Grad school often serves as a practical pathway to better job opportunities and higher salary potential. However, completing grad school applications can challenge even the most dedicated students. Fortunately, careful research and a bit of planning can make the application process much easier to manage.
Most colleges offer comprehensive resources for undergraduates interested in grad school, with teachers, advisors, and counselors available to help students identify schools and demystify the application process.
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This page offers an overview of the grad school application process for all types of students. Read on to find general information about application strategies, personal statements, portfolio submissions, and what grad schools look for in successful applicants.
What Are Grad Schools Looking for in Applicants?
Most grad schools view applications holistically, considering grades, test scores, professional experience, and student work to evaluate an applicant’s potential for success. Other application components, such as a personal statement and letters of recommendation, also factor into admission decisions. Academic performance plays a critical role in this process, but a strong portfolio or relevant professional experience may help offset lower GPAs or test scores.
When researching and selecting grad schools, students should consider their own compatibility with an individual program. Given the numerous academic programs around the country, many grad schools distinguish themselves through a specific emphasis or academic identity. Students who understand and fit in well with a school’s general approach stand a much better chance of gaining admission.
Finding the right fit often means identifying programs that match up with an applicant’s goals and experiences. Researching faculty interests and program accomplishments can help applicants better understand a grad school’s focus areas. Schools can recognize applicants who have done their research. For example, a science program that emphasizes sustainability may be more inclined to admit students who demonstrate a history of sustainability work and a commitment to sustainable principles in their application.
Grad school admissions can operate somewhat mysteriously, making it difficult to define the “perfect” candidate. However, high-achieving students who research programs carefully and apply to several schools typically find success.
What Are the Requirements for a Grad School Application?
While grad school application requirements vary widely among programs, most applications require similar components. This list highlights several common requirements, along with what to expect from each step of the process. Students should research schools carefully to determine individual application requirements.
1. Application and Relevant Fees
Most colleges charge a standard application fee. In general, application fees at all types of colleges average about $43, with $50 being the most common figure. More expensive private schools may maintain higher application fees, with some reaching as high as $90. Students who demonstrate financial need can often receive application fee waivers. Prospective students should consult school admissions offices to learn more about application fees and waivers.
2. Official Transcripts
All grad schools require applicants to submit undergraduate transcripts, which provide a record of academic performance. Some schools may call for hard copies of official transcripts sent through physical mail. Other schools may accept unofficial transcripts, in which case, students can submit them online as part of the application process. Students should check with individual admissions offices to determine specific transcript requirements and submission deadlines.
3. Test Scores
Many colleges require applicants to submit standardized test scores as part of the grad school application process. The most common exam, the GRE, measures skills in critical thinking, reasoning, and analytical writing. Other tests cater to specific fields of study, including the GMAT for business programs, the MCAT for medical programs, and the LSAT for law programs. Many schools maintain minimum test score requirements.
4. Letter of Recommendation
Most grad schools require applicants to submit multiple letters of recommendation from professionals familiar with an applicant’s work. Ideally, a grad school letter of recommendation should come from former faculty members or supervisors who know the applicant in a capacity relevant to grad school. Letters from employers typically carry less weight, unless the job relates closely to the grad program. Colleges typically do not accept letters from friends or family members.
5. Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose
The personal statement figures into most grad school applications, offering students the opportunity to share their background and goals with application committees. While often used interchangeably, the personal statement and statement of purpose do occasionally differ in their requirements. A statement of purpose outlines an applicant’s professional goals and their reasons for attending grad school. A personal statement may focus more on an applicant’s background and how it informs their academic goals.
Some schools may require multiple statements, though most grad school applications only require one.
6. Resume or CV
Resumes and CVs both outline professional history and accomplishments, but they serve different purposes. A resume, often no longer than one page, highlights job history and typically appeals more to traditional employers. A CV may span several pages and serve a more academic audience, detailing an applicant’s teaching experience, publications, awards, and conference presentations. Grad school applications may require either of these documents, though the CV requirement is more common at the doctoral level.
Many graduate programs require candidates to submit a portfolio that demonstrates relevant preparation for graduate study. Portfolio requirements differ widely among graduate programs. Creative programs, such as art or writing programs, typically require a sample of creative work. More academic programs, such as history or psychology programs, may call for an academic writing sample. More technical programs, like engineering, may require examples of professional projects. Other programs may not require a portfolio submission at all.
In some instances, grad schools may interview candidates as part of the admissions process. Interviews enable application committees to get a sense of students and how they might function in an academic community. Interviews may occur on the phone, via video conference, or in person. A grad school interview often functions similarly to a job interview. Interviewers may ask candidates questions about their background, professional goals, and potential to contribute to a graduate program.
Tips for Preparing a Strong Grad School Application
Grad school applications require students to synthesize the different dimensions of their academic and professional experience into a cohesive submission. Applicants should determine their overall goals and identify the schools that can help accomplish those goals. This list highlights the major grad school application components and tips for completing them.
1. Official Transcripts
Registration and records offices typically take responsibility for transcripts. Retrieving and sending official copies takes time, so students should ensure that they complete transcript requests well before application deadlines.
Most colleges mail transcripts to grad schools for applicants, but in some cases, applicants may need to obtain and submit their own transcripts. When handling transcripts, applicants should not open sealed envelopes, which invalidates official records. Most colleges also charge a fee to print and send official transcripts, which students should factor into their application budget.
