7 Essential steps how to apply for graduate school


While the outlook to apply for graduate school may appear daunting, it can be manageable by breaking down the entire process into 7 key steps.

  1. Choose which programs you want to apply for graduate school.
  2. Map out the timeline for your application.
  3. Request transcripts and recommendation letters.
  4. Fulfill any standardized tests mandated by the program.
  5. Compose your resume or CV.
  6. Formulate your statement of purpose and/or personal statement.
  7. Get ready for interviews, if applicable.
Application requirements can differ depending on the program and institution, so it’s crucial to meticulously review each school’s website before you apply for graduate school. Nevertheless, the fundamental steps tend to remain consistent.

Choose which programs you want to apply for graduate school

The initial step in the process is selecting a program. Begin by engaging with alumni, current students of the programs you are interested in, and professionals in your desired career field. Inquire about the following questions:

  • Is a graduate degree necessary to apply for graduate school? It could be feasible to pursue this field leveraging the experience and education you already possess.
  • Do I have a realistic chance of being accepted into this program if I apply for graduate school in this program? Set high goals, but avoid wasting application fees on schools that may be out of reach. Ensure you have a few backup programs where you are reasonably confident about your chances of admission.
  • Does the faculty and staff of this institution allocate sufficient time for their students? Particularly in research, the quality of supervision and teaching plays a crucial role in determining the benefits you gain from a program.
  • What is the program’s total cost? While numerous graduate programs provide some form of financial aid, others may require most students to cover the entire cost through loans and other financing methods.
  • How is the job market for alumni of this program? Numerous programs display the career outcomes of their graduates on their websites. If such information is not available, you can freely reach out to a program administrator and request it.

Master’s or a PhD program

One of the most crucial decisions you’ll encounter is whether to apply. Here’s a comparative list highlighting the key differences between Masters and PhD programs:

Compared aspectsMaster’s DegreePhD Program
DurationTypically completed in 1-2 years.Typically takes 4 to 7 years to complete, depending on the field and individual progress.
FocusGeared towards developing skills for a specific career path.Designed to prepare individuals for academic or research-oriented careers.
SpecializationOffers various specializations within a field.Involves in-depth research and specialization within a specific field.
ResearchEmphasizes coursework and may include a semester-long thesis or capstone.In the United States, many PhD programs include master’s degree coursework in the first two years, followed by a focus on preparing a lengthy dissertation, an original research piece.
Career ReadinessAimed at preparing students for immediate entry into the job market.Primarily leads to careers in academia, research institutions, or specialized industries.
Academic LevelUsually considered a terminal degree in certain fields but not for academic/research careers.The highest academic degree one can attain in most fields.
PrerequisitesMay have specific undergraduate prerequisites depending on the program.Usually requires a master’s degree or equivalent in a related field for admission.
Time CommitmentRequires a shorter time investment compared to PhD programs.Requires a significant time investment due to the extensive research and study involved.
Faculty MentorshipLimited faculty mentorshipExtensive faculty mentorship, with close collaboration between students and advisors.

Both master’s and PhD programs offer a wage premium, providing an additional 23% and 26% respectively, compared to someone with just a high school diploma. While master’s programs occasionally offer scholarships, it is less common. On the contrary, many PhD programs waive tuition fees and provide a living stipend in exchange for being a teaching or research assistant.


Map out the timeline to apply for graduate school

To apply to graduate school, the key is to initiate the process early! Regardless of the program type, it is advisable to begin considering your plans to apply for graduate school approximately 18 months before the intended program start date.

Most programs have strict deadlines—usually 6–9 months before the start date. Others have what is called “rolling” deadlines, meaning that the earlier you send in an application, the earlier you get a decision. Either way, you should usually aim to get in all your applications before the new year for a start date the following September or October. Carefully plan your application timeline, as each step may take longer than expected. Allow ample extra time for completion.

Below is a table giving an idea of how much time you’ll need for the essential application tasks.

