Complete Guide to Applying to Graduate School

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how to apply to graduate school

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Applying to graduate school doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, many aspiring grad students start preparing six months to a year before their application deadlines.

There are a lot of moving parts to a grad school application. Before you even gather materials, you need to research programs and find the best fit.

Whether you’re pursuing your Master’s or Ph.D., here’s how to apply to graduate school in 10 essential steps.

How to apply to graduate school

1. Write down your reasons for applying

The process of applying to graduate school can begin a year or more before your deadline. Not only do you have a lot of materials to gather, but you also need to clarify your reasons for attending.

Unlike college, graduate school is not the time to explore or switch majors. Graduate school grants you a specialized degree to develop expertise in a specific field.

If the degree has no practical application, it’s probably not worth the cost. Avoiding the job market, for instance, is not a good reason to take on graduate student debt. But increasing your earning potential is. Your chosen graduate program should advance your current career or qualify you for a new one.

A graduate program may also grant you unique opportunities for research, teaching, or even travel. Before starting down the long road of a grad school application, write down specific reasons for applying.

2. Research schools and look for the right fit

Once you’ve outlined your goals, research programs that will help you achieve them. Maybe you’re looking for specific courses, a well-known department, or inspiring professors. Perhaps you need a school that offers significant financial aid to those in need.

Consider the culture of a program, as well. Does the school foster a competitive or collaborative atmosphere? Is it more formal or informal? Do students get to know professors or do most classes take place in huge lecture halls?

Often, applicants only worry about their chances of getting in. Don’t focus solely on whether or not a school wants you — make sure that you also want to go to that school. Cultural fit is a two-way street.

3. Do a cost-benefit analysis of the graduate degree

Graduate school is a significant investment of time and money. Master’s degree programs, for instance, typically span one to three years. If you’re going for your Ph.D., you’ll probably study for six.

Doctoral programs offer a stipend, but Master’s programs rarely cover the full cost. This means you’ll likely take out a good amount of student loans. At the same time, you’re probably putting your full-time income on hold.

All of this puts major stress on your finances. Is the degree worth all these costs? That all depends on whether or not the degree has a high return on investment.

In other words, you want to make back what you put in. The degree should increase your earning potential. You should also land a job after graduating with a significantly higher salary than the one you had before.

Of course, higher education has lots of non-tangible benefits. But if the degree doesn’t help you further your career, you could run into financial hardship. Before you apply, do a cost-benefit analysis to make sure that the program is worth it, at least in the financial sense.

4. Make sure you meet admission requirements

One reason to start your research early has to do with admission requirements. Often, schools require an application, GRE test scores, a statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation.

Some programs also have prerequisites. If you’re applying to a program unrelated to your college major, you may have to play catch-up and take a few courses on your own.

If the program has prerequisites, you’ll likely need a full semester or school year before you apply. Start researching requirements early. That way, you won’t have to push your plans off and risk losing momentum in the process.

5. Learn about the costs of applying and attendance

Master’s programs typically cost thousands of dollars per year. But even before getting in you’ll spend money on application fees, admissions tests, and campus visits. Before getting your heart set on a specific program, sit down and figure out the costs of grad school.

If you’re struggling to pay for applications and exams, you may qualify for fee waivers. Contact the financial aid office of universities to find out.

If you need extra spending money to pay for campus visits, consider taking out a personal loan or 0% APR credit card. Before going down either of these roads, though, come up with a plan for paying back debt.

Beyond the costs of applying, calculate how much you’ll pay for tuition and school fees. What about other costs of living, such as food and rent? Some programs are a lot more expensive than others. Comparing costs will help you narrow down your choices.

6. Sign up and study for the GRE

Most graduate school programs require the scores from an admissions test such as the GRE, GMAT, or MCAT.

Whatever test you take, sign up a few months ahead of your desired test date. You can make sure you get your preferred time and day and setting a deadline will motivate you to study.

