By: Alexa Lord, Ph.D.
Each grad school application has many components. Multiply that out by however many schools you’ll be applying to, and it can be a dizzying amount of information to keep track of. If you plan to attend grad school, you typically need to apply in the fall/winter one year before the fall that you’d like to start school. So if you’re reading this as a current junior in college who would like to go straight from undergrad to grad school, now is the time to start the “application process.”
The application process is more than just filling out some forms and writing an essay or two. Once you’ve decided that grad school is a good route for you and you’ve narrowed down the type of degree/program you’d like to pursue, you’ll need to carefully curate the list of schools you’d like to apply to, do research on those schools to make sure they’re a good fit, write and revise (…and revise and revise….) your personal statement and/or statement of purpose, and more. Use this spring and summer to get ahead in the ways mentioned below. The more time you give yourself, the easier it will be to manage all of the application details, especially while still taking undegrad classes.
1. Create a list of schools that you’d like to apply to.
The number of schools you apply to depends on many factors, including the number of programs that exist for what you’d like to study (for some highly specialized degrees, there may not be that many schools to choose from), how competitive the type of degree/program is that you’d like to pursue, and the amount of money you have available to pay for application fees and the other costs of applying (although sometimes these can be waived). Consider asking current UM grad students in the field you’re interested in how many schools they applied to. For Ph.D. programs, 8-15 schools is a fairly reasonable amount. When you’re first curating your list, don’t worry about the amount, you can tailor the list as you go. That’s the benefit of starting to prepare in the spring/summer.
Look for schools that have renowned programs in the field of study that you’re most interested in. It’s not just about the school’s reputation as a whole. Talk to UM faculty in the field to get their take on a particular program’s reputation if you’re not sure.
Consider the program’s faculty. Quality of faculty and the number of whom are experts in your area of interest should be a deciding factor. For some programs, you’ll need to be prepared to identify which faculty you wish to study under as part of the application.
See if the program/campus meets your needs. Do they have adequate resources, labs, libraries, funding opportunities (e.g., assistantships, fellowships)? It can be somewhat difficult to tell just by looking online, hence #2….
2. Do research! Email faculty AND graduate students of each program on your list.
This will help you narrow down your list a bit. For some programs, you’ll need to ask faculty if they’re going to be taking on any new students in the first place. If they are, you should be able to get in contact with their current students (or past ones) listed online. Conduct an informational interview with those students about why they chose that program, would they choose it again, and why. They are the experts.
Tip: Emails should be professional and make a good first impression. Clearly and concisely state who you are, what you’re interested in studying, and what questions you have. Remember, they’re doing you a favor by answering your questions.
3. Look at each program’s requirements and other qualifications you’ll need to be accepted.
Make sure you meet them and if you don’t, participate in additional experiences as soon as possible so that you can meet them in time to apply. For example, do they prefer that you’ve done independent research? Do you need a portfolio?
Consider taking time between undergrad and grad school to gain any additional experience needed. What that experience looks like depends on the field of study. For business school, you’ll likely need work experience to be a strong candidate. For doctoral programs, you’ll need research experience (e.g., posters, publications, research assistantships, independent study, thesis).
4. Keep track of the application requirements and deadlines in an organized way.
Spreadsheets are very helpful for this, and you can find some online that others have already created. One strategy is to have a separate row for each school/program and a separate column for each application item required (e.g., personal statement, statement of purpose, exam scores, number of recommendation letters, application fee, application deadline), putting a yes/no in the cell depending on if that item is required for that school. That way all of the information is in one document that you can easily refer to and update (adding additional columns where you keep track of whether you completed each requirement or not).
5. Prepare for any exams and take them early!
This will give you time if you need to retake the exam to boost your scores. Don’t underestimate the importance of regularly taking timed practice exams.
Obtaining high exam scores, along with a high GPA, is great and can help you “make the first cut” when grad schools are reviewing your application. However, high marks alone do not guarantee that you’ll be accepted into grad school. To make the second cut and get offered an interview, you’ll need strong application materials that demonstrate your fit with the program in other ways (e.g., relevant experience, passion for and knowledge of the field, desire to learn more).
6. Start writing/creating your other application materials (e.g., personal statement, statement of purpose, resume, transcript, portfolio).
Start drafting these early. Expect them to go through several rounds of edits to the point where the earlier draft is no longer recognizable. Good writers know that earlier drafts are often of poorer quality anyway.
Just start. It can be difficult to write about yourself. Get something on the page. Even if it is absolute garbage. Staring at a blank screen doesn’t get you anywhere. Let your thoughts flow onto the page — don’t worry about sounding smart or professional at first. You can revise that later.
Be yourself. The faculty reviewing your application materials don’t expect you to be an expert in the field — that’s why you’re applying to grad school to learn more — so don’t try to act like you are one. Instead, be honest about what you do know, what piqued your strong interest in this field, what you’d specifically like to learn/research more about while in grad school, and the overall impact you’d like to have with an advanced degree.
Get help. Ask people to proofread your documents. By people I mean professionals. Go to a professor’s office hours and ask if they can give you feedback on an essay or two. Schedule an appointment at the UM Toppel Career Center. We’ll help review your materials, including resumes. Read up on and attend workshops about writing application materials. Toppel hosts these every semester and a career advisor can help you determine whether certain resources or pieces of advice are legitimate or not. Maybe that blank screen has gotten the best of you and you’re not sure how to even start — Toppel can help with that!
7. Decide who you’d like to write recommendation letters for you.
Your letter writers should ideally be professionals in the field. Grad schools not only look at the content of the letters but also who wrote them. That said, you shouldn’t walk up to a professor you’ve never had, asking them to write you a letter just because they seem important. You want to choose people you have a relationship with, that can write you a strong letter. They don’t all have to be professors either. In their letters, these people will hopefully be vouching for your ability to do well in grad school. So choose people who can speak to that.
Reach out to these people early, asking them if they can write a strong letter for you by a specific date (a date that’s in advance of the application deadline but still gives them a couple months to write the letter).
If they agree to write you a letter, provide them with all of the information they’ll need (e.g., drafts of your essays and other application materials, school/program information, links for letter submission). Provide this information in a very organized fashion (remember, spreadsheets are your friend and theirs). You might also consider asking your writers to provide feedback on your essays. Send them gentle reminder emails as the deadline gets closer.
8. Come to Toppel!
No one said you have to do it alone. The Toppel Career Center is here for all UM students, at any point in the grad school application process. Perhaps you’re not 100% sure that grad school is the best route for you. A career advisor can help you see all of the options you have and discuss the best ways to get to where you want to go. You can also check-out the great assessment tools we have that show you the different career opportunities for your major/interests (click here to take the Sokanu test).
Overwhelmed? Even more of a reason to start earlier. Putting one foot in front of the other and breaking the application process down into more manageable pieces can help to ease that feeling of anxiety and keep you on track to meet the deadlines. Make the most of this spring/summer. You got this.
Alexa is the Associate Director of Assessment & Communication at the University of Miami Toppel Career Center. She oversees the development and implementation of the Toppel’s stats and marketing.
Alexa earned a Ph.D. in psychological and brain sciences from Washington University in St. Louis and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and political science from the University of Michigan. Her research focused on social-personality psychology, specifically on personality and achievement (e.g., how people’s self-perceptions and beliefs influence their coping, relationships, and goal attainment). Alexa’s background in statistical analyses and passion for personal and professional development brought her to where she is today—helping the Toppel Career Center and UM students reach their goals!