Studying for standardized testsThe timeframe can vary between 2 to 5 months, contingent on the number of attempts required.
Requesting recommendation lettersInitiate the process 6–8 months before deadlines to provide your recommenders with ample time.
Writing a statement of purposeCommence the first draft at least a few months ahead of the deadline, as you’ll need sufficient time for multiple rounds of redrafting and editing. If the program necessitates more than one essay, begin even earlier!
Requesting transcriptsComplete this task early, allowing for any unforeseen complications—at least 1–2 months before the deadlines.
Filling out the application formsAllocate at least one month for this task—there might be additional details you need to research, making it more time-consuming than anticipated.

Request transcripts and recommendation letters

when you apply for graduate school, in addition to transcripts of your grades, most graduate schools necessitate 2 to 3 letters of recommendation from former professors or supervisors.


Typically, you must submit transcripts from all postsecondary institutions you attended, even if you were not a full-time student there. This includes periods of studying abroad or classes taken while still in high school.

Ensure to review the language requirements for the transcripts. If they are not in English and you are applying to a US or UK university, you will likely need to have them professionally translated. Several online services offer this option, where you can upload your transcript and receive a translated and certified copy within a few days.

Recommendation letters

Letters of recommendation hold the utmost importance in an application. Deliberate thought should be given to whom you ask and how you approach them. The following steps can assist you in obtaining the best possible letters for your application:

  • Select a suitable person to ask for a recommendation. Ideally, this should be a former professor with whom you had a strong connection beyond the classroom, though it could also be a manager or research supervisor who can attest to your potential for success in graduate school.
  • Request the recommendation, and consider asking if they can provide a “strong” letter, allowing them an easy way out if needed.
  • Share your resume and draft of the statement of purpose with your recommender. These documents can assist them in crafting a compelling letter that aligns with the overall narrative of your application.
  • Remind your recommenders about the upcoming deadlines. If it’s close to the deadline and you haven’t received a response, a polite reminder can be helpful.

Fulfill any standardized tests mandated by the program

Most American graduate programs require that you take a standardized exam, while most non-American programs do not, although requirements have shifted greatly in recent years.

ExamWhat does it involve?
GRE (Graduate record examinations) generalThe majority of graduate school programs in the United States mandate the GRE, which assesses verbal and math skills, along with the ability to write a well-argued and logical essay. Typically, the GRE is administered on a computer in a test center, and test takers are provided with their preliminary scores at the end of the session.
GRE SubjectSpecialized exams evaluate students’ knowledge in six distinct areas: biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, mathematics, and English literature. Graduate programs that demand a high level of mathematical proficiency often necessitate applicants to take one of these exams.
GMAT (Graduate management admissions test)This digitally-administered exam is required for business school admissions in the US and Canada (although many now also accept the GRE). It evaluates verbal and math skills and adapts to the test taker’s performance, presenting harder questions when answered correctly and easier ones if answered incorrectly.
MCAT (Medical college admissions test)The preferred choice for medical school admissions is one of the lengthiest standardized exams, lasting 7.5 hours. It assesses knowledge in chemistry, biology, and psychology, as well as verbal reasoning skills.
LSAT (Law school admissions test)Mandatory for law school admissions in the US or Canada, this test assesses logical and verbal reasoning skills, along with reading comprehension. It is administered digitally, typically in a test center alongside other students.

Compose your resume or CV

You will likely need to provide a resume or CV. Ensure you stick to any length limits; if none are specified, aim for one page if possible, or two pages if needed.

When preparing to apply for graduate school, include relevant activities related to the type of program you are interested in, rather than listing every single activity you’ve participated in. Consider including items such as:

  • Research experience. Highlight any research projects, publications, or conference presentations.
  • Academic achievements. List any academic awards, scholarships, or honors received.
  • Relevant courses and workshops. Include any additional courses or workshops you have taken to enhance your knowledge in the subject area.
  • Skills. Showcase specific skills such as programming languages, research methods, or technical expertise.
  • Language proficiency. Mention any foreign languages you are proficient in, especially if relevant to your academic program.
  • Personal projects. If applicable, mention any personal projects or initiatives related to the program you are interested in.
  • Volunteering experience. Highlight any volunteering work that demonstrates your commitment to your field of study.

