Applying to Grad School
Get ready to present your qualifications and accomplishments the best way possible—and let your personality shine through.
If you’re applying to graduate school, you are marketing yourself. That means you should not only have a clear, solid grasp of your strengths as a grad school candidate, but you should know how to present them in the most appealing, persuasive way possible.
Everything on your application should paint an overall picture of you that clearly demonstrates that you belong in the program and will make a solid contribution to the school, the department, and the community.
Grad school admission requirements
Let’s start with the basics. Though admission requirements vary from program to program, the most common factors that are considered by admissions committees are:
- cumulative undergraduate GPA (and major GPA)
- GRE® scores
- letters of recommendation
- personal statement
- admission interview
These factors and the emphasis admissions committees put on them may vary depending on the programs you’re applying to. For example, a program like psychology may favor professional or volunteer experience in a “people-helping” profession. More academic degrees may favor publication credits. Always research the specific requirements of the programs you’re applying to—and tailor your applications to each program.
Like your GRE score, your undergraduate GPA gives admissions committees a sense of how you perform in an academic environment.
There are no universal guidelines for what your GPA needs to be for graduate school admission—it varies by the degree program you’re applying to. While many grad school programs may have an application cutoff of, say, 3.0, others have stricter requirements—and still others have no cutoff at all.
Some programs are willing to weigh GPA alongside other application credentials. For example, a high GRE score, great letters of recommendation, or robust work experience in your field may help compensate for a lower than average GPA.
Before applying to any particular grad program you should know:
- the program’s minimum GPA cutoff, if it has one
- the competitiveness of the program, which you can find by researching data about recent incoming classes
- if the program differentiates between cumulative and major GPA, and what the requirements are for each
Cumulative GPA vs. major GPA
Some programs only ask for your cumulative undergraduate GPA, which is another way of saying your overall GPA. Others may specifically ask for the GPA you received in your major (or even your minor)—especially if the grad program is in the same field.
Keep in mind that the minimum major GPA cutoff for most programs is higher than the minimum cumulative GPA requirement. When applying to many programs, a strong GPA in your major may make up for a lower cumulative GPA. So, if you have a much stronger major GPA than overall GPA, it might be a good idea to focus on that in your application.
Ways to make up for a low GPA
Remember that a low GPA will not necessarily kill your chances of grad school acceptance—even at programs that specify a minimum. It could depend on the relative strength of the rest of your application. If you’re trying to compensate for a lower GPA, you have options.
Explain extenuating circumstances
If it’s relevant, you will probably the opportunity to discuss your below-average GPA in your personal statement. If you’re applying to a program below their minimum, it is almost expected that you will do this—provided you’re not given space elsewhere to do so. Finding the appropriate place to explain the situation, as well as how you learned from it and will do better in the future, is key.
Take post-baccalaureate classes or programs
If you have the time and resources, taking more courses or even a full post-bacc program to boost your overall average—or the average in your major—may help you hit GPA cutoffs that are just within reach.
Remember, though, this is contingent upon your earning high grades in those courses, so choose them carefully, and don’t overburden yourself. The intensity of the course may be also be taken into account. A perfect grade in puppetry may not heavily influence the admissions committee for a master's in engineering.
Get a stellar GRE score
While it’s not a magic bullet, acing your GRE may just provide enough evidence that you are a standout applicant. It can certainly tip the scales.
The GRE is a multiple-choice, computer-based, standardized exam required for admission to graduate programs. It measures your command of basic arithmetic, algebra, geometry, data analysis, and college-level vocabulary. More importantly, it assesses your ability to analyze and evaluate written material, think critically, and solve problems.
Like your undergraduate GPA, your GRE score provides graduate admissions committees with common measures to evaluate your qualifications and preparedness for graduate-level academic work.
A high score on the GRE will have a direct, positive impact on your graduate school application.
