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Graduate School: How to Apply

Applying to graduate school is a process. It is essential that you are organized or you will miss deadlines. This outline should help you be aware.

Selecting Where to Apply

There are many considerations when selecting where to apply for graduate school. The first issue is how many schools to select. Try to maintain a balance, too few may not allow you enough guarantees, yet too many will cost you a fortune. On average, we suggest that students apply to between 3 and 10 schools. You can narrow this number a little depending on how well you have done in college. If you have a great GPA and good experiences, apply to between 3 and 5 schools.

If you have a GPA below 3.0 or do not have any significant experience, you should try to apply to 5 to 10 schools. You will also need to break this number down into types of schools. Try to apply to 1 or 2 long shots, 1 or 2 safe schools and the rest somewhere in between. Because a name can mean a lot to your career in the long run, it is important to at least try to get into some place that is a long shot or a "dream school." Keep in mind that it does not hurt to try.

Many say the way to select a graduate school is to select an advisor. After all, you will spend approximately five years in close contact with this person. To try this method, find an area which interests you, then find out who is doing that research. Call the faculty member directly, inform them of your interest and ask for an application. You can also ask if they have space in the lab, ask for some recent papers to read, and find out about the style of their lab.

Another way to choose a school, especially if you are unsure of your research interests, is to select by program. If you only know that you are interested in biochemistry or zoology, then select a school with a good program and at least three faculty members doing research in your area. This will give you some choices once you get there. Then find someone in your interest area and give them a call. This will give you a contact, simply say you are interested in their program

While selecting your schools, please keep in mind the logistical considerations. Would you like to live close or far away? Do you want to try the west coast for awhile? Do not be afraid to leave the area. It is a great experience and you will learn about a new area. Decide if you prefer a large school or a small school. Large schools can be intimidating, but they offer many more options and resources. Small schools allow you a lot of close attention and one-on-one faculty interaction, but they may not have the best equipment. Also consider living in a rural or urban area. An urban setting will allow you to explore many cultural activities outside the university, while rural universities tend to be the town's culture, making for a homey setting.

Gathering Information

Once you have decided how many schools and which types interest you, try to gather information on those schools. There are a few ways to do this. One is to use the Peterson's guide or some other guide book. The Peterson's is now available online and can be searched by area of interest, location, and other important factors. For rankings of the schools, you can look at the U.S. News site for good rankings of each area of study. If you have some specific schools in mind, but would like a little more information, try the College and University Home Pages listing. This lists every college in alphabetical order. Then you can visit the departmental page and see what they have to say about their program.

Getting Organized

The first thing you should do is call or send an email to each school to request an application. Once you have the applications, make a folder for each school. After you have your folders, try one of two methods. Either write all relevant information on the front of each folder so it is easily available, or make a spread sheet to remind you of the information. Include the deadline dates, a list of all requirements, who you intend to ask for recommendations, etc. Next, consult your calendar. Write down deadlines for applications, but also include personal deadlines. When do you need to have your personal statement done so it can be proofread? When do you need to request letters of recommendation? When do you need to order your transcripts from the registrar? Setting deadlines will help you stay ahead.


You can go buy a book, computer aides, take a class, or just study, but do something. It has been a long time since you have studied the basics. Can you remember how to balance an equation or outline the stages of mitosis? Select a test date, then study for one hour every night for the month before the test. Also remember to get a good night sleep the night before. You do not want to be kicking yourself for silly mistakes later on.


Now it is time to actually put your application together. There are several components to a complete application file.

Application Forms - Type your general information onto the form or if necessary write it very clearly. If essays are required and it says you may use a separate sheet of paper, do so. This will allow you to use a word processor instead of writing in the space given. If you must write in the space given, try printing directly onto the application form. Try this on a photocopy first for placement. Make sure that you complete all areas of the form. Do not leave anything blank. Also, do not exaggerate scores are other information. It is important to show off your skills, but you need to be truthful.

Transcripts - You will need official signed copies of your transcript sent directly to each school. Make sure that you request them with plenty of time for processing and mailing.

Letters of Recommendation - In most cases, these letters are very important, if not the most important part of your application package. Take the time required to have good letters.

Personal Statement - The personal statement is also an important part of your application. This is your one chance to stand out from the crowd, demonstrate why you are a great student, allow your personality to come through.

The Visit or Interview

The visit or interview is your chance to find out as much as possible about the university. Some schools have all the prospective students come on one weekend, others work around individual schedules.If you are accepted and the school does not offer a visit, call and ask if it would be possible to have one. You should find out as much as you can about the department before you go. Read some papers, look over the web site, look through publications so you can ask intelligent questions.

There are some important pieces of information that you must come back with. Ask about the funding situation. Will you be paid for 9 months or 12? What is the stipend? How many terms will you be guaranteed a Teaching Assistantship or Reseach Assistantship? Also ask how many student graduate each year and how many years they had been there? This will give you a good idea of the success rate of their student projects. Investigate the method for selecting an advisor. Also try to meet with some graduate students, without faculty around. This will give you a chance to hear what they think. You can ask them about the cost of living and what the advisors are really like?

You should also keep in mind that this is an interview on their side. Ask yourself what you can do for them and why you want to go there. Brush up on your interview questions. What are you planning on doing five years from now?