Are you wondering how to get into grad school? Did you realize that an undergraduate degree may not be enough to help you accomplish your professional goals? If you have decided to pursue graduate studies, we are here to help you through this long and rigorous process!
In this blog, we are going to provide some useful information that will help you navigate the graduate school application process and build a strong and compelling application package that will make you stand out to the admissions committee members. Plus, we will help you prepare for any grad school interview question you may face during your meeting with the admissions committee!
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When to Start
This may seem obvious, but it is key: start early. Good planning is everything, and it takes time. Applying to grad school is more than filling out an online form and uploading documents several months before your chosen program starts. Remember that becoming a desirable candidate does not happen over night. You want to develop a competitive advantage over the other highly qualified applicants, and this is something you can only achieve over time.
So, what do we mean by ‘early’? Ideally, you will begin your research in your undergraduate freshman year. However, most students do not begin considering graduate programs and life after college until their sophomore or junior year of college. This will give you three to two whole years to prepare and get the life experiences you need to show the grad school programs that you have what it takes to be a successful student.
Planning to transition from undergrad to grad school? Check out our video:
Choosing a Program
Each graduate program is unique. Each university has its own requirements, and these vary even from program to program. Therefore, it is essential that you do your research before selecting your top school choices. Here're are some of our suggestions.
Create a general list of potential schools and define pros and cons of each one. See how each program aligns with your personal interests and your future career goals. Consider location, cost, courses offered, and faculty specialties. You also want to look at the research activity within the program, as well as the possibility to present your work at different academic events and platforms once you become their student. The possibility to attend conferences is directly related to how much a program encourages and supports students to do so. A quick look at the program’s website will surely reveal this.
You should also determine whether the program is thesis-based or course-based and reflect on how this relates to your interests. Are you a research-oriented person? If you answered yes, you may want to consider a thesis-based program that will give you the opportunity to conduct research as part of the requirements you will have to fulfill. If you answered no, then look for schools that offer course-based programs where your academic load will be a little bit more intense, but you will be able to attend many classes and learn from many different perspectives.
Tip: Some programs may have pre-requisite courses, especially if your undergraduate degree is not related to what you want to study in graduate school. Some programs will give you the opportunity to make up these courses during the first year, yet some others will ask that you complete these courses before you enroll in the program. Once you determine if your program requires these pre-requisite courses, you can either include them as part of your undergraduate course plan and have them ready when you move onto grad school, or take an accelerated or intensive summer class before you enroll.
Lastly, find information about the extracurricular activities and social life of the school you want to apply to. Attending graduate school should be a wholesome and rewarding experience. Remember, you are going to be immersed in the academic world like never before and be glued to your books and class notes almost one hundred percent of the time, preparing for mid-term exams and assignments. This is precisely why you need to be able to have some fun and de-stress. It is important to take care of your emotional well being, and this is easier to accomplish if the university supports initiatives that promote mental health. Again, look at their website to find out about these initiatives and what students do for fun.
As you can see, there are many things you should consider before you even decide where you want to go. Here is a sample table that you can use to organize information about different programs and narrow down your top choices:
Look at the Stats
Deciding where you want to go is not all it takes. Once you have done your homework and selected your top schools, it is time to check their statistics to assess your chances of being admitted on the basis of your own application documents and scores. You need to look online for the requirements of your selected programs, including:
After selecting your top schools and assessing your chances of being admitted, it is time to decide which programs you are actually going to move forward with. How many schools should you apply to? This is up to you. Some students have a make-it or break-it approach and go for just one or two programs, while others decide to apply to multiple universities. Consider your options and resources. Be strategic, choose wisely.
Tip: Look for universities that offer teaching assistantships or the possibility to work with professors as a research assistant. These assistantships usually come with a monthly stipend, which will provide financial support and help you offset your expenses. Otherwise, try looking for institutions that offer the possibility of working as a research assistant on campus. You can always apply to these jobs yourself by sending in a strong resume and a research assistance cover letter.
You can also look for tuition assistance programs or any scholarships that may be available at the federal, state, or provincial level. Additionally, you can reach out to the financial aid office or the student affairs office of your school and learn what kind of assistance is offered. They may have programs such as emergency grants for students, completion scholarships, emergency student loans, needs-based grants, vouchers, merit awards, etc.
