General Education

How to Apply to Grad School in 10 Easy Steps

How to Apply to Grad School in 10 Easy Steps
Understanding what differentiates a target school from a dream or a safety school can be challenging. Image from Unsplash
Randall Malcolm profile
Randall Malcolm March 20, 2012

Grad school isn't easy. Neither is applying for it. In 10 simple steps, we've explained how to apply to grad school, from finding the right graduate school program to showing up for the first day of class.

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Grad school isn't easy. Neither is applying for it. Here are 10 simple steps for applying to graduate school, from finding the right program to showing up for the first day of class.

Step 1: Build your graduate school list.

The first step in applying to graduate school might seem obvious, but we're going to go there anyway: build a list of schools, just like you did when applying to college or university when you decided you wanted to earn a bachelor's degree. Your graduate school list should include at least nine programs, separated into dream schools, target schools, and safety schools.

Dream schools

Three of the graduate programs on your list should be "dream schools," meaning they have competitive admission requirements and challenging academic programs, and only the top students are admitted.

Safety schools

The next three graduate schools on your list need ones where you'll most certainly get accepted. Safety schools are those for which you exceed the GPA requirement and minimum scores for standardized tests and other exams. If you earned your bachelor's degree from a college or university that has a more competitive admissions process than one of the graduate schools on your list, consider it a safety school.

Target schools

The next three graduate schools on your list should be those at which you have a solid chance of being admitted. Understanding what differentiates a target school from a dream or a safety school can be challenging. To explain this a little more clearly, target schools are those where:

  • You meet or exceed the master's program requirements for test scores (including GRE, GMAT).
  • Your academic record meets or exceeds the minimum GPA (AKA your unofficial transcripts from college or university are officially good).
  • You have letters of recommendation that prove to the office of admissions that you'll be among the top students pursuing this degree if you're admitted. At least one of your letters of recommendation should be written by a professor at the college or university where you earned your bachelor's degree. This person should know you (as a student).
  • Your application essay exhibits the meticulous writing skills you developed while earning your bachelor's degree.

Note: Of all these categories, if you're going to add schools, add to your target schools. There's no need to spend more time on the safeties or the dreams. Get a list of recommended grad programs for your academic background, budget, and interests.

Step 2: Make a list of admissions requirements.

Now that you have your graduate schools picked out, outline the admissions process for each graduate school on your list. You'll see that many graduate school admission requirements overlap. For example, almost all graduate schools require the same documents: transcripts, letters of recommendation, and GRE GMAT scores.

Now, make a spreadsheet or a checklist that has the requirements for each school, which will also allow you to be more efficient as you move through your list. Each school is going to require a personal statement, and most will provide a list of prompts for writing that essay.

There's usually a lot of overlap between the personal statement prompts each master's program provides. Know where these overlaps happen, so you can spend your time on writing one or two great personal statement essays, rather than writing ten mediocre statements.

Step 3: Ace your GRE exams.

On your list of requirements, make note of the average GRE or GMAT scores required for admission to each graduate program. Write in the 75th percentile and the 50th percentile averages.

There are a number of GMAT and GRE prep courses where you can practice taking the GMAT and/or GRE subject test. Kaplan and Princeton review both offer free online GRE prep tests. It is important to take an online test because the real GMAT or GRE subject test is on the computer.

If you are in the 75th percentile range for the 'fair chance' schools, you're good to go. What if you're not in the 75th percentile range? Continue to study! You can study on your own, or you can sign up for a GRE prep course or get a tutor. If you're far from the score you need to get admitted, practice is the only thing that will get you to where you need to be.

Step 4: Write your personal statement.

Your personal statement is extremely important, as it will set you apart from all the other students trying to get admitted to the same master's program as you. When writing your personal statement, keep the following things in mind:

  • Catch the readers' attention. Remember that the office of admissions reads tons of essays. If yours is boring or like all the others, you won't stand out.
  • Position yourself in a way that shows how you'll bring value to the school. This, of course, means that you will have to tweak each one specifically to each school. In other words, you need to flatter the office of admissions a little bit. This works especially well if there's a professor with whom you want to work.
  • Share a copy of your personal statement with those whom you've asked to recommend you. This way, they will know what you have already said and won't repeat the same things. Make sure to ask others to read your statements before you send them out. It's inevitable that you'll have typos or errors. By sharing your writing with others, they can help you catch mistakes before they're submitted.

Step 5: Letters of recommendation

Most graduate school admission requirements ask for three letters of recommendation—which are generally submitted online. There are two difficult aspects to recommendation letters.

  • The first is that you need to make sure that each recommender will say something different. Therefore, you can either ask them what they are going to say or you can tell then what others are saying. This is not an easy conversation. However, professors write letters of recommendation all the time. It makes their lives easier if you're upfront about what you need them to say.
  • The other difficult aspect of this is getting the recommenders to actually write and submit the letters. They are writing these as a favor. Therefore the priority of your letter of recommendation is low. You will most likely need to pester them to get the letters in on time. Don't be afraid to do this. To that end, make sure you give your recommenders plenty of lead time. Don't ask them just a few days ahead of time; give them several weeks (or even months), and give them a deadline.

Make sure you pad your application deadlines; ask for recommendations at least a couple weeks before you actually need them.

Step 6: Request transcripts well ahead of application deadlines.

You will have to send transcript requests to college or university from which you earned your bachelor's degree. This is the only way to get official transcripts. You may be able to do it online through the schools' websites, or you can call the registrar's office. Be prepared to pay between $5 and $10 for each transcript.

Arrange to have your schools send the official transcripts directly to the master's program you're applying to, as some graduate schools will not accept transcripts that have passed through your hands first. Gathering all of your transcripts can take months. Don't procrastinate.

Step 7: Gather examples of work you've done.

If you have to submit examples of work you've done, ask one of your college or university professors to look over it. It needs to shine. Also, it's very possible that in your graduate school admission interview, they'll make reference to this work. Know it well, and be ready to talk about it (including any secondary sources you reference!) in more depth.

Step 8: Triple-check each graduate school application requirements.

Review each set of admissions requirements for all of the master's programs on your list before submitting your application and other documents. If possible, submit your grad school applications at least one month before they're due. Most people wait. Your application will be read with better care if it's early.

Step 9: Hurry up and wait.

One of the hardest parts about applying to graduate school is waiting to hear from the office of admissions after your application has been submitted. Most schools will let you know when they'll be in touch. If you hear back, you may be asked to visit or conduct a phone interview with the office of admissions. In the interview or visit, you need to be ready to ask questions about the program. Your questions need to show that you've researched the program and have thought through how you can contribute. Make sure you practice beforehand with a friend or professor.

Step 10: You got in! Now what?

If you've gotten into graduate school—and, hopefully, the school of your dreams—you now need to consider how you're planning to pay for school. There are a number of options for financial aid, including scholarships, loans, and employer tuition reimbursement programs. That said, the hard part truly is done. Congrats!

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