7 Steps to a Stellar Grad School Application

What a relief it was when you got that “fat envelope” in the mail three years ago signaling your acceptance into college! Now it seems like you’re going through that excruciating process all over again for graduate school, except this time, it’s a lot more competitive and financially draining. You can’t go in with an undeclared major like you did before—now, admissions officers want to know that you’re focused, you’re professional and you know exactly what you want to do. To help you through the process, here are seven steps for nailing every application!

1. Finalize your list of schools.


Researching schools can be overwhelming, but asking questions is usually a good place to start. Debra Kelly, the director of The Career Center at The College of New Jersey, says many universities have online chat sessions where you can speak to administrators and alumni from a specific program. Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania are just a few examples of schools who have done this.

If you’re looking for more personal advice, Kelly suggests using your network. “You’d be surprised what could happen if you just said [to people you know], ‘Oh, I’m thinking of going to [this] university but I don’t know much about it; I wonder who I could talk to,’” she says.

Once you know which programs are best aligned with your interests, you can start narrowing down your choices. Here are a few practical questions to ask grad school faculty that will help you decide if a school will meet your needs:

  • What will my class schedule look like?   
  • How many years does the program take?
  • How does the living cost of this city compare to others?
  • Can I enroll part-time if I need to work?
  • Can I find a job at the university? 

Finding a job at your university can provide great financial support, because many schools will cover your tuition if you’re an employee. That’s what Erin McGee, a M.A. in human rights candidate at Columbia University, is aiming to do when she starts school this fall.

Since graduate programs are very specific, you might find yourself filling out fewer applications than expected. However, there’s no reason to worry, because it means you’re focused on the ones that are right for you! 

2. Mark your deadlines.


We all know that once classes start, the temptation to procrastinate will hit hard (there are so many House of Cards episodes on Netflix to watch, after all). Here’s where you really need to do your research, because application deadlines can fall anywhere between January and March.

Kristi Ramos, senior assistant director of New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Science, says it’s important to remember that the deadline isn’t just for the online application, but also for the other components, such as recommendations and test scores.

“One common mistake is that students don’t register to take the GRE until very close to the application deadline,” Ramos says. “Students should take their tests at least four to six weeks before their deadline, if not sooner.”

If staying organized isn’t one of your strengths, plan out your application process on its own calendar to minimize distractions. Start by marking the hard deadlines for each application, then set personal goals, such as dates for finishing essays. Color-code each university’s deadlines so it’s easier to track your progress. Lastly, remember that other people need time to write your recommendations, so be sure to consider their schedules as well!

3. Study for the GRE.


While taking the GRE early is vital, the hard part is getting that stellar score! The GRE, or Graduate Record Examinations, has a general test, which costs $195. It’s comprised of verbal reasoning, analytical writing and quantitative reasoning (in other words, reading, writing and math). The difference between the SAT and the GRE is that the GRE is administered on a computer, your score is valid for five years and you can take it every 21 days for up to five times every 12 consecutive months. There are also subject tests at $150 each for students applying to programs in the sciences, English and psychology.

Hannah*, who will be a Ph.D. candidate in physical sciences at Stanford University starting this fall, says she paid special attention not to make any careless mistakes in the first few sections of the test, because the GRE is adaptive. That means your performance at the beginning determines the difficulty later on. If you get harder questions, you’ll likely get a higher score.

To get the best score possible, Kelly suggests making use of a variety of resources, such as test-prep classes, books and online materials. Start with the free practice questions that Educational Testing Service, or ETS (the GRE testing agency), provides online for the general test and the subject tests. There are also test-prep books such as Kaplan and The Princeton Review.

Many of these organizations, such as Kaplan, also provide free evaluations based on an online practice test you can take, as well as test-prep courses. While these courses may be a little pricey, ranging from $500 to $2,000, Kelly says since the test itself is already a huge investment, taking a course to be as prepared as possible is something students should consider.

Programs put different values on test scores; the sciences weigh them more heavily, while the humanities tend to consider other factors, Ramos says. Whatever program and budget you’re working with, the important part is to give yourself plenty of time to figure things out and study hard!

