Applying to Graduate School: What You Need to Know

Grad School Admissions 101

"Paper Weaving" by Joel Penner / Flickr

Most applicants become anxious when they realize that graduate school applications are very different from college applications. What do you need to know when applying to graduate school?

First, the process of getting into graduate school can be confusing and downright overwhelming. Yet nearly all grad school applications are consistent in requirements. These include the following:

Ensure that your grad school application contains all of these components because incomplete applications translate into automatic rejections.


Your transcript provides information about your academic background. Your grades and overall GPA, as well as what courses you've taken, tell the admissions committee a great deal about who you are as a student. If your transcript is filled with easy As, such as those earned in classes like Basket Weaving 101, you'll likely rank lower than a student who has a lower GPA comprised of courses in the hard sciences.

You won't include your transcript in the application that you send to the graduate program. Instead, the registrar's office at your school sends it. This means that you'll have to visit the registrar's office to request your transcript by completing forms for each graduate program to which you'd like to forward a transcript.

Begin this process early because schools require time to process your forms and send the transcripts (sometimes as much as two to three weeks). You don't want your application to be rejected because your transcript was late or never arrived. Be sure to check that your transcript has arrived at each of the programs to which you've applied.

Graduate Record Exams (GREs) or Other Standardized Test Scores

Most graduate programs require standardized exams such as the GRE's for admission.  Law, medical and business schools usually require different exams (the LSAT, MCAT and GMAT, respectively). Each of these exams is standardized, meaning that they are normed, permitting students from different colleges to be compared meaningfully. The GRE is similar in structure to the SATs but taps your potential for graduate-level work.

Some programs also require the GRE Subject Test, a standardized test that covers the material in a discipline (e.g., Psychology). Most graduate admissions committees are inundated with applications, so apply cut-off scores to the GRE, considering only applications that have scores above the cut-off point. Some, but not all, schools reveal their average GRE scores in their admissions material and in graduate school admissions books.

Take standardized tests early (typically, the spring or summer before you apply) to guide your selection of programs and to ensure that your scores arrive at the schools you want to get in early.

Letters of Recommendation

The GRE and GPA components of your grad school application portray you in numbers.

The letter of recommendation is what permits the committee to begin thinking of you as a person. The efficacy of your letters rests on the quality of your relationships with professors. 

Take care and choose appropriate references. Remember that a good recommendation letter helps your application tremendously but a bad or even neutral letter will send your graduate application into the rejection pile. Do not ask for a letter from a professor who knows nothing more about you than the fact that you got an A -- such letters do not enhance your application, but detract from it. Be courteous and respectful in asking for letters and provide enough information to help the professor write a valuable letter.

Letters from employers can also be included if they include information on your duties and aptitude relating to your field of study (or your motivation and quality of work, overall).

Skip getting letters from friends, spiritual leaders and public officials. 

Admissions Essay

The admissions essay is your opportunity to speak up for yourself. Carefully structure your essay. Be creative and informative as you introduce yourself and explain why you want to attend graduate school and why each program is a perfect match to your skills.

Before you begin writing, consider your qualities. Think about who will be reading your statement and what they are looking for in an essay. Not only are they committee members; they are scholars who are searching for the kind of motivation that implies a dedicated and intrinsic interest in the matters dealt with in their field of study. And they are looking for someone who will be productive and interested in their work.

Explain your relevant skills, experiences, and accomplishments into your essay. Focus on how your educational and occupational experiences such as research led you to this program. Don't rely only on emotional motivation (such as "I want to help people" or "I want to learn"). Describe how this program will benefit you (and how your skills can benefit the faculty within it), where you see yourself in the program and how it fits into your future goals. Be specific: What do you offer? 


Although not part of the application, some programs use interviews to get a look at finalists. Sometimes what looks like a great match on paper isn't in person. If you're asked to interview for a graduate program, remember that this is your opportunity to determine how well a fit the program is for you. In other words, you're interviewing them, as much as they are interviewing you.