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How to Apply to Graduate School

Updated: Jan 30

You have taken the Graduate Record Examination and done the legwork to find a university that offers your desired major. Now your first step in the application procedure is to order the application forms from the numerous schools that you've picked. When applications start coming in, one thing will become immediately clear: they are not all the same. Writing an essay or personal statement may be required for some programs, while others may call for three or more essays on a variety of topics. When filling out an application, some places want to know everything about you, while others are OK with just your name and location.

However, most applications share a same structure, consisting largely of variants on a few core questions. Keep in mind as you read this section that not all of the information may apply to your specific application for graduate school, but that the general advice will be helpful regardless of where your interests lie.


Each graduate school has its own admissions policies and practices, but all programs evaluate your application based on a range of objective and subjective criteria. Regardless of which schools you are pursuing, understanding how admissions officers judge your candidacy can give you a leg up on the competition.

Generally, all admissions officers use the application process to measure your intellectual abilities, aptitude in your field of study, and personal characteristics. When you submit your application, admissions officers will evaluate the total package. Most admissions officers look for reasons to admit candidates, not reject them. Your challenge, therefore, is to distinguish yourself positively from the other candidates. INTELLECTUAL ABILITY

To assess your intellectual ability, admissions officers look at two key factors: your academic record and your GRE score.

Academic Record

Your grade point average (GPA) is important, but it's just part of your academic profile. Admissions officers will consider the reputation of your undergraduate institution and the difficulty of your courses. Admissions officers are well aware that comparing GPAs from different schools and even different majors from the same school is like comparing apples and oranges. So they'll look closely at your transcript. Do your grades show an upward trend? How did you perform in your major? How did you fare in courses related to the program you're applying to? Admissions officers focus primarily on your undergraduate performance, but they will consider all graduate studies and non-degree coursework that you have completed. Be sure to submit those transcripts. Generally, the GPA of applicants who are about to complete or have recently completed an undergraduate degree is given much more weight than that of applicants returning to school after several years.

If you have a poor academic record, it will be tougher to get into a top school, but it is by no means impossible. Your challenge is to find other ways to demonstrate your intellectual horsepower. High GRE scores, an intelligently written personal statement, and strong recommendations will help.


You are already familiar with the GRE and are armed with strategies to score higher on the test. An integral part of the admissions process at virtually all schools, the GRE measures general verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing skills. Some programs, particularly in psychology and the sciences, require you to take one or more GRE Subject Tests as well. In addition to or instead of the GRE, some programs require the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). Be sure to check with the programs you're considering to see which tests they require.

When admissions officers review your GRE scores, they'll look at your Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing scores separately, particularly if they have any questions about your abilities in a certain area. Different programs give varying weight to each score. If you've taken the GRE more than once, schools will generally credit you with your highest score for each section, though some may average the scores or take the most recent.

Used by itself, the GRE may not be a perfect predictor of academic performance, but it is the single best one available. The GRE does not measure your intelligence, nor does it measure the likelihood of your success in your field. The revised GRE has been designed to predict with more certainty your success in graduate school. As with any standardized test, by preparing properly for the GRE, you can boost your score significantly. The strategies you practice and learn will help you decipher difficult academic text you may encounter in your future studies.

The GRE's Analytical Writing section includes two essays: one requiring you to express and support a position on a given issue, and one requiring you to critique the logic of a given argument. The essays you type into the computer are graded on a 0 to 6 scale, and those scores are sent to the schools you designate along with your 130– 170 scores for the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections. The Analytical Writing section is designed to provide schools with information about your communications skills that are not otherwise detectable on the GRE. Essentially, it is another tool that schools can use to evaluate you. Graduate schools have recognized that the Analytical Writing section provides you with an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to think critically and communicate complex ideas in a very limited period. Even though the Analytical Writing section is scored separately from the multiple-choice sections, you should prepare for it with the same intensity that you put into preparing for the rest of the GRE.

Fellowships and Assistantships

Some graduate programs award fellowships and assistantships partly based on GRE scores. Because most programs have limited funds and therefore limited positions to offer, the awards process can be quite competitive. Not only should you take your scores seriously, but you should also confirm the submission deadline with your department. The financial aid deadline is usually earlier than the application deadline.


When evaluating your application, admissions officers look at work experience and other activities related to the program in question. In fields like psychology, social work, and health, your research and practical experience will play a role in the admissions decision. If you're applying to film, writing, or other arts programs, you'll be asked to submit samples of your work. And if you're planning on an academic career, your research and publications will be of particular interest to the admissions committee. The way you present yourself and your achievements should be tailored to the programs you're applying to.

You can communicate some of your abilities through the straightforward “ data” part of your application. Be sure to describe your job and internship responsibilities. Be aware that your job title alone will not necessarily communicate enough about what you do or the level of your responsibilities. If you are asked to submit a resume or CV, make sure you illustrate your experience and on-the-job training in a way that highlights skills you already have and those you think will serve you well in your future field of study.

