Applying to graduate school tips

graduate school collageNow is the time when many people are preparing applications for graduate school.

  • Undergraduates are planning to move right from completing undergraduate degrees to starting a graduate program.
  • Others are employed or under-employed and have decided that a graduate degree would help advance your current career or help you make a career change.

Let me offer some tips about applying to graduate school.

These tips are based on the questions I’ve received from former students applying for graduate school or are from my experience in reviewing applications for candidataes applyiing to graduate school in my college.

Some specifics about applying to graduate school will vary depending on the particular field (like law school) or whether one is applying to a master’s program or a doctoral program, but most of these tips apply for graduate school in general.

Graduate school deadlines

Most graduate school deadlines for programs that start fall semester range from early December until early March. Often programs have rolling deadlines, meaning that applications are reviewed as they are received. For example, with a rolling deadline, even if the deadline is mid-February, applicants will continue to be reviewed until all openings are filled.

The primary advantage of applying before the announced deadline – and definitely by the deadline – is knowing your application won’t be eliminated because you missed the deadline.

But there’s another important reason for applying before the deadline. The program you are applying to typically will have some special funding opportunities.

Some programs have scholarships or fellowships that a select number of students will receive. Many doctoral programs include funding for teaching assistants or research assistants. In some cases, those assistantships include tuition payment and a stipend. You want your application to arrive in time to be reviewed for all possible funding opportunities. When you prepare your application materials, carefully read the application directions to see if you need to complete a special form to be considered for opportunities like a teaching assistantship.

Graduate school admission exams

Being aware of deadlines also means being aware of the deadlines for any graduate school admission exams that you need to take. Depending on the kind of graduate program you are applying for, you may need to take the GRE (graduate school), LSAT (law school), MCAT (medical school) or GMAT (business school).

You need to schedule taking the appropriate exam so you’ll have your scores to submit with your graduate school application. Taking these exams requires preparation and, sometimes, taking the exam more than once to improve scores.

Statement of Purpose

An important part of the application package is the statement of purpose. Here are the directions for the statement of purpose from the Duke’s Graduate School:

As part of your online application, you must upload a statement of purpose. The statement should be one to two pages and single spaced. It should briefly discuss

  • your purposes and objectives in pursuing graduate study;
  • your special interests and plans;
  • your strengths and weaknesses in your chosen field;
  • any research projects or any independent research in which you have actively participated and how they have influenced your career choice and desire to pursue graduate studies; 
  • any particular reasons you may have for applying to Duke (e.g. you would like to work with a specific faculty member).

These guidelines are similar to the expectations of most graduate schools. Be sure to read and follow the directions.

I’ve read statements of purpose that really are an autobiography of the applicant – a background on their academic and professional lives to date. The applicants don’t speak to their purpose in pursuing graduate study or speak to applying to this specific program. Sometimes the statement seems like it would apply to any graduate program. Be sure to tailor your statement to each program you are applying to.

Especially if you are applying to a doctoral program, review the faculty in the program and identify at least one or two with whom you would like to work. Include that in your statement. In many doctoral programs, at least one faculty member has to express interest in working with you in order for you to be admitted. Often that faculty member becomes your advisor.

Adhere to the page limit for your statement. If you have been asked to write one to two pages, do that – even if you have so much more you could say. Part of the evaluation of your statement will be how effectively you made your case within the page limit.


You will be asked to provide a résumé. If you are applying for a doctoral program, you may be asked to provide a curriculum vitae, which is an academic resume.

Be sure your résumé is up to date and that you’ve evaluated what to include in your résumé based on applying to graduate school. Some job experience may not be as relevant for graduate school as information about volunteer work that you’ve done related to the field you are planning to pursue in graduate school.

Letters of Recommendation

As part of the application process, you will be asked to provide two or three letters of recommendation. If possible at least one or two of those recommendations should be written by faculty members or college administrators who can speak to your academic ability and potential for success in graduate school.

A previous post — “7 tips to keep in mind as you ask faculty members to write letters of recommendation for you” – provides suggestions for recruiting those important letters.

Let me add that cultivating faculty who can be references for you is very important.

Undergraduates often think the only reasons to contact a course instructor are due to problems – missing a deadline due to illness, not agreeing with a grade on an assignment, etc. Those are important reasons to contact the instructor, of course, but take the initiative to talk with the instructor so that the instructor gets to know who you are.

Your teachers can be great resources for talking with you about your career goals, internships, student organizations, your portfolio, and more.

Take advantage of office hours, send an email, follow the instructor on Twitter. Short conversations with the instructor before or after class about a reading assignment, a guest speaker, or a relevant story you read in the news can help the instructor get to know you.

Then when the time comes that you need a faculty recommendation, you have already established a rapport.

When you contact the faculty member to request the recommendation, be sure to remind the instructor of your connection. “I’m Susie Smith, and I was in your genetics class two semesters ago. You and I talked about the garden project I was helping with at a local elementary school.”

Even though you may think the instructor would immediately know you, remember that the instructors may have worked with dozens and even hundreds of students since you were in class.

Making the connection is even more important if it’s been a while since you were a student of the instructor’s. You may have been in the work force for five or ten years before you decide to apply to graduate school.

You can keep in contact with those special instructors who could be references at some point through social media, such as LinkedIn, and you can send an email update from time to time or a holiday card. One of my former teaching assistants moved to Japan after completing his master’s degree. I appreciate receiving a holiday card from him every year with a brief update on how he and his family are doing.


You’ll be asked to submit official transcripts from your previous academic work. You typically can order your transcription online through the college or university or can use an online transcript ordering agency.

Be sure to allow time for the ordering process.

English Language Proficiency Test Scores

If English is not your first langauge, you may be asked to provide scores from either the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the academic modules of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

Applying to graduate school has multiple demands that come down to time and money.

  • The time to write the statement of purpose, recruit reference letters, take admission exams, etc.
  • The money to take the admission exams, order transcripts, pay the application fees, etc.

There’s a lot to keep up with the application process, especially as you may be applying to several programs that will have different deadlines and expectations.

Determine a checklist approach for you – an app on your phone, an Excel spreadsheet, or even a paper checklist. Make checking and updating the list a priority until you have achieved your goal of being admitted to graduate school.



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