Trying to get into grad school is like trying to level up in a video game. But instead of accumulating points or KOs, you have to meet all of the major grad school requirements. In the end, applying to grad school is downright tiring! Luckily, though, the requirements for graduate school are the same for a lot of programs out there. And as long as you have an awesome application, you, too, will be headed to grad school in no time!
In this article, we’ll take a look at the specific qualities grad schools look for in potential students and give you tips on how you can emphasize these qualities to make yourself stand out as an applicant. In addition, we’ll cover all of the basic grad school admission requirements and teach you how to put together a great grad school application!
What Do Grad Schools Look for in Applicants?
When applying to grad school, your first goal should always be to stand out from other applicants — that’s a no-brainer! But what exact qualities should you play up in your application?
Although not all grad schools are looking for the same types of people, a strong applicant will, generally speaking, have most or all of the following qualities.
First and foremost, you should be passionate about the field you’re planning to study.
Grad schools want to know exactly what type of role the field plays in your life as well as what obtaining a degree in the field will mean for you in the long run. In short, passion shows you have the drive and motivation necessary for attaining success in both your academic and professional careers.
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Because grad school typically lasts anywhere from two to seven years, applicants are more likely to gain acceptance if they can prove they’re willing and ready to dedicate themselves entirely to their fields. One easy way to express your passion is through your personal statement (we’ll discuss this more in the next section).
In addition, a high GPA, relevant work experience, and strong letters of recommendation from professionals working in the field can all highlight a deep and prolonged interest in your area of study.
Interests That Align With What the Program Offers
It’s not uncommon for grad schools to reject applicants simply because their interests don’t mesh well with those of the program or its faculty. Such a rejection doesn’t necessarily mean you’re unqualified for the program, but rather that the program believes what it’s offering won’t likely assist you in your academic or research goals.
For example, imagine if you were a poet applying to a creative writing M.F.A. program geared toward prose. Without a poetry concentration available and with only one or two professors offering classes in poetry, such a program may ultimately wind up rejecting you because it won’t be able to cater to your specific skills and interests.
How can you be sure you’re a good fit for your programs, though? By applying only to those whose concentrations directly align with yours. To find suitable programs, go online and look for programs offering classes or an emphasis in your area of interest. While researching programs, be sure there are at least a couple of professors on staff with ample experience in your chosen field. This is important because you might eventually have to work one-on-one with a professor on a thesis or dissertation.
Not everyone has tons of work or research experience in their fields prior to applying to grad school, but having any at all will definitely reflect positively on an applicant. Think of experience as a more tangible expression of passion; ultimately, relevant experience proves you’re committed to a field and are actively working to integrate it into your life.
Relevant experience encompasses anything from part- or full-time employment to internships, research projects, and publications. If you were seeking a foreign-language degree, for example, relevant experience could include things such as living or studying abroad.
Basically, any first-hand experience you have with your chosen field of study is sure to leave a positive impression on admissions committees.
In addition to a passion for your field, grad schools want to see that you have a proven track record of academic success.
GPA is a common admissions factor used to determine an applicant’s potential for academic success. The higher the GPA, the more likely that applicant will also be successful as a grad student.
Essentially, past academic achievements are what prove to grad schools you’re capable of doing well in grad-level classes (which are usually far more challenging than undergrad classes!).
Clearly Defined Goals
Finally, grad programs don’t just want students who will never use their degrees; they want students with clearly defined academic and professional goals — i.e., students who know what they want to study, what kind of research they want to do, and how these experiences will help them in their future endeavors.
Grad schools also want applicants who are likely to be successful in their chosen fields, partly because student success can help grow the reputation of the program.
As you’re applying, make sure you’re clear and upfront about your goals. How will a graduate degree help you in your career? How will this particular program let you achieve your goals?
Grad School Requirements: What Do You Need to Submit?
So far, we’ve taken a look at the types of qualities and accomplishments grad schools generally look for in applicants. Now, let’s shift our attention to the more concrete side of grad school requirements: the application itself.
Most of us already know applying to grad school is a lengthy process that requires time, effort, and tons of application materials. But what exactly do you need to include in your grad school applications? Below are the six major grad school admission requirements.
Note: not all of the following application materials are required for all fields and grad programs. If you have any questions about what you need to submit, please consult your programs directly.
