Whether you're continuing on to a graduate program straight out of undergrad or heading back to school after years in the working world, there are a number of great reasons for doing so. Today, more people than ever are pursuing a master's degree, doctorate degree or other professional degree - with 9.4 percent of the U.S. population holding such a degree - to boost their skill set, become more marketable and earn more money. For many fields where grant funding is not available, however, the degree comes at a price, often costing hundreds of thousands of dollars by graduation day. If you do decide that grad school is right for you, read on to see what you need to do to get in.
The first thing to do in considering which schools to apply to is to find ones that offer your program. From there, you can make decisions based on matters such as how selective their admissions policy is, cost of attending, geographic location, program duration, etc. to find schools that are a good fit for you. It is a good idea to apply to at least 10 schools. Admissions into grad school can be very competitive, and it is good to have some fall-back options in addition to your top choices. You can search online for schools that offer your grad program, or you can check out helpful texts such as Graduate Schools in the U.S. 2010 by Peterson's and Guide to American Graduate Schools by Harold R. Doughty. See this list from U.S. News & World Report for a ranking of the Best Graduate Schools across all fields, and check out this article from GradSchoolTips about finding which grad school is right for you.
Keep in mind that most master's programs require minimum GPAs of 3.0 or 3.3, and most doctoral programs require minimum GPAs of 3.3 or 3.5, according to this article from About.com. To get into the top-ranked grad schools, you typically need a perfect GPA (which is a good thing to remember as a college freshman!) and stellar scores on whatever standardized test your program requires.
Most graduate schools will require, at minimum, these four items:
- Official transcript – You will need to request the most current transcript that your university has on file for you from the registrar's office at your undergraduate school. You can usually do this online, but may need to call or file a request in person. The registrar's office will then mail the official (sealed) transcript to the admissions office of the graduate schools you are applying to. Be sure to have the correct addresses on hand.
- GRE or other standardized test scores - On the day that you take whatever standardized test is required for the graduate program you are applying to (e.g. GRE, LSAT, MCAT), you can usually select at this time which schools you would like to receive your scores when they are ready. Most of these standardized tests are taken on computers and include codes for schools nationwide, which you can select at the time of the test to be sent your scores. You can also send your scores at a later date, which is especially useful if you decide to apply to more schools than you originally planned.
- Confidential letters of recommendation – It is very important that your letters of recommendation are listed as confidential, meaning you are not permitted to see them, and that they come from professionals who know you well. It is best to get letters from professors who know you well, and know and like your work. Other good candidates include employers. Do not ask for a letter from a personal source or from someone who knows nothing about you – this will hurt your chances more than help. Professors and employers are busy people, so be polite in asking for letters, always give them ample time to file a response and be sure to provide enough information to assist them in writing a helpful letter. It is always a good idea to send them a quick thank you note for agreeing to do so. Since the letters are confidential, most universities require the letters to be filed with your school’s Career Services office, or other office. Note that most Career Services offices at most universities will keep the letters on file for you for several years, which can come in very handy should you need a reference down the road for a job or another graduate program.
- Admissions essay(s) and/or personal statement – Some graduate programs will require you to write one, or several, essays on specific topics or topics of your choice. Nearly all require a personal statement, which is your chance to talk yourself up and add a little personality to that GPA and GRE score. As with all application materials, it is important to be sure that your admissions essay or personal statement is free of grammar and spelling errors, but it is also important to be creative and have fun. This essay/statement isn't for a grade – think of it as conversation with someone who is meeting you for the first time who you want to impress. Focus on how your educational and occupational experiences, such as research and studying abroad, led you to this program. Describe what you want to get out of the program and what your long-term goals are. Try to be creative, sincere and build a clear picture to yourself. Admissions committees read hundreds of essays during the admissions process – a unique, compelling statement can help you stand out from the rest. Be sure to tailor your letter to each school to which you are applying and articulate why this specific program is the perfect fit for you. For help, check out this thorough six-lesson guide from Peterson's on how to write a personal statement.
This timetable for applying from About.com is helpful in ensuring that you get everything completed and submitted on time. As it notes, while you wait to hear back from schools during your senior year, you should start thinking about how to pay for grad school. Check out this resource for information on scholarships, this page for everything you need to know about the Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application and see this site for information on graduate school loans.
You should start hearing back from schools in March and April, and once you've narrowed down your choices, it's a good idea to visit the campus to talk to faculty, students and get a feel for the environment. Get started with a virtual tour from ecampus tours. Good luck!