Getting into grad school is no small feat. It’s a stressful process and one that many students take on while being in school or working full-time. Plus, you need the right combination of relevant qualifications, knowledge, and even luck to get an acceptance letter from one of your top choice programs. With the right information, including insight from accepted students, you can save yourself some time and develop a strategy that is right for you.
Fortunately, there are various strategies and proven methods to get accepted into a top graduate school. In today’s guide, we will examine the overall grad school application process and provide tips from actual students who have successfully navigated grad school applications in the past. So, let’s get started!
Before we dig into the details of applying for grad school, it’s important that you understand the amount of time, effort, dedication, and money you will need to complete a graduate degree. It’s a serious time commitment and – depending on whether or not you receive scholarships or financial aid – can be a significant financial investment, as well. That being said, the overall cost of any program should definitely be considered as well as location, training requirements and faculty and research resources. Essentially, you have many things to consider as you are applying. Asking yourself hard questions is challenging, especially when no one can truly provide you the answers you need except for yourself.
All of this is to say – get clear on your reason for going to grad school. While you can never know for sure what the future will bring, you want to feel confident that you’re making the right choice when you start school. Some critical and essential questions you may want to ask yourself are:
- What are my major reasons for pursuing a M.A or PhD? (List them out in detail)
- How much am I willing to pay? Do I expect my future career to be able to pay off accrued debt while maintaining the quality of life I desire?
- How will my life change during my M.A or PhD program?
- What are my career goals? What kind of life will this create for me?
As you process these questions, there are two great books we recommend for helping to think about what you want out of your career – and life more generally!
How Will You Measure Your Life? – Written by the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” is a quick, engaging read that helps you think about how to design a life that’s meaningful and fulfilling.
What Color Is Your Parachute? – This is one of the most popular career guidance books of all time – and topped the New York Times bestseller list for more than five years! It’s a practical manual for reflecting on what you want out of work – and was instrumental for me as I navigated the decision of whether or not to go to grad school.
It can be uncomfortable to spend time thinking through a big question like “What do you want to do with your life!?” but we promise it’s worth it. The answers the above questions will provide will also help you write your essays for graduate school. When you have clarity over why you are going to dedicate 2-7 years for a degree (M.A and most PhD’s respectively) your essays will read much stronger to the admissions committee who is looking for serious applicants.
Choosing the Best School for You
Some undergraduates stick with their alma mater when applying to grad school. This can be a good strategy, as you already know the faculty and staff, which could give you a leg up during the application process. However, refrain from choosing your existing university based on what is convenient or familiar.. If there is a better school for your particular area of study, don’t hesitate to apply.
“I applied to a total of 5 PhD programs, all across the state of California and within the UC System. I was accepted to 3 out of the 5. After reviewing the stark differences in funding opportunities, I ended up attending my undergrad alma mater. I hesitated with this decision because of the way it might look on my CV, but I knew I needed to prioritize funding. I feel so grateful I made this decision because I will be graduating without any debt and this was my major initial intention. Some things matter more than others!” -Verónica Mandujano B.A, M.A University of California Santa Barbara
Taking the Entrance Exam
The type of entrance exam or test you take will depend on the type of school or degree you are pursuing. For example, you may need to prepare for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), Law School Admission Test (LSAT), or the Medical College Test (MCAT). And these are just some of the most common tests! Some schools have their own individual entrance exam for applicants. In any case, make sure that you give yourself ample time to study and prepare. The required exam for any given program should be one of the first requirements that you consider as you are creating your list of potential programs. Never assume that you can just pull an all-nighter before the test and do well! These tests should be prepared months in advance and ideally, with enough time to take again if needed before the application due date.
“This isn’t only about learning about the material (Math, Vocab, etc), it’s about learning how YOU learn. Spend some time studying yourself and analyzing practice tests/questions you did and try to notice trends; you’ll start to see that you tend to make the same mistakes or veer toward the same type of wrong answers.” -Brenda Mejia, Magoosh GRE student
Writing Your Essays
For some applicants, essays are a breeze. For others, they feel like an insurmountable obstacle. However, the key to writing graduate entrance essays is addressing the prompts accurately and focusing on aspects of your life or experiences that really stand out. The experiences you should highlight throughout your essays are ones that demonstrate the kind of student and community member you are. Keep in mind that admissions committees are looking for potential students who will add to the overall environment of the department, and also students who are truly interested in the program. Anything that can demonstrate that you have done your research on the university and the specific program you are applying to will help you stand out amongst other applicants.
