Applying for Graduate School

April 15, 2021 • 6 Min Read

Application Timelines and Advice to Ace Each Step

For the most part, earning a graduate degree offers better job prospects, increased salary potential, and personal fulfillment. Students should begin the process of applying to grad school -- which includes researching programs, requesting transcripts, asking for letters of recommendation, and taking required tests -- about a year before the application deadline. This guide explains how applying to grad school works. It also considers reasons for earning a graduate degree, timelines for applying, and acceptance offers.

Why Grad School?

Before filling out an application, students should think about what they want to get out of grad school. Earning a graduate degree offers many benefits: career improvement, better professional opportunities, the chance to differentiate yourself from others in your field, networking opportunities, and personal enrichment.

Career Improvement.

Earning a graduate degree gives students the skills they need to advance in their current careers and earn more money. Employers usually reward workers who gain more expertise in their field.

Increase Professional Opportunities.

Grad school teaches students skills and knowledge that will help them transition into a new career, industry, or field. It can also help people move up in their current workplaces.

Differentiate Yourself.

Job applicants can differentiate themselves by going to grad school. Since earning a bachelor's degree has become more common, employees with further education stand out.

Networking Opportunities.

Grad school offers many opportunities to connect with fellow students, faculty members, and other professionals, which can lead to job opportunities, mentorships, and long-lasting friendships.

Personal Enrichment.

Grad students passionately interested in a particular topic generally gain personal fulfillment from completing a degree. It gives them a chance to fully immerse themselves in their interests and make original contributions to their field.

Not ready for grad school? Check out this guide to learn how to get ready for a graduate degree.


Grad School Application Checklist

Graduate schools may use different evaluation methods to select students. But almost all of them, both online and campus-based, require students to submit an application form, relevant test scores, personal essays and interviews, college transcripts, and letters of recommendation. We explain these requirements in more detail below.

  • Official Grad School Application Form

    Formal college application forms can be ordered or downloaded from prospective schools. Many forms allow prospective graduate students to begin the process online by setting up an account and password. The school may also allow students to upload resumes, CVs, and statements of interest. The form announces all deadlines and application requirements. Some schools notify students by email throughout the process, keeping them apprised of their status. If the application packet is being mailed, it should be addressed to the appropriate graduate department of the prospective university. Students interested in financial aid should begin that process at the same time.

  • Relevant Graduate School Examination Scores

    Students applying to graduate school -- particularly to programs in business, medicine, and law -- will need to take standardized examinations and have the testing organizations report their scores to prospective colleges. More schools have begun to accept different test options or have adopted test-optional policies, so check with prospective schools for exact details.

    Below are four common graduate examinations and what they measure:

    Graduate School - Graduate Record Exam

    The GRE contains verbal, quantitative, and analytical (written) exam sections. The exam measures a student's reading and comprehension skills, math and problem-solving aptitude, and ability to create a focused written analysis. A school may also ask for student results from a GRE Subject Test that measures specific knowledge in an art or science. GRE exams are offered year round.

    Learn more about preparing for and acing the GRE here:
    GRE Study Guide
    Business School - Graduate Management Admission Test

    The GMAT is one way colleges can assess an applicant's readiness for business school. The examination measures a student's verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills. Questions examine student aptitude in problem-solving and wraps up with two timed analytical writing assignments. Students can take the GMAT year-round.

    Learn more about preparing for and acing the GMAT here:
    GMAT Prep and Success
    Medical School - Medical College Admissions Test

    Most experts advise that students take the MCAT a year before they intend to enter medical school. The comprehensive, four-part MCAT measures verbal reasoning and knowledge of physical and biological sciences, and it includes a written essay. Exam dates vary from January-September each year.

    Law School - Law School Admission Test

    The LSAT is a comprehensive pre-law exam that measures a student's logical skills, reading comprehension, and verbal reasoning skills. The exam includes five sets of multiple choice questions and a 30-minute written examination. The LSAT is offered four times a year at selected test centers.

    Learn more about preparing for and acing the LSAT here:
    LSAT Prep and Success
  • Personal Essays and Interviews

    For some applicants, the personal essay is the toughest part. Students have little space and time to capture their audience and convince decision-makers that they are right for the school. The essay should match all given instructions and guidelines. For instance, some schools want a statement of purpose (i.e., why the school is important to the student's growth and future). In this case, applicants should discuss their qualities, research interests, and fit. Other schools may want the applicant to write a response to a specific prompt, e.g., "Tell us about an accomplishment you are proud of and how it relates to who you are."

    In addition to the personal essay, some schools require entrance interviews. In interviews, prospective students may positively sway administrators and demonstrate their knowledge and abilities. Students should expect to answer questions not only about their major, career aspirations, experience, and research goals, but also about their interest in the school, department, and/or faculty.