If you are working and applying to a graduate program in the same field, admissions officers will look at your overall career record. How have you progressed? Have you been an outstanding performer? What do your recommendation writers say about your performance? Have you progressed to increasingly higher levels of responsibility? If you have limited work experience, you will not be expected to match the accomplishments of an applicant with 10 years of experience, but you will be expected to demonstrate your abilities.

Extracurricular activities and community involvement also present opportunities for you to highlight your skills. For younger applicants, college activities play a more significant role than for more seasoned applicants. Your activities say a lot about who you are and what's important to you. Were you a campus leader? Did your activities require discipline and commitment? Did you work with a team? What did you learn from your involvement?

Active community involvement provides a way for you to demonstrate your skills and impress admissions officers with your character. Many applications ask directly about community activities. Getting involved in your community is a chance to do something worthwhile and enhance your application in the process. PERSONAL CHARACTERISTICS

The third, and most subjective, criterion on which schools evaluate you is your character. Admissions officers judge you in this area primarily through your statement (and essays, if applicable), recommendations, and personal interview (if applicable). Although different schools emphasize different qualities, most seek candidates who demonstrate maturity, integrity, responsibility, and a clear sense of how they fit into their chosen field. The more competitive programs place special emphasis on these criteria because they have many qualified applicants for each available spot in the class.


At most schools, the board includes professional admissions officers and/or faculty from the department you're applying to. At some schools, the authority to make admissions decisions lies with the graduate school itself, that is, with the central administration. In others, it lies with individual departments.


Upon reviewing your application, the admissions board may make any number of decisions, including the following:

  • Admit Congratulations, you're in! But read the letter carefully. The board may recommend or, in some cases, require you to do some preparatory coursework to ensure that your quantitative or language skills are up to speed.

  • Reject: At the top schools, there are far more qualified applicants than spaces in the class. Even though you were rejected, you can reapply at a later date. However, if you are considering reapplying, you need to understand why you were rejected and whether you have a reasonable chance of being admitted the next time around. Some schools will speak with you about your application, but they often wait until the end of the admissions season, by which time you may have accepted another offer.

  • Waiting list: Schools use the waiting list to manage class size, leaving the applicant with a mixed message. The good news is that you are a strong enough candidate to have made the list. The bad news is there is no way to know with certainty whether you'll be accepted. Take heart, though, that schools do tend to look kindly upon wait-listed candidates who reapply in a subsequent year.

  • Request for an interview: Schools at which an interview is not required may request that you interview before making their final decision. Your application may have raised some specific issues that you can address in an interview, or perhaps the board feels your statement did not give them a complete enough picture to render a decision. Look at this as a positive opportunity to strengthen your case.


When it comes to applying to graduate school, you are the product. Your application is your marketing document. Of course, marketing yourself doesn't mean that you should lie or even embellish; it just means that you need to make a tight presentation of the facts. Everything in your application should add up to a coherent whole and underscore the fact that you are not only qualified to be in the program but that you should be in it.

Many application forms have a comforting and accepting tone. Why would you like to come to our program? they ask. They do want an answer to that question, but what's even more important— the subtext for the whole application process— is the question: Why should we accept you? This is the question that your application will answer. And with some effective marketing strategies, your answer will be clear, concise, coherent, and strong.


Let's take a close look at how you should approach the specific parts of your application.


Your statement is a critical part of your application. The personal statement is where you can explain why you're applying to graduate school, what interests you about this program, and what your future goals are. The situations you choose to write about and how you present them can have a major bearing on the strength of your candidacy.

Writing an effective personal statement requires serious self-examination and sound strategic planning. What major personal and professional events have shaped you? What accomplishments best demonstrate your abilities? Remember, admissions officers are interested in getting to know you as a complete person. What you choose to write about sends clear signals about what's important to you and what your values are. You want the readers to put your essay down and think, “ Wow! That was interesting and memorable,” and, “ Wow! This person knows why she's going into this program and has real contributions to make to the field.”

Creating Your Statement

Your statement should demonstrate the patterns in your life that have led you to apply for the program. Part of demonstrating why you are right for the program involves demonstrating that you understand what the program is and where it will lead you. A personal statement requires honesty and distinctiveness. If you are heading to graduate school straight from undergraduate school, what has made you so certain that you know what you want to do with your life? If you are returning to school, particularly if you are changing fields, what has led you to this decision? You can use vignettes from your personal history, academic life, work life, and extracurricular activities to explain. If you are applying to a doctoral program, indicate which ideas, fields of research, or problems intrigue you. It's always a good idea to demonstrate familiarity with the field you want to enter.

You should start compiling information for your statement three or four months before you fill out your application. Write a draft once you've narrowed your list of potential topics. Has it been edited by someone who knows you well? After rewriting, have someone whose opinion and writing skills you trust read your final draft, make suggestions, and above all, help you proofread.

