum program requirements, the GRE is taken into account along with GPA, work and volunteer experience, recommendation letters, your personal statement, and often a writing sample. Furthermore, it’s usually not weighted that heavily in comparison with other factors. By all means, try your hardest on the GRE, and even retake it if you think you can do better, but don’t let it keep you up at night.
Prepare for the Test
For the Quantitative section, you are going to have to go back to some basic math. If your major isn’t related to mathematics, it may have been a while since you covered the material. An A+ on algebra and geometry in high school doesn’t necessarily translate to a high score on the Quantitative section, so be sure to give yourself a thorough review. The good news is you can skip calculus and other higher math, since they won’t appear on this test.
While the Quantitative section will largely be familiar to those who’ve taken the SAT, the Verbal section incorporates much more advanced vocabulary. You can’t answer a question if you don’t know what the words mean, so make time to study the GRE vocabulary list and get to know it well.
For the Analytical Writing section, spend some time in your writing lab if your school has one and take a challenging English course whether your major requires it or not. Getting feedback on your writing from a professor will also help you hone your skills.
One of the best ways for students to prepare is to get familiar with the test itself. Kaplan University, The Princeton Review, and the Educational Testing Services (ETS) all offer free practice tests that will give you a chance to become comfortable with the format and more familiar with the types of questions you can expect. This is especially helpful for getting used to the time limits.
If you can afford it, a tutoring service will also help you get the scores you’re looking for on your GRE. While not strictly necessary, tutoring can be a big help to students who are struggling.
Understand Your Score
Decide Where To Apply
Deciding which graduate programs to apply to can be tough. There are hundreds of programs out there, each with different specialties and qualifications. We’ll explore some of the important criteria, including some you may not have considered, and how to find the information you need to make the right choice.
Directories are critical to the first stage in your process of choosing a graduate school. Besides giving an idea about the breadth and scope of programs available, they will provide you with complete listings of school addresses, program directors, faculty members, and number of applicants/enrolled students.
This sort of information can help you to identify the twenty or thirty programs in which you have at least some interest. Throughout this process, however, you will need to keep an open mind — schools that you never would have considered may suddenly sound intriguing, and programs that you supposed were top of the line may turn out to be less than advertised. Keeping an academic diary with a list of schools under consideration, the date, and perhaps the reasons for rejecting each program will be both informative and interesting to you as the time passes.
Once this initial stage has been completed, you are ready to request forms, brochures, and application materials from each school. This is best completed in July or August, as most programs do not have the new forms or lists of current faculty printed before then. Don’t bother asking specific questions; most schools start by sending only the basic information in their “prescreening” process.
There are many programs out there that could be right for you, and finding as many of them as possible will increase your chances proportionately. An improved selection process therefore should enable you to choose from significantly more admissions offers and better financial aid packages. By considering the many factors involved, you will forge a process more reasonable and clearheaded from the start.
Number Of Students
Rate Of Attrition
Masters Students: It may be advantage for you to consider schools which offer the PhD as well as the masters since they often can offer richer resources, stronger faculty, and a broader base of students and alumni. On the flip side, however, you will want to determine the prevailing attitude towards masters students in such programs. Finding yourself on the short end of a preference for doctoral students can easily make graduate school a much less pleasant experience than it might otherwise be.
Doctoral Candidates: Keep in mind that the major purpose of most doctoral programs is focused upon publishing, and use that as an important yardstick for your own choices. What is the average length of time to complete a dissertation at the various programs? What subjects have been featured in previous candidates’ dissertations? Is funding available to students after finishing the comprehensives? Such questions will illuminate the priorities and problems that may define your post-Master’s work at this school, or alternatively force you to consider transferring… and unnecessarily endure this application process again.
Most students apply to far too few programs their first time around. Don’t make that mistake. When you finally emerge from the piles of brochures and personal recommendations and yearly program rankings, have a solid number of schools to which you can apply. You will be better off sending applications to a wide range of programs and deciding between the several acceptances — and financial aid packages offered — than having few or no options. Applying to a dozen or more schools is probably overkill, and applying to just three or four is too few. Seven to ten applications is probably the most reasonable figure for your targeted approach.
