Applying to Grad School Beginner’s Guide
So you’re thinking about applying to grad school? This grad school beginner’s guide will walk you step by step through the process of applying to most U.S. graduate degree programs. Specifics may vary between departments and fields, but this will serve as a general outline. Keep in mind that you’ll want to structure your timeline based on your personal situation. If you’re not sure that grad school is the best option for you, take our Is Grad School Right For Me? quiz to help you decide.
If you have any questions please feel free to leave a comment below.
You’ll want to do some serious research on which programs are right for you before starting on specific application materials. Each program will have different requirements, standards, and admission criteria, and you won’t be able successfully prepare until you know what’s required and where you’re aiming.
Some programs may expect high general GRE scores, others may require a GRE subject score, and still others may not require the GRE at all! These types of differences will be very important when outlining your timeline.
Research programs, departments, and universities you’d like to attend. Be sure and keep an open mind, your ideal program doesn’t need to be traditional. There are a lot of interdisciplinary grad school programs out there which may not come up under a normal search, but nonetheless offer great opportunities. Those programs also have the benefit of being less saturated by applications than simply applying directly to most departments. There are a lot of ways to find programs that fit your interests: look through the U.S. News graduate school rankings, use publications to track down groups doing research you’re interested in, ask your current research/college advisor for suggestions, and an old fashion google search can yield a lot of options. Look through each programs website and take note of what they’re doing and how it’s structured, then make a list of all the programs that piqued your interest.
Once you have a target list, it’s a good idea to make a spreadsheet. Have a row for each program you’re interested in and outline important attributes and dates in the columns.
Be sure and include things like average GRE score of accepted applicants, application due date, if they require a personal statement or writing sample, how many students they typically accept each year, and any specific cutoff numbers (e.g. GPA > 3.0). This method allows you to quickly see where you need to aim to get into your top choice grad school. It’s also a good way to see organize safety schools and reach programs. A quick color coding can help organize this information visually. While there is no specific allocation, it’s a good idea to have at least two safety schools. Down the line you can add columns like “Recommenders” or “GRE” so you can easily keep track of who has submitted for which program and where you sent your scores.
Here is where you’ll start narrowing down your options. There are a lot of mixed opinions on this, but our general rule is that you don’t want to apply to more than 8-10 grad schools. This allows you to hedge your bets but ensures you’re not overextending yourself (SoPs take a lot of time!) and wasting money needlessly. If you think you should apply to more than this, you might be overreaching. The key is to pick programs that are both a great fit, and exactly what you want to do. If you do this properly (which a lot of applicants don’t) you shouldn’t have to worry about applying to 25 programs in a hapless attempt to “play the odds”.
Read through the entire departmental websites and find out specifics like: how the qualifying exam is structured, what classes they offer, recent faculty publications, collaborative institutions, and what their statistics are on graduation timelines and percentages. Try to see if you can find 2-3 faculty members with whom you’d like to work. If you can’t, that is a sign that the program isn’t a good fit for you. Doing all this research will be tedious, but the more research you do now, the more likely you are to apply to the right program (and consequently get accepted). Plus getting department research out of the way will save you time later when you’re writing your Statement of Purpose.
Tip: Don’t give in to the temptation to pick a university based on name brand alone. Each university is known for very different subjects and just because the university may not be famous on its own, it could still be very well respected in your field, e.g. UCSB is world renowned in Materials Science, University of Minnesota has a first class mathematics department, and UC Boulder has a physics program second to none. In grad school, it’s more important to get accepted to a good department than it is a good university. If you’re going to do organic electronics, you aim for Illinois Urbana-Champaign, not Harvard. Picking only schools that are a good fit for your background and goals instead of name will increase your chances of being successful.
Once you know where you’ll be applying, you can edit your spreadsheet accordingly. Make sure and add a column listing the total application cost. This will include: cost of sending official transcripts (if they require paper copies for applications), cost of sending your GRE score ($27 per school after test day), and application fee (~$50-$130). So excluding the cost of the GRE exam, you can expect to pay $75-$135 per application. Because most applications are due around the same time (which also coincides with the holidays) you don’t want to get stuck loading up on credit card debt last minute, so try to plan ahead financially.
Now that you know where you’re applying and when your applications are due, time to get down to business!
For many people, this will be the most tedious aspect of the grad school application process. It’s time consuming and bears little resemblance to what you’ll be doing in grad school, and it’s easy to become irritated. Feeling taken advantage of by the high cost and seemingly pointless questions can upset a lot of applicants. To get through this part with your mental health in tact (and to ensure the best score possible), it is important to keep a clear head.
First, the GRE isn’t a test of knowledge.
The faster you truly assimilate that fact, the better your score will be. The GRE is ultimately about testing your work ethic. Doing well on it requires practice, not brilliance. Your motivation and commitment to that practice is what the GRE reflects about you, and every admissions committee knows this. Grad school is a massive undertaking with an immense (and tedious) workload. Having fortitude is critical. If you can’t make it through a couple months of GRE practice, it speaks about your ability to “suck it up” and complete a project. This is largely what your GRE score reflects about you.
