Want to know how to get into grad school? Let me lend you my graduate school expertise: I’ve been through the process myself and I’m now attending my dream school! In this expert guide, I’ll teach you the big-picture principles you should use to shape your application. I’ll also give you specific tips for all the major parts of your application. Getting into grad school is something you can do!
How to Get Into Graduate School: Big-Picture Principles
These four tips for applying to graduate school relate to your entire application. If you keep them in mind as you craft and tweak all the parts of your application, you’ll be well on your way to getting into grad school!
Understand Expectations in Your Field
If you want to be a successful graduate school applicant, you need to have a decent idea of what your field is looking for. Are you applying to a field where applicants are expected to have work experience, or do applicants usually go straight through from undergrad? Should you have spent time teaching or researching in a lab?
Having an impression of these expectations—and how your experience fits into them—will go a long way towards helping you craft a strong application. First, you’ll know what to emphasize in your application. Second, you’ll be able to figure out if there’s any additional experience you should seek out to strengthen your candidacy. (If you think you have a lot of holes to fill, it may not be the right time in your life to apply).
Craft an Overall Narrative With Your Application
Your application should craft a clear narrative of who you are and why you’re applying to graduate school. Consider what each part of your application shows about what you bring to the table and how graduate school will help you achieve your own goals. How do the parts work together? Do they give a clear, consistent picture of you and your goals?
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Show Your Personality (Professionally)
You want your application to show what makes you stand out as a person or else you’ll be generic. Unique accomplishments are great and you should definitely highlight those. But it’s also great to infuse your application with a little personality to add some color and help you seem dimensional. To that end, it’s fine to include references to your hobbies, interests, and non-academic accomplishments.
With that said, you also want to be professional. It’s great if you mention that you build cars in your spare time; it’s less great if you highlight your prowess as an amateur street racer. You should also be careful with jokes. A mildly amusing anecdote is fine; something that relies on shock or making fun of someone or something is not a good idea. If the people reading your application don’t share your sense of humor, it can make you come off as tone-deaf.
Demonstrate Your Interest
Above all, your application needs to demonstrate real enthusiasm for the programs that you are applying for. If you seem lukewarm or unsure about graduate school, admissions committees won’t be very motivated to offer you a place in your program! You want to show admissions offices that you are truly passionate about the subject matter and will be motivated to work hard to meet your goals.
Grad School Application Tips for Every Part of Your Application
The four principles we discussed above will help you shape your overall application. Think of them as your big-picture principles. However, when you’re contemplating how to get into grad school, both the big picture and the tiny details are critical to application success. In this section, we’ll discuss some more detailed tips for applying to grad school for each major part of your application.
Here are three grad school application tips for getting stellar recommendations:
Choose Recommenders Who Know You Well
You might think that the best way to select a recommenders is to choose the professors or supervisors with the fanciest titles and most clout. However, unless these people know you pretty well and can speak specifically to your abilities and talents, their recommendations actually won’t be worth much.
Programs will typically specify what kinds of recommendations they are looking for (e.g. professional, academic, a combination of the two, etc). Within those confines, select people who have worked with you closely and can speak very specifically to your strengths. It’s much better to get a glowing and detailed letter from a teaching assistant than a super-generic, short note from the department head who you met one time!
If it’s been awhile since you worked with a prospective recommender, it’s fine to send them a sample or summary of the work you did while you took their class/were their employee/etc. This will help jog their memory and increase the specificity of their recommendation.
Ask for Strong Recommendations
When you do ask for a recommendation letter, make sure you ask for a strong recommendation letter. People often feel that they can’t say no if you request a letter, even if they just feel fairly neutral towards you. But if you ask if they can write a strong letter of recommendation, they will be more honest about what you can really expect from them.
You want someone who is genuinely excited about you, your accomplishments, and your future; asking for a strong recommendation will help guarantee you get that.
Request Well in Advance
The earlier you can request a recommendation letter, the better (within reason; don’t ask a year in advance). You should ask at least six weeks before any recommendation deadlines. Earlier is better, especially for professors, who often have to write many recommendation letters every year.
When a recommender agrees, it’s also fine to follow up with a reminder when the deadline gets closer. Just so long as you aren’t pestering your recommender every day, it’s not rude. In fact, some recommenders request it!
These two tips for getting into grad school focus on your grad school admissions test scores. Most programs ask for the GRE, but these same tips apply if you are taking a different test, like the GMAT.
Set a Score Goal
Setting a score goal for your standardized tests is an essential element of application success. The right goal score for your program is one that is high enough to make sure your application is considered, but not so high that you’re wasting time on test prep that would be better spent on other elements of your application.
For more on setting a GRE goal score, see our guide to what makes a good GRE score for you.
