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The Lifecycle of a Grad School Application

You've narrowed down the list of grad schools you want to apply to-but now what? Grad Source takes you through the lifecycle of a grad school application so that you're ready for all the steps along the way.

Your application really starts with the list of schools you're considering applying to. Contact each of these schools for their application packages or visit their website. A simple e-mail to the school's graduate admissions office will suffice and many schools have online applications. While packages vary by school, most will include brochures about the university or college, information about the program of study that you are interested in pursuing, application forms, descriptions of prerequisites and a set of requirements for submitting your application.

Be aware that some programs will only accept graduate students in years that a faculty member has a space available to take on a new student and supervise his/her research. If your application package did not include a list of faculty accepting students in your proposed program of study, contact the admissions office and find out. If they put you directly in touch with the professor, take advantage of the opportunity to discuss your research interests and consider what it might be like to work with this supervisor.

Graduate Admission Tests
Colleges and universities usually require a specific graduate admission test such as the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), LSAT (Law School Admission Test) or MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) as part of your application. These standardized tests are administered at many locations throughout the year and many schools also offer preparation programs and test guides. Some graduate departments may also have their own testing requirements for you to complete as part of your application. Generally, graduate admission tests should be completed approximately three to six months prior to your application deadline so that you have ample time to submit the results or retake the test.

Letters of Recommendation
Recommendations from relevant, qualified individuals familiar with your undergraduate work are usually required as part of the graduate application. Schools may specifically state the number of references and who should write them (e.g. academic, professional or personal), but if you are given the choice, try to arrange for references that will offer a balanced perspective of your academic skills, relevant professional abilities and personal achievements.

Your references will need time to compose the letters. Try to give them at least four weeks prior to your application deadline. You will want to provide them with any standard forms and envelopes that the graduate school requires as letters of recommendation are usually sent directly from the reference to the receiving university or college. Also providing your references with information about the program you are applying to, samples of your work and your resume will help them prepare a more personalized letter of support.

After the application process is complete and you've made your decision, take the time to write thank you notes to your references and let them know where you'll be attending grad school.

Statement of Purpose / Essay
Also sometimes called a personal statement, biography or application essay, the statement of purpose describes your interest and experience in your chosen field of study and why you are applying to a specific program. This key part of the graduate application is designed to give admissions committees a better understanding of how your background and research interests fit with the program you are applying to. Be sure to seek feedback from others before submitting this important document as part of your application; this is often your only opportunity in the application process to sell yourself and make a great impression to the admissions committee. The statement of purpose is also assessed as a sample of your writing skills and you want it to communicate your personal strengths as clearly and effectively as possible to the admissions committee.

Graduate schools you apply to will require an official record of your undergraduate degree be sent directly to their admission office. An official record or transcript bears the issuing university's or college's seal and is not a copy. If you attended more than one school, you must request an official transcript from each. If you are applying for graduate school while still finishing your undergraduate degree, have the registrar send your current incomplete transcript as near to the application deadline as possible to reflect your most recently completed courses, and arrange for a final transcript to be sent after you finish your degree. This way the admissions committee will have your final grades available to them when evaluating your file.

Assembling Your Application
Together with your graduate admission test results, letters of recommendation, statement of purpose and transcripts, your application will probably include the graduate school's application form for your basic personal information and a check for your application fee. While these are the basic elements you'll assemble, be sure to carefully go over the application requirements specific to the program you are applying to as you may also need to submit:

  • a portfolio of work (e.g. for creative programs)
  • published work or research (e.g. for doctoral studies)

  • Some schools may also require admission interviews or auditions. Your application package from the program will provide information about scheduling these meetings.

    Prior to sending your applications, make a copy for your personal records and note if all parts of an application are to be mailed to the same address or different departments. Keep track of the dates you mail our your applications.

    Most schools send a postcard or letter upon receipt of your application. If you have not received a postcard or letter within a reasonable length of time from your mailing date, contact the admissions office by phone to confirm that your application was received before the deadline along with all supporting materials. An incomplete application will delay a decision on your file.

    Admissions Committee
    Once your completed application is received, an admissions committee will review it. At some schools, two offices may even review it: your proposed graduate program office and a central graduate school office. Generally, the committee will be considering the following to predict your success in their graduate program and decide if your application is approved:
    • possession of the prerequisite degree (and any other earned or expected degrees)
    • graduate admission test scores
    • overall grade point average
    • grades in your major subject area and particularly in the upper level courses
    • patterns of improvement on your transcripts
    • academic and research ability
    • quality of the undergraduate institution(s) you attended
    • relevant experience

    If accepted to a graduate program, your letter of offer will ask you to verify in writing whether or not you choose to attend (usually by an established deadline) and indicate any funding you may receive. Before responding, you may wish to discuss your offers with the faculty in your current institution or experts in your profession for advice. You may also want to find out if anyone else in your current institution graduated from that same program at that same graduate school and get his/her opinion on the experience. If possible, visit the department and talk with their existing graduate students. This additional information, the details of the offers themselves, and logistics such as moving to the new location will likely all factor into your final decision. Once you have decided, respond to your new graduate school in writing to accept, and also write to inform other graduate schools that sent letters of offer of your decision to attend another institution.

    If you are not accepted to an institution or are placed on a waiting list, it is still in your best interest to contact the school. If you are on a wait list, find out if the list is ranked, what percentage of the wait list is usually admitted and if supplementing your file with updated grade transcripts or additional letters of recommendation could improve your ranking. If your application was not successful, seek feedback as to why and find out what you could improve on if you apply again in the future. Some schools may allow you to take classes for a semester to improve your grade point average and then reevaluate their decision to admit you for graduate studies.

    There is only one chance to make a great first impression with your application. Doing your research, preparing for all the steps in the process and spending the extra time to ensure it is a good academic and personal representation is the best way to ensure your application is a success.


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