The Grad Student’s Guide to Applications and Admissions

Choosing to pursue a graduate degree in your chosen field is truly something to feel proud about. Not only does it prove that you have the initiative to be the best at what you do, but it usually results in a higher salary, better employment opportunities, and the satisfaction of holding a graduate degree in your very own hands.

That said, preparing for graduate school can be even more stressful than preparing for college after high school. It’s important for each grad school applicant to plan ahead in order to meet all requirements of the application process and avoid costly delays or rejection letters. This guide is designed to give you an idea what to expect from graduate school applications, as well tips to make your application stand out from the rest.

Understanding the Application

Below is a standardized timetable that applies to the application process for most graduate schools in the United States. This timetable lays out many important events for a normal graduate school application time frame.

General Graduate School Application Timetable

  • Late Spring: Begin searching and investigating graduate schools you are interested in attending. Also, start seriously researching the field you want to study and make sure earning a graduate degree in the field makes sense. You may also want to start studying for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and take a few practice tests.
  • Early Summer: This is when you will want to commit most of your time toward preparing for the application process. It is also a great time to begin contacting professors for letters of recommendation. If you find that your performance on GRE practice exams could use some major improvement, consider enrolling in a summer GRE preparation course.
  • Late Summer: Begin contacting the graduate schools you are most interested in attending and, if possible, plan to visit them. Also, make some time to visit the college you from which you just graduated. This will be an excellent opportunity to review your graduate school plans with past professors and faculty and get their advice regarding the schools you are most interested in attending. Also, be sure to take the GRE by August so you have time to retake it if you are not happy with your score.
  • Early Fall: Register for GRE Subject Tests, if taking them is a requirement for the graduate field you plan to enter. Put the finishing touches on your list of possible grad schools and begin identifying professors with academic backgrounds and interests that closely align with your own. Consider contacting these professors to introduce yourself and find out more about the program and school.
  • Late Fall: If you haven’t already done so, contact past professors and faculty for letters of recommendation. With your request, be sure to include examples of your work and your CV (or resume) to help them write a more detailed recommendation. Finalize your personal statement and ask friends, colleagues, or even past instructors to review it and provide some constructive criticism.
  • Winter: Compile all of your application materials. Make sure you print out or create an application checklist for each graduate school you are interested in attending. Double and triple check that all application materials are included with the application packet (including a check or money order for the application fee, if applicable). Verify that letters of recommendation and GRE test scores have been sent to the appropriate schools if you are not personally delivering them. Make copies of all application materials for your records. Applications should be sent out before the New Year.
  • Spring: Now that the application process has come full circle, you have the opportunity to sit back, relax, and wait for grad schools to announce their decisions. Don’t spend this time feeling anxious—you’ll have plenty of time to feel that way later on. Instead, consider taking a short vacation or attending a fun celebration or event. Once graduate school begins, chances are that these periods of relaxation will become shorter and fewer in number.

There are not many significant differences between application timelines for master’s degree and Ph.D. programs. Like master’s degree programs, doctoral programs also require incoming students to have GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose. Usually the selection process for Ph.D. programs is much more competitive than master’s degree programs, so ensuring that you submit a pristine application package is even more essential for prospective doctoral students.

Ph.D. applicants may also want to consider highlighting significant academic accomplishments, such as a master’s thesis or honors thesis, or other scholarly publications. Also, Ph.D. applicants should consider fleshing out their CV or resume to better reflect their planned academic focus. Your goal as a prospective doctoral student is to prove to graduate schools that you have what it takes to become the very best in your selected field.

For more information on graduate school application time frames, this informative resource hosted by Idealist.org provides a more in-depth look at the various application-related tasks and important deadlines.

The Admissions Process

Since you’re already familiar with the undergraduate admissions process, the graduate admissions process may not seem all that different. Both processes require the completion of an application, good scores on standardized admissions tests, letters of recommendation, and other materials. The biggest way they differ, however, is through the expectations graduate schools have for incoming students, which could be much more stringent than those found at undergraduate institutions.

According to this extensive report created by Karthik Raghunathan at Stanford University, there are a number of factors that contribute to a graduate school’s decision to accept a student into a graduate program. In addition to the essential factors discussed in the first part of this guide, graduate schools consider a student’s academic background, work experience and even the identity of his or her undergraduate Alma Mater.

While these factors are secondary to academic achievement, GRE scores and a statement of purpose, they could work to tip the scales in your favor.

While Raghunathan goes on to say that Ph.D. and master’s degree programs do not differ much in their admissions requirements, there are differences you should be keep in mind. For example, an admissions committee for a Ph.D. program may put much more weight on an incoming student’s research activities and publications. While it may not be a deal-breaker if you have yet to enter the world of published scholarly research, having some good examples of your academic research capabilities will go a long way in the Ph.D. admissions process.

Preparation is the Key

Getting in to the graduate school of your choice doesn’t need to be difficult, so long as you plan well in advance. What graduate schools want most from master’s degree or Ph.D. candidates is the dedication and willingness to do great work in their field.

This often starts with building a pristine application package that reflects your resolve to become a stellar student. By adhering closely to graduate school admissions deadlines and requirements, you have already done your part to show that you’re serious about pursuing an advanced degree in your field.