In addition to helping you know what score you need to for admission to your graduate programs, a goal score will also help you with preparation. It will help you know how much you need to improve at the outset, which will help you structure your preparation and create a study plan.
Take the Test Early
Taking the test early is good for your graduate school application for a couple of reasons. First, if you take the test early, before the application cycle is in full swing, you’ll be able to devote more concentrated energy to test prep. Basically, you’ll get all of the prep and test-taking out of the way before you have to start worrying about things like essays and requesting recommendations and all the other moving parts of a grad school application.
Taking the test early is also a good idea because it leaves you with enough time to do additional preparation and re-take the test again if you don’t meet your goal score. So if you’re applying in the fall, try to take the test the spring or summer before you apply.
Here are two transcript-related tips for applying to grad school.
Request All Necessary Transcripts
It’s worth noting that not all graduate programs have the same transcript request requirements. For example, some are fine with you only scanning unofficial transcripts and sending official ones if you’re accepted, while others want to see official transcripts at the time of application.
Another thing to note is that not all programs want to see the same transcripts (whether they ask for official or unofficial). While all programs will want to see your transcripts from any institution where you got a bachelor’s or graduate degree, they vary on other transcripts. Some want to see transcripts for individual college classes you took (including in high school), some don’t. Some programs will want to see transcripts from places you got an associate’s degree or certificate, and others don’t.
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You can typically find out what transcripts are required on the admissions website. But if you’re not sure if you need to scan your transcript from the multivariable calculus class you took at the local college in your senior year of high school, call and ask. You don’t want your application to be held up because you didn’t request all the right transcripts!
Request Transcripts in Advance
Don’t wait until the last minute to request official transcripts if you need them! You should request all transcripts from your previous institutions at least a month in advance of any deadlines and earlier if possible. This will give you enough time to address any administrative or bureaucratic errors, like your transcript getting lost in the mail, without running afoul of any deadlines.
Additionally, if you wait too long to request your transcripts, you might have to do a rush order to meet the deadline. This is very expensive and, at some colleges, somewhat unreliable. Don’t put yourself at the mercy of university bureaucracy. Request those transcripts early and follow up on them to make sure they’ve been received!
Resumes and CVs
Below find four tips for honing your resume or CV and getting into graduate school.
Decide on a Resume or CV
Some programs specify whether they would prefer to receive a resume or a CV from applicants. In this case, provide the one that they request. In general, professional-focused programs will ask for resumes, while more academic-focused programs will request a CV.
However, other programs leave the choice up to you. This isn’t necessarily a make-or-break choice, but one or the other will probably be a more logical fit for your experience. If most of your experience is professional, go for a resume. If most of it is academic, go for the CV.
Use Impactful Language
A good resume or CV highlights what you’ve done, but it also gets right to the point. So making the most out of a few words is critical. Use succinct, action-focused sentences and phrases, and provide numbers and metrics if possible. For example, instead of writing “coordinated study on cardiovascular disease,” write, “coordinated 2000-person, 18-month longitudinal cardiovascular disease study.”
Highlight Relevant Research and Professional Experience
Call special attention to experiences that are very relevant to the program to show how your past experience has lead you into graduate school and what you have to offer to the program. Be sure to highlight projects you worked on in professional and school settings that honed the skills you’ll need in the specific graduate program.
Even if you don’t think there’s an obvious superficial connection between, say, a job or major responsibility you’ve had and the program in question, try to think how you could make one. Directed a lot of plays in college, but you’re applying to a biology PhD? Highlight how the skills you learned directing plays honed your ability to manage big projects, clearly communicate your ideas to others, and act as a teacher and leader.
Essentially, the best graduate school resume is one that tailors your descriptions of your accomplishments to the specific competencies and skills the program is looking for.
While you want to tailor how you describe your experiences in your resume to what the admissions committee is looking for, not everything on your list has to be directly and clearly relevant to the graduate program. It’s better to be comprehensive than to leave off significant but less relevant experiences.
You can mention volunteer work, extracurricular, recognition for creative endeavors, non-academic publications, and similar personal projects in your resume or CV. This will give admissions committees a sense of who you are as a person. For example, if you’re applying to STEM PhDs, it still makes sense to mention the summer you spend backpacking across Asia. It may not be STEM-related, but it shows that you’re adventurous, independent, and open to new experiences!
It’s also worth noting that graduate school applications don’t expect quite the same level of specificity and concision in resumes as you’ll find in the professional workforce, so you don’t have to be quite as worried about space.
These four tips on how to get into graduate school focus on your essay/personal statement. Most of these tips would also apply to a statement of purpose, but we have specific statement of purpose tips in the next section, too.