Choose some very ambitious schools, so that you will know that you got into the very best school that you could, and choose some real safety schools as well. Perhaps these latter schools won’t provide the status or resources that you had wished for, but this is worst-case planning.
Distinguish Your Application
There are limited spots in any master’s or PhD program, and often hundreds or even thousands of applicants. So how does the average student stand out among the crowd? There are a number of ways to get noticed.
Make Stellar Grades and Scores
There is no way around it: grades are important. They are not the only important thing, and they may not even be the most important, but having a 4.0 definitely doesn’t hurt your chances of getting into grad school. Sometimes when specialty tests are required, like the LSAT, a high score is enough to move you to the top of the list. For other schools it’s a positive footnote, but not a deciding factor.
If you really want to give that GPA some weight, make sure you attend an impressive school. Attending an Ivy League or similar caliber institution will show that your high GPA was a challenge to obtain, and thus make it worth more to those who might accept your application.
Get Glowing Personal Recommendations
Get engaging recommendations from people who are leaders in their field and have personal experience with your work. A recommendation from someone the review board may know, either personally or by reputation, will carry much more weight than one from someone they’ve never heard of. Furthermore, a recommendation from someone who knows you personally is more likely to include the personal qualities and anecdotes that make you stand out. .
Do Your Research
Take some time to research the school to which you are applying? What are some of their professors researching? What does it say in their mission statement? Knowing what each program is looking for will help you tailor your application to their specifications and get you noticed. If the university has a well-known professor, try showing interest in the subject he or she is researching. If the university leans more toward a particular specialization, be sure to spend extra time on your qualifications in that particular area.
If you find a professor who focuses in an area that you are particularly interested in, try emailing him or her to get a little feedback on your potential at the program. Be respectful but confident. Ask what he or she thinks of your potential and how you could do better. Get a conversation started about the professor’s research. Making this kind of connection will not only give you an insider look at how to apply, it will also get your name on the mind of at least one of your potential professors.
Gain Valuable Work Experience
Most graduate schools want to see some kind of work experience. Just showing up to class and passing undergrad isn’t enough to guarantee you’ll do well in grad school. Talk to your professors about what work experience is most impressive for graduate applicants in your field and then go out and get it. You will probably have to take less than glamorous jobs and sometimes work for free to get the kind of resume you are looking for but think of it as working for experience instead of money, because it is well worth your time.
Your personal statement is your best opportunity to showcase your skills and personality, as well as explain any weaker parts of your application. Spend some time on your statement and don’t be afraid to get personal with it. Let them know why you want to be in your field of choice, what you’ve done to prepare, and what your goals are for your future career. Make yourself sound like a potential colleague they would love working with, not a just a student trying to get a foot in the door.
If your grades or test scores are low or you don’t have the volunteer experience you would like and there is a good reason, tell them why. Don’t be whiny here, but if you’ve legitimately overcome some kind of adversity to get where you are today, make that a part of your statement. Your goal is to make the review board understand what a talented and motivated person you are.
Your job doesn’t end as soon as the application is in. Appropriate follow-up can be the force that either gets you in or leaves you wondering what went wrong. Once you’ve sent your application in, take a moment to call and make sure that everything has arrived as needed. This is a small step that can mean the difference between acceptance and no one even looking at your application.
If you do get a rejection letter, you should still follow up. Ask where your application could have been improved and what you can do to prepare for another round of applications next time. You may not hear back, but if you do, the insight you gain could be very valuable. If something significant has changed since you applied, such as new experience or a new grade that boosted your GPA, you can also request that the board reviewing your application take a second look. Depending on how important the new factor is, this could get you in the door or get you no response at all, but it doesn’t hurt to make the effort.
Get Quality Recommendations
Getting quality recommendations is a crucial part of your application strategy. While everything else reflects what you think about yourself, recommendations are what other people think about your work and your potential. A good recommendation will have a little more weight with grad programs, since they want to see that you have been successful in the past and have the potential to be successful in their program.