Make a routine of studying by setting aside the same time every week and figure out what scores you need to get in. By researching the average scores of accepted students, you’ll have a target score to work toward.

Your test score isn’t the only part of your application, but it’s an important one. A low score could mess up your chances of admission, so spend time studying with books, classes, or online prep programs.

If you don’t get the scores you need, consider taking the test again. If you take the test well ahead of your grad school deadlines, you’ll have extra months to study up and try again.

7. Set up meetings with references

Most graduate programs require two to three letters of recommendation from former professors or managers. Admissions officers want to learn more about you. They’re not just interested in grades and test scores — they also want to know how you behave in a classroom or contribute to an organization.

Plus, they’re interested in your relationships with others. Past behavior can be a powerful indicator of future performance.

Recommendation letters are an important part of your application, so ask references who know you well and can give real insight into your strengths and personality. Give your references at least a month’s notice before your deadlines.

Beyond making the request, set up meetings with your references to discuss your goals and plans for the future. If there are any special stories you’d like them to include, let them know.

Your references don’t need to write your letter in a vacuum. Your input could help bring their letters to life and you’ll be showing how committed you are to going to grad school.

8. Articulate clear goals in your statement of purpose

Do you know how to write a statement of purpose for grad school? First off, note that your statement of purpose is not the time to share your entire life story.

Instead, it should be tailored to the specific graduate program. Talk about your relevant experiences and how they led you to apply. State why the program is such a good fit and how it will help advance your career.

Your statement of purpose is also the time to explain specific career goals or research interests. Show the admissions officers that you’re not applying on a whim. You should have concrete, tangible reasons for wanting to attend. The graduate program you choose should be the vehicle for getting you to your destination.

9. Apply for financial aid and scholarships

Just like college, graduate programs offer financial aid. You’ll fill out the FAFSA and submit documentation to your prospective schools. Beyond aid, you could qualify for federal student loans, like Direct loans.

Talk to the financial aid office to learn about financial aid packages. Apply for any additional funding opportunities, like grants or scholarships. Finally, consider work-study or part-time jobs for extra income.

If you have undergraduate student loans, you may be able to pause payments while you’re in graduate school. But remember that these loans will likely continue to collect interest and you could end up paying a lot more than you borrowed in the first place.

When you do a cost-benefit analysis, include any undergraduate loan interest as a cost. You should also consider how much more student debt you want to take on for your degree.

10. Reach out to others for help and advice

Applying to graduate school is a complex process that can cause a lot of stress and uncertainty. Rely on your support network to help you through the process and ask for advice based on their own experiences applying.

Perhaps a few trusted friends or family members can provide feedback on your statement of purpose. Or perhaps a former professor can give you guidance on specific graduate schools.

If you’re really serious about a program, reach out to its director and admissions office. Set up a meeting with a department head to find out what would make your candidacy stand out. By making this personal connection, you can gain insider tips. Plus, you could boost your chances of getting in.

Admissions committees give spots to applicants they believe will succeed. By reaching out during the application process, you’ll make an impression and demonstrate your commitment.

And by gathering advice from friends and family, you’ll gain valuable feedback on your application. Plus, your friends can help you keep your eye on the prize.

Applying to graduate school

Applying to graduate school is a long and complex process. But by starting several months before your deadline, you’ll have enough time to get everything done.

Plus, you’ll start getting back into student mode if you’ve been out of school for a few years. The application process alone is a lesson in time management and balancing responsibilities.

Above all, make sure you’ve done a full cost-benefit analysis of the graduate program. If you’re taking on student loans, make sure you understand how you’ll pay them back.

Getting your Master’s or Ph.D. is a huge achievement. You should be rewarded for all your hard work with a higher income and a career you love.

Curious what graduate degrees have the highest return on investment? Check out this guide for 10 Master’s degrees that lead to a salary of $100k or more.

