Applying to Graduate School

If you’re thinking of graduate study, the following guide includes information about choosing a graduate program, the application process and more.

We recommend researching programs and consulting with your professors and advisors no later than your junior year. The Career Center can assist with the timing and decision-making process, essay reviews, admission practice exams and mock interviews.

Graduate School Timeline

Junior Year: Fall and Spring

  • Determine your area of interest and whether you prefer an academic or professional based program.
  • Research related institutions and programs (Peterson’s Guides and professors are both good resources).
  • Register for practice graduate admissions tests (i.e., GRE, GMAT, LSAT).
  • Begin requesting information from target schools.
  • Be sure you’re developing strong relationships with faculty, as letters of recommendation will be required in the application process.

Junior Year: Summer

  • Review the information you have received and decide to which schools you would like to apply.
  • Begin drafting your statement of purpose. Some programs might ask specific questions and provide specific formatting guidelines, so be sure to check the applications carefully.
  • Register and prepare for any admission tests you will need (GRE, GMAT, etc.).
  • Research financial assistance, including national scholarships, grants, fellowships and assistantships.
  • Visit the campuses of the programs you are strongly considering.

Senior Year: September

  • Meet with faculty members to discuss selected programs and start asking for letters of recommendation.
  • Ask faculty members, advisors, fellow students, and anyone whose opinion you trust to help you with your statement of purpose. If you are required to submit other writing samples, a portfolio, or an audition tape, make sure you prepare all portions of your applications well.
  • Develop a timeline for the applications you will be submitting. Many programs have different deadlines for different portions of the application. For instance, most programs strongly recommend you apply up to a month in advance if you are interested in an assistantship or fellowship. Also, financial aid deadlines can be different from general application deadlines.
  • Register for and/or take admission tests, if you have not already done so.

Senior Year: October

  • Finalize the number of targeted schools and make sure you have all necessary application materials.
  • Take admission tests and request that your scores be sent to the schools you have chosen.
  • Double-check timelines for application packages for each school/program.
  • Finish your statement of purpose and other materials required for applications.
  • Request letters of recommendation AT LEAST ONE MONTH before they are due.
  • Request transcripts from the registrar for ALL undergraduate work. If you have taken courses at another college or university, be sure those are included.

Senior Year: November/ December

  • Send in your applications. Most schools' deadlines range from mid-November through early February. Again, sending in an application three to four weeks before it is due will help you avoid mishaps. If you are applying online, make sure to complete your application before signing out/logging off. Whether you mail or submit your application electronically, follow up with the admissions office to make sure your application was received. It is a good idea to consider sending applications by certified mail.
  • Stay on top of the financial aid process. If you will be applying for loans, start researching your options now.

Senior Year: January/February/March

  • Follow up on your applications.
  • When you start receiving your acceptance letters, prepare to decide which program you will choose. Which factors are most important to you? Do you have a back-up plan if you do not get accepted to your top choice?
  • Do you have another alternate plan in case you do not get accepted at all?
  • You may be asked to interview for admissions, assistantships, and/or scholarships.
  • Try to plan your travel arrangements in advance in case you need to visit more than one school. Additionally, the Career Center offers practice interviews that can help you prepare.
  • File income taxes. Make multiple copies of your tax return in case you are asked to verify information. Prepare to fill out the FAFSA and any other financial aid forms.

Senior Year: March/April

  • You may be asked to submit final financial aid forms/applications. Keep copies of anything you submit for your records.
  • Once you have made your final decision about where you will go to graduate school, notify other schools of your choice.
  • Send thank-you notes to anyone who helped you during the application process, especially those who wrote you letters of recommendation, and let them know where you are heading to school.

Adapted from:

Choosing a Graduate School/Program

Once you have made the decision to go to graduate school, the next step is to research programs on sites such as to find one that suits your needs and talents. There are more than 1,800 institutions in the United States that offer graduate degrees. Don't limit yourself at this point, but instead gather information on a broad range of programs.

Gathering Information

Talk to faculty on campus and at other institutions that teach in the field you plan to pursue; they often can provide you with the best information that will help identify good programs. Since most universities have websites, the Internet is a great resource to find information quickly and easily. Some sites will provide complete information, while others may tell you where to write to get additional information.

Contact programs directly to get more detailed program information such as courses, professors, costs, financial aid and application forms. In the Career Center’s resource library, you will find books, brochures, catalogues, directories and guides that list information about universities that grant graduate or professional degrees. One such guide is the Peterson's Graduate School Guide, which contains both short and long descriptions of virtually all accredited graduate programs. Additionally, many professional associations will provide lists of accredited programs in their particular discipline.

Conduct informational interviews with current graduate students, professionals, and faculty in the graduate programs you are considering to gain insider information about programs.

Read professional and academic journals related to your area of interest and attend graduate program information sessions.