Most graduate programs like to see at least one letter of recommendation from a professor if you are recently out of school. Cultivate your relationships with your professors while you are still in school, and you will have a much broader array of options when it comes time to ask for those letters. Ask and answer questions in class, always come prepared, and make use of office hours. Not only will this help you earn better grades, it will also help you forge the kind of relationships with your professors that result in exemplary letters of recommendation.
You should also try to get a professor in your field to write your letter. Your English teacher might be impressed with your prose, but a graduate letter from her probably won’t help you get into a chemical engineering graduate program. It may sound calculating, but make special efforts to forge a relationship with the professors in your chosen field of study. Not only will they have much to teach you, but they can also offer a letter of recommendation with more clout.
If you’re already graduating, and you don’t have a close relationship with any of your professors, don’t panic. Professors are used to getting letter of recommendation requests and may help you out even if you were just another face in the class to them. In cases like this, professors will generally ask for your curriculum vitae, which is basically a very detailed and more academically inclined resume, and base the letter off of what you give them.
Mentors and Supervisors
The next person grad programs want to see letters of recommendation from is usually your mentor at a volunteer position or supervisor at work. After learning that you thrive under academic conditions, they want to see if you do as well in the working world. This letter should ideally emphasize your passion for the field and your dedication to continually advancing your knowledge and your career.
Colleagues can provide good recommendations, but you should only ask them once you have exhausted your supply of professors, mentors, and supervisors. More credit is given to the opinions of people who are already successful and renowned in their fields than to people who are on the same level as you are. Make sure your colleague is a skilled writer before asking to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation down the road.
Who Not to Ask
While it may seem an easy choice, don’t ask family, spouses, significant others, or personal friends for recommendation letters. Grad school programs will not be impressed if you can get your mother to say nice things about you, regardless of how nice those things may be. The only possible exception to this rule is if you have a family member who also happens to be a leader in your field, or whom you have worked with in the past, but be careful here; this choice can backfire.
How to Ask
Your first step is to find out exactly what your graduate programs are looking for. Do they have particular requirements for letters of recommendation? Do they accept emailed letters or only those sent through the post office with the writer’s signature across the back flap of the envelope? Are there length requirements or limits? Are free-form letters accepted or is there a form required? Find out the answers to all of these questions before you ask and come prepared with any forms needed. You should also get an idea of what you would like the writer to emphasize in your letter.
Once you have all the research completed and paperwork in hand, it’s time to start asking. If it is physically practical, speak to each potential letter writer in person. Let them know they have been a positive influence on your career, you respect their work, and you would really appreciate it if they could write you a letter of recommendation. If speaking to them in person isn’t practical, an email or a phone call is acceptable.
If they say yes, speak frankly about what you would like the letter to include and be sure to give them all the information they need, including the letter due date. Depending on the reliability of your letter writer, it may be best to tell them the due date is a little earlier than it actually is. You can avoid lying by saying when you would like to send the letters in rather than when they must be in by.
Get Your Recommendations to the School
The method you choose to get your recommendations to the grad program of your choice will depend on your program’s requirements. Some will accept emails directly from the writer of the letter, while others require a hard copy that has been signed across the seal. If you have to use hard copies, be sure to collect your letters early and send them with the rest of your admissions packets. Be sure to send the letters to the right place when applying for multiple programs at once to avoid the embarrassment of a letter addressed to the wrong school.
Contacting professors at the schools in which you are interested is probably the single most unique thing about graduate school admissions. Though many students never would have considered this, it is an extraordinarily valuable experience. Many positive things will emerge from your efforts, including your own evolving recognition of the application process as essentially interpersonal, not impersonal as it most often is viewed.
As a practical matter, you probably should hope to contact at least one professor at each school to which you are thinking of applying. With seven to ten schools, this is still quite a lot of letters, but after the first is completed the rest will flow relatively easily.
First, do your homework. Check through the brochures of all the schools you are seriously considering. Using the faculty listings and research interests as a guide, check whom might you be especially interested in working with, or under. Even if this professor does not end up being your advisor, you will have engaged a important collegial relationship, and gained useful information as well. Certainly it won’t kill you to be wrong about whom to choose, but you might as well be right.
