Grad School Application
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Before you begin actually applying to specific graduate/professional schools, it’s important to visit each institution's/program’s website and/or contact them directly for detailed information about its application process.
Most schools require prospective students to complete multiple applications, forms, or essays. So be sure to review all the application instructions and deadlines thoroughly.
Here’s a general list of items you’ll typically need to include with your graduate school applications. (Again, though: Schools differ in exactly what they require. Read each application carefully for details.)
- Completed application form.
- U of M official transcript (from OneStop Student Services).
- Recommendation letters.
- Personal statement.
- Test scores (often reported by an official service).
- Resume or curriculum vitae (not all schools require this, but you should submit one if given the option).
What Is a Curriculum Vitae (CV)?
A curriculum vitae (CV) presents a full history of your academic and professional credentials (including research projects, publications, professional development, and practical experience related to your field). It is commonly used when applying to graduate programs and fellowships, and grants. The length of a CV is not limited to one page.
For most graduate school applications, you'll be required to write a personal statement (also known as a statement of purpose) to explain why you want to attend the graduate program and why you'd be a good fit for it. This essay also provides the graduate program with a sample of your writing.
Your personal statement is a critical part of your application materials. It can be a major factor in the admissions decision. Your personal statement will be evaluated for quality of writing as well as clarity of your professional goals.
Visit CLA Career Services and/or the U of M’s Center for Writing for help with it. You should also get feedback on it from professors and others in your chosen field.
How to Prepare Before You Write Your Personal Statement
- Brainstorm with this fillable personal statement worksheet
- Reflect on how your motivations and relevant skills align with the program.
- Consider the criteria for acceptance and the values of the program.
- Visit the institution and talk to students, faculty, and admissions committee members.
- Research the program faculty’s areas of expertise and backgrounds.
How to Write Your Statement
- Explain how the program fits you and your long-term goals.
- Follow the directions on each specific application.
- Provide examples of how you’ve prepared yourself for this field.
- Use anecdotes from your life to introduce your background and unique traits.
- Demonstrate that you have a realistic sense of the field and the training required.
- Discuss what the program will gain by accepting you.
After You Have a Draft Ready
- Edit and proofread your statement. Make sure it’s professional and well-written and that it uses correct grammar.
- Include your name as a header on each page.
- Gather feedback from CLA Career Services, the U of M Center for Writing, and other trusted mentors or professionals.
- If you’d like, get help from the Minnesota English Language Program (MELP), which offers free, in-person English As A Second Language support to international undergraduate students.
- Diversity statements are becoming more and more common in the graduate school application process. Use this fillable diversity statement reflection worksheet to aid you in crafting your own statement.
Letters of recommendation are another key part of the application process for most graduate/professional school programs.
These letters should describe—and give examples of—your strongest qualities, your best skills/competencies and abilities, your commitment to a particular field, and your potential to contribute to the target program’s field of study and related careers.
The recommendation letter process can a while, so be sure to start early!
Cultivating Relationships with Potential Letter Writers
You will want your eventual letter writers to be people who know you well and who can knowledgeably describe your capabilities, especially in an academic context. Think professors in particular. (Note: Advisors, counselors, and other administrative staff might also be good candidates, along with people who have worked with you in related professional settings such as internships.)
You might be wondering, particularly when it comes to professors: “How do I get to know a professor well enough—and vice versa—for them to write me a letter of recommendation someday?” There are actually lots of things you can do to build these relationships:
- Pay close attention in class. Ask thoughtful questions and offer your ideas during discussions. Write well-researched papers and put true effort into your work.
- Attend the professor’s office hours to ask additional questions, seek advice, and/or express interest in the professor’s general discipline and/or specific area(s) of expertise.
- Look for opportunities to work closely with the professor, perhaps through a research project or a volunteer experience.
- Look for news articles written about or by the professor, and read journal articles the professor has authored or co-authored. Then use an opportunity like office hours to talk about what you’ve read.
How to Ask Someone to Write a Letter for You
Once you have identified potential recommenders, how do you go about asking them to do so?
Asking for letters of recommendation can feel intimidating. However, it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or complicated. You simply need to find out if they would be willing to write a persuasive letter that reflects who you are and the good work you do. We recommend sharing your decision and reasons for pursuing graduate school, explaining why you have chosen them as a potential recommender, make the ask (with plenty of advance notice), and then expressing your appreciation of their support.
While asking in person is always recommended, a simple email can also be just as effective. It might look something like this:
Hi Dr. Blackstone,
Thank you for helping me so much after our class sessions this past semester. I have enjoyed getting to know you a bit and, especially, gaining a better understanding of how what we’re learning in class applies to our everyday lives.
I’m writing with a question for you. Next year, I will be applying to a graduate program in [professor’s discipline]. Given your knowledge of the field and your experience observing me as a student, I am wondering if you would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation?
If so, I would greatly appreciate it—and I could stop by your office sometime soon, at your convenience, to discuss the details.
