How to Apply

For graduate school, you apply to a specific program or department, even though you may send your materials to central admissions.

A General Rule of Thumb

Apply to at least five or six departments with programs that match your interests. Select at least one highly prestigious and highly competitive research university, and one major university with fairly large graduate programs where you have a reasonable chance of being accepted. As insurance, apply to an institution where you feel certain you will be accepted. If you are accepted at more than one, so much the better. You will have choices.

Completing the Application Form

It should be filled out clearly, accurately, and free of typographical and grammatical errors. Be consistent in spelling out your full, legal name on all forms. Application fees vary, ranging from $20–$50 in most cases. Most schools have an application fee waiver for students with financial need. Call the admissions offices and ask how to get one.

The Personal Essay

Every graduate school application contains an essay portion or a "statement of purpose." Your essay should specifically address questions posed in the application, and express your enthusiasm for the field of study, your motivation, creativity, maturity and personal uniqueness. The essay is a key measure of your ability to communicate, so be meticulous about spelling, grammar and writing style. Be sure to show your essay to faculty members for their suggestions and criticism.

Most applications will state the length of the essay or provide space. Keep your essay within these boundaries; a longer essay can work against you. Admissions committees evaluate the quality, not the volume of the essay. Use at least 10-point type.

Transcripts and Grades

Have the registrar's office send a transcript of your undergraduate work directly to the admissions office of the schools to which you are applying.

Grades are of overwhelming importance, but a GPA that does not quite meet the minimum can be offset with good letters of recommendation, high test scores and a well-written statement of purpose.

If there is a valid reason why your GPA is low (e.g., your freshman year grades pulled down your overall average, you worked 30 hours per week in addition to a heavy course load, etc.), it may be advantageous to re-compute your GPA based on your last two years of study or course work in your major. You should discuss the re-computed GPA in your essay.

Undergraduate Grade Point Average (UGPA)

Most institutions require the equivalent of a 4-year bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university prior to registering for your first term of graduate study. The admissions committee may consider several components of your UGPA when reviewing your transcript:

  • Cumulative UGPA
  • UGPA in your major/concentration
  • Final 2-year UGPA
  • UGPA in courses relevant to your intended field of study
  • UGPA from year-to-year, or semester-to-semester

Graduate Grade Point Average (GGPA)

If you have a master's degree, your GGPA will be an important consideration for doctorate program acceptance.

Financial Aid

An application for financial aid will generally arrive either as part of your application packet or in a separate mailing from a campus financial aid office. You may have to apply separately for fellowships and for loans. Since financial support varies widely from institution to institution, the best advice is to read all financial aid materials carefully and to file documents on time.

Letters of Recommendation

Most institutions will request between three and five letters of recommendation. It is best to obtain recommendations from faculty members and employers who are qualified to evaluate your academic and/or work potential and performance, based on personal observation. Approach your recommenders early in the fall of your senior year to give them time to write before their other academic pressures mount. Give them the school's recommendation forms with stamped, addressed envelopes and enough supporting material to enable them to write detailed letters on your behalf. This may include a cover sheet reminding them of classes taken under them, projects you have done for them, a transcript, a résumé and a copy of your essay. Be sure to discuss with them your reasons for going to graduate school and why you are applying to specific programs.

Test Scores

Most schools require that you take one or more standardized admissions exam before they decide upon your application. The GRE (Graduate Record Examination), GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), and LSAT (Law School Admission Test) are among the more common standardized tests. The school's catalog will specify which test you need and will often give some indication of the score needed to be competitive for the program. Due to increased competition for admission and financial assistance, it will work to your advantage to take the appropriate standardized test early in your application process. Test registration deadlines are well in advance of the actual test dates, and most are given only a few times a year. Information bulletins with test dates and application procedures are available from the testing services listed below, as well as at the Office of Career Counseling. Generally, you should plan to take the test approximately one year prior to matriculation.

Request Information

Call or write for applications, catalogs and financial aid information as soon as you have identified potential programs. It is never too soon to become familiar with the individual expectations of the application process. Application requirements differ substantially among institutions and programs. Read each school's material carefully to make sure you file a complete and timely application. Some institutions use self-managed applications, meaning the applicant is responsible for obtaining and submitting all supporting documents, such as transcripts and references.

Apply Early

Application deadlines can range from August 1 (before your senior year) to July (after your senior year for schools with rolling admissions). Admission and financial aid decisions are often made well in advance of stated university deadlines. Departments in heavy demand may close applications as early as October. If admissions are handled on a "rolling" basis (i.e., qualified applicants are accepted as they apply) it is to your distinct advantage to apply at the earliest possible date to receive maximum consideration. Since approximately one-half of graduate school candidates apply during the last month before deadlines, an early application can set you apart from the competition.

The Application Package

  • Application form, including personal essay or "statement of purpose"
  • Non-refundable fee
  • Separate financial aid application
  • Transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Standardized test scores
  • Personal interview


Reproduced and adapted with permission from Sarah Lawrence College's Graduate School Guide.

Page last modified January 19, 2009