Next, go to the largest library available. A large regional library will do, but a strong university system is even better. You are going to be doing a small bit of research on each of these professors for whom you haven’t got sufficient information. Check especially through such things as The National Faculty Directory and the Directory of American Scholars. You don’t need a great deal of information, but seek useful tidbits. For instance, working with a professor who won a significant award in your field is going to help increase your reputation for having worked under her. The primary goal is information sufficient to glimpse the professor’s interests and to make an intelligent, informed presentation in your letter.
Write a Letter
As far as the letter itself, explain who you are. Discuss their research interests and why you are particularly interested in their program; the more specific you can be, the better. You’ll probably also want to know whether they would be available as an advisor next year, or some such thing pertinent to your decision whether to apply to this school. Send a copy of your résumé: it will readily introduce them to you without having to come right out and say how great you are, and will allow them to judge your qualifications for the program. It’s best to find out now if they think you might be overmatched by the competition, and for you either to respond or to change your plans accordingly.
Wait for a Response
When you do get a response, it is a momentous opportunity to gauge your candidacy and to correct any mistaken impressions. If they loved your credentials, thank them; or if, as is likely, they were wishy-washy, you can reinforce the more positive aspects. You can then choose either to continue the correspondence, or wrap it up and let them know how much you appreciate their help. Whichever it is, you now have someone on the faculty who at very least will recognize your name. You’ve also got a name to mention in your personal statement, indicating both your enduring interest in the program and the maturity of your decision to apply. And you probably understand the school or department a little better. It was an effort well spent.
Compose a Winning Personal Statement
A personal statement is where the review board really gets to know you. It gives you a chance to express your qualifications, address any weaknesses in your application, and show them what your goals are for your future career. I’m pretty sure my hastily done and poorly considered personal statement was one of the big reasons I had to go through the application process more than once, so take my advice and follow these do’s and don’ts.
Take at least one class in creative or persuasive writing if you are unsure of your writing abilities. At the very least, you should talk to a professor or educated friend about what makes a paper compelling and work that into your personal statement.
Start by making a list of the things you want to address in your statement. Write down what you want the review board to know about you: why you chose this career, why you’ll make a great grad student, why your grades were lower junior year than the others. Making an outline will help you remember to cover everything.
Look at each program’s requirements. Some grad programs won’t have any specific requirements, while others will have strict rules to follow. Making sure you know what those rules are ahead of time will save you a lot of revision down the road.
Think carefully about what kind of tone you want to convey. It should be professional but accessible. Use vocabulary you’re comfortable with, but avoid slang and poor grammar.
Stick with one tone to give your statement internal consistency. Since the personal statement is all about you, write it in first person. Personal statements written in third person often sound stilted and awkward. Any good paper needs an introduction and a conclusion, so be sure to wrap up your statement at the end with a few concluding sentences.
Follow the mini-skirt rule of writing. Your paper should be long enough to cover everything but short enough to be interesting. The review board looks through hundreds of these statements, so you don’t want to bore them or waste their time, but you should take the time you need to get your point across. Avoid repetition and try to make your points as concise as possible without losing meaning.
Remember that the rest of your application exists. Your transcripts will cover your grades in detail, so you don’t need to rehash them in your personal statement. While you can mention your grades to make a point, or explain them if they are weak, don’t just list your grades for various classes. The review board already has this information.
Address your weaknesses. College review boards will notice the weak points in your application whether you bring them up or not, so take the time to explain why your grades weren’t where you wanted them to be or how your experience in the field makes up for what you missed in the classroom. Be clear and assertive without being defensive or whiny.
Tell them why you’re passionate about the field. Grad schools want to know that they are spending their time and resources on someone who is going to contribute to their field someday, so talk about what excites you. Be honest and direct, but avoid clichés.
Talk about your goals. Show grad schools that you will be an interesting and hardworking colleague, not just a student. Talking about your future plans shows that you have put thought and consideration into your career instead of just applying because it seemed like a logical next step.
Limit your anecdotes. While the right anecdote can set the tone and grab the reader’s attention, too many can start to become repetitive. You’re not writing the story of your life. You’re telling them why they should accept you into the program, so keep anecdotes short and relevant.
