So you’ve found your dream grad school program, with a safe and comfortable learning environment, excellent peer support, and a research program that excites you. You can’t wait to get started, but first, you’ll need to apply to grad school!
Colleges receive hundreds, sometimes thousands, of grad school applications every year. Each school has its own list of requirements and criteria that selection committees use to filter applications to find the best candidates.
If this all sounds super overwhelming, don’t worry. Read on to learn how to apply to grad school and about the grad school application process.
How Important is Your Grad School Application?
In most cases, applying to grad school isn’t a simple process. There are many steps to applying for grad school and the competition can be tough, especially if you’re applying to a coveted Ivy League grad school such as Harvard or Princeton.
You should not only closely follow the school’s requirements, but also make every effort to persuade the selection committee that you are a strong candidate.
In our guide to the grad school application process, we’ll walk you through each step for applying to grad school, and how you can make your grad school application as strong as possible at every stage.
How to Apply to Grad School: A Step-By-Step Guide
We’ve broken down the grad school application process in these steps to applying to grad school, to help you put together your application with a minimal amount of stress!
1. Research and Prioritize Grad Schools
Before you get started with your application, you’ll need to decide which schools you want to apply for. With so many options available, it’s important to do your research and find the best schools for you, striking a balance between those which meet your requirements, and those to which you’re most likely to be accepted.
To balance these factors, create a list of at least six schools and separate them into three categories:
- Dream schools – These are your top choice schools, schools that tick all the boxes. Of course, these schools are often very competitive and have challenging admission criteria.
- Target schools – These are good institutions for which you have a fair chance of acceptance. They might not be as attractive as your dream schools but are still good options.
- Safety schools – These are your backup choices. Safety schools are the schools that you feel confident you’ll get into.
Ideally, you want to submit four to six grad school applications to institutions across each of these categories. Do your research by looking at schools’ websites and marketing materials, and talking to current students and alumni. Our forum is a great place to get feedback and advice from others.
2. Check the Eligibility Criteria
Once you have a solid list of graduate schools you want to apply to, the next crucial step is to check each one’s admission requirements.
Most grad schools will require the following in your application:
- Academic transcripts for your undergraduate studies
- Application form
- Entrance test scores such as GRE or GMAT
- Personal statement or statement of purpose
- Letters of recommendation
Most grad schools share several requirements, though the exact selection criteria and application process varies between institutions. For example, some graduate schools ask students to submit an academic resume, while others ask for work samples. Some schools may have non-negotiable criteria, such as a minimum undergraduate GPA.
It’s important to fulfill school requirements if you want your application to be successful. You also don’t want to waste your time applying for grad schools where you don’t meet the eligibility criteria. Be sure to check this on GradCafe’s Admissions Tool to compare grad school requirements.
3. Fill out the Application Form
Unlike applying to college, there’s no universal application like the Common App for grad school. This means you’ll need to complete one application for each grad program you want to apply for.
Application forms vary, but they typically ask for basic information about your academic and extracurricular experience. Although the application form may seem like the easiest part of the process, don’t rush through it. Make sure your application is comprehensive and error-free.
4. Prepare for the Entrance Tests
You may have an excellent GPA for grad school, but you’ll need to take entrance tests before you’re admitted to a program. GRE and GMAT tests are designed to determine your academic potential for grad school.
Prepare well for these exams. You might consider getting, or taking a preparation course—see these GRE tips to learn more about how to prepare for your GRE. You will need a passing score to be considered for most grad schools. And, strong test results can also make up for a lower GPA.
5. Impress with a Personal Statement
Most grad schools require you to submit a personal statement. This is a personal essay that you can use to showcase your skills, journey to date, motivation, and goals.
A good personal statement can persuade your dream school’s selection committee that you are the ideal candidate. You want to make sure that your personal statement is compelling and demonstrates your passion and motivation.
6. Update Your Resume
Many grad schools require an academic resume in your application. Remember, an academic resume is different from an employment resume.
For more information, look at our in-depth guide to writing a graduate school resume. The basics include:
- A strong, concise introduction
- Your contact details
- Education history
- Skills and hobbies
- Achievement and awards
- Any relevant work experience
Your resume should be comprehensive but concise, and include everything the selection committee needs to know, without exceeding one or two pages.
7. Gather your Transcripts and Letters of Recommendation
Two other crucial aspects of your grad school application are your academic transcripts and letters of recommendation. Both can take some time to pull together, so don’t leave it to the last minute. You’ll want to request these documents at least a month before the grad school application deadline.
Also, be sure to check the application criteria for each school you’re applying to. Most schools will accept a copy or scan of your official transcript, but some require your college to send the transcript directly to them. As well, schools may have a minimum requirement of two or three recommendation letters and they may need those letters to come from professors. Or, some schools might specify that letters from professional referees are also acceptable.
8. Prep for the Interview
Not every graduate program requires an interview, but interviews are becoming increasingly common for grad school admissions. If you’re called for an interview, take the opportunity to show your personality, passion, and motivation.
Just like a job interview, you want to prepare well and prep answers to questions you’re likely to be asked. It’s also a good idea to prepare some questions of your own for the admissions team, to show your enthusiasm and dedication. Ask a friend or family member to help you practice for the interview with a bit of role-playing.
9. Submit Your Application Early
The grad school application process can be pretty complex, so there’s no point procrastinating until the deadline to submit your grad application. Grad schools often accept applications on a rolling basis, so the sooner you submit your application and required documents, the better your chances are of getting selected.
10. Wait for the Response
After you’ve submitted your application, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and resume, and after you’ve taken the entrance exam, you can relax. Congrats — your job is done! Now, you just need to wait for the selection committee to review your application. The review period may take a while depending on the program, but most schools will give you an estimated date for their decision.
Applying for Grad School FAQs
If you still have questions about how to apply for a masters’ degree or Ph.D. program, check out these answers to commonly asked questions about how to apply for grad school.
When Should I Apply to Grad School?
The most important thing is to check the deadlines for your chosen schools, as deadlines vary. Most programs close their applications between late October and early December, though others admit students on a rolling basis.
How Many Schools Should I Apply to?
This depends on your preferences, budget, and the amount of time you have to complete the applications. It’s a good idea to apply for at least three programs covering safety, target, and dream schools. On the other hand, experts advise that you don’t apply to more than six schools, as your applications might seem a bit stretched thin and less genuine.
What’s the Most Important Part of a Grad School Application?
Every element of your grad school application is important. Your GPA is arguably the most important factor, but other aspects such as your personal statement, interview, and letters of recommendation can also have significant sway.
Do I Need a Certain GPA?
Obviously, your GPA is important. Some programs have a minimum GPA requirement, and others may not have an explicitly set cut-off, but are unlikely to consider applicants without a certain GPA.
However, the GPA isn’t the only deciding factor. If other parts of your application are strong, they might make up for a lower GPA. So even if you have a GPA of 2.5 or lower, you can still get into grad school — learn more here.
Acing Your Application for Grad School
If you know how to apply to grad school, the process becomes pretty easy. The main challenge is taking the time and effort to put together a strong grad school application that will make you stand out from other applicants.
Competition for grad school is getting tough, so when it comes to how to apply for a master’s degree, the most important thing is to have a comprehensive, persuasive application that clearly communicates why your dream school should accept you, from the personal statement and letters of recommendation to the interview!
For more tips on putting together an exceptional application for grad school, take a look at our guides to asking a professor for a letter of recommendation and writing a personal statement for grad school.
Lisa is a full-time writer specializing in career advice, further education, and personal development. She works from all over the world, and when not writing you'll find her hiking, practicing yoga, or enjoying a glass of Malbec.
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