  • College Transcripts

    Grad schools will want the official transcripts of the applicant's previous college work. Since registrar offices can have a backlog of transcript requests, applicants should request them as early in the process as possible. Transcripts must be mailed to prospective graduate schools by the former college, include the college seal, and arrive unopened. Many colleges have automated their transcript request and payment systems online.

  • Letters of Recommendation

    Most graduate programs require applicants to submit 2-3 letters of recommendation. Prospective students should ask former professors or supervisors who know them well and can speak to their strengths. Letters of recommendation give the admissions committee a chance to learn about an applicant from someone who knows them personally.

Your Grad School Application Timeline

Many prospective students wonder when to apply to graduate school. Completing a grad school application takes substantial planning and organization. Creating a timeline can help prospective grad students stay on track and meet deadlines. See below for a sample timeline for typical graduate programs.

12 Months Out: Start Researching and Narrowing Programs Begin researching your top choices for grad school. Consider factors like curriculum content, quality of faculty members, accreditation status, cost, and program length. Start ranking and eliminating programs.
10-11 Months Out: Request Information from Prospective Programs Reach out to your top choices to find out more about them. Ask for a phone or in-person interview with faculty members with whom you might want to work. Attend in-person or online information sessions.
6-9 Months Out: Familiarize Yourself with Application Requirements and Deadlines Carefully read the application instructions for each program. Make a note of every deadline on your calendar. Find out if you need to take exams, and consider how long it will take to order transcripts, write essays, and acquire letters of recommendation.
4-5 Months Out: Take Required Exams Many grad school programs require applicants to submit test scores from standardized exams like the GRE, GMAT, or LSAT. Find out the cost, location, and length of your test. Then, buy a test prep book and study.
2 Months Out: Prepare your Application Fill out your grad school application form. You should also order college transcripts, ask for letters of recommendation (if you have not already), write your personal statement, and send in test scores.
1 Month Out: Submit your Application Make sure to proofread each part of your application before you submit it. Better yet, ask a friend or family member to read it before you hit send. Also, make sure to triple-check application deadlines so you get everything in on time.

Accepting a Grad School Offer

After prospective learners finish applying to grad school, they need to consider how to accept or decline grad school offers. Their approach to accepting or rejecting an offer can impact how the program and its faculty members perceive them. This section includes some advice on accepting or rejecting grad school offers.

  • Before Writing Your Acceptance Letter: Before you start writing your acceptance letter, make sure to let your loved ones know about your decision. You should also thank the people who helped you along the way, especially anyone who wrote letters of recommendation. Also, make sure you submit your acceptance letter before the deadline.
  • Writing a Response: Respond to a graduate school offer letter in a timely manner. It shows those within the program you take their offer seriously. Waiting a few days to craft an intelligent response is okay; rushing a response before you decide what you really want to say can lead to a poorly written letter, which creates a bad impression.
  • Before Sending Your Acceptance Letter: Before you send your acceptance letter, proofread your response. Students who receive offers of admission to multiple programs also need to decline offers to their rejected programs. Keep your rejection letters polite and professional. After all, these are your future colleagues, and you may work with people from other programs some day.

Sample Acceptance Letters

As mentioned above, the way you write your graduate school acceptance letter can impact how your future faculty members perceive you. Think carefully about how you want to introduce yourself. See below for two sample grad school acceptance letters.

Dear Admissions Committee,It is with great pleasure that I accept your offer to enroll in the graduate basket weaving program at the University of X. Thank you for taking the time to consider my application and qualifications.I am excited for the chance to pursue my interest in basket weaving at the graduate level and to work with you and the rest of the basket weaving department. I am particularly interested in the department's recent research into 19th-century basket weaving techniques in the Western U.S.I look forward to beginning your unique and renowned program this autumn. Please let me know if I need to take any further actions before the fall. Thank you again for the opportunity.Sincerely,Susan X. Student
Dear Dr. Department Chair,I am writing to accept your offer for admission into the deep sea diving master's program at College X. I am honored to receive a spot.I have admired the department's ground-breaking research for many years, and cannot wait to immerse myself in this field. I am especially excited to work with Dr. Z on her Galapagos Island research project and to serve as her teaching assistant this fall.I see College X and the deep sea diving department as an exciting next step in fulfilling my academic and career goals. I look forward to starting the program and meeting you in the fall. Again, thank you for your offer.Sincerely,Robert A. Student

Additional Resources for Grad Students

The following section includes additional resources for current and prospective grad students. It also discusses strategies for people applying for grad school with low GPAs, and it includes two lists of graduate school scholarships.

Popular Resources

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