Check out a quick infographic that will give you a step-by-step outline how to get into grad school:
Applying to Grad School
Start the Online Application Process
Once you narrow down your top choices, you want to get familiar with the online application system for each school. It seems obvious, but the sooner you create your application account on the program’s website, the sooner you will get familiar with the different components of it. Check your preferred schools’ application deadlines and do not, I repeat, do not submit your application at the last minute! Give yourself plenty of time to account for technical issues and other unforeseeable circumstances. Make a list of every single requirement for every single school you are applying to. Be organized. Once you know what you need, start gathering your materials and putting together your application package.
Tip: While you work on your application package and organize documents, take some time to go over the program’s website once again and familiarize yourself with its faculty members. Identify those professors whose research interests align with your own. Remember that being able to demonstrate how your interests complement those of faculty members lets the department know that you are a good match.
Once you identify the professors you hope to work with, send them an email to introduce yourself, say that you are in the process of applying to their program, and ask them any questions you may have. Faculty members are extremely busy individuals, and there is no guarantee that they will reply, but sometimes they do take the time to write back to a potential student. Establishing this connection will put you on their radar. Furthermore, these faculty members may be part of the admissions committee, so having them be familiar with your name and know that you are proactive and genuinely interested in their program may work to your advantage. Here is a template that you can use for writing this email. Be sure to modify it and adapt it to your purposes:
Looking for more grad school tips? Check out the video below:
The Application Package
Once you start the online application, you will need to upload your documents. These will most surely include your transcripts, test scores, a statement of purpose for graduate school, samples of academic work, English proficiency test scores (if English is not your first language), your CV for grad school, information about your referees, and any other requirements specific to the program.
It is very important for your application components to complement each other and read as one story. In other words, the narrative that you create with your application package has to clearly show who you are, why you are interested in the program, and how the program will help you achieve your personal and professional goals. Most importantly, it should also highlight the fact that you have had meaningful experiences throughout your life that have allowed you to develop a specific set of skills and acquire characteristics that will make you a successful graduate student – one that will complement their program and bring something to the table.
Let us review some of these components in more detail and see why they are important.
Your transcripts are your academic history, which demonstrates the courses you have taken and how well you have performed in them. More importantly, a transcript record will show your GPA – and you and I know that this number is extremely important moving forward. Transcripts are also official proof that you have the degrees and the academic background you claim to have. Usually, grad schools ask for transcripts from all the previous post-secondary institutions you have attended, even if you did not stick around long enough to obtain a degree.
Tip: Keep in mind that some programs will accept unofficial transcripts during the application process and will require official transcripts once you are admitted. These official transcripts have to be sent directly to the program by your school. Of course, if you are applying to programs in North America and your transcript is in a language other than English (or French for some Canadian schools), you will have to provide official translations of your documents. This is an additional step that international students have to follow, but as long as you plan in advance and pay attention to the deadlines for your program of choice, you should be able to fulfill this requirement with minor complications.
Keep in mind that official translations are done by certified translators, sometimes appointed by the state, and that the requirements they have to follow vary from country to country. But don’t worry, certified translators are very common, so it is easy for students to find one near them.
The courses you take in your undergraduate program and the grades you get will really make a difference in your academic preparation and, ultimately, in your GPA. If after all your effort and dedication your GPA is still low, do not despair. Just make sure you ramp up the other components of your application package to increase your chances of being admitted. Check out how how to get into medical school (or grad school) with a low GPA.
Almost every grad school program requires you to take an admissions test. The test you take will depend on the program you want to study. For instance, the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) test is more of a general test and is required in most graduate programs, whereas Business School requires the GMAT score, Law School the LMAT score, Med School the MCAT score, and so on.
The purpose of these tests is to assess your knowledge of a specific subject area and to determine how suitable you are to pursue studies at the graduate level. Whether you are taking the GRE, the MCAT, or any other standardized test, it is important to familiarize yourself with the test, its format, and its structure. Research when to register, when and where to take the test, how the test is scored, when your results will be available, whether the results will be sent directly to your chosen programs, etc.
Look for online resources that will help you prepare for the test, including simulations, sample questions, and diagnostic tests. For example, the company that administers the GRE testis ETS. If you go on their website, you will see that they provide official tools from the maker of the test to help you prepare for it. Similarly, the MCAT, developed and administered by the AAMC, is an essential component of any med school application that you should prepare for. Check the AAMC’s website to find the information you need to know to successfully prepare for it.
Tip: If the test you will need is the MCAT, you should ideally begin preparing three to four months prior to your anticipated MCAT test date. You are going to need to put in 5 to 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for at least 8 to 12 weeks to be fully prepared. We cannot stress this enough: test scores are one of the most important components of your application package, and therefore, your test score should ideally be high enough to place you above the cut off score determined by your program of choice.