“At the time that I applied to graduate school I was not able to describe my research project with clarity. Instead, I kept my research interests more general but focused on my interest in working closely with certain faculty within the program who had overlapping interests with the work I sought to pursue. In this way, I demonstrated that the program would be a good fit as I developed the language for a project that is interdisciplinary by nature. It helped that I had also already spoken with the faculty I mentioned in my essays- I highly recommend this if it’s feasible for you! Connections go a long way!” -Verónica Mandujano, B.A, M.A University of California Santa Barbara
Getting Letters of Recommendation
Finding the right people to provide letters of recommendation can prove challenging. Most applicants turn to their professors or former employers. If you find yourself with few options, consider people (non-family members) who have been close to you through some or all of your life. They can offer a personal reference to vouch for your character. Do keep in mind that every graduate program will vary on their requirements for letters of recommendation. Some may not even accept non-academic letter writers. If you find yourself in this situation, and without strong connections to professors, do not panic! Send out an email to every professor in which you received an A or B, detail the course you took with them, what you enjoyed and how it has motivated you to apply to graduate school. Provide details about your ambitions and demonstrate that their class was in some way impactful for you. Always use professional and friendly language. You will be surprised how professors want to support students in furthering their studies, even if they weren’t your closest mentor.
“When choosing who I wanted my recommenders to be for my psychology PhD application, I tried to choose people who I saw as mentors. I also wanted a diverse range of people to show a broader scope of who I am as a professional. I asked one of my undergraduate professors (someone who I hadn’t actually spoken to in 7 years!), my immediate work supervisor, and my third and strongest recommender ended up being a psychologist in the field I was hoping to pursue. Even though I could have had three work supervisors or three professors, I felt like I made the right call on who I chose.” – Kelsey Crowson, Magoosh Admissions Instructor, School Psychology PhD Candidate
Building Your CV
Having an impressive CV is all about showing what you have accomplished over the years. From taking AP courses in high school to getting a paper published during your undergrad, you need to focus on your abilities, achievements, and relevant experience. If you feel like your CV is lacking in something, elaborate on your primary strengths. Don’t hesitate to include experiences that might not seem “worthwhile”. Admissions committees want to see what you are involved with, and what you have been consistent with. If you tutor kids in your neighborhood, or volunteer at the food bank every holiday season, that is something you can list under the category of community service or community engagement. Do your best to paint a fuller picture of who you are for the committee to see you as the complex and interesting individual that you are!
“I did horrible on the GRE, and I’m not at all ashamed of it . . . I personally have the philosophy that my work, grades, SOP, CV and samples (which are all excellent– I have an MA, published, attend conferences, etc) should speak for itself and that a standardized test is not at all sufficient way to judge my abilities.” -SunnySideUp, Magoosh GRE blog reader
Interviewing is usually the most nerve-wracking part of getting into grad school. After all, if you’ve made it all the way to the interview (or interviews), you are probably very close to being accepted. You won’t want to do anything to mess it up! Fortunately, if you just relax, emphasize your strong points, and answer questions with sincerity, you will likely make a very good impression. Try to prepare before the interview by having key points to general questions such as: ‘why did you apply to this program?’ or ‘describe your research interests and how they align with the department’. Essentially, you should be prepared to provide details about why you are interested in pursuing your advanced degree and why the program is ideal for you.
“I interviewed at four different programs and, while each of them were formatted a bit differently, they all felt like the interviewer wanted to get to know me, and bring my application to life. I found that I felt much more confident after practicing with a few friends — it helped me feel less nervous and think about how I might answer questions on the fly!
In retrospect, I wish I’d spent more time trying to feel confident throughout the process — since I think that’s something interviewers can pick up on, and would’ve generally made me less stressed!” – Jordan S, MBA, UC Berkeley, Class of 2019
Finally, it is very important to prevent yourself from getting overly stressed. Applying to grad school requires multiple steps and, in many cases, multiple rejections. So, just remember to breathe and focus on doing your best with each application. You may not always get the answer you want, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. Instead, focus on your goals and take steps every day to achieve them!
“Remember to be kind to yourself! Prioritize your health and mental well being. I have affirmative note cards on the wall that say things like “Actually, I can” and “I possess the strength and ability to accomplish my goals”. It is really helpful to keep up morale.” -Jari Javier, Magoosh GRE student
The Bottom Line
Getting into grad school takes patience and perseverance — but it can be well worth the effort.
Consider some of the insights provided by accepted graduate students in this post, reach out to current graduate students at your dream school, and never underestimate what a strong strategy behind your application process can achieve! Just remember to manage your stress, prepare accordingly, and put your best foot forward!
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