The Graduate School Application Process
How It Works
The application process varies from school to school. In many cases an admissions committee of faculty and administrators makes the selections, using criteria beyond just grades and test scores. They may also set goals for in-state versus out-of-state candidates, gender, and other desirable ratios.
At the other extreme, individual faculty may select candidates that match the department's needs for certain expertise or interests.
It is important that you find out the selection procedure for each school to which you apply and tailor your application to show how you fit.
Request Information. Call or write for applications, catalogs and financial aid information approximately one year before you intend to enter graduate school.
Application requirements differ substantially among institutions and programs. Read each school's material conscientiously to make sure you file a complete and timely application.
Some institutions use self-managed applications which mean the applicant is responsible for obtaining and submitting all supporting documents, such as transcripts and reference letters.
Apply Early. Application deadlines can range from August 1 (before your senior year) to July (after your senior year for schools with rolling admissions). Admission and financial aid decisions are often made well in advance of stated university deadlines. Departments in heavy demand may close applications as early as October. If admissions are handled on a "rolling" basis (i.e., qualified applicants are accepted as they apply) it is to your distinct advantage to apply at the earliest possible date to receive maximum consideration.
Since approximately one-half of graduate school candidates apply during the last month before deadlines, an early application can set you apart from the competition.
The Application Package
- Application form, including personal essay or "statement of purpose"
- Non-refundable fee
- Separate financial aid application
- Letters of recommendation
- Standardized test scores
- Personal interview
How To Apply
For graduate school, you apply to a specific program or department, even though you may send your materials to a central admissions office.
A General Rule of Thumb: apply to at least two or three departments with programs that match your interests. Select at least one highly prestigious and highly competitive research university, and one major university with fairly large graduate programs where you feel you have a reasonable chance of being accepted. As insurance, apply to an institution where you feel certain you will be accepted. If you are accepted at more than one, so much the better. You will have choices.
Completing the Application Form. It should be filled out clearly, accurately, and free of typographical and grammatical errors. Be consistent in spelling out your full, legal name on all forms.
The Personal Essay. Every graduate school application contains an essay portion or a "statement of purpose." Your essay should specifically address questions posed in the application, and express your enthusiasm for the field of study, your motivation, creativity, maturity, and person uniqueness. The essay is a key measure of your ability to communicate, so it pays to be meticulous about spelling, grammar and writing style.
Most applications will state the length of the essay or provide space. Keep your essay within these boundaries; a longer essay can work against you. Admissions committees evaluate the quality, not the volume of the essay. Use at least 10-point type or larger.
Application Fees vary, ranging from $20-50 in most cases. Most schools have an application fee waiver for students with financial need. Call the admissions offices and ask how to get one.
Transcripts and Grades. Have your registrar's office send a transcript of your undergraduate work directly to the admissions office of the schools to which you are applying. The minimum GPA required at most universities is 3.0 on a 4.0 scale.
Grades are of overwhelming importance, but a GPA that does not quite meet that minimum can be offset with good letters of recommendation, high test scores, and a well-written statement of purpose.
If there is a valid reason why your GPA is low (e.g., your freshman year grades pulled down your overall average, you worked 30 hours per week in addition to a heavy course load, etc.), it may be advantageous to re- compute your GPA based on your last two years of study or course work in your major. You should discuss the recomputed GPA in your essay.
Undergraduate Grade Point Average (UGPA). Most institutions require the equivalent of a 4-year bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university prior to registering for your first term of graduate study. The admissions committee may consider several components of your UGPA when reviewing your transcript:
- Cumulative UGPA
- UGPA in your major/concentration
- Final 2-year UGPA
- UGPA in courses relevant to your intended field of study
- UGPA from year-to-year, or semester-to-semester
Graduate Grade Point Average (GGPA). If you have a master's degree, your GGPA will be an important consideration for doctorate program acceptance.
Financial Aid. An application for financial aid will generally come either as part of your application packet or in a separate mailing from a campus financial aid office. You may have to apply separately for fellowships and for loans. Since financial support varies widely from institution to institution, the best advice is to read all financial aid materials carefully and to file documents on time.