Deciding Where to Apply

After researching your options, the next step is to decide where to apply. Here are some factors to consider when evaluating programs:

  • The Reputation of the Faculty: What are their academic degrees/credentials and research specialties? What is the student/faculty ratio? Some faculty may have homepages that include some of the above information.
  • The Quality of the Program: This is measured by many different factors, such as those listed below. Talk to several faculty members and graduate students in the field you are pursuing to get an informed view on the variety of graduate programs available. You may choose to look at graduate school rankings to help you assess a program's quality; however, keep in mind that the rankings may be based on criteria that are different from your own and that many scholars, deans, and advisors question the validity of such rankings.
  • Financial Cost of the Program: Add up a list of costs (tuition, books, fees, etc.) What are the opportunities for fellowships, assistantships, or scholarships? What other sources of financial aid are available?
  • The Program Requirements: Determine admissions criteria such as GPA, test scores, undergraduate coursework, and specific entrance examinations.
  • Available Course Offerings: Are courses you need to fulfill degree requirements frequently offered? Will the course offerings help you meet your professional or educational goals?
  • Facilities: Consider the quality of on-site facilities such as libraries, computer labs, and research resources.
  • Employment: Where are graduates of the program working, and how much are they earning?
  • Geographic Location: Will studying in a particular location help you meet personal or professional goals?
  • Student Life: Consider the diversity of students, student organizations, housing, and campus support services.

Finally, keep in mind that there are major differences between applying for undergraduate programs and graduate programs. Your application will be evaluated by a specific department and its faculty members rather than a central admissions office. You should spend time learning about the reputation of the department and its faculty. Evaluate their credentials. Determine how often courses listed in the course bulletin are taught and by whom. Ask questions of the students in the program. Be critical about issues such as faculty turnover, accreditation, and the reputation of the department and its faculty.

Related Links

The Application Process

Most students apply to several graduate programs. Acceptance rates fluctuate from year to year, so it is wise to apply to some schools to which you have a high probability of being accepted as well as a few “reach schools,” or schools where your chances of being accepted are less certain. In addition, you may find that among the programs to which you are admitted, one may offer a more attractive funding package than another.

Be sure you leave yourself with options so that when all criteria are considered, you matriculate at the school that will offer you the most in terms of intellectual challenge, financial support, and career opportunities. Before you can make that decision, you have to apply. The application package includes numerous components, some of which may be very time consuming to complete. Each program may require different information or different formats, but you can plan on most application packages requiring the following components:

  • Online or paper application to the university graduate school and the specific department that houses your graduate program
  • Application fee (usually $35-$90 per program)
  • Admission test results, including the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or Miller Analogies Test (MAT)
  • TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) results for non-native English speakers*
  • Statement of purpose (or personal statement)
  • Writing sample (for humanities, social sciences, and some fine arts programs)
  • Portfolio of works or performances (for most fine arts programs)
  • Letters of recommendation (typically two to five)
  • Financial aid application

Putting together an application package will take some time. Filling out the forms is the easy part. Taking the GRE, GMAT, or TOEFL, asking for letters of recommendation, writing a statement of purpose, and choosing writing samples or portfolio materials may take months. See the application checklist to help manage this process or come into the Career Center for assistance at any stage.

“ The Career Center helped me with almost every facet of the graduate school application process. Career Counselors reviewed my CV, resume, and personal statement to optimize the quality of my work which led to my acceptance at Columbia University. ”

Shane Henise, Psychology Major

Information for Test Takers

Graduate Record Exams (GREs) or Other Standardized Tests

Most graduate programs require standardized exams, such as the GREs, for admission; however, professional schools usually require different exams (the LSAT, MCAT, and GMAT, respectively). Each of these exams is standardized, meaning that they are normed, permitting students from different colleges to be compared meaningfully. The GRE is similar in structure to the SAT but taps your potential for graduate level work. Some, but not all, schools reveal their average GRE scores in their admissions material and in graduate school admissions books, such as the Peterson's Guide. Take standardized tests early (typically, the spring or summer before you apply) to inform your selection of programs as well as ensure that your scores arrive to the programs early, before the application deadline.

Registration and information booklets are available in the Career Center or online at the websites listed in the chart below. Financial aid recipients may qualify for the GRE Fee Reduction Program or Praxis fee waiver. For more information about the graduate or professional school application process call 410-704-2233 to schedule an appointment with a career advisor.

