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So you have decided to apply for graduate school. How exciting! But now, where do you start? The process can be exhausting and overwhelming but luckily, we are here to help. In this post we will help guide you through choosing the right graduate program and discuss the typical application process. We know you can do it!
There are many factors that may influence your applications to, and final choice of, graduate programs. Identifying what you are looking for in a program and what is important to you will help narrow your list of potential schools. After speaking with colleagues and friends, it appears as though the typical applicant applies to three to eight schools. Applying to fewer schools may seem more cost effective; however, applying to more schools may improve your chances of admission and provide more personal options. In order to decide which schools fit you and your career objectives, I recommend making a list with various criteria that will shape your decision making process. A spreadsheet will help you to prioritize information to compare and contrast key program selection criteria as you move from program evaluation, into applications, and through the final academic program selection. Although your criteria should be unique and specific to your needs and graduate degree goals, some examples of things to consider are:
Once you are a graduate student, you will be surrounded by a very bright, diverse student population who will be competing for similar positions post-graduation. For that reason, grades are typically not the most important aspect of a post-graduate school resume.
This list is meant to be a way to get you started in thinking about what aspects of a program are important to you. Other items to consider may include: sports, religious affiliation, accessibility, disability resources, and more.
After narrowing your list to a handful of programs that may be a good fit for you, it is time to begin the extensive application process months in advance. I cannot stress this point enough. Yes, we know you made it through undergraduate school writing essays the night before and somehow pulling off an A+ on your physics term paper. But, this is different and you will be happy you gave yourself plenty of time to perfect the process and get into the school of your dreams. Most academic programs and universities use online web portals that require the applicant to submit an extensive background of past coursework completed, official transcripts, prior degrees awarded, references with contact information, academic writing samples, personal statement of why this program, and more. These typically cannot be completed in a week and take extensive pre-planning to obtain all the information you will need prior to completing the application. These applications can take months to work on, especially if faculty recommendation requests are declined or untimely in submission.
My first piece of advice is to create a spreadsheet of ALL application requirements. Below is an example of columns and rows that I found useful in applying for graduate school and for my doctoral training:
Again, this example is only to get you started, and you may find including or excluding certain categories are helpful for you.
You will want to add a table in your spreadsheet. Some software programs allow additional tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet within one file to keep all your information together for easy reference as you go deeper into the application process. This additional tab/table is necessary to keep track of each professor who has agreed to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf. This is to ensure they have all the necessary information to write an accurate and timely letter for you. Their time is valuable and you want to respect that during this process. Disorganized recommendation letter requests could lead to a less than supportive letter about you, which can jeopardize your application. I had professors report that they really appreciated my detailed clarification of the process which made it easier for them.
The spreadsheet goes to those writing your letters should be sent at least six weeks prior to the application due date. Here is an example of an excel sheet that I provided to my professors:
Disorganized recommendation letter requests could lead to a less than supportive letter about you, which can jeopardize your application.
Along with this spreadsheet about your letters of recommendation, you should also include your:
This will allow your letter writers to compose a customized thoughtful letter reflecting your accomplishments, attitude, and rationale for your admission to the departmental program.
The key element to remember when applying to graduate schools is to assure your application is an accurate representation of your strengths and interests for obtaining this degree from each program. Although you can utilize information from one application to the next, you will want to make sure each application has some customized elements for appealing to each specific program. You can accomplish this by carefully reading the online student profile and other online information about the academic program, or reaching out directly to faculty to ask important questions about matriculation in their program. Remember, this application is as much about you selecting a program as it is about an academic program selecting you. Ultimately, the best acceptance is a mutual match between student and academic program. Take a deep breath, and enjoy the process.