Read over what you wrote, once in your head and once out loud, to see how it sounds. Comb through for any grammar or spelling errors and polish your tone. Check the list of points you wanted to cover and make sure you have addressed everything.
Let a trusted friend or professor read over your work. Getting someone else’s perspective, especially if they have sat on admissions boards themselves, can keep you from making common mistakes and help ensure that your points are clearly covered.
Tailor your statement to each program. Make sure you are following all their rules for personal statements. Take a moment to make it personal by adding a paragraph about what attracts you to their specific program and why you think it’s a good fit. While this takes a little more time, it will show grad schools that you really put thought and effort into your application process.
Writing a personal statement doesn’t have to be intimidating. Follow these simple steps and you will already be well ahead of most of the competition.
The dreaded rejection letter happens to the best of us. If you’re sitting in your house with a pile of “we regret to inform you” letters, wondering what comes next, take a breath. This doesn’t have to be the end of the road.
Plenty students have been rejected the first time they applied for graduate school. There are any number of factors that can go into acceptance or rejection, some of which are out of your control. The same application can get you in one year and rejected the next, depending on the pool of applicants that year. Strengthening your application and refining your tactics may be all you need to turn a no into a yes.
Seek a Second Chance
If anything has changed in your grades or experience since you sent in your application, you can apply for a second consideration. Whether or not this tips the scales in your favor depends on how significant the change is, but since nearly six months can pass between application and response at some schools, it might be worth a try.
If you don’t want to challenge the letter, take a look at when admissions time comes around again. For some programs, admissions continues throughout the year. Others take applications once a semester, while still others only accept applications once a year. If you still want to pursue graduate school, take a look at when your next chance to get is and start preparing.
Ask for Feedback
Take a moment to email or call the schools you received rejection letters from and ask if there’s any information they can give you about why you were not accepted. Be sure to keep your tone respectful and interested, and be polite but persistent. Not all programs will respond to you, but those who do will give you invaluable advice for improving your application. If you do it right, you may even gain an ally at the school.
Explore Your Next Steps
Apply for Financial Aid
One of the first things to look at after getting that acceptance letter is your potential financial aid package. Some schools will give you a financial aid offer along with your acceptance. If that’s the case, count yourself lucky and relax a little while you wait for your first semester to come around.
If you weren’t that lucky, take some time getting to know the financial aid department at your school. They will help connect you to different financial aid sources you might qualify for. If you think you might qualify for a scholarship, grant, or assistanceship, go ahead and apply. The more financial aid you get, the less you’ll have to worry about repaying when you begin your career. Most programs will offer at least some kind of financial assistance to their graduate students.
Take some time to search the Internet for scholarships as well. If you intend to work in an underserved area, have a military background, are returning to school after a long absence, are a parent, or any other long list of qualifications, there may be aid available to you. Spend the time researching your options so you can worry less about finances and focus more on your studies.
Once you’ve applied for scholarships and know what’s available to you, it may be time to look at loans. Focus on federal loans first, as these have lower interest rates, more lenient and income-based payback plans, and may allow you to apply for loan forgiveness after a certain number of years.
Prepare to Relocate
If your grad school isn’t in the area, it’s time to start packing and getting ready for a move. Relocating can be difficult if you’re not familiar with the new area, and a little research can go a long way. Look into both campus housing and local rental rates and see how they stack up against each other. Most of the time renting off campus is less expensive, but this is not always the case.
If you do decide to rent off campus, research the various complexes, buildings, and neighborhoods available. Online reviews are a good resource if you’re conducting an apartment hunt from faraway. But if possible, try to visit the area before making your final housing choice.
Talk to Your Employer
If you are working an unrelated day job to pay the bills, this will not be a particularly difficult transition. On the other hand, if you are working in your field and may want to take a new position with the same company once you graduate, you should tread a little more carefully. Let your supervisor know how much you’ve enjoyed your position and that you would like to talk to the company about opportunities once you graduate.
Some jobs will offer to pay for your graduate program in exchange for your agreement to work with them for a set number of years once you graduate. If the organization you work for offers this kind of program, take advantage of it. You can always break the agreement, provided you pay back the tuition costs, if you change your mind later.