2. Test Scores
Test scores play a major role in applications for many types of graduate programs, and schools often maintain a general range of acceptable scores. Those hoping to achieve a specific score may need to take graduate exams multiple times. Most tests offer multiple retake opportunities. Depending on a program’s application requirements, applicants may want to determine a target score and how many times they are willing to retake the exam.
Many organizations offer test preparation resources and practice tests, with free and fee-based options available. Practice exams offer valuable preparation, giving students insight into the questions they expect to answer from different types of tests.
3. Letters of Recommendation
When requesting letters of recommendation, students should contact potential recommenders early to give them plenty of time to write their letters. If possible, try to familiarize recommenders with the program or school. Some programs ask for certain types of information in recommendation letters, such as teaching or research potential, so ask recommenders to include this information when applicable.
When seeking letters of recommendation, it does not hurt to send occasional reminders to help recommenders remember their commitment. Afterward, send a thank-you note to anyone who provided a letter.
4. Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose
The grad school personal statement allows applicants to express themselves to the application committee. It pays to present a concise, focused statement that explains your goals, how they fit into the graduate program, and why you want to attend this particular school. If you apply to multiple schools, plan on revising your personal statement slightly to cater to each school and its unique graduate program. Different schools often include slightly different prompts, so students should read directions carefully.
5. Resume or CV
The resume or CV presents your professional experience and achievements, but your submission should represent your most relevant work to the program. For instance, if volunteer work relates more than your job experience to certain grad schools, you may want to present this information first.
While a resume typically spans one page, a CV often presents far more information and may span several pages. Schools usually like to see academics, publications, conference presentations, honors and awards, and any other relevant information that speaks to your academic and professional experience.
Whatever your area of study, the portfolio should represent your best possible work. Some disciplines, including most creative fields, may weigh the portfolio submission more heavily than any other element of the grad school application. Students should follow application instructions closely and submit exactly what programs ask for. For example, applicants should not submit a 16-page writing sample if a program specifies a 15-page limit.
Many programs call for academic writing portfolios, while others may want to see a portfolio of relevant professional experiences or accomplishments. Whatever the submission requirements, make sure your portfolio uses a simple design and opt for online versions, if possible.
If your grad school requires an interview, prepare for it just as you would a job interview. Do your research, and prepare to answer questions about both the school and the grad program. If your interview occurs in person or via video conference, dress professionally and treat the experience just like any other job interview. Check with the program application committee to determine if you need to bring your portfolio, resume, CV, or any other documents.
Grad School Application FAQs
When should I start preparing to apply to grad school?
Most prospective graduate students begin searching for schools sometime during the junior year of their undergraduate program. With the help of online application forms and email communication, applying for graduate school is not quite as difficult and time-consuming as it used to be. Still, you should plan on giving yourself at least one academic year to study for standardized tests, research and decide on which schools to apply to, and gather the necessary application documents.
I finished undergrad a long time ago. Will this hurt my chances of getting into grad school?
According to Kane, having a break after your undergraduate career is not necessarily a bad thing. “Many graduate programs (like those at Centenary University) are specifically designed for working adults with real experience to bring to the classroom. In fact, time is often on the side of those students who may not have had stellar undergraduate careers but have since proven themselves in their respective fields or post-baccalaureate endeavors. It’s never too late!” she says.
I don’t have the best undergrad GPA or test scores. What should I do to improve other parts of my application?
As Kane points out above, taking some time to build relevant work experience after your undergraduate program can help you become a more competitive candidate for graduate studies. If you had a low undergraduate GPA, obtaining some work experience can be a useful way to strengthen your application and it also shows your interest and dedication to the field. Additionally, students in this scenario should allow for more preparation for standardized testing and look for colleagues who can write strong letters of recommendation that will catch the eye of the admissions committee. Perhaps the most obvious yet important thing to do is to make sure that your statement of purpose or other essays are spotless and perfectly executed.
Can I use my previous work experience for credit?
This really depends on the school. Some schools do allow students to save time and money by accepting previous work experience for credit. However, students should ensure these schools are properly accredited and not “degree mills.” A degree from an unaccredited institution does not provide the education or credentials to advance your knowledge and career.
Can I submit more letters of recommendation than what’s required?
If the application instructions state that sending more letters of recommendation than what’s required is acceptable, then it is okay to submit additional letters. Admissions committees are often buried in applications, however, and have little extra time during the review process. That said, adding additional unsolicited pages to your application may not work in your favor. Showing that you can follow instructions is more important than providing more information.
Can I apply again if my target grad school already rejected me?
If you had your heart set on a school and you were rejected, it is certainly acceptable to reapply the following year. Many prospective students try to get in touch with a professor in the department who has shared interests and is willing to offer advice to prospective students. Do not expect or ask them to review your application materials for you, however. Rather, tell them what you are interested in, discuss some of your ideas, and see what kind of pointers come your way to make your application stronger the next time around.
Will going to grad school help me make a career change?
In most cases, obtaining a graduate degree can help you either advance in your current career or make the shift to another career path. Your chosen field may help determine which scenario is more likely. For example, professionals in the hard sciences or medicine are more likely to advance in their current career with a graduate degree, whereas those pursuing graduate degrees in the humanities or business may be able to make a career change because these fields are so broad and can be applied to different types of jobs.
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