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Applying to Grad School: Your Step-by-Step Guide

After college, some students enter the workforce while others continue their studies in graduate school. Or, in many cases, a person will spend several years in the workforce and then later decide to attend grad school, perhaps to further their career, or to make a career change.

In any case, if you’re going the graduate school route, you’ll need to submit applications to the schools you’re interested in. That’s right, it’s time to go through the application process all over again!

Most aspects of the graduate school application process will be familiar to you, but it’s important to know exactly what materials to send.

Let’s review some graduate school application basics and learn how you can put your best foot forward.

When should I apply to graduate school?

Most graduate school application deadlines fall between late October and early December. However, many graduate schools admit students on a rolling basis.

That means applications are reviewed as they are received, so it’s best to apply early before spots start to fill up.

What do graduate schools look for in applicants?

Graduate schools are looking for many of the same qualities as undergraduate schools. Applicants should have demonstrated academic success, motivation and a strong work ethic, and characteristics such as integrity and leadership.

Because grad schools are more specialized than undergrad, they’re also looking for students who are passionate about and deeply committed to the field they’re planning to study. The programs you apply to should align with your interests and your career goals.

In addition, graduate school can be a lengthy time commitment. Application committees want to know that you’re serious about the field you’ve chosen.

Getting clear on your goals and pursuing relevant experiences and opportunities during undergraduate study or in your career can help you convey passion and purpose.

The Pros and Cons of Going to Grad School

Graduate School Application Requirements

Now that you know the basics, let’s look at the materials you’ll need to submit to apply to graduate school.

Keep in mind that every school is different. This is a general list, and some schools may require more or less.

Be sure to carefully review the application requirements and instructions on the official website of every school you’ll be applying to. Make a note of all deadlines, and don’t miss them!

The Application

To Do: Fill out and submit application(s).

Associated Cost: Generally $50-$85, more competitive schools may cost more

When you applied to college, the Common Application (Common App) may have saved you a ton of time. For graduate schools, unfortunately, there’s no universal application. You’ll have to fill out a separate application for each of the programs you’re interested in.

Every application is different, but they usually require basic information about you and your academic/extracurricular experiences. The supplemental materials are more important, but you’ll want to make sure your application is free of errors and frames your experiences in a compelling way.


To Do: Request official transcripts from your undergraduate school.

Associated Cost: Varies, generally $15-20 per transcript 

Just like when you applied to undergrad, your transcripts will be an essential part of your graduate school application.

Graduate schools see your Grade Point Average (GPA) as an indicator of how well you’ll perform in grad school. For this reason, many schools have a minimum GPA requirement.

When you look at a school’s application requirements, you may see that applicants should have a GPA of at least 3.0. At more competitive schools, this number may be higher. (Similarly, it may be lower at less competitive schools.)

Depending on the school, applicants with lower GPAs may be accepted on a conditional or probationary status. Of course, it’s best to avoid this altogether by earning a solid GPA during undergrad.

Most graduate schools will require official transcripts. Although some programs want the transcript sent directly from your school, most will allow a copy or scan of the official transcript. If that’s the case, you’ll only need to order your transcript once, which will save you money.

Test Scores

To Do: Register for and take the appropriate graduate school exam.

Associated Cost: $205-$315, depending on the test

The Graduate Records Examination (GRE) is basically the SAT for graduate schools. It tests basic math and reading skills, college-level vocabulary, critical thinking, problem-solving, and analysis. The exam is multiple choice and computer based.

Some schools require the GRE, while others recommend it. A few schools don’t look at test scores at all, but this is rare. Note that even if a school “recommends” the GRE, it’s best to take it. A high score makes your application more competitive, and it can offset a lower GPA if needed.

To determine what score you’ll need to earn on the GRE, look at the requirements or minimums on each school’s website. Even better, find the average GRE score of admitted students, if possible. The overall average is about 150-152.

Of course, the GRE isn’t the only graduate school exam. Aspiring medical school students take the MCAT, law school hopefuls take the LSAT, and students pursuing advanced business degrees often take the GMAT.

