graduate school, graduate school application tips

Tip#1: Don’t assume that each school has the same application process. 

Do your research and have a strong understanding of the requirements for each school so that you are not surprised about any requirements when submitting your application.

Tip#2: Know all the deadlines.

Knowing all of the application deadlines is important because some schools will have earlier deadlines than others, and moreover, if you want to be considered for funding packages, schools may have different application deadlines for funding eligibility. (Expert tip: create an Excel spreadsheet with the schools you want to apply to, and their application deadlines.)

Tip#3: Identify your preferred research topic.

 Once you have an idea about what you want to research, start reading the literature in the field to gain a sense of the urgency of the research, what has already been done, and what gaps need to be filled to add to the research literature. Although it is generally not required for you to be extremely well-versed in the literature prior to beginning your studies, being versed will give you an advantage when writing your admission applications, speaking with potential supervisors, and when the time comes, having to write your research proposal during the graduate program. The more informed you are, the better.

Tip#4: Identify which graduate schools you want to apply to, and the professors who share common research interests.

If you do not have a preference for particular schools, identify all professors, or as many as you can, who share a similar research interest.

Tip#5: Contact the professors who you identified through email.

  • Identify who you are, what you are studying and at what university. If you are in the work force or doing other activities, disclose this information. You want the professor to gain an idea of who you are.
  • Identify your desire to apply to graduate school in the upcoming year and inform the professor of your research interests.
  • Explain why you believe the professor would be a good fit to supervise you based on your shared research interests.
  • Ask the professor to meet you in person, or have a phone conversation, about your research interests so that you can identify whether the professor would be able to supervise you during your studies.

The email that you initially send to the professors should be no longer than 1 page. Approximately half a page would be best. The reason is that professors do not want to be bombarded with long, drawn-out emails as they are rather busy and receive tons of emails daily.

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Tip #6: Here's what to do after you send the initial email.

In the initial stage of sending out emails, a few situations may happen:

  • The professor replies and is happy to meet, or speak to you. Thus, arrange meeting the professor largely based on his/her schedule. If you meet the professor in person, typically the meeting will be in the professors’ office;
  • The professor may thank you for your email but inform you that he/she is not accepting new graduate students during the upcoming year. This may be for any reason such as the professor having too many current students and is unable to supervise anymore students, he/she is going on sabbatical for the next year, or the professor is retiring in the next couple years and is not taking on new students. In this case, write a quick email thanking him/her for his/her response;
  • The professor responds and tells you that your research interests do not necessarily align. In this case, write a quick email thanking him/her for his/her response. Sometimes, professors research interests shift and the description of their current interests have not been updated online;
  • The professor does not reply to your email. In this case, only write a follow-up email if you choose to do so in approximately 2-3 weeks’ time. As professors are extremely busy, they may have wanted to reply but forgot to do so. If you write a follow-up email and they still do not reply, it is likely they are not interested for whatever reason and it's time to move on. You do not want to invest your time and energy convincing any professor. You only want to work with professors who are interested in working with you.

Tip #7: In the case that you meet with, or speak to the professor, be well prepared.

  • Make sure you are able to speak about your research interests. You should come across as genuinely interested and informed about the research area because potential supervisors want to know that you are passionate about your area of interest. This passion is important because it will help drive you toward completing the program.
  • You also want to be able to speak about why you want to pursue that research path. The professor may want to understand your motives behind conducting the research because graduate programs require students to possess dedication and passion for their research topic in order to complete the program.
  • During the meeting, or while speaking to the professor, you also want to get a sense of whether your personalities and working style will be a good fit. If you are a student who needs continuous motivation or deadlines to be able to reach milestones, you need to make sure the professor is one to provide milestones and deadlines. Some professors take a more hands-off approach in the sense that their students are graduate students and need to be able to motivate themselves and reach their own deadlines – it is the responsibility of the student to manage their progression. Essentially, you need to make sure that whatever professor you feel is a good fit, is a good fit in terms of research topic, personality, and work ethic.
  • By the end of the discussion, bluntly ask the supervisor if he/she would be willing to supervise you during your graduate studies and if you can write that on your application. Indicating that you have already found a willing supervisor significantly increases you chances of acceptance. Note that some graduate schools do not assign supervisors upon being accepted to the program. They accept students, who then enter their first year of studies, narrow down a research topic, and then find a supervisor. The reason for this process is that your research interests may shift as your knowledge expands. Make sure you look at the instructions provided to you by the school or speak with the director of the graduate program by phone or email.