General Personal Statement Tips

Once you've determined what you plan to write for your statement, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Length: Schools are pretty specific about how long they want your statement to be. Adhere to their guidelines.

  • Spelling/typos/grammar: Remember, your application is your marketing document. What would you think of a product that's promoted with sloppy materials containing typos, spelling errors, and grammatical mistakes?

  • Write in the active voice: Candidates who write well have an advantage in the application process because they can state their case in a concise, compelling manner. Less effective writers commonly write “ passively.” For example:

    • Passive voice: The essays were written by me.

    • Active voice: I wrote the essays.

Strong writing will not compensate for a lack of substance, but poor writing can torpedo an otherwise impressive candidate.

  • Tone: On the one hand, you want to out your achievements and present yourself as a poised, self-confident applicant. On the other hand, arrogance and self-importance do not go over well with admissions officers. Before you submit your application, be sure that you're comfortable with the tone as well as the content.

  • Creative approaches: If you choose to submit a humorous or creative application, you are employing a high-risk, high-reward strategy. If you're confident you can pull it off, go for it. Be aware, though, that what may work for one admissions officer may fall flat with another. Admissions officers who review thousands of essays every year may consider your approach gimmicky or simply find it distracting. Remember, your challenge is to stand out in the applicant pool in a positive way. Don't let your creativity obscure the substance of your application.

Making Your Statement Distinctive

Depending on the amount of time you have and the amount of effort you're willing to put in, you can write a personal statement that will stand out from the crowd. One of the first mistakes that some applicants make is thinking that “ thorough” and “ comprehensive” are sufficient qualities for their statement. They try to include as much information as possible, without regard for length limitations or strategic intent. Application readers dread reading these bloated personal statements. So how do you decide what to include? There are usually clear length guidelines, and admissions officers prefer that you adhere to them. So get rid of the idea of “ comprehensive” and focus more on “ distinctive.”

Unless they ask for it, don't dwell on your weak points. A strong personal statement, for example, about how much you learned in your current position and how the experience and knowledge you've gained inspired you to apply to graduate school will give readers what they want— a quick image of who you are, how you got that way, and why you want to go to their school. One of the best ways to be distinctive is to sell your image briefly and accurately, including real-life examples to back up your points.

The admissions team wants to know about you, but there is the potential for including too much personal information. Beware of sharing reasons for applying that include furthering personal relationships, improving finances, or proving someone wrong.

“ Distinctive” means that your statement should answer the questions that admissions officers think about while reading personal statements: What's different about this applicant? Why should we pick this applicant over others? Authentic enthusiasm can be a plus, and writing about parts of your life or career that are interesting and relevant helps grab a reader's attention.


In some programs, an interview with the department is conducted at the applicant's discretion: if you want one, you're welcome to ask. In other programs, only the most promising applicants are invited to interviews. Whether or not a department can pay your travel expenses depends on its financial circumstances. If you have the opportunity, definitely go to interview at your first-choice departments. There's no substitute for face-to-face contact with your potential colleagues, and by visiting the school you can check out the city or town where it is located. You should investigate cost-of-living and transportation options during your visit.

As you prepare for an interview, here are some tips.

  • Review your application. If you've submitted your application before the interview, your interviewer is likely to use it as a guide and may ask specific questions about it. Be sure you remember what you wrote.

  • Be ready to provide examples and specifics. Professionally trained interviewers are more likely to ask you about specific situations than to ask broad, open-ended questions. They can learn more by asking what you've done in situations than by asking what you think you'd do. Here are a few situations an interviewer may ask you to discuss: “ Tell me about a recent accomplishment.” “ Discuss a recent situation in which you demonstrated leadership.” “ Give me an example of a situation where you overcame difficult circumstances.” As you think about these situations, be prepared to discuss specifics— what you did and why you did it that way. You do not need to “ script” or over-rehearse your responses, but you should go into the interview confident that you can field any question.

  • Be open and honest. Don't struggle to think of “ right” answers. The only right answers are those that are right for you. By responding openly and honestly, you'll find the interview less stressful, and you'll come across as a more genuine, attractive candidate.

  • Ask questions. The interview is as much an opportunity for you to learn about the school as for the school to learn about you. Good questions demonstrate your knowledge about a particular program and your thoughtfulness about the entire process.

  • Follow proper professional decorum. Be on time, dress appropriately, and follow up with thank-you letters. Treat the process as you would a job interview, which in many respects it is.

  • Watch your nonverbal cues. Nonverbal communication is much more important than people realize. Maintain eye contact, keep good posture, sustain positive energy, and avoid nervous fidgeting. It will help you come across as confident, poised, and mature.

  • Be courteous to the administrative staff. These people are colleagues of the board members, and how you treat them can have an impact, either positive or negative.

  • Relax and have fun. Interviews are inherently stressful. But by being well prepared, you can enhance your prospects for admission, learn about the school, and enjoy yourself in the process.


