Applying to Graduate School

Before you sit down at your computer to start filling out your graduate school applications, you’ll need to know a myriad of facts about yourself, and you’ll have to already have completed certain tasks. Here’s a checklist of things you’ll need to do, need to know, and need to send with your graduate school applications. Different graduate schools require different materials as part of your application, but if you are applying to more than one school, you’ll probably need them all at some point.

GRE and Other Test Scores

Unless you are applying to an art program at a very liberal-minded graduate school, you will at the very least need to take your GRE (Graduate Record Examination). Now you can take your GRE any time of the year at a testing center with computers, but GRE subject tests are only offered four times a year. Give yourself plenty of time to buy the books, take a preparation course, or get some help from a buddy who’s taken the GRE. There is nothing about being an undergraduate that prepares you for the particularly strange and difficult vocabulary and math questions the GRE will expect you to answer. You also NEED to study and familiarize yourself with the timed, computer-generated question style. The GRE not only tests your math, vocabulary and writing skills, but also tests how well you can take a complicated test.

The subject tests are still administered the old-fashioned way, with #2 pencils and Scantrons, but you will also need to prepare for your subject test. For example, before I took the Literature in English GRE, I bought a couple of preparation books just to see how I measured up in advance. Oh, boy. There were “classic” works and authors on the “must-read” list that I’d never encountered in my six and a half years in college. Also, I found a list of poems the Literature GRE test pulls many “identify the author who wrote this couplet” questions from, most of which I’d read in high school English class once. The Literature GRE also (as if the rest isn’t enough) tests your knowledge of literary theory, which is typically not taught at the undergraduate level.

I recommend scheduling GRE testing with enough time to retake the test if you bomb the first one. Many graduate schools have a minimum score you need to hit before they even consider letting you in.

If you are a non-native English speaker, you will also need to take the TOEFL to prove your competency in English. If you want to go to medical or law school, you need to take the MCAT or LSAT.

Have all of your test scores sent to each of the graduate schools to which you apply, and keep a copy of your scores for your own records. There will be blanks on your graduate school applications for you to write in your scores. Be careful. Many of the schools you apply to will want one copy sent to their general admissions office and another to the graduate department. This is because not only does the college need to accept you, but the particular department does, too.


You need to have official transcripts from all of the colleges you’ve attended sent to the graduate schools you apply to, and not just transcripts from where you got your degree. Again, you will probably need to send copies to general admissions and the particular graduate department, so make sure you have all the addresses you need when you request your transcripts.

If you haven’t kept your unofficial copies of transcripts over the years, get copies for yourself. You will need to know your grade point average and may be asked to list courses taken in your area of interest.

Letters of Recommendation

Most graduate schools require two or three letters of recommendation from former professors or employers in your field. Plan to have three, and start asking early. These letters will be sent straight to the graduate department. Print out the forms, fill them out, and give them to your recommenders with envelopes that you’ve stamped and addressed for them. The easier you make it, the more likely you are to get a positive response from the people you ask. Writing a letter of recommendation to help a former student get into graduate school usually makes professors proud and happy, but try to ask early so you aren’t adding to their workloads during midterms or finals time.


Some programs request a copy of your resume, so make yours look especially good. Format it to emphasize your experience in your field of study, even if you haven’t worked in your chosen field yet. Also, any volunteer experience helps. Remember to alter it so your objective doesn’t have you asking for a job!

Even if your graduate school doesn’t want to see your resume, you might be asked to fill out your employment history on the application. Having your resume handy makes this quick and painless.

Answers to Trivia Questions

The graduate school applications you fill out will ask you questions that will force you to did through stacks of paperwork in a futile attempt to remember something about yourself you would have never thought important. For example, you will need to know the date your degree was conferred (this is different than the semester you graduated). You will probably need to dig your degree out of your closet and look at it to find that particular nugget of personal trivia.

You will also need to know the exact titles of the people who write your letters of recommendation (“associate professor” is different than “full-time lecturer,” for example) and the street addresses of the schools you attended. If you participated in clubs or honor societies, or received scholarships, you will need to know induction dates and when the scholarship was distributed. You might be asked about specific topics you researched extensively and projects you completed.

Be prepared for these and other questions by collecting your information before you sit down to fill out your applications.

Statement of Purpose

You will need to write and submit a statement of purpose with your graduate school application that outlines a plan for your thesis and tells the admissions committee about you as a person. For detailed tips, see “Writing your Statement of Purpose for Graduate School Applications” on Associated Content. Read the directions, as every graduate school will want something a little different for the statement of purpose. Adhere to guidelines and word count, and answer any questions asked.

Writing Sample

Some graduate schools will ask for a writing sample as part of the application. You will definitely need one if you are planning to apply for a teaching assistantship. Unless you are applying to a creative writing program, you should submit your best paper or two from college. Hopefully, you’ve kept your best work in a file or on your computer. If not, you may need to ask former professors if they have copies of your work. Some will keep student papers on file for a year or two in case of suspected plagiarism. If you are applying to a creative writing graduate program, your writing sample will consist of two or three short stories, twenty-five pages of a novel, or ten to fifteen poems. Have these handy before you start applying. Fabricating a last-minute writing sample won’t let them see your best work.

File Your Tax Return

What does your tax return have to do with your graduate school application? Surprisingly, a lot. Before you can file your FAFSA, you need to file your tax return. The answers to questions on the FAFSA come straight from you W-2s and the tax return you filed.


The FAFSA is your Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Fill this out as you are applying to graduate schools and have the results (your EFC or Estimated Family Contribution) sent directly to the schools. If you are eligible for need-based grants or scholarships, they need to know that as soon as possible. Graduate schools have a certain amount of money they can give to their graduate students every year, but once it’s gone, it’s gone.

The financial aid package you receive from the government combined with what a graduate school offers you in free money will determine whether or not you can afford to attend.

Scholarship/Grant/Fellowship/Teaching Assistantship Applications

Some graduate schools request that you apply for these things as part of the application process. Others request that you apply for fellowships and teaching assistantships after you’ve been accepted. Other graduate schools take you into consideration automatically. Find out whether you need a supplemental for these things before you send your application, just to be safe.

Disposable Income

Applying to graduate school costs money. Expect to pay application fees, transcript request fees, testing fees, and score reporting fees. Not only that, but even schools that have online application forms will need supplemental materials mailed to them. You will have to spring for (nice) paper, envelopes, first-class postage and printer cartridges. Because the application process is quite lengthy, you may not work as much as usual (especially if you work from home). Be prepared for the application process to make a dent in your pocketbook.

Good luck, and remember that preparation is the key to successful graduate school applications.

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