How to Apply to Graduate School in 6 Steps

Jul 08, 2020

By Angell Kim

Perhaps you’ve decided that you want to pursue a Master’s, or maybe you’re still researching the idea of a Master’s down the line. Whatever phase you are in, if you have the dream to get a Master’s, this guide can help you start the process!

Before we get into the actual parts of how to get started on applying to graduate school, you should make a timeline and stick with it. The timeline below includes ample cushion time for flexibility to execute each step with a meticulous touch, but if you don’t have much time, modify it accordingly!

  1. Research school programs (1 month)
  2. Gather required items and organize them (1 week)
  3. Request recommendations (1 week)
  4. Register to take standardized tests and study (3 months)
  5. Write and review essays (1 month)
  6. Complete online applications and review (1 week or weekend)

1. Research

This is the brainstorming part of the process. For me, researching programs took the longest time. Throughout the whole application process, I spent time looking at more programs, removing some from my list, adding others, and back and forth we went. To prevent any delays when applying, it is best to have your list of schools at the very beginning so you can move forward. 

Whether you have a job or are currently studying, commit to around one month to research thoroughly the programs and the financial aid. To get jump started, check out ProFellow’s Free directory of full funded graduate programs! 

Additionally, use this time to schedule informational interviews, sign up for the informational sessions, and connect with alumni from the programs to chat about their experiences. Since it is two years of your life, you will also want to consider where the school is located. Usually, post-graduates work in the same area of the university, so keep that in mind.  

Here is a checklist of things to consider when you research opportunities:

  • Financial aid (Do they offer scholarships or assistantships? How much is tuition and cost of living?)
  • Research fit (Will you have the resources to study what you hope?)
  • Faculty (Will you have a good mentor?)
  • Location (Can you see yourself settling down in the location of the school?)
  • Class size (Is a smaller or larger class size important to the learning environment for you?)
  • Lifestyle (Are there student organizations or community groups to get involved with during your studies? Are there activities to pick up to destress from your studies?)

2. Gather Required Items and Organize Them

After consolidating your list of school programs, it is important to be organized. It will be helpful to create a folder on your desktop for graduate school applications with sub-folders for each school. In the general graduate school applications folder, you should save the items that most schools require, such as an updated resume and transcripts, whereas the sub-folders should contain specific essays and other customized application elements. Label clearly and save documents in the appropriate folders. This will be a huge time-saver as you complete these applications.

3. Request Recommendations

Start reconnecting with your university professors or supervisors to ask for their help in writing recommendation letters. Share the list of schools with them along with their deadlines, send the request links from the schools’ platforms, and share your current resume. You will have to follow-up appropriately, but if you make sure to request them early on, as the timeline suggests, you will give plenty of time for your recommenders to write quality letters. I recommend giving them a full month to complete all the letters for all of your selected schools and checking in every two weeks.

4. Register for Required Tests and Study

One of the most common requirements for schools is the GRE, and sometimes there are other standardized tests (TOEFL or IELTS for international students). I strongly encourage preparing and studying for these exams for three months and scheduling the date of the exam right at the beginning of the application process. While preparing your applications, you should be studying for the exam. 

Additionally, there are some school programs that waive the GRE if you have a certain number of years of work experience or have a scholarship. Sometimes, the school does not even require it! It is important to take the research step seriously so you are aware of which schools require standardized tests.

5. Write and Review Essays

While you are studying for the standardized test and doing your research, take time to draft and work on essays for each school. Fortunately, a majority of the schools have similar essay topics which you can recycle. However, you have to be meticulous to address the correct school in your essay. You don’t want to mention X university in the essay when it was addressed for Y university! Of course, some schools will have their own unique and additional essay topics, for which you will need to allot extra time to write. 

Have another pair of eyes to review your essays. An outside perspective will help you spot errors, reword, and clarify your essays. I would recommend your friends, family, or peers who have a knack for grammar and English.

6. Complete Online Applications and Review

This is probably the most redundant, yet easiest part of the process! I would recommend blocking off a weekend to complete and review the online applications. This is where you will have to upload online transcripts, updated resumes, and essays and fill out personal and professional information. Since it is all the same information for most schools, doing it all in one or two sittings will be beneficial. It is the administrative part of the process and should be done at the end without multitasking. 

There’s no harm in double-checking, so confirm all your information for each application, the documents uploaded, the content, and ensure your recommenders have uploaded their letters to the school platforms. 

In conclusion…

The beginning steps of researching and setting a timeline are the bases of starting any process and will help you throughout it. Some lessons I learned from my application cycle were to take more time reaching out to networks and to research more programs and financial aid information to prevent changing my mind in the midst of the process. This impacted me down the line in the process because I had to ask my recommenders for their letters, noting all the changes in my school selections. I am so grateful they were flexible with me, but also a bit embarrassed by my fickleness. 

Dividing the process into bite-sized parts and referring to the timeline as a guide will help you initiate and complete the graduate application process. A strong start will help guide you during the entire application process so you can reach the point where all you have to do is wait for acceptance letters!

Angell Kim graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Global Studies and a Minor in Latin American Studies. She is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Colombia (2016-2018), a 2020 Donald M. Payne International Development Fellow, and is a 2020 Paul D. Coverdell Fellow and MPA candidate at the University of Arizona.

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