Graduate schools will require at least three recommendations. Choose recommenders who can write meaningfully about your strengths. One of the more common mistakes is to sacrifice an insightful recommendation from someone who knows you well for a generic recommendation from a celebrity or a prominent professor. Admissions officers are not impressed by famous names. So unless that individual knows you and can write convincingly on your behalf, it's not a strategy worth pursuing. Good choices for recommenders include current and past supervisors, professors, academic and nonacademic advisers, and people you work with in community activities.

Many schools will specifically request an academic recommendation. Professors in your major are ideal recommenders, as they can vouch for your ability to study at the graduate level. If you don't have a professor who can recommend you, use a TA who knows your work well. Similarly, if requesting a recommendation from your employer would create an awkward situation, look for someone else who can comment on your skills. Your recommendations will confirm your strengths and, in some cases, help you overcome perceived weaknesses in your application.

If you wish to submit an extra recommendation, it's generally not a problem. Most schools will include the letter in your file, and those that don't will penalize you for it. You should, however, send a note explaining why you have requested an additional recommendation so it does not appear that you disregarded the instructions. It's also a good idea to check with the admissions department before submitting an extra recommendation.

Asking for Recommendations

There are two fundamental rules for requesting recommendations: ask early and ask nicely. As soon as you decide to go to graduate school, you should start sizing up potential recommendation writers and let them know that you may ask them for a recommendation. This will give them plenty of time to think about what to say. Once they've agreed, let them know about deadlines well in advance to avoid potential scheduling conflicts. The more time they have, the better the job they'll do recommending you. As for asking nicely, you should let these people know you think highly of their opinion and you'd be happy and honored if they would consider writing you a letter of recommendation. You can help your recommenders by scheduling brief appointments with them to discuss your background; providing any forms required by the program; supplying stamped, addressed envelopes; and following up with them.


When you've completed your pertinent and you're ready to submit your application, take two more steps to ensure that your application is as strong as it can be.

  • Be sure to read your statement in the context of your entire application.

    • a. Does the total package make sense? Does it represent you favorably? Is everything consistent?

    • b. Have you demonstrated your intellectual ability, relevant experience and skills, and personal characteristics?

    • c. Most importantly, do you feel good about the application? After all, you don't want to be rejected based on the app the location that you don't believe represents the real you.

  • Have someone you trust and respect review your application. Someone who has not been involved in writing the application may pick up spelling or grammatical errors that you've overlooked. In addition, because your application is an intensely personal document that requires significant self-examination, you may not be able to remain objective. Someone who knows you and can be frank will tell you whether your application has “ captured” you most favorably. Note, however, that some schools prohibit you from using any outside help on your application. A last-minute once-over from a friend or family member is probably within reason, but you may want to directly ask the school what is permissible.


· There are no magic formulas that automatically admit you to, or reject you from, the school of your choice. Rather, your application is like a jigsaw puzzle. Each component— GPA, GRE scores, professional experience, school activities, recommendations— is a different piece of the puzzle.

· Outstanding professional experience and personal characteristics may enable you to overcome a mediocre academic record. Conversely, outstanding academic credentials will not ensure your admission to a top-tier program if you do not demonstrate strong relevant skills and experience, as well as solid personal character. Your challenge in preparing your application is to convince the admissions board that all of the pieces in your background fit together to form a substantial and unique puzzle.


About a quarter of a million international students pursue advanced academic degrees at the master's or PhDPhDvel at U.S. universities each year. This trend of pursuing higher education in the United States, particularly at the graduate level, is expected to continue. Business, management, engineering, and the physical and life sciences are popular areas of study for students coming to the United States from other countries. Along with these academic options, international students are also taking advantage of opportunities for research grants, teaching assistantships, and practical training or work experience in U.S. graduate departments.

If you are not from the United States but are considering attending a graduate program at a university in the United States, here is what you'll need to get started.

  • If English is not your first language, you will probably need to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or show some other evidence that you're proficient in English pribeforeining admission to a graduate program. Graduate programs will vary on what is an acceptable TOEFL score. For degrees in business, journalism, management, or the humanities, a minimum TOEFL score of 100 (600 on the paper-based TOEFL) or better is expected. For the hard sciences and computer technology, a TOEFL iBT score of 79 (550 on the paper-based TOEFL) is a common minimum requirement.

  • You may also need to take the GRE. The strategies in this book are designed to help you maximize your score on the computer-based GRE. However, most sites outside the United States and Canada offer only the paper-based version of the GRE. Fortunately, most strategies can be applied to the paper-based version as well. For additional paper-based GRE strategies, see Chapter 2.

  • Because admission to many graduate programs is quite competitive, you may want to select three or four programs you would like to attend and complete applications for each program.

  • Selecting the correct graduate school is very different from selecting a suitable undergraduate institution. You should research the qualifications and interests of faculty members teaching and doing research in your chosen field. Look for professors who share your specialty.