Focus on Your Accomplishments
While you will definitely devote some space to your future goals and plans in your grad school essay, you also want to spend a sufficient amount of time discussing things you’ve already accomplished. How have your past experiences prepared you for graduate study? How have you already demonstrated your ability to excel in your chosen pursuits? This will show admissions committees that you have a proven track record of success, which will make them want to admit you!
Don’t be Cliche or Generic
It’s good to avoid cliches in all writing. Phrases that are used too commonly used lose their descriptive power and become basically meaningless. When you identify cliches in your writing, think about how you can offer specific, colorful detail instead.
You should also avoid making generic or overly general statements. Vague platitudes like “I want to go to graduate school to help people” or “I want to discover new things” make you seem like an unoriginal thinker and can cause admissions officers to roll their eyes. Who do you want to help and how? What do you want to discover?
Use Specific Examples
Use specific examples of things you’ve actually done or learned as much as possible. Instead of “I accomplished a lot in my undergraduate career,” talk about what you actually accomplished. Giving examples of your experiences not only provides some evidence for your claims about yourself, it makes you seem like a more interesting and thoughtful person.
Why This Program?
You may well be able to re-use your essays for multiple schools because graduate school prompts for similar programs are often quite similar. However, you should still tweak your essay to provide a little specificity for each program. A couple of sentences about what that particular program offers that excites you will make you seem like a more thoughtful and interested applicant.
Statement of Purpose/Research Statements
Many programs (basically all PhDs and some master’s program) require a statement of purpose or research statement. This is a short essay about your research interests, accomplishments, and plans. Here are two brief tips for a stellar research statement.
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Address Past, Present, and Future Research
Your future research plans are of particular interest to admissions committees; you’ll be working on that research at their institution, after all. But you also need to be sure to address your past and present research projects. You want to craft a clear narrative that shows how what you want to do in the future builds on what you’ve done before and why you’re the best one to do it.
Write for a Nonspecialist Audience
Most of the people who look at your research statement aren’t going to be deep experts in your field. They will be smart and well-informed, but primarily not specialists in whatever it is you’ve been researching. This means that you should avoid overly arcane, discipline-specific language (i.e. jargon). You should also make an effort to provide some context and situate yourself and your work within your field. Why is what you are doing significant? It won’t be self-evident to most of your readers.
Does your application require a writing sample? We have two grad school application tips for writing samples here!
When programs ask for writing samples, they almost always provide guidelines about the length and potential appropriate formats or topics. Follow these guidelines. If they ask for a maximum of 20 pages and your best work is 23, cut it down. If they want academic writing, don’t send in your freelance journalism. It doesn’t matter how good your writing is; if you don’t follow the directions, you’ll be communicating that you don’t know how to follow directions, which will not impress.
Make an Appropriate Selection
How do you select among your pieces of writing that meet the application criteria? Your first and foremost concern should be selecting your best work possible. Don’t worry too much if it’s not topically relevant to the program; you’re primarily trying to convey that you’re a good academic writer. If you aren’t sure what your best work is, ask other people for input.
If you have multiple high-quality pieces of writing to choose from, then consider relevance, and pick the one most relevant to the program.
Not every graduate school application process requires interviews, but if they do, they are often a key part of getting into grad school. Here are two tips for acing interviews:
Prepare for your grad school interview at least as rigorously as you would prepare for a job interview. Consider what kinds of questions you might be asked, and how you’ll answer them. If you can get a friend or mentor to practice interviewing with you, so much the better.
If you know who your interviewer is in advance, read up on them! Especially if it’s a faculty member, you should definitely be informed about their research interests and projects. (This doesn’t mean you have to read everything they’ve ever written—but you should have a general idea of who they are and what they do.)
You should always ask questions in interviews. It shows that you are really invested in the application process and makes you seem more engaged. Think of a couple questions in advance that you might want to ask your interviewer, and supplement with any that occur to you throughout the process!
Other Tips for How to Get Into Grad School
Here are four additional tips that could apply to any part of your application:
Proofread Application Before Sending
Check that all the parts on your application are free of any spelling, grammatical, or functional errors. Also make sure your formatting is crisp and professional. Saving documents as PDFs can help cut down on wonky formatting issues.
Identify and Address Specific Weaknesses
If you know there’s a weak point in your application, like a low GPA, it’s okay to acknowledge and address it head-on. (You’d most likely do this in your essay). Don’t make excuses, but if there were extenuating circumstances, explain them. You can also discuss what you learned and point to evidence of improvement in the weak area.
Mention Specific Faculty You’d Like to Work With
It’s a good idea to mention specific faculty in your program of interest that you’d like to work with somewhere in your application. This shows that you’re knowledgeable about the program and department. You can decide the best place to put this info—in an essay or a short-answer question where it’s relevant is a good bet.
