How to Apply to Graduate School

Graduate school admission is based on submission and positive review by a faculty committee of an application package. Most graduate programs do not interview applicants due to the cost and number of applicants. However, if you are applying to schools that are close to you, it can be advantageous to arrange a visit to the department to meet with a representative of the admissions committee and any faculty whose research interests you. If you do visit, request a tour of the department and its research facilities and ask to meet and speak with graduate students who share similar research interests.


The Application

Applications normally include payment of an application fee and submission of Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, official transcripts from all academic institutions of higher learning you may have attended, an application form including an essay, and submission of three letters of recommendation. More information regarding each element follows below:

  • Application fee
    Most programs assess applicants an application fee of $50 or more. Paying the fee is important. Applications are normally not considered complete and therefore are not reviewed by the admissions committee until the applicant has paid the application fee.
  • Graduate Record Exam Scores
    Most programs require applicants to submit recent scores from the GRE examination. Some programs will also require applicants to submit recent scores from the relevant subject test as well. For international applicants recent TOEFL scores may also be required. In addition to being used to determine whether an applicant is qualified for admission to the graduate program test scores may also be used in evaluating the applicant for fellowships and/or teaching assistantships.
  • Official academic transcript(s)
    Programs usually require applicants to submit official transcripts from each of the academic institutions where they have studied - whether or not you have obtained a degree from that program. You should be able to purchase official transcripts from the Registrar's Office at your college or university. Be sure to provide them with the correct address information for each department to which you are applying and be sure to allow sufficient time for your transcripts to be mailed.

Application forms typically request the following information:

  • Contact information
    Current mailing address, e-mail address, telephone number, etc. Be sure to provide contact information that will be accurate throughout the upcoming academic year. If you move or change any of your contact information be sure to call or e-mail the department and update them.
  • Educational history
    Names of all academic institutions where you have studied whether or not you received an academic degree, GPA and major area of study, and year(s) you studied there. It is very important that you provide complete and accurate information in this section. If the application is on-line, be sure to obtain and verify this information from your current and any prior academic institutions in advance of completing the form. Inaccurate information may be construed as an effort on your part to obfuscate your academic record. So, be sure to think before you write.
  • Essay
    Applications frequently require the submission of an essay. Although the specific statement may vary, the purpose of these essays is fairly uniform - to determine why you specifically wish to pursue advanced study and why do you wish to do so at this particular academic institution, i.e., what is your motivation? Although it may be tempting to write one essay and submit it to all of the academic institutions at which you are applying, this is not the wisest strategy. Research each institution and department and then compose an essay that targets each institution.
  • Three letters of recommendation
    This may be the single most important component of your application so your selection of recommenders who can provide candid and positive assessment concerning the recommendation form criteria is critical. The graduate admission committee is attempting to learn whether or not you have the maturity, independence, drive, intellect, creativity and imagination, self-confidence, analytical skills and communication skills needed to be successful in graduate school. Consequently, it is a good idea to identify recommenders who have known you for a reasonable period of time, who know something about your academic record and your work record as it relates to the area in which you wish to study and who are likely to write in positive terms about you. All your recommenders don't have to be faculty, nor do they have to teach courses in your major area of study. However, it is important that their expertise and knowledge of you be relevant to your intended program of study. It isn't necessarily a wise idea to simply select a faculty member as a recommender simply based on the fact that you received a good academic grade in their course. You might have received the only "A" in a class of two hundred students but if you studied with that person three years ago and never actually spoke to them then they are unlikely to be able to say much regarding your qualifications. Consequently, their letter will likely be less enthusiastic and therefore carry less weight than it might have otherwise.

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General Suggestions

  • Apply only to those institutions where you really can see yourself studying - five or six at most. Don't attempt to use a mass mailing strategy in an effort to get into graduate school. This will cost you an excessive amount of time, money (application fees, postage), and effort in the short term and is not likely to yield the results you would like in the long term (admission to the program of your choice).
  • Compose your answers in advance and then transfer them onto the application form.
  • Seek feedback on your essay from interested mentors and/or your faculty advisor.
  • If at all possible complete your application on-line or type your answers onto the application form. Do not handwrite your answers unless you have very good penmanship.
  • Identify your recommenders in advance and "court" them. Provide each recommender with a copy of your resume and offer to sit with them and update them if needed concerning your career goals, recent activities, etc. Give them all of the materials (forms, envelopes, etc.) and information (deadlines - establish deadlines even if the programs do not specify formal deadlines, etc.) they will need in order to do their job. Follow up with your recommenders to make sure that they have everything they need to write their letters and later to make sure that they have submitted their letters.
  • Keep copies of all of your applications and application materials. Keep a record of the dates you mailed your applications, requested transcripts, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, etc. Call and follow up to make sure that your application is complete.

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