Tip #8: Speak with your potential supervisor's current and past students.

In addition to speaking with professors who you are considering to be supervisors for your research, you want to speak with his/her current students about how they find their experience with the supervisor. Current, or even past students of the supervisor will generally be very honest about their experiences with their supervisor. Asking the students about their supervisor will give you a very good idea about whether the supervisor-student relationship is right for you. Do not underestimate the importance of a strong supervisor-student relationship because it is your supervisor who guides you through the program, can make it very enjoyable or the worst time of your life. Importantly, it is the supervisor that ultimately says whether you should earn the degree or not.

Tip #9:  Make your graduate school applications stand out.

Now, you have spoken with several supervisors from different schools and you have a few supervisors who agreed to supervise you. So, you have to write your applications. Begin writing early on so that you have plenty of time for re-writes and editing. The first draft you write will likely not resemble the last draft because you are continually improving your application. It is highly suggested that you have a few people read your application to help you write a clear, coherent, and organized application that is free of grammatical and spelling errors. 

Tip #10: Tell them why they should choose you.

The purpose of writing a letter of intent or a statement of interest is to make an argument as to why you should be accepted into the program. Depending on the length or the specific requirements, you can and should speak to the following: (a) how you developed an interested in the field to which you are applying for; (b) areas of interest in the particular program (e.g. courses, activities, programs), (c) intended research study; and (d) conclusion about whom you would like to have as a supervisor.

Tip #11: Choose your referees wisely.

Let’s discuss your references. References are important and need to be strategized. First, choosing your references is an important task because you need to choose people who you have known you for a sufficient amount of time to have a strong professional relationship with you. Remember that you want a glowing reference letter, not just any reference letter. Next, you want your references to highlight important, but different skills, traits or behaviours that would make you a good candidate for the program - you do not want your references to say the same thing about you. To avoid this from happening, create an outline of the topics, characteristics, traits, experiences, or knowledge that you want each reference to target. Lastly, you need to provide the people who are writing your references with ample time to complete the reference(s) – particularly academic references. For example, if applications are due on February 1st, you want to ask the person to write your reference by late November. The reason is that many people take time off in December and in January, they are coming back from holidays, and may be starting to teach new classes; thus, they will be busy and may not have too much time to dedicate toward your reference if they are rushed. The same situation applies if your applications are due in October. Asking your reference as early as possible because September is the beginning of academic year, classes begin, and professors are busy writing their own grants during that time. Thus, approaching professors for references should begin during the late summer months (August) if your application is due in October.

Tip #12: Follow each graduate school application's guideline strictly. 

Be sure that you follow the guidelines provided from each school. Character and word limits are not simply suggestions; they are rules to adhere by and can influence your acceptance. Remember: edit, edit, edit!

The process of writing applications to graduate school can be memorable and fun. If you take your time, plan out what you are going to do, and look forward to your acceptances, you can enjoy the process. It is one step closer to achieving your goals.

The time required to produce a convincing grad school application should not be underestimated. Plan to dedicate a significant amount of time to your applications as you have a lot of preparation to do and you will want to go through several rounds of edits before you are confident that it is ready to be submitted. You should plan on starting to think about your applications at least 6 months to 1 year before they are due. The reason is that some schools and programs will require you to complete the GRE or TOEFL, which requires a lot of studying, time and dedication. In addition, you will likely have to write a personal essay, and a statement of purpose or letter of intent about your intended research. You will also have to prepare official transcripts to provide to each school you apply to, and you will have to organize between 2-4 reference letters. Below are steps you may want to follow to guide your application process. 

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