When considering your GRE score goal, look at the requirements—or minimums, if applicable—at the graduate programs you’re applying to. If you can find the mean or average GRE score of admitted applicants, you’ll be able to determine what GRE score will make you competitive in that program. Not all graduate programs publish the GRE ranges of accepted students, but they'll likely share that information if you give them a call.
As you prep for GRE Test Day, it’s important to develop an approach that makes you comfortable with every question type and content area on the GRE. If you’re comfortable with the content, have a strategic approach, and pace yourself carefully, you’ll meet or exceed your goals.
Letters of recommendation
Recommendations are another important part of grad school admissions. In some cases, they can even make or break an application. Start planning for them as soon as possible, since the process requires a few different steps and also depends on the competing obligations of your recommenders.
Here are some key tips for how to secure winning letters of recommendation.
Choose people who like you and who think you're good at what you do—not just people who look great on paper. If you're still in college or a recent grad, your professors will probably make the best references. This is especially true if you're going on to study the same subject in grad school. Employers or other mentors and leaders may also make good candidates.
Don’t be shy
Approaching professors or employers for letters of recommendation may sound intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be. The sooner you accept this, the better off you’ll be.
People in leadership, academic, and other mentorship roles are used to these requests, and they’re usually happy to help—especially if they have a good relationship with you. These folks see writing letters of recommendation as part of their responsibility as educators and supervisors, so feel free to approach them. Remember, too, that someone once did this for them. One day you may be in a position like theirs, and you can pay it forward.
Try to select good writers who you believe can and will express their opinions clearly. If a potential recommender seems less than enthusiastic in any way, keep looking. That person's ambivalence may come through in the letter.
Help them help you
The more personalized and detailed your letters are, the better. Invest the time to make your recommenders' job as easy as possible. Set up an appointment or lunch interview (your treat!) to discuss your grad school interests with each letter writer. At these interviews, talk about your academic performance or other highlights on your application. Fill them in on things they might not already know about you. Maybe they know you’re going to graduate cum laude, but haven’t heard about that organization you started on your campus, or all the volunteer work you do with kids.
Ask them direct questions, as well. What are they looking for? What would they like to know that can help them complete their understanding of your goals and capabilities? Providing a resume, copies of academic work, portfolios of your creative work, and so on, will help writers make their letters as focused, specific, and personal as possible.
Stay on track
Without being asked, give your recommenders all the info, forms, and stamped and addressed envelopes they'll need. Make sure they're aware of deadlines—and follow up in plenty of time for them to meet those deadlines. By all means, give them as much time as possible. Writing a good reference takes time, and your recommenders will have other demands—including other students’ recommendations to write.
At the same time, don’t be afraid to keep them on track. Provide a gentle reminder when a deadline is approaching. Pave the way for this reminder when you first ask for the recommendation by establishing a date you will follow up.
Show your gratitude
Sending a gracious thank you at the end of the process is a great idea. Your writers will appreciate the gesture, be glad they helped, and feel more inclined to help you again in the future.
Out of school for awhile?
If you've been out of college for a while, it can be harder to find someone to write a letter of reference. One solution is to establish a "credentials file" before you leave college. Keep reference letters on file for later mailing.
Also, most grad schools will make reasonable accommodations for returning students by accepting letters from bosses or colleagues. If finding a boss or colleague to attest to intellectual abilities that specifically relate to your future graduate study is tough, you may find taking a college or grad-level course and asking that teacher for a reference to be a solution.
Whether your prospective grad program calls it a personal statement, a statement of purpose, a candidate admission statement, or something else, this application essay is your chance to show admissions officers what you're made of.
This is a glowing opportunity to shine. Admissions committees want to know why you want to attend their program, and now you get a chance to tell them—in clear and compelling language.
How do schools evaluate your personal statement?
Personal statements serve two basic purposes.
First, they show that you can write a clear, coherent essay that's logically sound and grammatically correct. These days, students' writing ability is often presumed deficient unless proven otherwise.
