How to Apply to Graduate School in the U.S.

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Geek!This is Mobile Scholar’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

Many books have been written concerning this time-consuming and often-frustrating process. Yet, these books often miss important considerations inherent to the application process.. This guide provides a short review illustrating major themes to keep in mind while planning and completing your applications. It is intended primarily for those entering Masters programs or those going directly to Ph.D. programs and is biased toward the traditional arts and sciences disciplines, but may also provide useful information for those in other areas. Those students already possessing Masters degrees know enough to ignore my advice.

  1. Determine and understand the specific discipline which you wish to study. It is very important that you have a concrete vision of your career track while applying to graduate studies. The apathy of direction fostered by many liberal arts colleges will not aid you in your path toward graduate school. Research what schools offer the programs and concentrations you wish to study. Divine what faculty member or members you wish to study under, and determine if they will be accepting students for the next academic year. (For some students, the specific faculty member will drive the college choice and not the other way around.) Finally, become abreast with some of the modern controversies that touch your discipline. Read journals relevant to your discipline, attend professional conferences, and visit with your professors about your plans. The more you can confidently talk about your choice of study and how that fits with your choice of school and advisor, the better your application will sound. Contact the faculty members you wish to study under and tell them of yourself and your educational plans. Of course, familiarize yourself with the particular requirements of each program (often there are separate graduate college and department applications), especially deadlines. These are most easily found at the school’s website and run anywhere between December 1 and March 1 for Fall Semester admission.
  2. Prepare for and take the requisite graduate placement exams. Visit the relevant website for the test you will need to take as a part of your applications – GRE, LSAT, GMAT, or MCAT – for test schedules, practice questions, and tips. The weight each school, department, and faculty member place on standardized test scores varies widely. For some you only need reach above a particular bar (e.g. 650 or better on each half of the GRE); for others not only your admission but financial support lean on your competitive performance against your fellow applying students. Often a weaker performance on standardized tests can be supplemented by a strong written paper and recommendations. Studying well for the particular exam or exams (don’t forget you may have to take subject GRE tests) will help you raise your score and make you more comfortable with the exam process, but even specialized classes will not turn a horrible test-taker into an oval-filling guru.
  3. Compose or revise a writing sample. Often you may take a collegiate paper you have already written in the area in which you are applying and submit it incorporating any suggestions and corrections your class professor provide. Pass it by other professors in the department with whom you have taken classes as well. Your writing sample holds more influence than any other part of your application. Make it a good one. Also, compose a personal statement. If the writing sample is the most important part of your application, the personal statement runs a close second. Students who cannot express themselves and their goals clearly have little business attending graduate school. Use the knowledge gained through your research of the discipline to describe your educational background, what influenced you to choose this particular discipline, what you would like to study – if you have a thesis topic already, include it, but be attune to the suggestions of your advisor regarding its viability and content – and why you want to study it.
  4. Elicit letters of recommendation from undergraduate college professors who have a good opinion of you, your work, and your abilities. Although you will not be able to read the letter a professor will send – sealed – as a recommendation, you may ask whether the professor will be able to give you a “strong” recommendation. If one professor cannot, find another who can. Nothing trashes a graduate application faster than weak or lukewarm recommendations. A professor cannot give strong recommendations to students who have not taken a class with him or her. Keep things easy for your references. Provide them with an addressed and stamped envelope, a copy of your curriculum vitae – which is different from a resume – any and all forms that are necessary for the recommendation with any information you can fill in completed, a copy of your writing sample, and a schedule listing deadlines for the receipt of each letter.
  5. Order copies of transcripts and standardized test scores. Order transcripts from your high school and every college you have attended. Some colleges require one transcript for the graduate college and another for the department. Most departments will accept a photocopy of a transcript or test score for your application to meet your deadline so long as the official transcript or score arrives in a reasonable time. Transcripts from international institutions may need to be translated officially, and you may need to describe the scope of international programs that have differing requirements than those found in the US.
  6. Submit the application and wait. Most colleges provide and require you to complete your application online. (This is good as I cannot remember the last time I saw a typewriter.) Ensure that each school receives all parts of the application. Sometimes this means politely prompting your references to send their letters, and sometimes this means ordering another copy of transcripts or test scores that were waylaid in transit. The department secretaries can be very helpful in verifying that your application is complete. Treat them well as their comments about you can influence faculty members who may be on the applications committee.
  7. You may be contacted to have an interview either in person or on the phone. Present yourself well, demonstrating the grasp you have of the discipline, but don’t mention your divorce proceedings or other personal problems unless the other party brings them up first – perhaps clued in by your references. The interview itself merely serves to determine whether you appear nice and gracious and are well-spoken. Aside from this, you may wait, attending to other applications or your own continuing studies. The hard part is over.
  8. Reconcile and receive offers. A department’s selections are driven by politics as much as by the quality of the applicants. Some years feature a flood of excellent candidates while other years offer merely mediocre ones. Do not be discouraged if your top- or even middle-tier choices decline to admit you. It may not have been your professor’s year to have a new student. For those lucky enough to have multiple offers, there is a choice to be made. Weigh the advisor, the resources of the department and the wider school, and the financial package of each school against each other. If a graduate school does not offer you a graduate assistantship but still admitted you, they do not expect you to come.

Graduate schooling will be exhausting, sometimes frustrating, and often a financial struggle (who wants to eat more ramen after four years of it during undergrad?), but it has its own rewards. Scholarship is often carried forward on the backs of graduate researchers. You are on the road to becoming an expert, doing something that you love to do. After all, if you didn’t love your studies, why would you endure two to four more years of sleepless nights while attending experiments or composing papers?

Post your own graduate admissions experiences, suggestions, or questions in the comments section below.