Do consider that different programs use these scores differently, and that cut off scores vary among them. Additionally, consider that some of these standardized tests have expiration dates. Medical schools, for instance, only consider MCAT scores dating back two or three years, and both GRE and GMAT scores are valid for five years while English proficiency tests are usually valid for only two years. Be that as it may, the important thing is that you prepare for the test as you would for any other major assignment: by being focused and determined to do a good job and confident that you will succeed.
That being said, it is always a good idea to take the test early to ensure that you have additional time should you have to take it again. For instance, if you are planning to attend med school right after you graduate, then you should take the MCAT during your third undergraduate year. In other words, your testing year should always be the year before you plan to attend med school. Additionally, you may think about taking the exam earlier in a testing year, just to give yourself time for any unexpected results. Do take into account that medical schools see all of your exam scores, and they may use this information differently from program to program.
If English is not your first language, you will probably need to take a standardized language test if you are applying to schools in the United States or Canada. Other English-speaking countries may have similar requirements, hence the importance of checking specific programs’ websites before applying. The most widely accepted English proficiency tests are TOEFL and IELTS, and they usually send your scores directly to the programs you are applying to. Just like with academic standardized tests, the key to taking these English proficiency tests is familiarizing yourself with their format and structure, going over the materials offered by the companies that administer the tests, practicing sample questions, and doing diagnostic practice tests.
Tip: If English is not your first language but you completed your undergraduate degree in an English-speaking country, some graduate programs may wave this proficiency requirement, so make sure you look for specific information or contact the school directly to inquire about this once you decide where you are going to apply.
Statement of Purpose
This essay is one of the most important components of your application package. Let’s be honest: your GPA and test scores are just numbers, your referees can sing your praises as objective observers of your abilities, and your extracurricular activities and community service may or may not resonate with the admissions committee. Your personal statement, however, is the only item that you really have control over and the most direct mechanism you have to communicate your ambitions, goals, passions, and intentions to the members of the committee. It is the one document where you can speak directly to them. Typically, a statement of purpose is 500-1000 words long, but make sure to check the required length with your program of choice.
The thesis of your essay should be why you have chosen that particular discipline, field, program, etc. As an academic essay, it should be impeccably well-written and have good transitions, flow, and cohesion. It should paint a picture of who you are as a person and highlight the skills you have developed throughout your life and how these skills will be applied as you move forward in your profession. You can highlight, for instance, two or three areas you appreciate about the discipline, field, or program and mention your own experiences to demonstrate how you complement it. Include the skills you developed or the characteristics you refined through these experiences and how you can apply this learning moving forward. If you are applying to a thesis-based program, your statement of purpose should also present a research interest, which you can connect to those same experiences.
Your statement of purpose may seem to you like any other email or letter you have written, but we are here to remind you that you should not underestimate its importance. Writing a strong and compelling essay will increase your chances of being admitted to your dream school, and it is an endeavor that takes a lot of time, effort, and expertise. It requires creating an excellent essay structure with a captivating introduction, two or three body paragraphs highlighting your meaningful experiences and skill sets, and a creative conclusion that leaves the reader wanting more.
It also requires including the right content, as well as doing multiple revisions, writing and re-writing drafts, and most importantly, receiving honest, specific, actionable, and professional feedback on it. So, you should aim to give yourself 6 to 8 weeks to prepare the statement of purpose. If ever in doubt, don't hesitate to have a graduate school admissions consultant or a grad school essay tutor look it over.
Check out a quick guide for how to write a statement of purpose:
Most graduate programs will require at least three reference letters. What your professors and mentors say about you really does matter, and it is a good way for programs to get information about the type of student and the type of person you are.
Tip: Develop strong relationships with your professors early and let them know who you are. Have conversations with them before and after class, visit them during office hours, show that you are an intellectually curious and insightful student. Always be on time for their classes and meet assignment deadlines. Participate and volunteer in class, be respectful and dedicated. In other words, build a relationship with your professors that is based on mutual respect and understanding so that when the time comes, they will not only be able to write a reference letter for you, but will also be glad to do it.