4. Ask for recommendations.


Most schools will request at least two letters of recommendation, preferably from professors who have been impressed by your academic skills and work ethic. Kelly suggests setting up a meeting with a professor by sending a professional email expressing your interest in graduate studies (be sure to attach your resume!).

“The reason why you want to have a conversation with them is that you want to know if they’re going to give you an excellent recommendation, not just a [medicore] recommendation,” Kelly says.

If you’re applying to a field that’s different from your undergraduate major, Kelly suggests asking academic advisers, coaches or supervisors from organizations you joined. However, if you have professors or academic-related people who can give you recommendations, it’s still best to focus on those, because graduate school admissions officers are primarily trying to evaluate your academic potential.                                                                                                    

5. Do some graduate-level work.


To get a sense of what graduate school will actually be like, consider writing an honors thesis or taking some graduate courses senior year. An honors thesis is an extensive paper usually written during senior year for which work under the guidance of a faculty adviser (often a professor you’ve had a course with) to research a topic in your field. At the end of the year there’s a defense, where you present your research in front of a panel of professors who will evaluate your work. It can be a challenging process, but it’s the perfect opportunity to get a feel for what you’ll be doing in graduate school. Also, if your professor’s impressed by your work, writing a thesis is a great way to secure a stellar recommendation letter!

Most schools require students to submit thesis proposals before the fall, so check with your department to see if there’s still time. Take the same steps Kelly gave for securing recommendations: Set up a meeting to express your interest in writing a thesis.

If a thesis isn’t a commitment you can fit into your schedule, Ramos suggests taking a few graduate courses senior year.  “A lot of students take a few graduate courses as a non-degree student [to] show that they can handle the coursework,” she says.

Not only will these courses demonstrate your academic skills to admissions officers, but they’ll also help you decide if staying in school for another two, three or even more years taking these courses is something you realistically see yourself doing.

6. Write your personal statement.


Some schools might ask you to submit both a personal statement and a statement of purpose, one for life experiences and one that’s purely professional. Whatever the format, make sure you proofread your work! Ramos says more often than you’d expect, students write the wrong school name in the essay. When Hannah wrote her essay, she took care to be clear and concise because she was applying to a research program, which values students who can articulate themselves well.

In terms of content, it’s important to not just repeat your resume. “Where I think people make mistakes is that they don’t tell their story,” Kelly says. She often sees students writing what they think admissions officers want to hear, which makes them sound less authentic. To stay both believable and interesting, find connections between your experiences and your interests. For example, maybe a love of learning led to reading a lot of nonfiction books, which gave you a passion for history that resulted in a history internship. Kelly says that since admissions officers are reading thousands of these essays, you can stand out by creating a cohesive narrative.

7. Establish a rapport with the faculty in every program.


Unlike college admissions, where decisions are made by a central office, graduate students are admitted by the specific department that they’re applying to. The upside to this is that there are more opportunities to get to know the specific administrators, students and professors in your field. If you’re waitlisted, the best way to get off a waitlist is to act professionally early on and continue to show your enthusiasm for the program throughout the process.                                                                                    

“When a student is in touch with a department, they should be on their best behavior and have excellent questions before they call and start asking things that might be easily available on a department’s website,” Ramos says. Here are some questions you could ask to avoid sounding like you haven’t done your research:

  • I’ve read these articles you wrote, and I was surprised by ____. Could you tell me a little more about your work in this area?
  • As a double major in college, I want to combine my interests. How would someone with my background fit into this program?
  • I’m interested in working at ____ organization someday, and I noticed that you did some research there. Could you tell me about your experience?

Just like with your personal statement, it’s always good to share your story because it makes your questions unique and personal, and it’ll help professors provide better answers if they know where you’re coming from.


To summarize our advice in two words: Start early! Graduate school is all about finding the right fit. The application process is different for everyone, so give yourself plenty of time to do some serious research as well as soul-searching!

*Name has been changed.