  • You need to begin the application process at least a year in advance. Be aware that many programs offer only August or September start dates. Find out application deadlines and plan accordingly.

  • Finally, you will need to obtain an I– 20 Certificate of Eligibility to obtain an F-1 Student Visa to study in the United States.

If you need more help with the complex process of graduate school admissions, assistance preparing for the TOEFL or GRE, or help to build English language skills in general, you may be interested in Kaplan's English language and test preparation for international students, available at Kaplan's International Centers/Colleges around the world.

Kaplan's English Courses were designed to help students and professionals from outside the United States meet their educational and career goals. At locations throughout the United States, international students take advantage of Kaplan's programs to help them improve their academic and conversational English skills; to see heroes on the TOEFL, GRE, and other standardized exams; and to n admitted to the schools of their choice. Our staff and instructors give international students the individualized instruction they need to succeed. Here is a brief description of some of Kaplan's programs for international students.

General Intensive English

Kaplan's General Intensive English course is the fastest and most effective way for students to improve their English. This full-time program integrates the four key elements of language learning— listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The challenging curriculum and intensive schedule are designed for both the general language learner and the academically bound student.

TOEFL and Academic English (TAE)

Our world-famous TOEFL course prepares you for the TOEFL and teaches you the academic language and skills needed to succeed in a university. Designed for high-intermediate to proficiency-level English speakers, our course includes TOEFL-focused reading, writing, listening, speaking, vocabulary, and grammar instruction.

General English

Our General English course is a semi-intensive program designed for students who want to improve their listening and speaking skills without the time commitment of an intensive program. With morning or afternoon class times and flexible Structured Study hours throughout the week, our General English course is perfect for every schedule.


The GRE is required for admission to many graduate programs in the United States. Nearly a half million people take the GRE each year. A high score can help you stand out from other test takers. This course, designed especially for nonnative English speakers, includes the skills you need to succeed on each section of the GRE, as well as access to Kaplan's exclusive computer-based practice materials and extra Verbal practice.

CHAPTER 23: Where and When to Apply

You probably know what you want to study as a graduate student, but where should you apply? The answer to this question is dependent on two main factors: which programs would be best for you, and which of these programs you can actu into. This chapter will help you answer these questions— and many more you may have about the process of choosing a school for postgraduate study.


Once you've made decided to pursue graduate studies, you should take makdecideere to go to school seriously— it will have a major influence on your daily life for the next several years and will influence your academic and career paths for years to come. Many students allow themselves to be influenced by a professor or mentor or school rankings, ad then finds they're unhappy in a certain program because of its location, workload, cost, or some unforeseen factor. If you complete your arch, even if it takes time and hard work, you will be happier with your own choice. Let's take a look at some of the factors you'll need to consider when choosing a school.

Your Goals

Keep your goals in mind when evaluating graduate programs. Before you take leapsportant that you have a pretty clear idea whewhereofyour interests real what grad school life is like and whether you're compatible with a particular program and its professors. Armed with this information, you should be able to successfully apply to the right programs, get accepted, and use your time in graduate school to help you get a head start on the post-graduation job search.

Students decide to enter master's and doctoral degree programs for a variety of reasons. Some want to pursue a career in academia. To teach at two-year colleges, you'll need at least a master's degree; to teach and do research at four-year colleges, universities, and graduate programs, you'll need a doctorate. Other people need graduate education to meet national and state licensing requirements in fields such as social work, engineering, and architecture. Some students want to change careers, while others expect an advanced degree to open up new opportunities in their current field.

Most master's programs are two years long, and master's students are generally one of two types: those on an academic track, where the degree programs focus on classical research and scholarship, and those on a practical track, where the degree program is actuofessional training course that qualifies people to enter or advance in a field such as social work or education.

Other options to consider if you're pursuing a master's degree are cooperative, joint, and interdisciplinary programs. In cooperative programs, you apply to, answer to, and graduate from one school, but you have access to classes, professors, and facilities at a cooperating school or schools as part of the program. In joint- or dual-degree programs, you work toward two degrees simultaneously, either within the same school or at two neighboring schools. Interdisciplinary programs are generally run by a committee consisting of faculty from a numbseveralrent departments. You apply to, register with, and are graduated by only one of the departments; you and your faculty committee design your curriculum.

Doctoral programs are designed to create scholars capable of independent research that will add new and significant knowledge to their fields. At first, you'll be regarded as an apprentice in your field. Your first year or two in the program will be spent on coursework, followed by “ field” or “ qualifying” exams. Once you've passed those exams, demonstrating that you have the basic factual and theoretical knowledge of your field down cold, you'll be permitted to move on to independent research in the form of your doctoral dissertation. During most of this time, you c can get financial aid in the form of teaching or research assistantships; in exchange for assisting professors in the classroom or the lab, you get a small stipend and/or tuition remission.