Second, you need to treat the GRE like a game.
Unlike college, winning the GRE game isn’t about assimilating all the class information. It’s about learning a new game, the tricks and strategies for this new game, and practicing your execution.
Imagine a friend signs you up for a a chess tournament, but you’ve never played chess before. How would you prepare for that?
(1) First, you’d know the basics.
Where is being held? When should I sign up? What can I bring? What paperwork is necessary? This nuts and bolts information about the GRE can be found on the ETS website.
(2) Make sure you understand the rules.
In chess this means knowing which pieces move in what ways. For the GRE this means knowing how to calculate the area of triangles, understanding grammar rules, having a good vocabulary, and being able to solve systems of linear equations. This is the aspect that Kaplan and Barron books cover–the fundamental (and relatively easy) material that can simply be memorized. This is the easy part. It isn’t hard (though it can be time consuming) to memorize the circumference of a circle or remember that bishops move on the diagonals.
(3) NOW you start actual practice.
Think of it this way: you’d never read the rules of chess and think you were capable of beating a world champ, right? Becoming good at games requires you to practice playing them. It is the only way you develop intuition about how your opponent is trying to trick you or when to use certain strategies. It’s also how you build stamina and gain speed. This is when you practice not just sample problems, but full length exams, using a blind reviewing procedure.
It’s important to keep the chess analogy in your mind when you get frustrated with GRE practice.
“The material seems so easy and trivial, but I can’t crack the 160 mark.”
If you find yourself in that situation, you’re probably focusing too much on the material, rather than the “game” of taking the exam. The key to winning a game is knowing how to execute strategies on a time constrained dynamic system with an opponent that’s actively trying to beat you. If you practice correctly, your score will improve.
Tip: Don’t book your GRE exam before you’ve had a chance to do a practice test and start reviewing. You may get 2 weeks into an expensive prep class only to realize you’ll need much more time than you thought to get the score you need. Exam slots fill up fast in autumn and it costs $50 to reschedule, so make sure you’ll be ready before finalizing your test date. If at all possible, try to have the GRE done by September. If you’re serious about being accepted you can’t be worrying about the GRE when you should be polishing Statements of Purpose and revising your Letters of Recommendation with your advisors. You’ll also have time to retake it if something goes horribly wrong on test day.
Next on the To Do list is putting together your Curriculum Vitae (CV). This is, unfortunately, the second most overlooked aspects of an application. Most people think that the resume they made in 3 hours will be fine, but spend hundreds of hours on GRE prep. What you need to remember is that your GRE score is a simple number, incapable of surprising anyone (there are only a few numbers you can get). Your CV is unique, unlike any other that the admissions committee has ever read. This gives you an immense opportunity to piqued their interest.
Style, format, and wording are all important aspects, and you should make sure you’re submitting an academic style CV. But beyond looks, there is another demon to slay: what’s actually on it! It is very unlikely you’ll be accepted to a graduate program without some prior experience in that area. The rare exceptions (e.g. Physics -to- Economics or Computer Science -to- Engineering) will still require that you have conducted research in your prior field. If you’re interested in something more vocational, work experience can potentially be substituted (e.g. PhD in business administration), but most programs will want to see some kind of academic research–so if you haven’t done any, it might be worth waiting another year and acquiring some experience.
If you’re aiming for a STEM program and have a few months before applications are due–gain experience on different types of tools and procedures (e.g. wet bench experience, using imaging equipment, simulation/programming techniques, clinical skills etc). If you’re applying for social or life sciences–take the next few months to learn STATA or Matlab. Every thing you can add to that CV makes you more likely to be accepted. You can learn valuable techniques right up to the application due date. Don’t squander your last months thinking your experience level is static!
This is where most applicants will fail and ultimately seal their rejection fate. If you take no other advice on this site, we hope you heed our letter of recommendation advice.
When you’re young, it can feel inappropriate to press your interests to faculty who seem to be perpetually busy and irritated. This feeling can snowball if you feel guilty, insecure, or embarrassed about asking in the first place. Many applicants are just happy to have scrounged up three people agreeing to write anything.
Applicants start treating their LoR like the application form–simply a hoop to jump through. The truth is that your letters of recommendation will (arguably) make or break your grad school application. Now, it’s possible to get into a program with ok letters if the rest of your stats are amazing, but at that point you’re adding a decent amount of uncertainty when it comes to acceptances. On the other hand, if you have outstanding letters, it’s very likely that you’ll get in to most if not all of the programs for which you’re a good fit.
