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Applying to Grad School FAQs

There are many things to consider when applying to graduate school. Browse the general FAQs below to learn more about the different components of a grad school application. Then check out the Personal Statement FAQs to learn more about writing a personal statement for your application.

General FAQs

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  • Schools consider a candidate's complete application, including:

    • GPA • Interview
    • Standardized test scores • Research experience
    • Statement of purpose • Relevant experience (work, volunteer, collegiate, etc.)
    • Letters of recommendation  


  • There are many places to learn about graduate school, including websites (, the U.S. News and World Report Grad School Rankings, informational books, professors, current students and more! Be sure to check out our Graduate School Information page, too.

  • Contacting faculty with whom you wish to work is an excellent idea, and is best accomplished through e-mail. Read some of a faculty member’s recent research before reaching out, and then e-mail some thoughtful questions and ask if they would be willing to speak to you about their career pathway, research and program.


  • To ensure your acceptance, apply to the following tiers of schools:

    • Sure things. You know you’ll get accepted to these schools.
    • Maybes. You are reasonably confident about these schools.
    • Stretch schools. You know it’s a long shot for you to get into these schools.
  • Application fees can range between $20 and $50 per application.

  • Many types, including cumulative GPA, major GPA, GPA in relevant coursework and your GPA during your last 60 hours in undergraduate coursework.

  • Required tests for admission to graduate school can include the GRE, GRE Subject Test, GMAT, MCAT, PCAT, LSAT and more. Be sure to check the requirements for your program. Study via a prep course or book, and be sure to take practice tests. Plan for success—take your graduate school admissions test early with thought that you will take the test once and only once.

    For further information on graduate school tests, visit:

    • The Princeton Review. Provides information about many different graduate school tests including the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, GMAT and more. Find a free practice test near you or take one online.
    • Student Learning Assistance Center (SLAC). Provides information on and study resources for a number of graduate school tests including teacher certification exams. Click on the Standardized Tests tab on the far right of the homepage to learn more.
  • A personal statement may be a freeform essay about how your motivations and experience prepare you for grad school, or it may be an essay response to a specific prompt. When writing your personal statement, keep the following things in mind:

    • If there is a question, be sure to answer it!
    • Be genuine and authentic--but academically and professionally focused
    • Have someone smarter than you read it—ask a trusted professor, graduate student or friend
    • Work with the Writing Center and Career Services to critique and revise it
  • Letters of recommendation let the admissions committee learn about you from a different point of view. Most programs ask for 3-5 letters of recommendation. When soliciting letters of recommendation:

    • Ask professors, previous employers or internship supervisors
    • Always give the person you’re asking the choice of opting out; if they agree to write your letter, ensure up front that they will give you a positive reference
    • Provide your reference writer with a copy of your resume, your statement of purpose, etc. (any information that will help them write you a strong letter)
    • Provide your reference writer with ample time to complete your letters, and check in with them periodically to remind and thank them
  • A graduate school interview establishes whether you fit with the program’s values and mission. Prepare by brainstorming questions you might be asked and formulating clear, concise answers. Be sure to ask the interviewer insightful questions about the program, and follow up with a thank you letter.

  • Graduate education can be a big financial burden to bear. Get help with student loans, fellowships awarded for academic and personal achievements or funded by the institution, government, or private organization, scholarships, teaching assistantships or research assistantships. Be sure to ask about financial assistance and assess total program costs before you apply.

Personal Statement FAQs

Compiled from the following resources:

  • Asher, Donald. (2000). Graduate Admissions Essays. Berkley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
  • Starkey, Lauren. (2003). Goof Proof College Admissions Essays. NY, NY: Learning Express, LLC.
  • A great personal statement can help boost your application if you have low or average test scores. Additionally, graduate programs want a diverse student body; the essay is your chance to show off your unique traits and skills.

  • Essays are judged on a number of factors, including:

              • Creativity • Independence • Written expression of ideas
              • Originality • Initiative • Disciplined work habits
              • Motivation • Intellectual ability • Potential for growth
              • Self-confidence • Academic achievement  


  • Follow these five steps to write a fantastic personal statement:

    1. Keep a journal with you and write every time you find inspiration. This can help you find the voice and tone that is authentic for you.
    2. Take a personal inventory. Think about your:
                • History • Influences
                • Achievements and accomplishments • Skills
                • Activities • Passions

    3. Expand upon these notes by asking yourself questions like:
                 • How do these things all tie together?
                 • Do I have any quotes or personal stories that express my point of view?
                 • How can I link together the themes of my life?
                 • How have I grown?