When the time comes to ask your professors for a strong letter of recommendation, inform them of this request early and ensure you provide them with all the details that they are going to need as well as plenty of time to write the letter. If possible, approach them in person first and ask them if they would be willing to provide a strong reference letter for you – the keyword in this sentence is strong. You do not want a mediocre letter. If you doubt whether your potential writer is willing to compose a stellar letter for you, consider asking someone else. You do not want to worry that the weak link in your application components is a lukewarm letter from one of your previous professors. If you cannot approach them in person, send them a friendly email asking if they would consider writing you a strong letter of recommendation. Only if they agree, you can forward them all the supporting documents.
When you request the letters from your writers, mention that you will make the process easy by providing them with your transcripts, CV, a draft of your statement of purpose, and any other document they request your CV and specific information about you. You want them to write a strong letter, so it is always a good idea to expose them to your life outside of academia, such as your volunteer initiatives, conference presentations, honors and awards you may have received, or anything else you want them to know about you.
Once they agree, confirm that you will send them a formal request via email. Tell them that you will send them reminders of this reference as the deadline approaches. This will help them keep track of the deadline, as they are very busy people, and it will also help you be on top of things. Believe me when I say that waiting for a professor to finally submit a letter of recommendation on your behalf last-minute is not a fun process. Here is an email template that you can modify and use to request your letters of reference:
There is a chance that your referees may ask you to write a draft of the reference for them to approve. If so, learn how to write your own letter of recommendation.
Essentially, a good CV highlights what you have done in terms of education, work experience, volunteering, research, and other accomplishments. Moreover, good CVs are clear, concise, and up to date with the information they present.
Your CV should outline different activities and experiences throughout your life that you would like to present to the reader, i.e., your academic, social, professional, personal, and other achievements. The bottom line is this: to be a strong applicant, you need to make sure your CV includes meaningful personal and professional experiences that showcase the different skills that you have developed and refined throughout the years that make you a good match for the program you are applying to.
You might be wondering if you have any meaningful experiences to show. If you have been paying attention, you know by now that applying to grad school is a process that starts before you even solidify your decision to apply. Building a good CV can start as early as your high school years. Therefore, your time as an undergraduate student is the perfect opportunity to start honing your skills through different activities that will make your CV stand out.
The ‘Education’ section of your CV has already been determined by the schools you have attended. However, the sections that pertain to Working/Teaching/Tutoring/, Research Experience, Volunteer Experience, Extracurricular Interests, Publications, Skills/Qualifications, and Awards/Honors are a work in progress and have the unequivocal potential to be complemented with relevant and meaningful experiences from your college years. You do not have to have it all, but you do need to keep your eye on the prize and get involved in those activities that will align with your future academic goals.
Here are tips and suggestions of steps you can take based on your general interests to build a strong CV over time.
Submit your Application
You are almost there! You collected all your documents and uploaded them to the online application system, your referees are working on their letters and will hopefully submit them before the due date, your university has delivered your official transcripts (if official transcripts were required at this point), and you have paid the registration fee (which varies from school to school but could range between $50 and $200 dollars). The only thing standing between you and your dreams now is clicking the submit button.
But not so fast! You know how we roll. Of course, we are going to insist that you check and double check your application before submitting. Paying attention to detail and is essential in grad school. Your application should be no exception! So, please check and double check. We can wait.
Once you confirm that everything is in order and that the documents you uploaded are the correct ones, you can submit your package. Phew! So much work and effort to get to that one click! Congratulations. You have officially applied to grad school. What comes next? Getting invited to interviews. That is a whole new process that requires extensive preparation as well.
Grad School Interviews
If you get invited for an interview, you will probably meet with a few faculty members who are going to ask you different questions to determine if you are a good fit for their program. While there is no way to know the specific questions that they are going to ask you, you can, in fact, prepare for this major event by considering the following areas:
- Who you are as a person: "Tell me about yourself" is perhaps the most popular interview question of all time. Be prepared to talk about your interests, your background, your personal life. Every personal question they ask you, you should personalize it by including a specific example from your life or a specific experience you went through at some point. You want to say what you learned from that experience (skills you developed), and how this learning will help you navigate this new step in your life. Identify those experiences where you have displayed leadership and great collaboration skills. Additionally, be ready to talk about what are your greatest weaknesses and setbacks. Be honest, be yourself. Life is not perfect, and neither are you, so do not be afraid to mention your shortcomings, just ensure to always identify what every negative experience taught you and what you learned from it.
- Why you want to pursue graduate studies: Be prepared to talk about your professional goals, discuss your research interests, and the research interests of the faculty member that is interviewing you. You want to cause a very good impression, and what better way than reading about this person’s recent papers and what they are currently working on and discussing that with them.
