Overview: Planning Timeline
This section provides information on when you need to start preparing your graduate school application(s). Please note, that these resources focus on applying to graduate studies programs in the United States. The information contained in these resources may or may not be appropriate to other contexts. It also provides a list of dates to keep in mind as your are going through the application process.
When applying to a graduate program you will have to assemble, request, and prepare several elements, many of which are time-sensitive. Graduate programs are strict about application deadlines. Most do not allow extensions; and, even if you are granted extra time, the request may make you look unprofessional and disorganized.
In general, most programs start accepting applications in November with a January deadline. However, you shouldn’t count on this. Each individual program may have a their own set of admission deadlines, which may be different than the deadlines for the school/college of graduate study. Also, keep in mind that even though graduate programs traditionally start in the fall, some programs have two or three start dates; while others have rolling admission--all of which will affect application deadlines.
The timeline below is based on a traditional fall start date. Adjust dates accordingly if you are applying for admission in the spring or summer.
- Early Summer
- Begin researching programs.
- Sign up for the necessary standardized test for your field.
- Take practice diagnostic tests to see how close you are to program testing score requirements.
- Study for required tests.
- Late Summer
- Take standardized test, likely the GRE, leaving plenty of time to retake the test if needed.
- Seek advice and information from faculty members, admissions counselors, and peers.
- Research funding and start applying for fellowships, internships, and assistantships.
- Start drafting your personal statement, CV, and, if needed, writing sample.
- Carefully mark the due dates for each school to which you plan to apply.
- Order transcripts to be sent to each program for which you are applying.
- Finalize your personal statement, CV, and any other required materials.
- Fill out applications.
- Request letters of recommendation at least one month before they are due.
- Submit all material by the published due date.
- If confirmation email(s) is not forthcoming, call the program office before the deadline to make sure your material has been received.
- Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
- Prepare for possible phone or campus interviews.
Overview: Process and Materials
There are many parts to a graduate school application. This resource lists possible materials, how to procure or develop those materials, and general tips to follow during the application process.
The Application Process
Every school will have different requirements and expectations during the application process—it is important to deliver exactly what they ask for. A complete, correct, and on-time application packet is expected. If you don’t deliver, you could be out of the running because of a simple technicality. Pore over the school and department website for each program you are applying for, paying special attention to due dates. Develop a simple and effective filing system, such as labeling folders with the name of each individual university you are applying to and the program’s application due date. For example, "Purdue 1_30." Build a corresponding electronic folder, saving all electronic correspondences and downloadable forms and applications. Don’t count on remembering dates, and don’t keep important documents in a big heap on your desk.
If you are unsure of what is expected or how an element needs to be turned in, call or email the admissions office. However, before asking questions, make sure that the needed information can’t be found on the department website. No one likes to be bothered with questions that have already been answered.
Have someone—preferably a number of people—proofread all of your material. This includes your application as well as your personal statement and writing sample. You don’t want to be the applicant who spells the university’s name wrong.
Keep copies of all the materials you turn in. It’s always possible that your materials will get lost and you’ll want to replace them quickly. Save each customized personal statement and not just your template. You’ll want to know exactly what you said on each letter. Call the departmental office a week prior to the deadline to make sure that all your material have been received. This gives you time to submit your copies if your first application went astray.
Be professional, polite, and courteous throughout the application process. You might be frustrated by the demands made on you, but don’t take your anger out on the department secretary. One rash word could sabotage your application.
The Graduate Record Exam, or GRE, is required by the majority of North American graduate schools. The GRE is a timed test that measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. This test is highly stylized. Knowing how the test is set up and what kind of thinking is expected of you is almost as important to your score as your actual knowledge and analytical skills. It is highly advisable to buy a GRE study guide. Follow all the directions and take all the sample tests. GRE prep classes are available, but be aware they are quite expensive.
The GRE is available at roughly 700 test centers in more than 160 countries. The computer-based test is available at almost any time. The paper exam is available three times a year in areas where the computer test is not available. You must take the GRE at a test center, under the supervision of a proctor. You can take the GRE up to five times a year, but be aware that all your scores, not just the best one, will be sent to your prospective schools (About the GRE).
A small number of schools require the GRE Subject test, which measures knowledge in your area of specialty. Subject test are given at paper-based test centers three times a year in October, November, and April.
Researching Graduate Programs
When considering going graduate school, you must think about the experience on a personal and professional level. Personally, you need to consider location, community, campus culture, and other non-academic issues that will affect your happiness. Professionally, you need to figure out your research interest, map the field, research the faculty you’ll be working with, understand your funding package, calculate work requirements, and analyze research resources.
For more detailed information or researching and profilling graduate programs, please see the Researching Graduate Programs resource on the Purdue OWL.
You need to request official transcripts from all institutions of higher learning you have attended. This is done through the schools' registrar’s offices or, if you’re lucky, through an automated online request system. Your transcripts will either be sent directly to the departments you are applying to, or you will be given paper copies in sealed envelopes which you will forward to the correct locations. Most universities need a couple of days’, or even weeks’, notice of your intentions and most will charge a fee for this service. You will definitely want to follow up with the programs you are applying to, making sure your transcripts have arrived.
Letters of Recommendation
Most departments require three letters of recommendation, preferably from an academic source, such a professor or a department head. These letters are extremely important. Make sure to only ask people that you know well and who will be willing to “sing your praises.” If you have taken a substantial amount of time off between earning your undergraduate degree and applying to a graduate program, it may be possible to submit letters from business associates, community involvement associates, and/or your current employer. It is best, however, to have at least one academic recommendation. You might consider taking classes at a local college as a graduate, non-degree seeking student, which will give you a pool of professors to request letters from. It’s important to follow up with your recommenders. Confirm that they have submitted their letters, and then call each department and make sure the letters have been received. For advice on how to request a letter of recommendation see the a sample letter see Model for Writing a Reference Request Letter on the Purdue OWL. See also, The Purdue OWL's Graduate Schools Application: Letters of Recommendation resource.