If you want to get a doctoral degree, you can get a master's and reapply to Ph.D. programs, or enter directly into the doctoral program. The first method gives you flexibility but generally takes longer, costs more in the long run, and means reliving the application process. However, some doctoral programs do require a full master's degree for acceptance.

Program Reputation

Although you shouldn't place too much stock in school and program rankings, you should consider a program's overall reputation. When you assess a program's reputation, don't just consider its national ranking, but think about whether it fits your goals and interests. You can get information from a variety of sources, formal and informal.

Each year, various groups publish rankings of graduate programs: U.S. News and World Report on American graduate programs, Maclean's on Canadian programs, and many others. These rankings can give you a general sense of the programs in your field and may include profiles of distinguished professors, but they tell you nothing about departmental politics, job placement records, or financial aid possibilities.

You should find out which programs are highly regarded in the areas that interest you. You can learn these details through professional associations (such as the American Psychological Association), comprehensive commercial directories of graduate programs (available through school local libraries), and the Internet.

Don't forget to contact schools and departments directly. Most departments have a chairperson who is also the admissions contact; he or she can put you in touch with current students and alumni who are willing to discuss the program with you. The chair is usually willing to answer questions as well.

Try to speak to at least one current student and one alumnus from each program you're seriously considering. You'll find that many graduate students are quite outspoken about the strengths and weaknesses of professors, programs, and the state of the job market in their field.

If you're an undergraduate, or silstillve contacts from your undergraduate experience, ask your professors for their take on the various graduate programs. You'll often find that they have a great deal of inside information on academic and research trends, impending retirements, intellectual rivalries, and rising stars.

Remember, a program's reputation isn't everything, but the higher your school is regarded in the marketplace, the better your job prospects are likely to be upon graduation.


Two key questions you should consider regarding a school's location are: How will it affect the overall quality of your graduate school experience, and how will it affect your employability? Some students prefer an urban setting. Others prefer a more rustic environment. Cost of living can also be a factor.

Geography may be an important criterion for you. Perhaps your geographical choices are limited by a spouse's job or other family obligations. Perhaps you already know where you want to live after graduation. If you're planning on a career in academia, you'll probably want to choose a nationally known program, regardless of where it's located. If, on the other hand, your program involves a practical dimension (psychology, social work, education, or some interdisciplinary programs), you may want to concentrate your school search on the area in which you hope to live and work, at least initially.


To maximize the value of your graduate school experience, be sure that a department's areas of concentration match up with your own. Knowing a program's particular theoretical bent and practical selling points can help ensure that you choose a school that reflects your own needs and academic leanings. Does one school of thought, one style of research, predominate? If so, is there anyone else working in the department with a different theoretical framework? Will you have opportunities to work within a variety of theories and orientations? What special opportunities are available? How well are research programs funded? Do the professors have good records at rounding up grants? In field or clinical work, what are the options? Are programs available in your area of interest?

Find the environment that works best for you. Don't put yourself in a situation in which you don't have access to the courses or training you're seeking. It's your education. Your time. Your energy. Your investment in your future. By being proactive, you can help guarantee that you maximize your graduate school experience.


One of the most important decisions you make in your graduate school career will be your choice of advisor. This one person will help you with course selection as well as clinical, research, or field education opportunities; he or she can make or break the thesis/dissertation process. So when you investigate a department, look for a faculty member whose interests and personality are compatible with yours. Since this single person (your “ dream advisor” ) may not be available, be sure to look for a couple of other professors with whom you might be able to work.

If one of your prime motivations in affording a certain program is to take classes from specific professors, make sure you'll have that opportunity. At the master's level, access to prominent professors is often limited to large, foundation-level lecture courses, where papers and exams are graded by the professor's graduate assistants or tutors. At the doctoral level, professors are generally much more accessible.

Is the department stable or changing? Find out whether the faculty is nearing retirement age. Impending retirements may not affect you in a two-year master's program, but this is a serious consideration in doctoral programs, which can (and often do) stretch on for over five years. If you have hopes of working with a distinguished professor, will he or she even be available for that time— or longer, if you get delayed? Will the department be large and stable enough to allow you to put together a good thesis or dissertation committee? Also try, to find out whether younger members of the department are established. Do they get sufficient funding? Have they settled in Tinto institution enough that there are not likely to be political controversies?


Although some people attend graduate school for the love of knowledge, most want to enhance their career prospects in some way. When you graduate with your hard-won degree, what are your chances of getting your desired job?

You'll want to ask what kind of track record a given program has in placing its alumni. With today's highly competitive job market, it's especially important to find out when and where graduates have found work. If you're considering working in business, industry, local agencies, schools, health care facilities, or the government, find out whether these employers visit the campus to recruit. Major industries may visit science programs to interview prospective graduates. Some will even employ graduate students over the summer or part-time. If you're going into academia, find out whether recent grads have been able to find academic posts, how long the search took, and where they're working. Are they getting tenure-track positions at reasonably prestigious departments, or are they shifting from temporary appointment to temporary appointment with little hope of finding a stable position? Don't just look at the first jobs that a school's graduates take. Where are they in 5, 10, or even 25 years?