When applying to a professional program, such as a business school, or preparing to apply for graduate school in other disciplines, prioritize highlighting your professional accomplishments. For other programs, focus on showcasing your academic and research achievements.

Formulate your statement of purpose and/or personal statement

When you apply for graduate school, your application depends heavily on a well-prepared statement of purpose and personal statement. These documents are important in communicating directly with the admissions committee, effectively conveying your academic journey, career aspirations, and the unique experiences that have influenced your decision to pursue further education.

Writing a statement of purpose

Thoroughly review the instructions for your statement of purpose, as some programs may include specific prompts that must be addressed in your essay. If applying to multiple programs, ensure your statement is tailored to each one, showcasing your alignment with their unique offerings.

An effective statement of purpose should encompass:

  • Introduction and academic background.
  • Academic and career goals, program alignment.
  • Motivations and passion for the field.
  • Relevant experiences and achievements.
  • Unique skills and contributions.
  • Personal influences on academic journey.
  • Future aspirations and program benefits.

The statement of purpose should go beyond being a mere resume in paragraph form. Enhance its value by detailing your personal contributions to projects and insights gained from listed classes.

Additionally, ensure your statement reads smoothly and is empty of language errors. Seek feedback from a friend, and consider hiring a professional proofreader for an additional review.

Writing a personal statement

Certain graduate school applications may necessitate a personal statement alongside your statement of purpose.

A personal statement, often required when you apply for graduate school, typically adopts a slightly less formal tone than a statement of purpose. It offers more room to showcase your personal background. This statement serves to construct a narrative that shows your identity and illustrates how your life experiences have driven your decision to pursue graduate school.

Below are valuable pointers for crafting a compelling personal statement:

  • Start with an attention-grabbing opening.
  • Demonstrate your personal and academic growth over time.
  • If faced with academic challenges, describe how you overcame them.
  • Discuss why you’re interested in this field, connecting it to your past experiences.
  • Describe your career ambitions and how this program will aid you in achieving them.

Improving your application with our proofreading service

After preparing your statement of purpose and personal statement, consider using our platform’s proofreading and editing services to refine your documents. Our professional team will help ensure that your statements are clear, error-free, and effectively communicate your unique story and qualifications. This additional step can significantly boost the quality of your application, showcasing your professionalism and attention to detail.


Get ready for interviews, if applicable.

The graduate school interview serves as the final step in the process. While not all schools conduct interviews, if yours does, ensure you are well-prepared:

  • Read the website of the program you’re applying for.
  • Understand your motivation. Be able to articulate why you want to pursue this particular graduate program and how it aligns with your career aspirations.
  • Rehearse interview etiquette. Display good manners, active listening, and confident body language during the interview.
  • Practice common questions. Prepare answers for common interview questions, such as your academic background, career goals, strengths, weaknesses, and interest in the program.
  • Highlight your accomplishments. Be ready to discuss your academic achievements, research experience, relevant projects, and extracurricular activities.
  • Talk to previous students about their experience interviewing.
  • Read papers in the field of study that you’re interested in.

Since many interviews often pose similar questions, it’s essential to have a clear idea of how you’ll respond. Some of the most common questions include:

  • What would you bring to this program and why should we admit you?
  • What are your academic strengths and weaknesses?
  • Tell us about the research you’ve completed or contributed to.
  • How do you see yourself contributing to our school/community?
  • Explain how you handle group work or collaboration with peers.
  • What would you bring to this program and why should we admit you?
  • Who would you like to work with in this program?
  • What are your short-term and long-term academic or career goals?

Ensure you arrive with a set of prepared questions for your interviewers. Inquire about funding opportunities, advisor accessibility, available resources, and post-graduation job prospects.


Applying for graduate school is a structured process that requires careful planning across seven key steps. Differentiating between Master’s and PhD programs, preparing tailored application materials, and understanding specific institutional requirements are crucial. Timely research, attentiveness to details, and making sure you’re a good fit for the program is important for getting in.

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