Letters of Recommendation. Most institutions will request between three and five letters of recommendation. It is best to obtain recommendations from faculty members and employers who are qualified to evaluate your academic and/or work potential and performance, based on personal observation. Approach your recommenders early in the fall of your senior year to give them time to write before their other academic pressures mount.
Give them the school's recommendation forms with stamped, addressed envelopes and enough supporting material to enable them to write detailed letters on your behalf. This may include a cover sheet reminding them of classes taken under them, projects you have done for them, a transcript, a resume, and a copy of your essay.
Be sure to discuss with them your reasons for going to graduate school and why you are applying to specific programs
Test Scores. Most schools require that you take one or more standardized admissions exams before they decide upon your application. The GRE (Graduate Record Examination), GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), and LSAT (Law School Admission Test) are among the more common standardized tests. The school's catalog will specify which test you need and will often give some indication of the score needed to be competitive for the program.
Due to increased competition for admission and financial assistance, it will work to your advantage to take the appropriate standardized test early in your application process. Test registration deadlines are well in advance of the actual test dates, and most are given only a few times a year.
Information bulletins with test dates and application procedures are available from the testing services listed below, as well as at the Placement and Career Planning Center.
Generally, you should plan to take the test approximately one year prior to matriculation.
Policies regarding taking the test more than once, whether scores are averaged or if the highest score alone is considered, and other related issues vary from institution to institution. It is appropriate to ask about the policy.
Personal Interviews. Some graduate and professional schools will grant an interview as part of the application process. The interview gives the admissions committee an opportunity to determine if there is a match between what their institution has to offer.
The interview provides an excellent opportunity to "sell yourself." In addition, take this opportunity to discuss your qualifications, personal goals, and why you think you're a perfect match for the program.
Here is some advice to help you make a strong impression during your personal interview:
Don't ask questions that are answered in the school's brochures or catalogs.
Be prepared to answer standard questions, such as "Why do you want to attend graduate school?" "What are your long-range goals?" and "What makes you believe that you will be successful in the program?"
Save the preferred school for last. If you have interviews at several schools, you'll improve your interviewing skills as you go along.
Follow up with a thank you note. It can be quite short, but mention something specific about the interview or your qualifications.
Sources for Test Information
Call or write the test administration offices for registration and test dates.
Graduate Record Examination
Educational Testing Service
P.O. Box 6000
Princeton, NJ 08541-6000
Test offered October, December, April and June.
Graduate Management Admissions Test
Educational Testing Service
P.O. Box 6103
Princeton, NJ 08541-6103
Test offered October, January, March and June.
Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
American College Testing Program
P.O. Box 414
Iowa City, IA 52243
Test offered August and April.
Law School Admissions Service
P.O. Box 2000
Newtown, PA 18940-0998
Test offered October, December and February.
Dental Admission Test (DAT)
Department of Testing Services
American Dental Association
211 East Chicago Avenue, Suite 1840
Chicago, IL 60611-2678
Test offered October and March/April.
Optometry Admission Test (OAT)
Optometry Admission Testing Program
211 East Chicago Avenue, Suite 1840
Chicago, IL 60611-2678M
Test offered October and February.
The Notification Process
You may receive replies as early as March or April, or as late as June. In some cases, you may be placed on a waiting list from which you may be selected as vacancies occur. These could be filled as late as immediately prior to the beginning of a new term.
Before you begin receiving acceptances and rejections, rank the schools according to your preferences. As soon as you receive two offers, politely decline the less attractive one. Continue this process until you make your final choice. This may make it difficult if you have heard from School #2 but are still awaiting a response from School #1.
Before being pressured into sending a fee to a second-choice program, try to speed up the first-choice school with a polite inquiry about the status of your application. If they intend to notify applicants shortly, try to stall the other school. If there will be considerable time between the deadline for one school and the notification date of another, you may have to decide if you're willing to pay for a guaranteed spot you may not use.
The "Wait List"
Being on a school's "wait list" or "holding list" is similar to being at the end of a long line for tickets to a popular event. Your chances of getting in depend on how many are ahead of you.
Here are some proactive things you can do if you end up on a wait list:
Apply to more schools.
Take an intermediate degree, especially if you're switching your area of concentration.
Take additional classes and reading in your major field of study.
Attend summer school at your target institution.