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Applying to Graduate School

What You Need to Know About:

Applying to Graduate School is difficult and time consuming. Start Early. The application process typically consists of a number of pieces of information. Each program will evaluate and emphases different components of the application. The application usually consists of the following information:

  • Application Form
  • Application Fee
  • Transcripts
  • Personal Statement
  • Graduate Admission Examine Scores
  • Letters of Recommendations

The limited spots for student enrollment lend to high standards and fierce competition. A thorough approach to the application process will increase your chances for admittance into the program.

Should I Apply?

Does graduate school fit into your career plans? If you are thinking about attending graduate school, it is essential to explore your options carefully. The decision to go to graduate school requires early planning and research.

Before beginning the application process, ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Do I have a career objective that requires an advanced degree?
  2. Have I identified my interests and skills and assessed how they relate to my academic subject area?
  3. Am I aware of the employment market for individuals with this advanced degree?
  4. Have I talked with a professional working in my intended career area to get answers to some of these questions?
  5. Have I discussed my plans with advisers, professors, or Career Services?

Good reasons to go to graduate school:

Further education is necessary to attain a career objective

  1. An advanced degree will create additional career opportunities
  2. You enjoy learning and it would provide personal satisfaction
  3. You have a passionate interest in a subject area
  4. You like to do research

Reasons not to go to graduate school right now:

  1. You’re trying to postpone making a career decision
  2. You’re trying to avoid the job market
  3. You’re going to graduate school to please someone else
  4. You don’t want to leave the familiar atmosphere of school

Taking the time to review why you want to attend graduate school can help determine whether it is the right decision for you.

Paying for Graduate School:

One reason why many people decide not to go to graduate school is the concern over funding their education. If you want to go onto higher education, you can always find a way to pay for it. Not many individuals have the financial ability to pay for the entire expense of graduate school. However, even if you have the means to pay for your entire graduate education, it is often advisable to apply for financial aid. The majority of financial aid at the graduate level is merit based. Pursuing these awards not only can finance your education but also give you the hands on experience required by many careers. So although financial aid can supplement the cost of education, you should also consider the other benefits to your career. Here are the most typical aid sources:
  • Teaching Assistantships
  • Research Assistantships
  • Fellowships
  • Grants
  • Tuition Waivers
  • Loans

Teaching Assistantships require you to teach undergraduate courses or labs. Tuition is usually waived and a stipend is often granted. A teaching assistantship is very prestigious but the workload can be extreme.

Research Assistantships are linked to a research project conducted by a specific professor. The best way to earn a research assistantship is to learn as much as you can about the research going on in the university.

Fellowships are large awards (much like scholarships) given to a student. They are reserved for those students whose academic promise is so great that they shouldn’t be distracted from their studies. Occasionally fellowships are granted to underrepresented students that the program is trying to recruit. Fellowships come in two forms, internal and external. You can learn about internal fellowships from the graduate school. You’ll have to do your own research on external fellowships. Check out the “Yale Daily News Guide to Fellowships and Grants” in our Career Service’s Library. You can also visit or

Grants are smaller than fellowships, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Grants work exactly the same way as fellowships.

Tuition Waivers are more common for Ph.D. candidates and for candidates in the laboratory sciences. They are less common for master’s degree candidates in the humanities or for professional programs.

Students use loans to fund the gap between what hasn’t been received through grants and waivers. Plan on preparing a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid and or GAPSFAS (Graduate and Professional School Financial Aide Service). Both are available from any graduate financial aid office. Note: Normally your undergraduate student loans will be deferred while you’re in graduate school. Don’t take student debt lightly. Even though it is usually a good investment, you need to watch your total indebtedness and determine if your future career will enable you to repay the money.

Choosing a School or Program:

The most common mistake people make in selecting a program is to blindly choose the best-ranked program. You must consider several criteria and develop your own standards for evaluation.

Build a list of potential schools. The market for students in higher education is national. If you don’t look nationally, you’re putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage. Secondly, graduate programs like to have a student body representative of all states. Most students mistakenly look for programs within an 8-hour drive of their home. Consider schools across the country. You never know if these schools will offer larger financial aid packages. Expand your horizons. Some resources to use when beginning your search:

  • Professors/Advisors
  • Alumni
  • Peterson’s guide (available in book form or on-line)
  • Practicing professionals
  • Your own social network
  • Career Services

Once you’ve created a list of potential schools you’ll want to begin the evaluation process. Review the following factors when deciding on a program:

  1. What is the reputation of the school?
  2. How long will the program take?
  3. What does the program consist of? Do you like the focus of the academic program?
  4. Are there professors with expertise in my areas of interest?
  5. Who will I be competing against for admission into the program?
  6. Are there adequate academic resources (i.e. libraries, labs, etc.)?
  7. Where would you be willing to live?
  8. What is the professional placement rate of the graduate students?
  9. What is the rate of attrition?
  10. What kind of social life can the school and community offer?
  11. What is the accreditation of the graduate school?
  12. What is the cost of the school? What is the cost of living in the area around the school?
  13. What kinds of financial aid packages can the school offer?

