How to Apply to Graduate School

So, you’re ready to apply to graduate school! The application process may seem overwhelming, but with some organization and planning ahead, you will navigate it successfully. Read on for important steps, tips, and resources.

Take Your Test

First, sign up to take your GRE, LSAT, or GMAT. Ideally, you should give yourself a large window of time—about 6 months before your applications are due.

  1. Find a good study guide and take some practice tests. Purchase or borrow a study guide or two from a bookstore or library. Set aside blocks of time to study each section and take practice tests, which are often included in study guides and/or available online.
  2. Find out the average scores of the schools that you are applying to. This will give you an idea of your target range. If your practice tests aren’t in this range, consider looking at schools with lower averages or no GRE requirement for admission.
  3. Take the GRE again if you aren’t satisfied with your score. Double check to make sure that the school doesn’t average your scores after taking the exam a certain number of times (usually 3). Finally, double check to make sure that the programs you are applying to don’t require separate GRE Subject Tests.

Now what? Gather references, write your personal statement, and complete secondary scholarship applications. Don’t rush yourself; you should still have around two months left until your application is due.

Organize Your Applications

Create a master checklist for each application. Then, give each school a folder and tape the checklist on the front. At the top of the checklist, write the application’s due date. Even though most applications are online, it is still helpful to create hardcopies of each item on your checklist.

Write Your Resume

Some schools ask that you include a resume in your application packet. Use them to mention awards, activities, volunteer experiences, and internships that you might not have had the space to include in your personal statement. If you lack work experience, list the skills that you’ve gained from classes and activities and relate them to your program and intended major.

Resume Resources:

Purdue Online Writing Lab

Craft Your Personal Statement

Every admissions board is looking at hundreds or thousands of applications like yours. Other candidates might have similar GPAs, GRE scores, and academic backgrounds. The personal statement is your opportunity to showcase your writing skills, your commitment to your chosen field, and a clear sense of direction and goals.

A poorly written or edited personal statement can harm an otherwise acceptable application and an excellent statement can help a student whose GRE/LSAT/GMAT scores and GPA are on the fence. Take the time to write an essay that is persuasive, detailed and interesting.

Personal statement Do’s and Don’ts:

Don’t use a preachy tone or overly clichéd language.

Do strive for depth, and address the school’s unique features.

Do have a thesis (not “These are the three reasons why I should be accepted”) but a statement or paragraph that expresses a sense of direction, goals, and academic maturity.

Don’t write an autobiography or a resume.

Do answer the essay question (sounds simple, but many students get sidetracked).

Don’t be wordy or use jargon (they’re smart, you’re smart, but overusing your vocabulary isn’t).

Do! Do! Do! Proofread your statement. Have at least three people with a careful eye for grammar read your statement over.

For more personal statement tips, visit:

Purdue Online Writing Lab

Gather References

Nearly every graduate program requires reference letters from applicants. These letters often tell the admissions board whether or not you work well in academic environments, and gauge your capability to successfully complete the program. This is another part of the application, like the personal statement, that can tip the scales in your favor. Consequently, it is very important to choose the right individuals, and to give them all pertinent information to write the best reference possible.

  1. Get to know your professors and supervisors. Be vocal in classes, ask questions, and converse with professors that have backgrounds in the field that you would like to enter. Make a list of individuals who know you well enough and long enough to write a strong letter.
  2. Starting at the top of your list, ask your professors/supervisors if they would be willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation. If they seem hesitant or at all unwilling to do so, thank them and ask someone else. Ask them at least a month before the letter’s due date.
  3. Provide the information that they need to write you the best possible recommendation. Tell them about the programs that you’ve decided upon. Be prepared to provide examples of your best work from the classes that you’ve taken with that professor, or commendations in your internship/job experiences that your supervisor might not have known about, or forgotten. Mention membership in honor societies, related extra-curricular activities, professional goals, and the awards that you’ve won.
  4. Thank them!Take the time out to write a thoughtful card or send a letter expressing your appreciation. They took time out of their schedules to do something for you. Keep them updated on the process, whether or not you were accepted and what program you’ve chosen.

More information on the recommendation process:
Berkeley Career Center
Cornell University Career Services
Purdue Online Writing Lab


Fill Out Scholarship Applications

When you apply to a graduate program, the school will look at your GPA and FAFSA when drafting a financial aid letter. Based upon these reports, they will automatically consider you for some scholarships and endowments, in addition to the loans that they offer. However, there are also other financial award applications that you should seek out and complete on your own. Most schools offer graduate assistantships, partial tuition scholarships, and various endowments/awards that you will be considered for only if you submit separate applications.

  1. Check the school’s website; they often have a listing of additional types of financial aid and links to the applications.
  2. Pay attention to due dates: Scholarship application due dates might be before or after the admissions packet is due.
  3. Consider additional references. Some applications will require separate references while others will simply use those that you submit in your application for admission. Read the guidelines carefully. If you are asking a professor for two recommendations, one for admission and another for scholarship consideration, be specific.


Further Reading

Grad School

Graduate Admission Essays: Write Your Way into the Grad School of Your Choice
by Donald Asher

How To Write the Perfect Personal Essay
by Mark A. Stewart

Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps: Crafting A Winning Personal Essay
by Alan Gelb

Grad’s Guide to Graduate Admissions Essays: Examples from Real Students Who Got Into Top Schools
by Colleen Reding

Law School-

The Law School Admission Game: Play Like an Expert
by Ann K. Levine

The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Resumes, Interviews and More
by Anna Ivey

The Best Law Schools’ Admissions Secrets: The Essential Guide from Harvard’s Former Admissions Dean
by Joyce Curll


101 Best Resumes: Endorsed by the Professional Association of Resume Writers
by Jay. A Block and Michael Betrus

The Resume Handbook: How to Write Outstanding Resumes and Cover Letters for Every Situation
by Arthur D. Rosenberg