    4. Explore available topics. Common statement prompts include:
                 • Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you              have faced and explain its impact on you. What have you experienced and how has it changed              you? It doesn’t have to be something huge--just something personal to you.
                 • Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to              you. Be careful not to be critical of the other side of an issue--you never know who your reader is and              how you might alienate them. Be careful about being too clichéd.
                 • Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that                          influence. Focus on someone you know personally rather than on someone famous. Focus on              yourself rather than on the person who has influenced you.
                 • Describe a character in fiction, an historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music,              science, etc.) that has had an influence on you. Keep it personal and focus on you.
                 • Choose a topic. Use your imagination and be creative with this one. Think of a question that is              personally relevant to you and answer it.
                 • Why are you applying to our school? The committee wants to know that you will attend if admitted,              that you will graduate and that you will contribute to their school and to the field of study. Discuss the              research that the school is conducting or the areas in which it is growing. Is there are a particular              professor that you are dying to meet? Be sure to state how you will contribute to the school.
                 • Submit a writing sample. Use a well-graded essay in the discipline of your program.

    5. Choose a topic. Use your personal inventory to find the statement prompt that best expresses who you are. For which question would you have the most unique answer? Would your answer be interesting? Can you write an answer to the question without bragging or being offensive to the reader?
  • The worst essays are depressing, unflattering to the applicant and completely impersonal or unoriginal. Keep these tips in mind to write a better essay:

              • Positivity is better • Avoid overused or cliched topics
              • Think about your recent past • Think local, not global
              • Keep unflattering experiences to yourself • Resist the temptation to brag


  • Ask yourself, What are some of the encouraging words others have said to or about me over the years? Did a particular teacher or professor encourage me to pursue my studies, go beyond your abilities or pursue a goal or dream?

  • For professors and advisors, know the professors in the program for which you are applying. Look up current projects and find the ones that interest you. Be very familiar with this literature and be prepared to talk about it.

    For undergraduate research projects, list projects in order of interest to your targeted reader. Use working titles to describe your research projects and name your professor or advisor.

    To successfully name drop, make a list of names you may want to work into your essay. Your list may include:

    • Influential graduate professors
    • Specific professors of interest at the targeted institution
    • Major writers and thinkers in the field who have influenced you
    • Professors you’ve seen present or with whom you spoken
    • Anyone else you may have in common with the targeted institution

    If you are planning to add this information, you must be totally sincere or the reader will smell it. If you cannot be honest in using someone else’s name, then do not do mention it at all.

  • Be sure to consider your long-term future. Ask yourself questions like:

    • What are my specific post-graduate career plans?
    • How will this graduate education facilitate those plans?
    • What is my five-year goal? My ten-year goal?
    • Will I pursue additional education or professional training beyond the program I am applying to now?
  • Start with a first draft that is totally, brutally honest. Do not try to second-guess your reader at all. Keep these things in mind:

    • Every sentence should come straight from your heart. Write like you talk, using straightforward language.
    • Keep the emphasis on content, not style.
    • Write when you write and edit when you edit. Don’t attempt both activities at once.
    • An interesting first line or paragraph is a gift to your reader. An example of a good opening line is, I made an “A” in labor relations, but I learned more about labor management issues in one summer working on a union construction crew than I leaned in the class.
    • Don’t be afraid to use vivid detail to make points. Good examples of this include:
                 • I spent the morning of my eighteenth birthday in the auditorium with two hundred strangers.
                 • When I first saw a skeleton hanging on the window of a house, I shrugged and wondered what type of
                   neighborhood my family had moved into. What else could I think? I was a recent immigrant from Israel              and the concept of Halloween.
                 • I attended seventeen different schools before high school.
                 • They call it the last frontier. Last summer I set out for Alaska, to see the true wildness left in the world.
  • Absolutely! Check out these quotes from real admissions professionals regarding the errors they’ve seen in graduate school essays:

    • Errors and sloppiness, misspellings, even an occasional handwritten essay. You have to wonder how they made the grades on their transcripts.
    • Spelling errors, poor English.
    • Anything that starts out, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a ___”
    • Sometimes they don’t really answer the question. We ask each question for a reason.
    • When they just seem to be saying what they think we want to hear. We can pick up on that right away.
    • I hate it when I can tell that they’re recycling material they wrote for other schools.
    • The essay sounds like they want to be the next Mother Teresa, but there’s nothing in the rest of the application to back up any claims of altruism.
    • A whole essay on deep personal problems or excuses for past performance. The essay should be upbeat, convincing, and persuasive.
    • Too long, it shows no discipline.
    • Students are so afraid to take a risk that they don’t really tell us anything. That throws us right back on the numbers.