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The Ins and Outs of Applying to Grad School

Applying to grad school is tough, especially at first, but there is good news: you can do it!

Laura Magerkurth

November 09, 2015

The Ins and Outs of Applying to Grad School
I’m currently in the process of applying to graduate school for next spring, and the truth is that it’s overwhelming. There’s no way around it. Applying to grad school is tough, especially at first, but there is good news: you can do it! Your first step is going to be deciding which schools you’re considering and what their individual requirements are, including of course due dates. Keep in mind that some programs may have due dates that are different from others and that you might need to complete a general application for the school as well as an application for your specific program. It was helpful for me to make a spreadsheet including due dates and details of each aspect of the application process that might differ based on the school (for instance, some schools may have a page limit on personal statements or may want two letters of recommendation compared to the usual three).

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The biggest difficulties that many people face have to do with their personal statement, letters of recommendation, and the GRE. Having gotten through all three of these, I can tell you what I wish I’d known and what tricks helped me the most.

Personal statement and writing sample

Plenty of prospective grad students stress out over their personal statement. If you haven’t done a lot of writing for your undergraduate major, it can be hard to suddenly jump into composing a personal essay—and even if you are a seasoned writer, it’s tough to talk about yourself for two or more pages!

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When writing a personal statement, you want to brag about yourself without seeming overly confident. However, if you’re worried about seeming arrogant or cocky, you probably won’t come across that way in your personal statement! It’s best to spend more time describing the specific actions you took and a little less time on the effects. For instance, if you had a leadership role in a campus organization, discuss what you did in that position, or better yet a specific instance that helped you grow as a leader. Even in personal statements, follow that the old writers’ adage of “show, don’t tell.” Show the reader how what you did was awesome and then spend time discussing the impact. This also makes writing about your own achievements come more naturally—if you’re presenting facts, you’ll probably feel less weird awkwardabout writing about yourself.

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Of course, make sure you’re aware of individual schools’ guidelines for personal statements. Some schools might have word or page limits or specific prompts they want you to respond to. Others may also want a sample of your academic writing in addition to your personal statement, so don’t get rid of all those papers you’ve done over the years!

Letters of recommendation

Letters of recommendation are the aspect of the application process that’s the scariest for a lot of students. It’s intimidating to go to someone and ask for a favor. Don’t forget that the worst thing that could happen is that they say no (and they probably won’t say no, anyway!). You’ll want to request letters of recommendation from professors, employers or work supervisors who can vouch for how well you will perform in grad school and in your future career. Be sure to read the admissions requirements closely since some schools might require at least two from professors specifically. If you’re getting a minor and have had a couple of classes with one professor or just have a good relationship with a faculty member for any reason, it would be a good idea to ask them for a letter of recommendation as well! Graduate programs appreciate applicants who are well-rounded and have skills that go beyond their particular area of expertise, so demonstrating a broad range of abilities would work in your favor. It’s always best to ask for letters of recommendation in person. Give the person writing the letter a copy of your resume, a list of schools you’re applying to including due dates and the application medium—whether you’re applying online through a central application website or through individual schools. If the school wants a hard copy of the letter, make sure to include a stamped and addressed envelope to make it easier for the person sending the letter. Request your letters of recommendation at least two or three months before your application deadline and shoot your recommenders an email a little bit before you apply so they have a heads-up. Online application websites will ask for their email address and will automatically send the recommenders an email when you’ve submitted your application prompting them to upload their letter.


Taking the GRE is another potentially-stressful part of the grad school application process, but thankfully a lot of schools know that your scores aren’t nearly as telling as your grades and résumé. Even so, most graduate programs do require you to take the GRE before applying. You’ll want to get it done at least the semester before you intend to start grad school (so if you’re applying for spring admission, take the GRE in the early fall or sooner). Your undergraduate institution probably has an on-campus testing center so you likely won’t have to go too far to get it done. The computer-based GRE will give you your quantitative and verbal (math/logic and reading/interpreting) scores right away, but you’ll have to wait awhile for your writing score to become available. After that, if you want to take the test again, feel free to go ahead and do so; if not, just order your scores be sent to each school you’re applying to when you’re almost ready to submit your application. Applying to grad school is difficult and sometimes overwhelming, but you can reduce your stress by staying on top of due dates and by staying organized. Just remember: you’ve made it this far, so you can definitely get through this bumpy part of the road.

What was the most difficult part of applying to grad school for you? What would you do differently?

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