The Statement of Purpose
The statement of purpose is perhaps the most important, and most challenging, element of your application packet. This letter needs to reflect who you are and why you would be an asset to the program you are applying to. It needs to make you stand out from the hundreds of other applicants; and, yet you must stay within the genre-based expectations for a statement of purpose. It’s a delicate balancing act. You need to start drafting your personal statement months before it is due, customizing it for each program you are applying to. For more information see the Tailoring Employment Documents resources on the Purdue OWL. Also see the Personal Statement Vidcast on the OWL @ Purdue YouTube Channel.
Some programs will want a sample of your academic writing. Depending on the program you’re applying for, your writing sample could include: a work of fiction, a poem, a screenplay, a newspaper article, an analytical paper, or a portion of your thesis. It’s essential that you submit your very best work. It’s also important to turn in exactly what is requested. If they want a ten-page writing sample and your best paper is fifteen pages, you’ll need to cut five pages. Don’t turn it in "as-is" and hope for the best.
Curriculum Vitae or CV
A curriculum vita, or CV, is much like a resume that tells the story of your academic life. A CV should include: contact information, education, publications, professional presentations, honors and awards, teaching experience, research skills and experience, pertinent work experience, and references--typically in that order.
Unlike a resume your CV should be longer than one page and only include information that pertains to your academic career. Worked at McDonalds while an undergraduate? Unless you’re applying for a restaurant management program, you shouldn’t include this on your CV. However, if you served as a research assistant at your university library, you can almost certainly turn this experience into a solid line on your CV.
At this stage in your academic career you probably don’t have a stellar CV. Don’t worry! Graduate school is where you’ll earn the important lines, such as teaching experience and publications. Don’t pad your CV with experiences not connected to academia and never include high school awards or experiences. It’s better to have a short, honest, and professional document than one cluttered with long-ago achievements and off-topic diversions that will only make you look desperate.
For information on how to write a CV see Writing the Curriculum Vitae.
About the GRE. Educational Testing Service, 2012. Web. 2 July 2012.
Overview: After you Apply to Graduate School
Applying to graduate school is just step one in the long process toward a post-graduate education. Once your material is in the mail you need to start preparing for the outcome. This section offers suggestions on what you should be doing while waiting for results, and what your next step is once you’re accepted, or rejected, from a program.
Graduate programs usually make their final decisions in March, so you have a couple of months of sitting on pins and needles ahead of you. Don’t waste this time. Practice interview questions with friends and professors, and draft polite and insightful questions to ask hiring committees. Not all schools hold interviews before acceptance, but it’s best to be prepared.
This might be a good time to visit potential campuses, especially if they’re within easy driving distance. It’s hard to get a feel for campus and program culture online or over the phone, so you’ll want to visit before committing to a school. Most graduate schools don’t offer funding for campus visits, so the financial burden will be yours whether you’re accepted or not. If money is tight or you applied at campuses far away from your current location, it might be better to postpone campus visits until you know where you’re accepted. Then you can visit only those campuses before making your final choice.
If it’s the end of April and you have not gotten an acceptance or rejection letter, it’s allowable to make a polite call to the program asking if the final decisions have been made. More than one call, or a call too early in the year, can be perceived as pushy or even rude.
The Rejection Letter
Don’t let a rejection get you down. Often factors beyond your control, such as academic fit and limited openings, determine who and how many people a program accept. However, you do want to make an effort to understand why you were not accepted. A polite phone call or email asking what you can do to improve your application is acceptable, as long as you are not demanding or passive-aggressive. Present yourself as an applicant who wants to learn. You may not get a response, but it’s best to try. Don’t reapply, or apply to other programs, with the same material. You want to fix and improve your material before making a second attempt.
The Acceptance Letter
Congratulations! Your graduate career is about to begin. But what do you do if you’re accepted by more than one program? According to the Council of Graduate Schools, all letters of acceptance should come by April 15 to give applicants plenty of time to see all offers before making their final decision. However, in real life, matters tend to be a bit more complicated. First, letters of acceptance and financial aid package information tends to arrive separately, so you don’t always know how much funding you will get for each program right away. Second, schools know that not everyone they accept will say yes, so they have a waiting list of applicants who they will extend offers to if one of the initially-accepted declines. If you’re waiting to hear from one of your top choices, but have gotten acceptance letters from other schools, find out what the absolute last day you can give your answer is. You want to avoid saying yes to a school only to change your mind later. In the small world of academia this can brand you as unprofessional, uncooperative, and rude.
If you have not made a campus visit yet, this is the time. Meet with professors and students in your potential program and ask questions about the campus, the program, the demands that will be made on your time, and what will be expected of you. Wherever you choose will be your home for the next two to seven years—do all you can to make sure it’s a good fit.
Funding should play a big part in your decision. If you’re going to law or business school you’ll probably have to rely on loans for the duration of these relatively short programs. However, for a terminal degree it is highly suggested that you only attend a program that has offered you tuition remission, grants, and/or a living stipend. Otherwise the loan burden you take on could cancel out the advantages of having a doctoral degree. Also, opportunities such as teaching and research assistantships provide invaluable experience when you graduate and go on the job market. The choice is always yours, but you need to weigh the importance of a big name university with no funding over a mid-level university with full funding.