More recently, business schools and some law schools have started accepting the GRE too. But if you’re only applying to business schools or only applying to law schools, it’s typically a good idea to take the more specialized exam. This indicates that you’re serious about your interest in a specific field.

Alternatively, if a school accepts two different exams, take a practice test for each one and see which test is a better fit for your strengths.

As always, be sure to thoroughly review application requirements on each school’s website. These tests are expensive, so you don’t want to take the wrong one!

Letters of Recommendation

To Do: Request letters of recommendation from college professors, mentors, or employers.

Associated Cost: N/A

Most graduate schools require at least two or three letters of recommendation. The best letters come from professors with whom you’ve developed a close relationship. If you choose professors who don’t know you well, the letter may be bland and unimpressive.

Ideally, you’ll get at least one letter of recommendation from a professor in the field you’re planning to study. If you’ve been out of school for a long time or can’t secure letters from enough professors, mentors or employers are also good options.

Here are some additional tips to ensure the best letters possible:

  • Ask at least two months in advance.
  • Ask in person if possible. If not, a phone call or email is acceptable.
  • If you haven’t talked to the professor in a while, include some updates about your latest accomplishments and experiences in the email, as well as your future plans.
  • If the professor agrees to write your letter, send additional information such as your resume, transcripts, and maybe even some copies of the work you completed in his or her class.
  • Politely follow up two weeks and then a week before the application is due. Ask if the recommender needs any more information from you.
  • Waive your right to see the letter of recommendation.
  • Send a thank you note!

Note that some college professors will only write letters of recommendation for students who received an “A” or “B” in their course, and plan accordingly.


To Do: Compile a resume or CV if required.

Associated Cost: N/A

Grad schools often require a resume or curriculum vitae (CV). Resumes focus mostly on employee, while CVs cover information about your education, employment, extracurricular activities, research and publications, and achievements and awards.

Unlike resumes, it’s fine if your CV is multiple pages long. Be sure to carefully proofread grammar and spelling, and follow a consistent and professional format.

Personal Statement

To Do: Write and edit your personal statement or statement of purpose.

Associated Cost: N/A

Most graduate schools will also require a statement of purpose or a personal statement. Some schools use these terms interchangeably, but a personal statement is typically more about you as an individual, while a statement of purpose is more about your relevant background and goals.

In some cases, the topic will be very open-ended, allowing you to write about whatever you’d like. Other schools will provide specific guidelines, often asking you to address:

  • Why you’re interested in this program
  • How the program can help you reach your career goals
  • How your background has prepared you for this program/career field
  • What sparked your interest in this field
  • Some of your major accomplishments

Length requirements will vary. Show off your writing skills, allow your authentic personality to shine through, and tell a story that’s convincing and compelling.

As always, be sure to proofread your essay multiple times. It’s also a good idea to request feedback from a trusted peer, mentor, or family member.

How To Pay for Grad School

Additional Materials

To Do: Determine whether your school requires additional materials, and create or compile them.

Associated Cost: N/A

Some schools may require additional materials, such as writing samples or a portfolio. If you’re applying to a creative program, a portfolio will likely be the most essential component of your application. Other schools will require an interview.

Thoroughly read the application requirements for every school that you’re applying to, and make sure you send all necessary materials.

Final Thoughts: Applying to Grad School

Applying to graduate schools can be stressful, but the right amount of preparation makes the process much easier.

If you think you may go straight from college to grad school, begin researching graduate schools the summer before your final year of undergrad. Start getting your grades up, studying for exams, building relationships with key professors, and gathering necessary materials. Remember to apply early rather than waiting until the last minute.

The materials you need may vary for each program. In general, expect to send:

  • Transcripts
  • Standardized test scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Resume or CV
  • Personal statement/statement of purpose

Additional requirements may include portfolios, writing samples, and an interview.

By knowing what to expect and planning ahead, you’ll reduce your stress and increase your chances of acceptance.

Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.