Undergraduate and graduate school admissions applications are similar in many ways. Both documents require students to give contact information, academic history, research experience, test scores, and so on. But undergraduate and graduate education have distinct purposes and serve separate populations; admissions applications reflect these differences.
As associate dean of the graduate school, a member of the admissions office at Texas State University, San Marcos, and in my previous positions at New Mexico State University and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, I have seen hundreds of applications for admission. I hope my insight will provide undergraduates, particularly those from underrepresented groups, with the information they need to effectively complete a typical graduate school application. Much hard work has gone into establishing a strong academic record, but if you don't submit a strong grad school application, you won't be able to take the next step. So put some time and effort into the process. Here's how.
Graduate school admission is competitive, and all good programs receive applications from many more qualified people than they can accept. Even if you are a strong candidate, you may not be admitted to the program of your choice. So prospective graduate students should apply to at least three programs, maybe more. It's good to have backups in case you aren't admitted to your first choice, and if you're admitted to several, you may find after a campus visit that your first choice changes.
A possible limiting factor in how many applications you submit is the cost of applying. Application fees range between $40 and $75, but some are higher. Sometimes the fee can be waived, but the time it takes to process the waiver can delay your application. Information about fee waivers is posted on university admissions office Web sites. The Consortium for Institutional Cooperation and Project 1000 offer programs that can secure application-fee waivers to participating institutions for qualified applicants.
Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a time or deadline waiver. Applying for graduate school is arduous and time-consuming, especially if you apply to several programs, so start early and work diligently. Begin preparing personal statements and looking into programs as soon as you have a good idea of what you want to do, preferably early in your junior year. That way, you can essentially complete the applications, request transcripts, and take required exams by the end of the junior-senior summer. Most graduate programs have submission deadlines around December for the following fall semester, but many are earlier. Be aware that specific department deadlines can be different from graduate school deadlines. Also be aware of the dates for financial aid consideration.
Components of the Graduate School Application
Most graduate school applications require most of the following parts:
1. Address Information: You will be asked to provide a current address--your address at college, perhaps--and a permanent (e.g., your home) address. If you provide a permanent address that's different from the current address, be sure to check periodically for materials that might be sent to that address. If you provide an e-mail address, make sure you maintain it and notify the institution of any changes, because routine communications are likely to be by e-mail--especially at institutions where electronic applications are routine.
2. Demographic Information: Information about race, ethnicity, and gender is needed to monitor the participation of different populations in an institution's programs. It is generally advisable to provide race and ethnicity information because these factors, among many, may be used by an institution in selecting applicants and identifying possible scholarship and fellowship opportunities. Gender information--usually voluntary--may be required if you are requesting accommodations in university housing.
3. Academic History: Graduate schools want to know what colleges and universities you have attended.This information is used to assess your educational experience. Be sure this information is accurate. You will be required to request an official transcript from the office of the registrar of each institution you list. There is a fee for each transcript--usually a few dollars--and it can take some time for your request to be processed, so start this process as soon as you can.
One of the most important aspects of an applicant's academic history is the grade point average (GPA), which will be computed from your transcripts. Most schools have a "minimum" GPA (often 3.0 on a 4.0 scale), but departments may allow "provisional" admission if the GPA is below the minimum and other factors warrant admission.
4. Program of Interest: Correctly identify the program or department you want to apply to. Online applications may have a list of programs/departments with a numerical code for each, and you must enter the numerical code on the application. If you are unsure of the correct code or name of the program, contact the program for clarification before submitting the application to avoid delays and confusion in processing. You may also need to specify whether you are applying for a master's or doctoral program, or both.
5. Residency/Citizenship: This information will be used to establish your tuition and other fees if you are admitted and may also be used to determine eligibility for some financial awards.