Helping Your Letter Writers Help You
All of the people who agree to write letters for you have busy jobs, appointments, and possibly other students seeking recommendations as well. So do everything you can to make your request relatively simple for them.
Meet with each of them briefly and give them everything you can from the following list:
- Relevant information about the school(s) or graduate program(s) you’re applying to.
- Your thoughts on what you see as your strongest qualities and skills (especially in the context of the Core Career Competencies that signify your career readiness).
- A copy of your résumé or CV and academic transcript and/or a printed summary of your involvement in student organizations and groups.
- A list noting which key academic courses you’ve completed and how well you’ve done in them.
- A draft of your personal statement, if you wrote one for your graduate school applications.
- Pre-addressed, stamped envelopes for each school/program you’re pursuing.
- Any other information that you think might be helpful.
During the meeting, share why you have chosen this individual as a writer and what your academic and professional goals are.
Give each person an early deadline, and be sure to thank them, too! After all: They’re giving you a significant amount of their time and energy, as well as their support.
Requesting Letters of Recommendation After Gap Year(s)
Taking a gap year or two before applying to graduate school? No problem! Here are some tips for requesting letters of recommendation after taking time off from school.
- Build and maintain relationships with faculty, and other letter writers, prior to graduation. Visit office hours, share some things about how their work/research/course interests you, and let them know that you are thinking about graduate school in the future. Ask questions about their experiences, get their advice, and follow up!
- Ask in advance for a future letter of recommendation. If you know you are planning to take a gap year, mention that as part of your plan, and ask them if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation when it’s time for you to apply. Ensure you have multiple forms of contact information for them so you can get in touch quickly in the future. Another option would be for them to write the letter now, and you can save it for future use (Note: this can sometimes create challenges because the letter can't be tailored to particular programs).
- Stay in touch periodically and share life updates. Share what you are doing and/or learning in your gap year experiences, send thank you notes acknowledging their impact on you, and ask how they would like to stay in touch. This will help them remember you later on and recall what you’ve been up to.
- Ask again and provide information. When it comes time to ask for the letter, start by thanking them for agreeing to write a letter for you (this also serves as a reminder for them) and let them know that you are ready to begin applying for programs. Share details about each program you are applying for, making sure to include any deadlines or instructions that recommenders should be aware of. You can also share drafts of your application materials with them, such as your resume/cv and personal statement. Also, hang on to key papers or assignments from the courses you took from faculty writing your letters so that you can share this with them to remind them of your time in their courses.
Many graduate and professional schools require applicants to take some type of entrance exam (often called an admissions test) to be considered. As you research graduate/professional schools, pay close attention to which test(s), if any, is required.
The most commonly required entrance exam is the GRE.
Professional school programs require specific tests:
Testing centers often have wait times of two to four weeks for popular exams, so plan accordingly!
To register for an entrance exam, visit the website of the one you need to take. Most testing services offer online registration and/or immediate access to a registration form that you can download and print.
Preparing for Entrance Exams
There are many ways you can prepare for entrance exams. And you will definitely want to prepare, not only for the obvious reason—i.e., to do well!—but also because many schools review your first score on an exam as well as any additional scores you earn on retakes.
Here are some ways you can get ready:
Review the Actual Exam
Go over practice exams or sample questions to familiarize yourself with what to expect.
You can usually find old copies of the exam in the test’s registration manual, on the test company’s website, or in study guide books.
Form a Study Group
Ask friends or classmates to study with you. Quizzing each other will help you learn from each other and make the process a little more fun.
Use Study-Guide Books
Any good bookstore will have study guides that cover the major graduate/professional school admissions tests. CLA Career Services has some available for in-office use as well.
Enroll in a Test Preparation Course
One cautionary note, though: These courses can be expensive. And while some students really like them and find them helpful, others think they’re unnecessary.
So before spending money (to say nothing of time and energy) on a test preparation course, thoroughly research it along with the outcomes you can expect from it.
When to Take the Entrance Exam
When you should actually take your entrance exam depends on which exam you’re taking, the type of graduate program you’re pursuing, and when you want to start graduate school.
If you're unsure of the timeline you should pursue, start by researching or contacting your graduate program(s) of interest. Do you still have questions? Meet with a career counselor in CLA Career Services for advice.
Generally speaking, if you're taking the GRE and you want to attend graduate school immediately after you finish your bachelor's degree, you should take the test at least one year before you want to start your graduate program. Again, though, be sure to review information for your specific profession and test carefully.
Test Scores: How Important Are They?
There is no one admissions formula used by all schools. Test scores are often just one factor a school/program considers when evaluating applicants. Other key considerations are grades, recommendation letters, your personal statement, and an interview.
Know, too, that some schools review multiple test scores differently than other schools do. For example, some schools will take only your best score, some will average all your test scores together, and some will use only your most recent score. A school's admissions office will be able to tell you which method a particular program uses.