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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
Most graduate school admission requirements ask for three letters of recommendation—which are generally submitted online. There are two difficult aspects to recommendation letters.
Make sure you pad your application deadlines; ask for recommendations at least a couple weeks before you actually need them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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