It’s also not a bad idea to directly reach out to faculty whose work interests you! This will show that you have initiative and a lot of interest in the program.
Don’t Be Afraid to Call and Ask Questions
If there’s anything you aren’t sure about in the application process, go ahead and call the admissions office to ask questions! Some students are afraid to ask for clarification on directions and procedures because they think it might look bad. It definitely won’t; if anything, it will show that you are conscientious about getting things right!
Getting Into Grad School: What Hurts Your Chances?
When it comes to getting into graduate school, what can torpedo an otherwise strong application? Here are six major errors to avoid:
Missing application deadlines never looks good. While some programs will still accept delayed applications or application pieces after deadlines, others won’t even accept them. That makes all your hard work for nothing!
And even if they a program does accept your late application, it looks bad and makes you seem disorganized. This does not say great things about your possibilities for success in graduate school. Get everything together as early as possible to stay on top of deadlines!
It’s critical that your application isn’t missing any pieces. Many programs will disqualify your application automatically if there are missing parts. Even if they do consider the application, again, you’ll seem disorganized, which won’t impress the admissions committee. Plus, you want to give a complete picture of who you are as an applicant by providing all the information possible.
Carefully track what every program asks for and follow up if you’re worried that something got lost in cyberspace.
Obviously a negative recommendation can hurt you. But a really generic or lukewarm recommendation can really hurt your application, too! It will make it seem like there’s nothing particularly memorable or noticeable about you to admissions committees. The last thing you want is to seem totally interchangeable with any other student.
There are two things you can do to avoid getting a lukewarm recommendation. First, select the right recommender—someone who really knows you. Second, ask for a strong recommendation.
You probably already know this, but it’s not a good idea to lie anywhere on your application. First, if your deception is discovered before you’re admitted, that application is going straight into figurative (and probably literal) trash. If it’s discovered after you’re admitted, your offer will most likely be rescinded immediately. Either way, this kind of deception can haunt you throughout your life. The potential consequences are absolutely not worth it.
Also, embellishing what you’ve done doesn’t present a clear picture of who you really are. This prevents you from being able to find the graduate school that’s an actual match for you, not a made-up version for you.
Graduate programs expect that your writing in your application to be the same quality as the work you’ll do in their program. It’s incredibly important that your writing shows that you know how to effectively and appropriately communicate in professional and academic settings. This means avoid overly informal language or slang, and triple-check for any spelling and grammatical errors. If your writing seems tone-deaf or careless, it can dramatically hinder your application chances.
Yes, you want to show your personality in your application. But you want to show it professionally. The admissions committee does not want to know how much you love your sexy boyfriend Jerome, all the clubbing you do on the weekend, or how much you despise Kathy from marketing.
If you overshare inappropriately, it will make it seem like you have bad judgment. This is one of the biggest red flags possible to admissions committees and can completely kill an otherwise strong application.
So what can you share? It’s a good idea to avoid talking about anything you wouldn’t bring up in a job interview. Cool personal experiences and accomplishments and information about non-controversial hobbies are probably fine. But no bodily functions, nothing overly personal about your relationships, nothing about breaking the law, and so on.
You can potentially get a little more personal if you’re talking about hardships or obstacles you’ve overcome, but be extremely careful with this and have multiple other people vet any sharing you do to make sure you aren’t trespassing any tacit social boundaries with your essays.
The Bottom Line: How to Get Into Grad School
Here are four guiding principles to help you shape your overall application:
- Understand expectations in your field
- Craft an overall narrative with your application
- Show your personality (professionally)
- Demonstrate your interest
Here are grad school application tips for the specific pieces of your application:
- Recommendations: Choose recommenders who know you well, ask for strong recommendations, and request recommendations well in advance.
- Test scores: Set a score goal and take the test early.
- Transcripts: Request necessary transcripts and request your transcripts in advance.
- Resumes and CVs: Choose between a resume and a CV format, use impactful language, highlight relevant experiences, and be comprehensive!
- Essays: Focus on your accomplishments, avoid generic statements and cliches, use specific examples, and tailor for each program.
- Research statements: Address past, present, and future research; write for a nonspecialist audience.
- Writing samples: Follow directions and make an appropriate selection.
- Interviews: Be prepared and ask questions.
- Other tips: Proofread your application, address weaknesses head-on, mention and reach out to faculty you’d like to work with, and don’t be afraid to call the admissions office and ask questions!
And finally, here are six major errors to avoid!
- Missing deadlines
- Incomplete applications
- Weak/lukewarm recommendations
- Unprofessional writing
Not sure if your GPA is good enough for graduate school? Read our guide!
Don’t want to take the GRE for graduate school? You might not have to!