Test Preparation

 Test  When Offered  Length of Test  Subjects Covered Guessing Penalty? 
DAT dental Daily (computer based)  4 hrs. 15 min.  biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, math, reading comprehension, perceptual ability  No 
GMAT business Daily (computer based) 3 hrs. 20 min. verbal, mathematical and analytical writing skills Yes 
GRE general grad program Daily (computer based) 4 hours analytical writing, verbal and quantitative skills  Yes
GRE subject grad program Nov., Dec., & April 2 hrs. 50 min. (offered individually) biochemistry/cell/molecular biology, biology, chemistry, computer science, English literature, math, physics and psychology   Yes
LSAT law Feb., June, Oct. & Dec. 3 hours reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, logical reasoning, writing   No
MCAT medical 22 times/year (computer based) 4 hrs. 30 min. biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, verbal reasoning, writing   No
OAT optometry Daily (computer based) 4 hrs. 45 min. biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, reading comprehension, math   No
PCAT pharmacy June, Oct. & Jan. 4 hrs. 30 min.  verbal ability, biology, chemistry, reading comprehension, math, writing   No
Praxis | education Daily (computer based) 4 hrs. 30 min. reading, writing, mathematics   No
Praxis || subject tests Sept., Nov., Jan., Mar., Apr., June & July 1-4 hours subject assessments, principles of learning and teaching (PLT) and teaching foundation tests No

Test Prep Organizations

These links are provided for convenience or reference only and are not intended as an endorsement.

How to Write a Personal Statement/Statement of Purpose

Graduate and professional schools typically require application essays as part of the admission process to assess your skills, background, interest and motivation for their programs. Use the tools below for help with writing your essays.

How to Pay for Graduate School

There are many sources of financial aid for post-baccalaureate education. Financial aid generally is awarded in two forms: gift-aid and self-help aid. Gift-aid includes grants, fellowships and scholarships (institutional or external) that do not have to be repaid or earned. Self-help aid includes loans that must be repaid, work-study funds that must be earned through work on a campus, off-campus work, and assistantships that pay professional or graduate students for their research, teaching, or other efforts. Most students use a combination of the options below over the years or even during one academic year. Make sure that you research all possibilities before attending a graduate program and annually while enrolled in one.

Teaching Assistantships

Teaching assistantships are considered to be part of a student’s training in many Ph.D. programs. Most programs offer a variety of teaching assistantships that range from grading papers or leading discussion sections to lecturing. The compensation for each type varies according to the workload, but most will include tuition remission and health insurance in addition to a stipend for living expenses. Teaching assistantships are competitive as the number available in each program is based on undergraduate course enrollments.

Research Assistantships

Some programs or individual faculty members offer research assistantships to their graduate students. Research assistants are members of a team conducting research on a specific topic or as part of a lab. These positions occur more commonly in the sciences than in the humanities. Compensation depends on the amount allotted for such positions in research grants.

Graduate Assistantships

These assistantships involve working in a university for 10-20 hours per week. Compensation varies with some providing tuition remission and others providing tuition remission and a stipend. Most will include health insurance. Assistantships that are administrative in nature often are available outside one’s academic department or program, so make sure you look for postings from other campus offices.

Resident Assistantships

A resident assistant or RA will live and work in a residence hall on campus. Compensation varies but will include at a minimum room and board.

Grants and Fellowships

Grants and fellowships may be awarded by a department, program, university academic office, or outside institution. Not only do they provide money, but they are prestigious and help build impressive curriculum vitae. Some criteria for winning grants and fellowships include financial need, academic achievement, research project potential, demographic background, or any combination of the above. They can be for one year or multiple years and may include fee remission, a stipend, and health insurance. The purpose of a grant or fellowship is to allow students to concentrate on their coursework or research without having to worry about money. Some fellowships require students to work as teaching assistants, while others do not. Neither fellowships nor grants have to be paid back, although some require progress reports to demonstrate that students are using their time and money appropriately. Most programs will include information about which grants and fellowships are available to their students on their websites. If you cannot find such information on the internet, you should contact the graduate secretary or director of graduate studies of prospective graduate programs to find out which grants and fellowships each program offers its students.

Employer Assistance

Some employers offer assistance for their employees to gain more education and training in a related academic program. Compensation varies, but can include coverage of part or all of book, fees, and tuition costs.

Student Loans

Student loans can be taken out from both private lenders and the government. The amount available varies as do the interest rates and repayment terms. All full-time domestic graduate students qualify for $20,500 annually up to $138,500 total through the Stafford Loan program. Be careful. These amounts add up quickly and could take years to pay back. Plus, depending on the expense of the academic program and local living costs, $20,500 may not cover tuition, books and supplies, room and board, and health insurance.

For more information on student loans and other funding resources, see:

Major Fellowships

Students applying to academic master's or Ph.D. programs may want to explore the following competitive graduate fellowship opportunities and resources. See each fellowship’s website for details on requirements and deadlines.

Letters of Recommendation

Recommendation letters typically are required for application to professional schools (medical, dental, law, business, etc.) and academic graduate programs (academic master's and Ph.D. degrees).

We recommend using Interfolio for collecting, storing and sending letters for application to graduate or professional schools or fellowships. This convenient, online service is accessible 24/7 and allows you to collect and manage the distribution of your letters.

Related On-Campus Resources