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1 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or possess a 10-year (non-conditional) Permanent Resident Card, reside in a state Earnest lends in, and satisfy our minimum eligibility criteria. You may find more information on loan eligibility here: Not all applicants will be approved for a loan, and not all applicants will qualify for the lowest rate. Approval and interest rate depend on the review of a complete application.

Earnest fixed rate loan rates range from 3.89% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.87% APR (with Auto Pay). Variable rate loan rates range from 2.47% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.87% APR (with Auto Pay). For variable rate loans, although the interest rate will vary after you are approved, the interest rate will never exceed 8.95% for loan terms 10 years or less. For loan terms of 10 years to 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 9.95%. For loan terms over 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 11.95% (the maximum rates for these loans). Earnest variable interest rate loans are based on a publicly available index, the one month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Your rate will be calculated each month by adding a margin between 1.82% and 5.50% to the one month LIBOR. The rate will not increase more than once per month. Earnest rate ranges are current as of Month/Day/Year, and are subject to change based on market conditions and borrower eligibility.

Auto Pay discount: If you make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic, monthly deduction from a savings or checking account, your rate will be reduced by one quarter of one percent (0.25%) for so long as you continue to make automatic, electronic monthly payments. This benefit is suspended during periods of deferment and forbearance.

The information provided on this page is updated as of 08/21/18. Earnest reserves the right to change, pause, or terminate product offerings at any time without notice. Earnest loans are originated by Earnest Operations LLC. California Finance Lender License 6054788. NMLS # 1204917. Earnest Operations LLC is located at 302 2nd Street, Suite 401N, San Francisco, CA 94107. Terms and Conditions apply. Visit, email us at, or call 888-601-2801 for more information on ourstudent loan refinance product.

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2 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

  1. VARIABLE APR – APR is subject to increase after consummation. The variable interest rates are based on a Current Index, which is the 1-month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) (currency in US dollars), as published on The Wall Street Journal’s website. The variable interest rates and Annual Percentage Rate (APR) will increase or decrease when the 1-month LIBOR index changes.

3 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Student loan Refinance: Fixed rates from 3.899% APR to 8.179% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 2.570% APR to 6.980% APR (with AutoPay). Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at either 8.95% or 9.95% depending on term of loan. SoFi rate ranges are current as of September 14, 2018 and are subject to change without notice. See APR examples and terms. Lowest variable rate of 2.570% APR assumes the current index rate derived from the 1-month LIBOR of 2.08% plus 0.740% margin minus 0.25% AutoPay discount. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. If approved for a loan, the fixed or variable interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, and the term of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. *To check the rates and terms you qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit inquiry. Unlike hard credit inquiries, soft credit inquiries (or soft credit pulls) do not impact your credit score. Soft credit inquiries allow SoFi to show you what rates and terms SoFi can offer you up front. After seeing your rates, if you choose a product and continue your application, we will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit inquiry. Hard credit inquiries (or hard credit pulls) are required for SoFi to be able to issue you a loan. In addition to requiring your explicit permission, these credit pulls may impact your credit score.
  2. Terms and Conditions Apply. SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet SoFi’s underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. To qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. If approved, your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, years of experience, income and other factors. Rates and Terms are subject to change at anytime without notice and are subject to state restrictions. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. Licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp., NMLS # 1121636. (

4 Important Disclosures for LendKey.

LendKey Disclosures

Refinancing via is only available for applicants with qualified private education loans from an eligible institution. Loans that were used for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not eligible for refinancing with a lender via If you currently have any of these exam preparation loans, you should not include them in an application to refinance your student loans on this website. Applicants must be either U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents in an eligible state to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account and any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to accept a loan offer from a credit union lender. Lenders participating on reserve the right to modify or discontinue the products, terms, and benefits offered on this website at any time without notice. LendKey Technologies, Inc. is not affiliated with, nor does it endorse, any educational institution.