- Why you are interested in their program: Be prepared to say exactly why you have chosen this program. Start by reviewing the program’s website and identifying what you like about it. Once you highlight two or three aspects that interest you, mention how you complement these aspects, and any experiences you have had that have prepared you to add value to the program by providing you with the skills and characteristics that the program values in their applicants.
Remember that interviews are a great opportunity for candidates to show to the members of the admissions committee who they are. Make the most of this opportunity. Be engaged, bright, and respectful. Introduce yourself with enthusiasm, ask questions if they give you the chance, maintain eye contact, and smile. Now that you have come this far, you must keep going. Preparing for interviews is extremely useful and exciting, and it is something that we can definitely help you with. Schedule a consultation with us and join the vast community of students that have benefited from our services.
Check out some grad school interview questions and answers in our video:
If you have read this blog all the way to this point, congratulations! You now have a better understanding of what preparing for a successful grad school application means. Something we want to leave you with is this: some people decide to complete their undergraduate studies and stop there. That is perfectly fine. But if you have decided to keep going and apply to graduate school, rest assured, that no matter how daunting the process may be, you can be a successful applicant as long as you prepare for taking on this challenge.
Remember: preparation does not mean putting your application package together in an online platform. Preparation means starting early, being organized, considering your options, being strategic, developing relationships with your potential referees, engaging in meaningful activities that help you develop the skills that programs look for in their applicants, building your CV with the most relevant activities for your chosen field, studying hard to ace your tests, but also taking time to do what you like, and ultimately, being focused and committed.
In sum, getting into grad school is just the culmination of a long process filled with challenges and also amazing stories to tell. Getting into grad school is your reward for working hard throughout the years; so, whatever you do, do not forget to enjoy the process, and always remember how amazing you are.
1. When should I start thinking about pursuing graduate studies?
You can start doing your research as early as your freshman year in college, but most students start to actually consider it during their second or third year.
2. What would be the first step in the planning process?
You first want to make a general list of all the potential schools that interest you and then narrow your selection by considering the pros and cons of each one.
3. What if my program of choice has required prerequisite courses?
Some programs want to ensure that you have the minimum academic preparation to be at the graduate level in a specific field. If that is the case for you, note that some programs will allow you to take these courses as part of your first-year course plan. If they do not, you could look at the possibility of adding these prerequisite courses to your undergraduate course plan, or even use the summer before you enrol in grad school to do complete these requirements.
4. Graduate school is expensive. How can I help offset some of the costs?
You can always look for financial support opportunities within the school or program (teaching assistantships, scholarships, grants, student loans, vouchers, awards, etc.). Reach out to the financial aid office or the student affairs office of your school and learn what kind of assistance is offered.
5. Should I establish contact with anyone in my program of choice?
Yes! Look at the program’s website and identify the professors you hope to work with. Then send them an email to introduce yourself, say that you are in the process of applying to their program, and ask them any questions you may have. This will put you in their radar.
6. What are the most common components of an application package to grad school?
The most common documents that you will have to provide are transcripts, test scores, a statement of purpose, reference letters, and a CV.
7. What transcripts do I have to upload as part of my application package?
You will need to provide transcripts of every post-secondary institution you have attended, even if you did not graduate. Some schools will accept unofficial transcripts to apply but will request official ones once you are admitted.
8. What if any of my application documents is not in English?
You will have to provide a certified translation along with the original document.
9. Do test scores expire?
Yes, they do. GRE scores, for instance, are usually valid for five years, whereas for the MCAT, only those scores obtained three years prior are considered.
10. What is the goal of the statement of purpose?
The main idea behind this essay is to explain why you have chosen to pursue this field, discipline, or program while presenting personal experiences that demonstrate that you are prepared to undertake grad studies and that you have developed the skills that this endeavor requires.
11. Who should I ask to provide a reference letter for me?
You want to ask only those who can provide a strong letter for you. If you do not think a certain referee can give you one, consider other options.
12. What information should my grad school CV include?
Usually, CVs include your educational background, work experience, volunteering, research, and other accomplishments such as your academic, social, professional, and personal achievements. You should also include any extracurricular interests you may have as well as publications, skills, qualifications, and awards or honors.
13. What happens after I submit my application online?
Then you wait to get an invitation for an interview! And when you do, you need to be prepared to discuss your life and achievements, your research interests, and any meaningful experiences you have had. Ensure you are clear about your reasons for choosing the specific field or program and about personal experiences that have helped you develop important skills and characteristics.
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