How do you get great letters of rec? The obvious answer is that you do an amazing job in coursework and research, but the honest truth is that usually isn’t enough. Most professors won’t get to know you intimately enough to provide specific details, some will agree to write one even if they don’t want to, and professors with the best of intentions can still unintentionally write a letter that falls flat. Remember that these people do not have PhDs in persuasive writing (unless you’re shooting for an law degree). The most brilliant researchers often have the worst of communication skills, and there is no “Letter of Recommendation Course” that professors go through before getting hired. To get the kind of letters you’ll need, you have help them with your recommendations, and professors who truly believe in you shouldn’t have a problem with this. How to do this is outlined in detail in our letter of recommendation guide.
Once you have your recommendations sorted out, it’s very important that you let them know how many schools you’re applying to and the deadlines. There are MIT engineers that have been rejected from their top choice program because a professor who loved them simply forgot to submit the letter. It happens more often than you’d think.
How can you avoid this catastrophe? Some programs won’t allow professors to upload recommendations until after you submit the application, others will let them submit as soon as you list them on the application. If they won’t be able to submit their letter until after you’ve completed the application (paid and submitted in full), you MUST submit your application with plenty of time for your recommenders to upload your recommendation. A good rule of thumb is aiming to have it submitted two weeks before the deadline. If the application lets them submit right away, then list them on the application as soon as you can. That way you know all you can to do is hit submit (no sweating it out for days).
This is the best part of the application process in our opinion, because this is the portion that levels everyone out. This is where you can eliminate all the inequalities you faced in life, and all the mistakes you made in the past. The statement of purpose is about nothing but how passionate you are about going to grad school. This is the only place that allows you to convince the the admissions committee that you are the best person for this program, no matter what the rest of your application says. Never underestimate the power it has to convey your knowledge, intelligence, and understanding. The SoP is not a hoop to jump through, it’s a critical component that admissions committees will use to gauge your fit with the department.
Because you have so much control, the statement of purpose is the only place where you can make up for any shortcomings in your formal application materials.
If you’re short on tangible research experience, this is where you convey how deep your understanding of the subject matter actually is through an inspired research proposal.
If your grades are low, this is where you can show how much you learned and explain what you’ve done since graduation to improve your ability to be a success in coursework.
If you’re an international applicant, this is the only place you can set yourself apart from your competition and convince the committee you have something unique to share.
Even if your CV isn’t the most competitive, this is how you bolster your application. For example, say you’re a great programmer, but never did formal research in undergrad. This is where you can prove that your less traditional training was just as good as working 15 hours a week in a professors office.
Conversely, don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you were a hot shot in your department that you can’t go wrong. Every year amazing applicants get tossed aside, if you don’t believe us, check out the applicant profiles and results page on gradcafe in your field. You’ll likely be astounded at how many applicants are rejected from just ok programs with perfect GRE scores and amazing experience. These applicants failed in one of two areas: they had poor letters of recommendation, or they failed to convince the committee that they were a good fit for the department in their statement of purpose. Likewise you’ll see mediocre stats get accepted to amazing programs, and you can bet they had a convincing statement and great letters.
When a graduate program accepts you, they’re committing hundreds of thousands of dollars for you to learn a subject. They put their name, reputation, and the safety of other students in your hands. Give them a reason to trust you.
Once all your materials are in order, it’s time to submit.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts post-submission.
DO: Verify that your application has been properly submitted. You will have the option to print off a PDF of your application, which you should keep for your records. Make sure you also received an email stating that your application has been accepted.
DON’T: Immediately email administration asking if they received it. This wastes their time and yours–plus it makes you look like you couldn’t handle online application instructions.
DO: Ensure all your recommenders have submitted before the deadline.
DON’T: Harass them. They’re busy and respecting their time is important. If you gave them enough time to submit you shouldn’t have to sweat this anyway.
DO: Make sure your GRE scores will be there in time.
DON’T: Start rehashing your SoP or other materials. There is nothing you can do about it now, and it will only stress you out. Once you submit, let it go.
DO: Take some time to relax and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing the first step. Applying to grad school is hard work and you earned a break.
DON’T: Blow off your education entirely. Taking a break is crucial, but don’t check out completely. You should keep trying to add to your resume and learn about your intended subject. In almost every graduate school interview they’ll ask you what you’ve been doing lately. If your only answer is “Checking my email obsessively waiting to hear back from grad schools,” you’re not sending the right message. Stay active in your field even if it won’t help your applications at this moment. It will help you when you enter grad school or at a minimum, help your chances the following year should you not be accepted this round.
DO: Use forums like thegradcafe.com to commiserate about waiting to hear back from programs. It’s a good way to blow off steam in January and February.
DON’T: Drive your friends and family nuts by obsessing, and don’t ask other clueless students on forums about important application information. They’re no more in the know than you, even if they pretend to be.
DO: Enjoy this experience! Yes it feels like torture right now, but you will look back on this experience with fondness. Life does not stop after “Submit” . . . Stay positive!
For more tips on applying to grad school, check out our resources and services pages.