5 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

  1. Offered terms are subject to change. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900). The following table displays the estimated monthly payment, total interest, and Annual Percentage Rates (APR) for a $10,000 loan. The Annual Percentage Rate (APR) shown for each in-school loan product reflects the accruing interest, the effect of one-time capitalization of interest at the end of a deferment period, a 2% origination fee, and the applicable Repayment Plan. All loans are eligible for a 0.25% reduction in interest rate by agreeing to automatic payment withdrawals once in repayment, which is reflected in the interest rates and APRs displayed. Variable rates may increase after consummation. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 2.08% effective July 25, 2018.

6 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

  1. Education Refinance Loan Rate DisclosureVariable rate, based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of August 1, 2018, the one-month LIBOR rate is 2.07%. Variable interest rates range from 2.57%-8.17% (2.57%-8.17% APR) and will fluctuate over the term of the borrower’s loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a cosigner. Fixed interest rates range from 3.75%-8.69% (3.75%-8.69% APR) based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a cosigner. Lowest rates shown require application with a cosigner, are for eligible, creditworthy applicants with a graduate level degree, require a 5-year repayment term and include our Loyalty discount and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. The maximum variable rate on the Education Refinance Loan is the greater of 21.00% or Prime Rate plus 9.00%. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change. Please note: Due to federal regulations, Citizens Bank is required to provide every potential borrower with disclosure information before they apply for a private student loan. The borrower will be presented with an Application Disclosure and an Approval Disclosure within the application process before they accept the terms and conditions of their loan.
  2. Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer with the Education Refinance Loan. Borrowers should carefully review their current benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans and replace those with the benefits of the Education Refinance Loan. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision at, including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review.
  3. Citizens Bank Education Refinance Loan Eligibility: Eligible applicants may not be currently enrolled, must be in repayment of their existing student loan(s) and must make the minimum number of payments after leaving school. Primary borrowers must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or resident alien with a valid U.S. Social Security Number residing in the United States. Resident aliens must apply with a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. The co-signer (if applicable) must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident with a valid U.S. Social Security Number residing in the United States. For applicants who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer will be required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at anytime. Interest rate ranges subject to change. Education Refinance Loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/consumer credit agreement, verification of application information, certification of borrower’s student loan amount(s) and highest degree earned.
  4. Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.
  5. Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.
  6. Co-signer Release: Borrowers may apply for co-signer release after making 36 consecutive on-time payments of principal and interest. For the purpose of the application for co-signer release, on-time payments are defined as payments received within 15 days of the due date. Interest only payments do not qualify. The borrower must meet certain credit and eligibility guidelines when applying for the co-signer release. Borrowers must complete an application for release and provide income verification documents as part of the review. Borrowers who use deferment or forbearance will need to make 36 consecutive on-time payments after reentering repayment to qualify for release. The borrower applying for co-signer release must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. If an application for co-signer release is denied, the borrower may not reapply for co-signer release until at least one year from the date the application for co-signer release was received. Terms and conditions apply.
  7. Estimated average savings amount is based on 14,659 Education Refinance Loan customers who saved on loans between August 1, 2017 and July 31, 2018. The calculation is derived by averaging monthly savings across Education Refinance Loan customers whose payment amounts decreased after refinancing, calculated by taking the monthly payment prior to refinancing minus the monthly payment after refinancing. We excluded monthly savings from customers that exceeded $4,375 and were lower than $20 to minimize risk of data error skewing the savings amounts. Savings will vary based on interest rates, balances and remaining repayment term of loans to be refinanced. Borrower’s overall repayment amount may be higher than the loans they are refinancing even if monthly payments are lower.

2.57% – 6.98%3Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit SoFi
2.47% – 5.87%1Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit Earnest
2.47% – 8.03%4Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit Lendkey
2.80% – 6.22%2Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit Laurel Road
2.48% – 6.25%5Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit CommonBond
2.57% – 8.17%6Undergrad
& Graduate
Visit Citizens
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