The Path Forward
The process of applying to graduate school is significantly more complex than undergraduate applications, and it will be very important to allow yourself enough time to collect the appropriate materials and ensure that your application is the strongest it can be. This chapter will break down the various components of a graduate school application, and provide a rough timeline to help you organize your application.
Step One: Research, Research, Research
As you work on your applications, specificity will be key. Not only should you consistently be specific about your proposed field of study, but you should also tailor each application to the specific program to which you are applying. Therefore, your first step will be to compile a definitive list of programs to which you will apply, and then research the unique course offerings, resources, and faculty of each program. Graduate school is typically more competitive than undergraduate programs, and admissions boards will be accepting only their top candidates. To put together a competitive application, you should demonstrate a sincere interest in what each program has to offer. As we mention in chapter one, you should try to imagine yourself in each program, consider how each program will enrich your work, and think about how you would contribute to the campus community.
Step Two: GRE and Other Standardized Tests
Once you’ve done your research about each program and their application requirements, you should have a clear idea of the tests you will be required to take. Most programs will require the GRE or other exams specific to your field, so you should begin studying early and take the tests in the spring or summer before applying to programs. This way, you will have time to retake the tests if your scores do not match the program’s preferences, and you will ensure that universities will receive your scores on time.
Step Three: Letters of Recommendation
Most programs will require three letters of recommendation. Positive letters can be a deciding factor for admissions boards, and can push your application from being competitive to being accepted. While your application and personal statement will give readers an idea of how you think of yourself, letters of recommendation show them how professionals in their field asses your work ethic, enthusiasm, and skills. Therefore, you should choose recommenders who have known you in a professional or academic capacity related to your field, and who will be able to confidently advocate for you. While prestige may play a role in how your letter is read (a glowing recommendation from a top researcher in your field never hurts) the recommender’s knowledge of your commitment and enthusiasm is more important. For example, if you took one class with a respected professor and received an A but never went to office hours or communicated with that professor individually, it may be wise to consider other options.
About three months before submitting your application, you should contact your potential recommenders and politely ask for their support and assistance. If they accept, you should immediately provide each with a list of the programs to which you are applying. Here, you should include each program’s deadline and preferred method of receiving letters of recommendation. If any programs prefer hard copies, also provide your recommenders with addressed, stamped envelopes as a courtesy.
Step Four: Transcripts
Most programs will require your undergraduate transcripts, which can take a significant amount of time to acquire, depending on your undergraduate institution. You should request your transcripts at least three months before submitting your application, in order to ensure that they arrive on time. Your undergraduate university should give you the option to mail transcripts directly to your programs of choice, and some may charge a processing fee.
Step Five: Interviews
If you have the option to request an interview with a representative from the university, you should take the opportunity. While interviews are often optional, they provide colleges with a more personal idea of who you are and what you will contribute to the campus community. Once you are accepted to a few programs, you will likely have the opportunity to connect with faculty and current students, which can be an important deciding factor when narrowing down your options.
While you are preparing these preliminary steps, you should also be looking at the application requirements for each program, and beginning to think about how you will respond to program-specific questions. Most applications will be online, and will include sections on personal information, education, and experience. Some may require a CV, while others may have you input information from your CV into their specific template. Once you have filled out your personal information, you will arrive to the meat of the application: the personal statement and supplemental essays.
This guide will provide specific tips and strategies for making the most of your responses in your essays. But before you begin, look over the application and familiarize yourself with the different categories, and begin planning your responses. Make sure to give yourself sufficient time to understand the application, and to spend significantly more time on the most important sections. With time, strategy, and effort, you will be able to submit a successful application.