How to Apply to Graduate School: A Guide for Prospective Grad Students

How to Apply to Graduate School: A Guide for Prospective Grad Students
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How to Apply for Graduate School

Many potential graduate students are discouraged and daunted by the prospect of applying to graduate programs. Figuring out how to apply for graduate school is not a big issue and shouldn’t deter you from following your dream. The actual application for admission into graduate school is almost the same process as the one undertaken by students at the end of High School in order to get admitted into an undergraduateprogram, albeit a little more in-depth and complex in its components.

If you want to apply to graduate school and are unsure about how to go about it, you can follow this time-line.

If you organize yourself, you will find that you don’t have to stress yourself out about documents and deadlines. You should be warned, however, that the process is lengthy and ideally, a prospective grad student will probably begin the application process in his junior year in college and spend the better part of a year completing the grad school admission requirements.

The next few sections will outline the process for you and act as a check-list.

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STEP ONE: MARCH-APRIL: Are You Sure? Make Final Decisions

This is the pre-application stage. Research your options. By the time you get through these two months, you should have a clear plan for your course of study at graduate school.

There are two things you need to figure out:

First, what are the programs and possibilities available to you given your interests?

Second, where are the best places for you?

To find the answers to the first question, look at the curricula of various schools and departments. Explore your options for research areas. Can you get into a Master’s program without committing to a PhD degree or does your favorite school and department prefer to invest in those students who apply for an integrated Master’s-PhD program? Gain as much knowledge as you can from various sources so that when you begin the application process, you know exactly what you’re aiming for.

To answer the second question, you should spend some time on the internet in student forums and sites as well as the official websites of universities and departments that offer the programs you are interested in. Also, talk to friends and friends of friends or relatives who are currently in grad school and get their opinions. See the rankings of the universities and departments. Ask about what possibilities exist for financial aid and assistantships, fee discounts and waivers.

STEP TWO: MAY: Shortlist and Finalize Options

Spend this month deciding which schools and programs you will finally apply to. Things you may want to consider as you make your shortlist are the school’s

  • location
  • reputation and / or ranking
  • department (faculty, grad student profile, current research projects, number of publications, opportunities for hosting or presenting papers at international conferences and seminars, labs, accommodation, offices, classrooms and other facilities)
  • fees and possibilities for financial aid
  • campus and its facilities
  • sports and extra curricular activities
  • student and family housing
  • transport in and around campus

Please continue reading on page 2 to find out more about the application process.

STEP THREE: JUNE-OCTOBER: Take Standardized Tests and Send Scores


Determine the tests you need to take. To do this, go to the graduate school eligibility criteria and admission requirements posted on the official website of your shortlisted schools. You should take the time to specifically check for any additional or special requirements for your particular stream and department.

You can register for the tests, choose your test center and date and pay the requisite fee online. Go through some mock tests to see if you need extra study or help to get a good score. I would suggest that you take the tests as early as you can so that you can repeat them if your scores don’t turn out to be competitive.

Test scores will have to be sent directly from the testing agency to the schools of your choice. You should indicate the schools you want your scores sent to and pay any additional fee once you get your result and are satisfied with your scores.

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STEP FOUR: NOVEMBER: Obtain Transcripts, Letters of Recommendation and Take Care of Money Issues

Come November, you should arrange to have your undergraduate transcripts officially sent to your chosen schools. Contact the people you want letters of recommendation from and ask them if they will agree to write a recommendation to grad school for your application.

Depending on a university’s admission policy, you may need to download and print a specific form from the website of that school to give to your referees or you may have to give the contact details of your chosen referees for the admissions office to request an online recommendation from them.

November is also the time when you should get your finances in order. Most graduate schools will require you to furnish proof of financial abilities even if you plan to ask for financial aid in the form of a tuition waiver or a teaching / research assistantship. Do you need a student loan? If so, research where and how you can get the best terms.

Begin writing the first draft of your statements or purpose or personal essays. Before doing this, check the individual application forms of all the Universities of your choice. Some of them will have specific instructions about how to apply for graduate school and may have a number of smaller questions for you to answer instead of a general statement of purpose.

STEP FIVE: DECEMBER-JANUARY: Complete Applications

Most universities will have December or January–or early February–deadlines for fall applications and this is the time to complete the process to your satisfaction. Correct any errors, add missing documents, make any modifications and clarifications and generally ensure that your application does not have any gaps that you may want to fill.


This will be the most difficult period of them all as you wait for the universities to decide whether or not they want you as a student. There’s nothing more you can do and it’s frustrating.

I would ask you to use this time finding out more about the programs and faculty members of your chosen schools. Clarify your thoughts about the research or focus area you would like to concentrate on as a graduate student. Schedule a campus visit if you’re at all capable of doing it. Prepare for your admission interview. Research more avenues of funding.

In other words, use the waiting time productively.

STEP SEVEN: MAY-JUNE: Interviews and Offers

This is when interviews, if any, may be scheduled. You will finally get offers and rejections and will now have to choose the school you will attend.

STEP EIGHT: JULY: Enjoy the Summer with Family and Friends

Time to party and play. But while you take the well-deserved break, start making a list of things you need to take with you to school. Most likely, you’ll be setting up a mini-home with other grad students so plan carefully with family and friends.

If you’re an international student coming to the US to study, though, you won’t have time to party! You will hopefully use this time to get your passport, I-20, Visa, tickets and financial documents together.

STEP NINE: AUGUST: Procure, Pack and Go!

Get to campus a week early and attend the orientation programs offered by the school. Make friends, find roommates, get to know your department and colleagues so that you’re comfortably set before your classes begin.

International students, you’ll have to get your Social Security card, driving license and bank accounts in addition to the above so you should go a couple of weeks before classes begin.

Concluding Remarks


That’s how easy it is to learn how to apply for graduate school**.** Don’t let the prospect of the long process of application deter you from achieving your dreams for a Masters or Doctoral degree. Most good things in life take time to come to fruition. Good luck with your endeavor.

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