Your career is more like a marathon than a sprint. So take the long view. A strong indicator of a program's strength is the accomplishments of its alumni.

Student Body

Some graduate catalogs contain profiles of or statements by current masters and PhDPh.D.udents. Sometimes this is an informal blurb on a few students— it's reacting material— and sometimes it's a full listing of graduate students. Use this as a resource both to find out what everyone else in the program is up to, ad to find current students you can interview about the school and the program.

Because much of your learning will come from your classmates, consider the makeup of your class. A school with a geographically, professionally, and ethnically diverse student body will expose you to far more viewpoints than will a school with a more homogeneous group. If you're an older applicant, ask yourself how you'll fit in with a predominantly younger group of students. For many, the fit is terrific, but for others, the transition can be tougher. The answer depends on you, but it's something to consider.

The student body, as well as the faculty, will have varied philosophical and political orientations. The theories and perspectives considered liberal in one program can be deemed conservative in another, and where you fit among your peers can have a lot of influence on your image and your opportunities. If you plan on an academic career, remember that your student colleagues will someday likely be your professional ­ colleagues.


Forging relationships— with your classmates, your professors,d, in a larger sense, all the alumni— is a big part of the graduate-school experience. One of the things you'll take with you when you graduate, aside from a cation, a diploma, and debt, is that network. And whether you thrive on networking or tend to shy away from it, it's a necessity. At some point, it may help you advance your career, in academia or outside.

Quality of Life

Your graduate school experience will extend far beyond your classroom learning, particularly for full-time students. That's why it's so important to find out as much as you can about the schools that interest you. For example, what activities would you like to participate in? Perhaps convenient recreational facilities or an intramural sports program is appealing. If you'd like to be involved in community activities, perhaps there's a school volunteer organization. Regardless of your interests, your ability to maintain balance in your life in the face of a rigorous academic challenge will help you keep a healthy outlook.

Housing is another quality-of-life issue to consider. Is campus housing available? Is off-campus housing convenient? Is it affordable? Where do most of the students live?

Quality of life is also an important consideration for spouses and significant others, especially if your school choice requires a move to a new city. When graduate school takes over your life, your spouse may feel left out. Find out what kind of groups and activities there are for families and partners. For example, are there any services to help your spouse find employment? Is child care available? Is there a good school system in the area?

Full-Time versus Part-Time

In a full-time program, you can focus your energy on your studies to maximize your learning. You're also likely to meet more people and forge closer relationships with your classmates. Many programs are oriented toward the full-time student and many top-tier programs don't offer part-time options. A part-time schedule may also make it difficult for you to take classes with the best professors.

There are, however, many compelling reasons for attending part-time. It may not be economically feasible for you to attend full-time. Or you may wish to continue gaining professional experience while earning the degree that will allow you to move on to the next level. If there's a possibility that you'll have to work while you're in school, particularly while you're in the coursework stage, check out the flexibility of any program that interests you. Is there night or weekend classes? When is the library open? What about the lab? Talk to students currently in the program, especially those who work. Part-time programs are often slow, which can be discouraging, especially when licensure or salary increases are at stake.

Although many students in full-time graduate programs support themselves with part-time work, their primary allegiance is to the graduate degree. Since graduate studies tend to become the focus of your life, if you can manage full-time or nearly full-time studies at the higher levels, do it. You can graduate earlier and start picking up the financial pieces that much sooner— often with a more secure base for your job search in the form of good support from your advisor.

Most master's programs are flexible about part-time studies, but doctoral programs are less so. Many doctoral programs expect a minimum amount of time “ in residence” — that is, enrolled as a full-time student for a certain number of consecutive semesters. This requirement is usually listed in the catalog.

Program Costs

Some graduate programs charge per credit or hour, meaning that your tuition bill is calculated by the number of credits you take each semester. Other programs charge per semester or year with a minimum and a maximum number of credits you can take per semester for that flat fee. In general, per credit makes sense for part-time students, while per semester makes sense for full-time students. Generally speaking, the most expensive kind of graduate program (per semester) will be a master's degree at a private school. Loans are available to master's-level students, but grants, scholarships, and other forms of “ free” financial assistance are harder to find. Furthermore, most private schools apply the same tuition rate to in-state and out-of-state residents. State colleges and universities usually give in-state residents a tuition break. Other forms of savings can come from finding the cheapest living and housing expenses and from working your way through the program as quickly as possible.