6. Scholarly Activities:
a . Research Experience--Undergraduate research--done under the supervision of a faculty member, often during the summer months--has become so commonplace that it is almost required in many disciplines. Describe the nature and significance of the research project, and provide a clear explanation of your contribution and the techniques you used.
b. Conference Presentations and Publications--Your research experience may lead to a conference presentation or a publication. Give the title of the presentation, a list of authors, where the presentation was made (organization and locale), and the date. If an abstract is published, include the name of the publication and the page number. If your research was published in a scholarly journal, provide a complete citation in a standard format.
c. Awards--List scholarships, grants, and other awards you have received.
d. Teaching Experience--It isn't common for undergraduates to have experience teaching college-level courses, but if you have assisted with courses or laboratory sections, say, or by tutoring students, include them.
e. Professional/Scholarly Society Activities--List your memberships in professional and honor societies. If you have served as an officer or committee member, report that information here.
7. Work Experience: If the application asks for your work experience, you have to decide what work experience to include. The closer the work is to your area of study, the more significant it will be in the evaluation of your application, but even work that is not related to your academic interests may indicate that you have contributed to your own financial support while keeping up with your studies. Another common situation is students taking time off between undergraduate and graduate school to work. If you spent two or more years working during this time, it's best to include it in this section.
8. Test Scores: Most graduate programs require scores from a test such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), but in addition, some institutions may require the GRE Subject Test or the Major Field Test. If your native language is not English, you may also need to submit a score for the Test of English as a Foreign Language.
Different institutions and departments give test scores different weight. Generally, however, along with other factors such as GPA, research experience, and letters of reference, your test scores will determine whether you're admitted to a program. So do not take these tests without preparation, and be sure to schedule the exam far enough in advance that there's time for the scores to be reported. You may even want to allow time to retake an exam if you don't do well the first time. Many colleges have a "testing center" that offers preparation courses and other assistance.
9. Letters of Reference: The application may require a set number of letters or a minimum number. If the instructions say to submit three letters, do not submit more than three. If extras are allowed, provide them only if you're sure they will strengthen your application. The application instructions will tell you how to provide these letters; sometimes they are submitted electronically, sometimes your letter writers will send them directly to the institution, and sometimes you will collect the letters (in sealed envelopes) and send them all together.
Letters should be from faculty members who know your professional aspirations and potential; it can be hard to know whom to ask. If you've done undergraduate research, you should definitely include a letter from your research adviser. Once you identify your letter writers, you should give them a résumé that highlights your accomplishments and professional goals.
10. Personal Statement: This is one of the most important parts of the application; fortunately, it's one over which you have complete control. You cannot control what your references will say, and it may be too late to improve your GPA or test scores. But the personal statement is your opportunity to convince the admissions committee why it should admit you anyway. The personal statement is where you can distinguish yourself from the dozens or hundreds of other highly qualified applicants.
Some applications will limit the length of the personal statement, but even if they don't, it's a good idea to keep it short, because the committee will be reading hundreds of personal statements. Two pages (or less) is a good length. Some programs may require more than one personal statement, e.g., one addressing professional goals and another addressing personal background and experience. Your personal statement should go through many drafts, and you should consult with friends and faculty members before you produce the final product. If your institution has a writing center, use it; although your essays should be in your own words, they can help you ensure proper form and grammatical correctness. You will also need to modify it for each institution to which you apply and include comments about specific faculty members you might want to work with or specific research projects you might want to participate in. For more information, please read MiSciNet's "Sell Yourself: Guidance for Developing Your Personal Statement for Graduate School Applications".
11. Request for Financial Support: In most cases, you should not accept admission to a graduate program if some form of financial assistance is not offered; you should not depend entirely on personal funds or loans to complete a graduate program. You should receive financial aid in the form of a teaching assistantship, a research assistantship, a graduate assistantship, a fellowship, or a scholarship. Please read MiSciNet's "The Wild World of Doctoral Funding" for additional information on graduate school funding.
12. Submission and Follow-Up: Pay close attention to the instructions on how each application should be submitted. For example, one institution may require that some materials be submitted to a central graduate admissions office and other materials be sent directly to the department to which you are applying. Although some programs will alert you if your application is missing information, it is your responsibility to verify that they have received all the required materials. After you've mailed the application materials and given them time to be received and processed, contact the departments you applied to and ask if the application is complete.
Applying for graduate school is an involved, arduous, time-consuming process. Spend the time needed to complete several strong applications, and the investment will pay off.
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Cecilio R. Barrera, Ph.D., is associate dean of the graduate school at Texas State University, San Marcos .