Complete Guide to Applying to Graduate School

how to apply to graduate school

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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