Possibly one of the biggest requirements for graduate school is official transcripts. These are usually transcripts from all undergrad and grad institutions you received degrees from.
Not everyone will have grad transcripts to send (generally, only those who’ve received a master’s degree and are going on to do a Ph.D. will submit these), but you will almost always have to submit undergrad transcripts. (For the record, it’s practically impossible to get into grad school without a bachelor’s degree.)
Occasionally, grad programs might ask for secondary transcripts from non-degree programs, such as study abroad programs, summer programs, language-immersion schools, etc.
But why is GPA so important to grad schools? As previously discussed, a high GPA demonstrates your long-term dedication to learning as well as your potential to do well in grad school. As a result, many schools maintain GPA cutoffs. A common minimum is 3.0, but more competitive programs often prefer higher GPAs (3.2+).
While a GPA below a program’s minimum typically results in an automatic rejection, you can contact your programs ahead of time to see if they’re willing to make any exceptions. To learn more about how important GPA is to grad schools and what strategies you can use to make up for a low GPA, check out our guide.
Additionally, if you’re supplying a grad transcript, be aware that your grad GPA may be more important than your undergrad GPA. This is because a grad GPA provides a more recent and relevant picture of your academic strengths. That said, a high grad GPA won’t necessarily make up for a low undergrad GPA, so be prepared to directly address any GPA deficiencies in your application.
#2: Standardized Test Scores
How important standardized test scores are to a grad program depends on the field and program. The most common standardized test for grad school admissions is the GRE.
For some programs GRE scores are a basic requirement; for others they’re optional. (Generally, if GRE scores are recommended but not required, it’s best to take the test anyway. A high score can only boost your application, after all!)
But what is a good GRE score? The answer to this question depends on several factors, including what programs you’re applying to and what your own personal goals are. To figure out how high to aim, first spend a little time familiarizing yourself with the average GRE scores by school and by major.
Some applicants will also need to take a GRE subject test, either in addition to or in place of the general GRE. GRE subject tests are more specialized than the general GRE and span a variety of fields. Currently, there are six GRE subject tests:
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- Literature in English
For current percentiles for each GRE subject test, refer to this helpful table by ETS.
But the GRE isn’t the only test aspiring grad students can take. More specialized fields will usually require scores from other tests, such as the MCAT and GMAT. Always check with your programs to figure out which test scores, if any, they require.
#3: Letters of Recommendation
Grad school requirements probably wouldn’t be as stressful as they are without letters of recommendation. For most programs, you’ll need to submit anywhere from two to four letters of recommendation. (As always, check with your programs for specific requirements.)
The best letters you can secure are those from former or current professors with whom you have strong academic or professional relationships. But this can be difficult for those who’ve been out of school for several years or for those who didn’t take the time to develop any long-term bonds with professors.
Still, it’s not impossible to get a great letter of recommendation! Your first step is to get in contact with a professor and give updates on your recent accomplishments and future plans. If your professor agrees to write you a letter of recommendation, your next step, then, is to send all of the basic info your professor will need in order to compose one.
Be aware, though: asking a professor who doesn’t know you well can result in a lukewarm recommendation — basically, a letter just summarizing your grades without saying anything unique or enlightening about you as a student. These types of letters, though not overtly negative, are so neutral they can ultimately reflect poorly on you! So take caution and try to contact professors who will have less trouble remembering you.
Here are some additional tips when asking for letters of recommendation:
- Ask for letters from professors in the field you plan to study. Not all letters need to come from relevant professors, but strong ones from those who work in the field are a humongous plus.
- If you can’t think of enough professors to contact for a letter, consider asking employers, coworkers, tutors, and other mentors. Never ask family members or close friends!
- If possible, ask for the letter in person. If you’re far away, don’t bother flying out; just send a polite email explaining the situation. But don’t be afraid to make a phone call, either!
- Provide your recommenders with as much info as they need, including an updated CV/resume, a copy of your transcripts, a rough draft of your personal statement, scanned copies of graded essays you wrote for their classes, etc. Doing so will jog their memory and give them more concrete ideas to mention in their letters.
- Give your recommenders ample time to write their letters — at least two or three months should suffice.
- Always waive your right to see the letter. Not waiving your right raises a big red flag in the eyes of grad schools. Moreover, your recommenders might rescind their offers to write on your behalf!
