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Applying to Grad Schools

Applying to Grad Schools

Check List for Graduate School Applications

Here are some suggestions on what to do (and not to do) when applying to graduate schools.

Early Preparation Stage (between September and November):

  1. Prepare a notebook detailing various stages of your application process to help keep track of your progress.
    • Prepare for the process in the same way you prepare for a course-keeping track of important documents, working at a steady and consistent pace, and being mindful of the extended length of time you will be spending on completing various aspects of your application.
  2. Begin researching graduate programs and make a list of 5-10 schools where you want to apply.
    • This list should combine top-ranked schools with middle-range schools, and schools that you are fairly confident will accept you.
    • Remember, most programs will have applications fees between $50-$100 but some will wave these for disadvantaged students.
    • Become familiar with the various faculty in the departments (i.e. their specialties, length in department) and what programs the department offers (i.e. a joint degree with a neighboring law school, a focus on racial and gendered studies).
  3. Find out about funding possibilities at the institution you are applying to (many will have fellowships, teaching assistantships, or research assistantships reserved particularly for first year students).
    • Fastweb ( is a free scholarship-locator service that allows you to input your information and will find funding sources that fit your criteria. It is a good idea to sign up with them and keep checking back over the course of the year.
    • Also, be aware of outside funding such as those detailed in the following web pages and institutions:

    The National Science Foundation ( provides tuition plus stipend for three years.

    The Gates Millennium Scholars Program ( provides financial support for graduate study but applicants must be nominated by their departments in order to apply.

    The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans ( provides tuition plus stipend for three years. Available to first and second generation immigrants of all nationalities.

    Academic Excellence Program, Archive of Fellowship Listings: links:

    Graduate Fellowship Database:

    Nationally Coveted Scholarships, Fellowships & Postdoctoral Awards:

  1. Collect addresses/phone numbers for the programs you will be applying to and call, write or email to get the most recent application mailed to you.
    • Most departments print these materials between October-November.
    • An increasing number of departments are making their applications available on-line so that you can either print out a hard copy or complete an electronic application.
  1. Take the GRE (and subject test if necessary) as early as possible. Try to take the tests in spring/summer.
    • The latest date to take the test and have it apply to your application is usually in Winter (i.e. December/January).
    • Give yourself at least five weeks to prepare for the exam. Most schools in the Humanities and Social Sciences will take your highest score so don’t be disappointed if you don’t score as well as you expected on your first try.
    • Remember there is also a sizable fee each time you take the exam (see for more information on fees and dates).

Filling Out Applications (between November-January):

Start early and if possible turn your applications in early.

  1. Many departments will fill available slots as the applications arrive, so you will have a better chance of getting accepted if you turn yours in early. In some cases, even turning your application in two weeks before the deadline can make a difference.
  2. Try contacting the faculty members that you would be most interested in working with and try to make contact with them before you complete your application. If possible, a face-to-face meeting is best. Write a letter or send email of introduction before calling to set up the meeting.
    • Faculty want graduate students to work with, and if you hit it off well with a faculty member, they may be able to help get you accepted into the program even if they are not actually on the admissions committee.
    • Mention the specific faculty you want to work with in your statement of purpose.
  1. If you are having difficulty deciding which schools to apply to, see if you can contact some graduate students in the department. They should be able to give you the best sense of what a department is really like.

Letters of Recommendation

  1. Give your faculty members at least three weeks notice to write you a letter.
  2. Be sure to provide them with a copy of your statement of purpose, your transcripts and/or description of your academic and related interests. The more detail the faculty member has about you and your interests, the easier it will be for them to write a strong letter.
  3. When possible get senior faculty members who can talk specifically about your role as a student to write your letters.
  4. Consider submitting more letters than are required by the department, but, make sure your additional letters are strong. Three really good letters are better than six mediocre ones.

Statement of Purpose

  1. Get as much feedback from others as possible on this section.  this is one of the most important parts of your application.
  • It is the only chance you really have to explain your history (particularly any weak points in your academic history), and “sell” your application to the department.
  • Focus on your academic interests and accomplishments. Your extracurricular activities are not as pertinent. You want to show the admissions committee why you would be a successful graduate student as well as a successful scholar.

Waiting for a Response (between March and April):

  1. If you do not hear from the program by late April you have every right to call them and ask for an explanation.
    • Often your call can work to your advantage. Accepting applicants is not an exact science. Programs sometimes end up with unexpected openings. If you continue to show interest, you may be able to get in even after being denied admission.
  2. Prepare back-up plans if you don’t get into the school of your choice.

Getting Accepted

  1. Visit the campuses where you have been accepted. Understanding that this is often costly, it is a very good investment.
    • It is especially useful to talk to the graduate students in the program. Graduate school lasts a long time and programs have unique "cultures." In addition to making sure your intellectual needs will be satisfied, it is also important to make sure you attend a program where you can feel comfortable and happy personally.
  2. Find out what kind of funding you are being offered by the different programs that have accepted you, then negotiate.
    • As with the acceptance process, the funding process is a great deal more fungible than programs will have you believe. This is especially true in private institutions.
    • If you have better offers from other places, you can use those offers as leverage to get the school to increase their funding package.
    • The most important thing you should do is ASK!! The worst thing they can do is say no, which leaves you where you are now.
    • If you do not receive funding, find out what other options are available to you (i.e., teaching fellowships, guaranteed student loans, etc.) Regardless of what happens with your funding package, be certain to get any promises they make in writing. Faculty and administrators turn over quite a bit, so the person who made you the promise may not be there next year. Having everything written down could save you many headaches in the future.
  1. Find out what type of housing is available as well as costs for standard of living
  2. Order the campus catalogue (or check university web pages for schedule of classes) if you haven’t already received one.
  3. When you have decided where you’ll be going to attend school make sure to meet with the Graduate Advisor before you begin to figure out your class schedule and specific requirements.