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What to Know When Applying to Graduate School


Dr. Avriel Licciardi, Research Communications Strategist

October 2021

Beginning the graduate school application process can be intimidating, as the journey involves several steps: contacting potential mentors, drafting a resume or CV, preparing statements, and taking exams, all of which is time consuming and challenging. The application process is likely to be a stressful period in your life, especially since applications are in addition to your current responsibilities as a student or employee. To assist you with this important task, we provide advice on the five primary components of a graduate school application, so you can become a competitive applicant, ensure your application stands out from the crowd, and complete an interview with ease.

What are the main components of a graduate school application?

1. The personal statement is an essential part of any graduate school application. It is important to customize your statement to align with the program you are applying to, in addition to abiding by the specific requirements (e.g., word count, topic). Writing the personal statement is likely to be the most time-consuming part of your application, so start early if you can. Also, it is best to identify a professor you hope to conduct research with and explain how working with this professor would help you achieve your academic goals. If possible, contact the professor you are interested in working with prior to submitting your application; personal connections are key. Lastly, you can use your personal statement to explain reasons for poor marks on your applications (e.g., bad grades one semester), but this should not be the primary focus of your document.

2. Submission of a resume or CV will be program dependent. Note that a resume is an interview on paper; it is a concise representation of personal accomplishments and relevant experience. As such, if a resume is requested, ensure it is two pages or less. A CV will allow you to provide more details but remember to only provide relevant information. Read more about crafting a professional CV here.

3. If you are applying for an advanced degree in STEM, research experience will make you a competitive applicant, so it is recommended to gain some research experience during your undergraduate career. Look for internships within or outside your university and reach out to professors in your department about research opportunities. Participating at undergraduate research conferences or having publishing experience will also be noticed by the review committee.

4. Minimum requirements for grades (GPA) and test scores (e.g., GRE) will vary by program, but the most important is whether you excelled in classes pertinent to your desired field. For example, you may not have done well in your geology course but excelled in organic chemistry, which is your targeted department. The program will generally care more about courses that are relevant to your research field. Submitting academic transcripts and formal test scores is a standard requirement, so be aware you need to submit formal requests for these documents. Ensure you do this early, so a missing transcript does not exclude your application from review.

5. Most applications require (at least) three recommendation letters. Recommendation letters should provide support for your research experience, classwork and/or participation in extracurricular activities; it is beneficial to appear well-rounded on your application. Whom should you ask to be a reference? One should be your direct advisor or mentor, as they can speak to your character and research experience. Other individuals you have taken courses from, conducted research with, or worked for (in school or outside of school) are other great options. Importantly, request letters from professors or mentors that know you; it is obvious to a committee if a professor does not know a student well. Even more importantly, request letters of recommendation from the three (or more) people well in advance of your application deadline—this is critical. If you do not have enough letters, your application will be viewed as incomplete and therefore not considered. As such, it is recommended to send polite and professional deadline reminders to your letter writers as well as check in with the status of your application via the submission system (many programs will show if a letter of recommendation has been uploaded successfully).

Earning a graduate degree will invite you into a population who impacts the world as highly skilled professionals, academics and industry leaders. With the guidance provided above, you can become a competitive graduate school candidate and start your successful future—in whatever field most interests you.

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