- Have a back-up recommender in mind. While I wouldn’t directly tell anyone he or she is your back-up recommender (it can come across a bit rude!), there’s no harm in having another person in mind in case one of your recommenders backs out.
- Send thank-you letters. A small card with a sincere thank-you note is always appreciated!
#4: Curriculum Vitae/Resume
Your curriculum vitae (CV)/resume is a summary of your education, employment history, research experience, publications, and other relevant achievements and activities.
Though sometimes presented as interchangeable concepts, CVs and resumes are generally different documents. Resumes are typically a single page focused predominantly on employment, while CVs span multiple pages and concentrate more on your academic history and field-specific experiences. Thus, CVs are almost always a better choice for grad school applications.
But what kinds of things should you include on your CV? Here are examples of possible headings:
- Education: all institutions you’ve attended since high school, the name(s) of your degree(s), and any other academic programs you enrolled in, such as study abroad; any relevant coursework in your field
- Employment: all major positions you’ve held in recent years (including part-time); take care to highlight any notable accomplishments in the workplace and/or any positions directly related to your field of study
- Teaching Experience: employment as a teacher, teaching assistant, tutor, etc.
- Research: research experience, such as internships, lab work, etc.
- Publications: major publications you’ve written or contributed to
- Extracurricular: extracurricular activities you’ve participated in over the years, such as volunteer work, exhibitions, lectures, community events, etc.
- Achievements/Awards: academic or work-related distinctions or honors; e.g., cum laude, dean’s list, etc.
- Skills/Certifications: (relevant) skills or certifications, such as computer skills, foreign-language abilities, etc.
#5: Personal Statement
The personal statement is generally one of the most important parts of your grad school application. Your statement is an opportunity to show the admissions committee who you truly are and explain why the program is an ideal fit for you and your interests. Personal statements are usually one to three double-spaced pages long.
On occasion, the “personal statement” is also called the “statement of purpose.” But other times the terms refer to two separate types of essays. For example, Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan differentiates between the personal statement and the statement of purpose. If distinct, the personal statement typically focuses more on who you are as a person, whereas the statement of purpose centers more on your academic background and professional goals.
Most programs only require a single statement, and not all of them differentiate between a personal statement and a statement of purpose. Check your programs’ admission requirements for details on what exactly you’ll be expected to discuss in your statement(s) and how long the statement(s) should be.
If you’re struggling to choose a topic to write about, consider addressing any major deficiencies in your application. Statements are a great time to discuss any problems or failures you’ve experienced, such as a low GPA or unimpressive GRE scores, and how you intend to convert these experiences into successes as a grad student.
Programs can differ greatly in what they want you to write about, but, generally, you’ll address questions like the following:
- What factors led you to apply for the program?
- What inspired you to enter this field?
- What are some of your greatest accomplishments?
- What are your career goals, and how can this program help you attain these goals?
Lastly, the personal statement is often your one and only opportunity to show off your writing skills. As with any essay, be sure to proofread it several times, and get someone else to look it over for you, too!
Most programs don’t require portfolios, but if you’re applying to an artistically oriented program, such as any M.F.A. program, the portfolio will probably be the most important piece of your application.
Portfolios range wildly in content depending on the field and program you’re applying to. For example, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (a famous creative writing M.F.A. program at the University of Iowa) requires a lengthy manuscript of prose or poetry, while the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) requires an ePortfolio for its M.F.A. program in studio art with an emphasis in painting and drawing.
Grad School Requirements: Recap
Applying to grad school is a big step, but there are a lot of things you can do to prepare for it — and ultimately increase your chance of securing an acceptance!
In terms of unofficial grad school admission requirements, grad schools often prefer applicants who have most or all of the following characteristics:
- Interests aligning with what the program offers
- Relevant experience
- Academic success
- Clearly defined goals
But what are the actual requirements for graduate school? In order to apply to grad school (and actually get in!), you’ll need to submit most or all of the following application materials:
- Official transcripts (primarily those from degree-granting institutions)
- Standardized test scores (typically general GRE scores)
- Letters of recommendation
- A CV or resume (if you’re given a choice, go with a CV!)
- A personal statement or a statement of purpose (sometimes both, if they’re two distinct essays)
- A portfolio for artistically oriented programs
Most importantly, try not to overwhelm yourself during the grad school application process. Take breaks often, work through each piece one step at a time, and give it everything you’ve got!