At the doctoral level, tuition remission (you don't pay any of it) and grants or stipends (they pay you) are common. Percentages of doctoral students in a program receiving full tuition remission plus stipend/grant money can range anywhere from 0 percent to 100 percent— every student in the program pays no tuition and receives some grant or stipend. In these programs, the major financial burden is the living expenses over the years of coursework, language requirements, qualifying and field exams, research, and the dissertation.


Once you've developed a list of schools that meet your needs, take an objective look at your chances of getting into them.

A good way to get a sense of how graduate schools will perceive you is to make up a fact sheet with your GRE scores (or projected scores), your overall grade point average (GPA), as well as your GPA in your major, and your work experience. Outside activities and your statement will contribute to the overall “ score” that admissions officers will use to evaluate you, but let's stick with the raw data for now.

The next step is to find a current source of information about graduate school programs. There are several guides published every year that provide data about acceptance rates for given years, as well as median GPA and GRE scores. You can also request this information directly from a given department. The school of your dreams may not care very much about your GPA, but it might be very interesting in your GRE scores. Make sure you find out what your target school prioritizes in its search for worthy applicants.

One of the best ways to gauge whether you're in contention for a certain program is to compare your numbers to theirs. And remember that you needn't hit the nail on the head. The Median is similar to average, so some applicants do better or worse than the GRE scores or GPA cited. And remember all the other factors that add up to make you a desirable applicant. Comparing numbers is merely a good way to get a preliminary estimate of your compatibility with the schools of your choice.

“ Safety” Schools

Once you have some idea of where you fall in the applicant pool, you can begin to make decisions about your application strategy. No matter what your circumstances, it's wise to choose at least one school that is likely to accept you, a “ safety” school. Make sure it fits your academic goals and your economic circumstances. If your GRE scores and GPA are well above a school's median scores and you don't anticipate any problems with other parts of your record or application, you've probably found your safety school.

“ Wishful Thinking” Schools

If your ideal program is one that you don't seem qualified for, apply to your “ dream school” anyway. You may be surprised! GPA and GRE scores aren't the only criteria by which applicants are judged, and you may discover that you're admitted despite your academic background, on the merits of your statement, work samples, or other criteria. It's always worth a try. Some people underestimate their potential and apply only to safe schools. This can often lead to disappointment when they end up at one of these schools and discover that it doesn't provide the rigorous training they want.


With the number of graduate school applications received by institutions of higher learning on the rise, the issue of when to apply for admission has become very important. There are perfect times to begin and end the application process. You should begin at least a year before you plan to enter school (sooner if you're a nontraditional candidate or are changing fields). Find out the following essential dates as early as possible and incorporate them into your application schedule:

  • Standardized test registration deadlines

  • Transcript deadlines (some schools send out transcripts only on particular dates)

  • Letters-of-recommendation due dates

  • Application deadlines (submit your application as early as possible to ensure that you get a fair and comprehensive review)

  • Financial aid forms deadlines (federal/state programs, universities, and independent sources of aid all have definite deadlines)

Setting Up an Application Schedule

We've organized the following “ seasonal” schedule to help you understand how to proceed through the admissions process.

Winter (18– 20 months before start date)

  • If you're a nontraditional

  • applicant or plan to switch fields, begin investigating program requirements. Take courses to make up any missing portion of your background.

Spring (16– 18 months before start date)

  • Browse through program catalogs and collect information on different grants and loans. Create your graduate school library.


  • Request applications from schools. If they're not available yet, ask for last year's so you can get a feel for the questions you'll have to answer.

  • Write a draft of your statement and show it to trusted friends and/or colleagues for feedback.

  • Consider registering for the GRE in the fall. This will give you plenty of time to submit your scores with your application.

  • Research your options for test preparation. Take the test included in this book to give you a good idea of where you stand on the GRE.

Early Fall

  • Ask for recommendations. Make sure that your recommenders know enough about you to write a meaningful letter. Ask them first if they would be willing to write you a recommendation and ask how much lead time they would need. Once your recommenders have agreed to write a recommendation, make sure to give them clear deadlines, so you can avoid any timing conflicts.

Late Fall

  • Take the GRE.

  • Request applications from schools, if you haven't already done so.

  • Request institutional, state, and federal financial aid materials from school aid offices.

  • Request information on independent grants and loans.

  • Order transcripts from your undergraduate (and any graduate) institution(s).

  • Follow up with your recommenders, and send a thank you note to those who sent their recommendations in already.


  • Fill out applications. Mail them as early as possible.

  • Fill out financial aid applications. Mail these early as well.

  • Make sure your recommendation writers have the appropriate forms and directions for mailing. Remind them of deadline dates.


  • Sit back and relax (if you can). Most schools indicate how long it will take to inform you of their decision. This is also a crucial time to solidify your financial plans as you begin to receive offers of aid (with any luck).

The timing described here is approximate, and you needn't follow it exactly. The most important thing for you to do is make yourself aware of strict deadlines well in advance so that you'll be able to devote plenty of quality time to your application. In the next chapter, we'll go over the application process in detail.

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