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The 12 Steps to Getting into Grad School

Ana-Marcela Lopez

Whether it’s been 4 years or 14 since you last applied to college, you can probably recall how time consuming the application process was. If graduate school dominates your thoughts now, brace yourself for more standardized tests, letters of recommendation, and essays; graduate school applications definitely take more time and effort than their undergraduate predecessors, but with our step-by-step plan, you can be prepared to take the first step in your graduate career.

Step 1: Make the list.

With thousands of quality graduate programs, creating a list of just a few to apply to can be a daunting task. As you consider the discipline, program, faculty, and research opportunities at these institutions, start curating a list of schools to apply to. Not sure how many to apply to? We can help. The key to a great list is variety. Make sure your schools fall into one of the following three categories:

  • Dream School: Dream big! If there a couple of super competitive programs that are calling you, go ahead and apply. A few schools on your list might have higher admissions requirements than you can meet, but it doesn’t hurt to try if you have the time and resources.
  • Target School: Your target schools are ones with admissions requirements that you can realistically satisfy. It can be challenging to know whether your test scores are good enough, but with a little research, you can see how you measure up. Select a few schools to which you are confident you will be accepted.
  • Safety School: These are the schools that you are certain will accept you. You exceed the admissions requirements and know that your application will stand out. There is a common misconception that safety schools are lesser schools, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Some programs are simply less competitive. Having a solid list of quality schools that you will likely be admitted to is a wise move.

Step 2: Make the plan.

Applying to grad school takes a substantial amount of time and effort, so making sure you’re prepared will make the process even smoother. Once you have your list of schools ready, create a plan. Each school will have different requirements and deadlines, so you’ll need to keep track of deadlines. Don’t forget to draw on your support systems to keep you focused and cared for!

Step 3: Take the tests.

Most graduate programs require scores from the GRE or GMAT for admission. Take a practice test early on to know where you stand. While they aren’t everything, your test scores are an important component of your graduate school application. If your scores seem too low for the programs you’re applying to, you still have a few options. First, you could get professional help. Test prep services like Magoosh are an accessible and affordable resource that can help raise your scores. Your second option is to pay more attention to your letters of recommendation or personal statements to compensate for lower test scores.

Step 4: Write the personal statements.Write a Personal Statement for Grad School

Personal statements can be just as important as high test scores. While the GRE measures your quantitative and qualitative reasoning skills, your personal statement is a testament to your personality, goals, and passions. It is an opportunity to showcase your individuality. And don’t forget to make them unique; admissions officers will quickly discover if you’ve submitted the same personal statement to 10 schools. Take the time to tailor your statement to the institution and program you’re applying for. Start writing your statements early so you have enough time to write several drafts. Once you have a product you’re happy with, have a trusted colleague take one final look.

Step 5: Get the letters of recommendation.

Like your personal statements, your letters of recommendation are a candid look at who you are beyond the test scores. When deciding who to request a letter from, think about the professors, colleagues, or supervisors who know you best with detailed knowledge of your dedication, work ethic, and skills. And request early so your recommenders have plenty of time to write a killer letter! In the unfortunate case that they are too busy to write your letter, have a few worthy backups. You don’t want to be caught without a recommendation.

Step 6: Request the transcripts.

As you get closer to submitting your applications, you’ll need to gather the rest of your necessary documents. If there is any part of your application that needs to be addressed early, your transcript is the most important one. Like your test scores, your transcript gives an institution an idea of how well you will complete graduate-level coursework. Admissions committees use your transcript to judge the quality of your undergraduate institution, the rigor of your coursework, your level of performance over the years (especially in courses relevant to the program you’re applying to), and your GPA.

Most graduate programs require an official transcript, which can only be sent directly from your undergraduate institution. An unofficial transcript has the same information, but it does not have a registrar’s seal of authenticity. If you attended more than one university in your undergraduate career, you will need to request an official transcript for each one, even those from which you did not graduate. The process could take up to a few weeks, so make sure you have plenty of time. An application without a transcript will be considered incomplete and rejected.

Step 7: Create the portfolio.

This step is especially important for applicants with significant life experience. If you are approaching a graduate program after several years in the workforce, take the time to curate a portfolio that showcases your experience and abilities. A summary of your work experience, internships, fellowships, or research assistantships will demonstrate your competency and prove that you’re dedicated to your field of study.

Step 8: Submit the applications.

Each institution has different submission deadlines and processes, so make sure you are familiar with each. A note about application deadlines: most graduate programs have set deadlines for their fall and spring sections. Depending on your institution, and even the specific program, there might be various deadlines. Generally, you can expect the following application structure:

  • Early: If your application is ready by this date, by all means submit! But if you’re not ready, then don’t worry. It is better to take the extra time to submit a stellar application during round 1 or round 2 than to rush for the early deadline.
  • Round 1: This is the first deadline of the general application. Remember, the earlier you apply, the better.
  • Round 2: Often the final deadline for programs, round 2 could be your last chance to submit.
  • Rolling: Some graduate programs have rolling admissions, which means that applications are accepted until a program is full. Since there is no deadline, it is essentially first come, first served. The earlier you apply to a program with rolling admissions, the sooner you’ll hear back. If you apply later, chances are that it will take longer to hear back.

Step 9: Prepare for the wait. 

All of the effort and time it took to prepare your application has culminated to this point, and it’s only natural to want to hear whether your graduate dreams will come true. Unfortunately, these things take time, and it will probably be a few months until you are given an answer. In the meantime, read a great book, binge watch your favorite series, and spend time with family.

Step 10: Receive the decisions.Accepted into Grad School Email

There is nothing more gratifying than having your effort and talents recognized. As you receive acceptances, make sure to congratulate yourself for your hard work! And if you happen to receive a rejection or two, don’t beat yourself up over it. You still deserve that bottle of champagne.

Step 11: Make the choice.

Ultimately, you’ll need to settle on one program to attend, which means you must decline whatever other offers you receive. Some schools make it easy with a click, but others aren’t so convenient. For the latter situation, take the time to write a brief letter declining their offer. Keep it short and sweet; thank the admissions committee for taking the time to consider you. You aren’t obligated to disclose your reasons or your ultimate choice. While not required, a thank-you note is a considerate and respectful gesture. If you happen to meet a member of the committee later in your career, such a gesture will serve you well.

Step 12: Get ready for classes.

The application process is just the first of many of your graduate career, but it is a hard one, so celebrate your success and get ready for class! That means you have to study, schedule, and get your finances in order. Abound: Grad School is here for you every step of the way. Still deciding where to apply? We connect grad students to the right institution by focusing on what matters most. It’s not about how rich or famous a school is; it’s about finding the best place to pursue your goals and succeed.

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