Second, essays provide admissions committees with a more complete story about you—something that straightforward numbers like the GPA and GRE score can't do. What you choose to write sends clear signals about your personality and values. You can express why you want to pursue graduate work in a particular career path. You can also explain anomalies in your application, like a dubious grade or term in an otherwise creditable record.
Go beyond the basics
Essays are the best way for admissions officers to determine who you are. So dig a little deeper than, “this is why I want to be in this specific grad program,” while still answering the question. If appropriate, discuss events that have defined who you are. If you have overcome significant obstacles, say so. If you were honored with an award you're particularly proud of, talk about why you got it and why it's important to you.
Answer the question
It may seem obvious, but it’s crucial to pay special attention to the prompt for your grad school personal statement. These prompts can contain very specific questions and instructions. Make sure you stick to the topic, and dive as deep as you’re asked to dive.
Preparation is a writer’s best friend
Preparation and hard work really come across in a well-written essay, so start early. Go over your goals and aspirations, write several drafts, talk to students and professors. How will you accomplish the goals you write about? What can you contribute to the graduate community? What can you contribute to this particular school or program? If you can answer these questions in a clear, concise manner, you’ve done half the work.
...and so is editing
The other half involves holding yourself to high writing standards. Think about your voice, tone, and writing style. Read other essays to see what kind of writing you admire. Think about how you’re coming across to someone who doesn’t know you.
Show the evolving drafts of your statement to your classmates or colleagues, parents or friends, including those who know you well and those who know how to write well. Have them edit for not only content, but style and grammar. In case it isn’t obvious, typos and grammatical errors have no place in your essays.
This may sound like a lot of work, but at the end of it, you’ll have a personal statement that you can be proud of—one that will represent a complete picture of you to admissions committees and play a part in earning you that well-deserved acceptance to grad school.
Not every graduate program requires an interview, but for many, it's an important requirement. Also, some schools use interviews to evaluate borderline cases. If you are a candidate who has been contacted about an interview, make sure to schedule it as soon as possible.
Programs vary on who conducts the interview. It may be someone on the admissions committee, or it may be a local alumnus of the school. Either way, get the logistics established as early as possible so you can begin to prepare for interview day.
Here are some tips for a great interview.
Know who you are—and who you say you are
Review your application to the school before interview day. Remember that all the interviewer knows about you is what they’ve read on paper, so they will likely start with what they know. You should know it too.
Track the highlights
Think ahead of time about your role in leadership, volunteer, or professional positions. Be ready to relate several stories on how you’ve taken initiative and been a role model for others. Consider how you might apply those abilities to your new graduate environment—whether from an academic or community perspective.
Ask the right questions
Prepare some questions ahead of time about the program, the school, or the graduate community. Make sure that your questions show you’ve done your homework. For example, if your question can be easily answered on the program’s website or literature, dive a little deeper.
The interviewer will inevitably ask why you are interested in the particular school and program. Be prepared to give a compelling answer. Remember that honesty wins. “It’s close to my family, affordable, and has a great post-graduate career network,” is a perfectly acceptable answer—and much better than, “this has been my dream school since I was 12” … if it hasn’t.
Focus on presentation—inside and out
Project professionalism and friendliness. It’s important to look the part in proper business attire, but that doesn’t mean you have to wear the most expensive labels. You’re evaluated on your presentation; not your price tag.
Preparation leads to calm
Stay as relaxed as possible. Not only will this help you project overall confidence and friendliness, but it will keep fidgeting to a minimum. Be aware of your other nonverbal communication, as well. Practice good eye contact and posture before the interview. It might help to hold mock interviews with trusted friends, family members, or even professors you’re close to. Make these as official as you like—from running through questions over a video call, to putting on your interview suit and playing the part for a whole hour. Go about it however will make you feel the most relaxed on interview day.
Extend courtesy to all
If you are meeting with other members of the program’s administrative staff, apply the same interview rules to those interactions—no matter how brief. The perceptions of all administrative staff members may be highly valued, and can have an affect on your overall evaluation.
Be yourself (you know this one)
Always be open and honest. An genuine truth beats a beautiful lie any day.