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8 Tips for Applying to Graduate School

You’ve made the decision: You’re ready to earn a graduate degree. Now it’s time to take the next step, but applying to graduate school feels like an arduous process. Each institution has its own deadlines and requirements, and you might not be sure which program is the right fit.

The application process doesn’t need to be daunting, though. There are proactive ways you can prepare yourself so this time feels more exciting—which it should. You’re about to embark on a journey that can help you grow personally and professionally, advance your career, or even change careers altogether.

Here are eight tips to make applying to graduate school easier.

Tips for Applying to Grad School 

1) Find a Program That Aligns with Your Goals

Before actually applying to graduate school, you need to find a program that aligns with your personal and professional goals. If you’re working full-time and committed to keeping your current role, explore programs that offer evening courses or study up on the advantages of learning online.

There are a variety of factors to consider when choosing the right graduate school for you, including cost, academic options, location, and employment and networking opportunities. Write down the features you’re looking for and prioritize what matters most. Ask yourself, “What am I willing to compromise on?” Once you have that list solidified, you’ll know what to look for when researching graduate programs.

2) Avoid Procrastination

Although the application process varies by college or university, what doesn’t is the amount of paperwork you need to submit, such as your transcript, letters of recommendation, professional resumé, and statement of purpose. Your transcript alone could take weeks to be delivered, so don’t wait until the last minute to start applying to your programs of choice.

3) Create a Calendar of Deadlines

In an effort to avoid procrastination, consider developing a calendar of deadlines. Map out when you need to apply to each of your desired schools, as well as the specific requirements for that program. For example, if you need to submit your undergraduate grades, create a to-do at least a month before the application deadline that reminds you to order your transcript. The same goes for references; give at least four weeks’ notice to anyone you’re asking for letters of recommendation from.    

4) Pick References Appropriately

When it comes to asking for letters of recommendation, carefully consider whom you’re contacting. You want to choose someone who knows you well and can speak to your strengths. Reach out to a professor you regularly interacted with, who can detail your academic accomplishments and describe why you were a standout student. Another option is to ask a former supervisor who’s working in a field that aligns with the graduate program you’re pursuing. No matter your choice, make sure it’s someone who’s going to provide a positive recommendation representative of your character—who’s not a friend or family member.

Again, you want to provide at least four weeks’ notice. If you ask a professor, it’s likely your letter isn’t the only one he or she needs to write. When you do ask, include in your outreach the name of the school you’re applying to, the degree you’re pursuing, why you want to enroll in that specific program, your resumé, and a deadline. The more information you can provide, the better your recommendation letter will be.

5) Update Your Resumé

Before sending your resumé, make sure it’s optimized for your grad school application. Your experience should be listed in chronological order, starting with your current position, and described in bullet points using action-packed verbs, such as “achieved,” “improved,” “launched,” “negotiated,” or “trained.” Quantify any achievements and show your results, whether it’s the number of people you’ve managed, dollars you’ve raised, or articles you’ve written.

Make sure the copy is scannable and double check to see if you’ve included any of the six words you should avoid on a resumé.

6) Write a Strong Statement of Purpose

Most graduate school applications will require a statement of purpose, which highlights why you’re interested in the school and the unique strengths you could bring to the program. In a previous blog post about how to write a strong statement of purpose, we broke down what you should feature when drafting the content, including:

  • Insight into what drives you, whether that’s professional advancement, personal growth or both
  • The features about the school that appeal to you most
  • Your expectations of the degree program and its potential impact
  • Authenticity and a clear picture of what makes you unique

7) Don’t Be Afraid to Contact Faculty

If there’s a particular class you’re interested in taking or a lab you’re aspiring to work in, contact the faculty member in charge. Ask about that faculty member’s research and pose any questions about the degree program that you might have. Your name will have a better chance of standing out during the admissions process if you express interest early.

8) Proofread Your Materials Before Applying (And Apply On Time)

You could be a perfect fit for your desired program, but if you submit materials that are riddled with spelling and punctuation errors, the admissions team will never know you’re a standout candidate because they’ll pass by your application. Triple check your materials before hitting send, and make sure that when you do hit send, you’ve included all necessary documentation—and that you’ve submitted it on time. This is your first impression; put your best self forward.

Are you interested in applying to graduate school? Explore Northeastern’s more than 200 graduate programs and learn more about how to apply.