Preparing Your Application

How Should I Prepare My Application?

The graduate school application process can be a daunting one. It can also be expensive, both in terms of time and money. If you are well-prepared and start early however (see, for example, the Application Timeline and Checklist), it can be accomplished with few headaches. There are several things you ought to be aware of.

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE)

Most graduate programs and fellowships require the applicant to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), a standardized test similar to the SAT.

These scores are particularly important since, for better or worse, they are the first factor selection committees take into account when “weeding out” applicants. They also happen to be the best predictor of how well a student will fare in graduate school. So, start preparing early. Take a class. Take practice exams. And study.

For further information about the GRE, visit the ETS website.


All graduate programs and fellowships require letters of reference. Graduate programs usually require two to three letters of recommendation. The letters should be written by professors, and you should have at least one from a professor in your major. If you are changing fields, it is imperative that you also have a letter from someone who is teaching in that department. It is wise to start thinking early about which professors to ask to write these letters. When thinking about whom to ask as a reference, consider how well the professor you have in mind knows you. If you took only one class with him or her, he/she probably will not be able to speak about your abilities and experience very well. On the other hand, you ought to be strategic; a professor with whom you took an elective course for one semester may not have much to say about your ability to write and conduct research.

When approaching a potential reference, you should do so early. Many professors and other references are very busy; giving them ample time to reflect on your application and write your letter will yield a more compelling letter than one that is done hastily. You should also be considerate and bring with you a package that contains the following:

  • Personal statement
  • Unofficial transcript
  • Current resume

These are items that will help your reference to flesh out your letter. Also include the following information in a memo (if providing hard copies) or in the body of the email message to your professors (if providing e-copies):

  • The purpose of the letter – admission, fellowship, or employment
  • Who the audience will be (other academics, prospective employers, etc.)
  • Deadlines for each letter
  • Any additional paperwork they might need (to sign)
  • Statement or any relevant information that they might need to know in order to write you a supportive letter

The Personal Statement

All graduate programs and fellowships will require you to write a personal statement and provide some record of your experiences and skills (usually a resume). Personal statements can vary, but generally they want to know why you want to pursue a graduate degree, why you want to pursue a graduate degree at their institution, and what it is that you are interested in and how your interests fit in with their program. It is best to get feedback on drafts of your personal statement and resume early on; your major advisor or other professor can provide you with models to peruse.

The Writing Sample

Most graduate programs and fellowships require a writing sample. The writing sample is a means by which the selection committee attempts to gauge your interests, your level of preparation in terms of research, and your writing ability. So, be strategic. If you have a term paper that was well-received in one of your classes, work on revising it early. If you do not have an adequate writing sample, consider taking an independent study or course that requires a term paper by your first semester of your senior year. Most importantly, make sure you have your major advisor or another trusted professor read over the work that you intend to submit at the beginning of the fall semester so that you have ample time to make revisions, if necessary.


You will need to submit an official transcript with each graduate school application. If you have attended more than one post-secondary institution, you will need to contact the registrar of that school and make arrangements to have a transcript sent to the schools of your choice.