The answers to these questions can help identify programs in which you have an interest. The next step is to request information from the schools you’ve targeted. Ask for the following information:

  • Application for admission
  • Financial aid information
  • Specific information about the program

Narrowing the Search. Rank all the graduate programs you have been researching in order of interest to you. Then on a separate sheet of paper divide the schools into the following categories:

  • Those schools you are pretty sure you can get admitted
  • Those schools to which you probably can get admitted
  • Those school to which it would be difficult to be admitted

Next, go back to the list of schools you ranked. Choose 2 schools that fit into each category. You should expect to apply to 5-10 schools. Through this process you will have selected 6. You can layer on additional schools as you wish.

Managing the Application Process:

As you receive the application packets for your targeted schools, determine a method of organizing the information. One method is to use the “Graduate School Application Information” form for each program you are applying to. The form can be found in the back of this booklet.

Whatever process you use to organize your applications, remember to keep track of the deadline! It is recommended that you try sending in all your application materials 30 days prior to the deadline. Two reasons. First, it will afford you the opportunity to check that all information has been received. If it hasn’t been received you’ll still have time to get it into the school. The second reason is linked to the admissions process. Most graduate admissions rank the applicants. If the school uses a rolling admissions process, the staff will read and evaluate the applications as they arrive. The closer you get to the deadline, the greater the number of outstanding candidates that are already admitted and the longer the waiting list.

Standardized Tests:

Proper preparations for the graduate admissions exams are key to admittance into graduate schools. Take these exams seriously—the admissions committee does. The best times to take the exams are in the summer before your senior year or early fall semester.

Most academic programs require the Graduate Records Exam (GRE). This is a computerized test that has three sections: verbal, quantitative and analytical. Check out information on the Some of the other common exams are:

  • Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT);
  • Law School Admission Test (LSAT);
  • Miller Analogies Test (MAT);
  • Medical College Admission Test (MCAT);
  • Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT);
  • Dental Admission Test (DAT);

Some of the dental programs will accept MCAT scores and some graduate schools will accept MAT in place of the GRE. The application materials may not list this as an option but you can call and ask.

Writing the Personal Statement:

Most graduate schools require a personal statement as part of the application. This statement is extremely important and should be taken seriously. The personal statement is often focused around your interests, the reasons you are applying to a particular graduate program, your accomplishments, and career objectives. A poorly written personal statement will greatly reduce your changes of acceptance.

Although there is no set formula, the following tips will help you produce an effective personal statement.

  1. Before you begin to compose your statement, research the programs you are applying for and tailor your statement to each program. The admissions committee will be evaluating you on how well you “fit” into their program. If your career objectives don’t match the objectives of a particular program, your application will be rejected.
  2. Prepare an outline. List supporting material under each outlined topic.
  3. Write a rough draft using the material you listed in your outline. Make sure your answers reflect the points requested by each program.
  4. Avoid unnecessary duplication in your statement. Information that is included in other parts of your application packet (i.e. resume, transcript, application form, etc.) should not be repeated in your personal statement. It is not necessary to mention specific grades or course titles. The reader of your statement will find it more effective if you mention academic achievements briefly and then move on to discuss research, work or volunteer experiences.
  5. Ask your professor, advisor and Career Services to critique your statement.
  6. Re-Write. Re-Write. Re-Write. The personal statement needs to be perfect in content, grammar, spelling and punctuation.
  7. Avoid lengthy personal or philosophical discussions.

Personal Statement Format:

As stated above, the requirements for the personal statement will differ but generally include certain information and format. The statement is subjective in nature which makes it that much more difficult to write.

Introduction. Many personal statements begin with a distinctive opening to gain the reader’s attention. Faculty are reviewing hundreds of applications, make sure your statement stands out from the competition. You want to connect your experiences and career objective to the graduate program. Mention the specific name of the program you are applying.

Supporting paragraphs. The subsequent paragraphs should address the specific questions from the application. Use your outline and supporting materials here to convince the committee of your qualifications and compatibility with the program.

Conclusion. Close your personal statement by linking all your qualifications presented in earlier paragraphs. State how your qualifications will “fit” with the program and will direct you in your long-term goals.

Letters of Recommendation:

Your application to graduate school will involve letters of recommendations, typically 3 or 4. It is important to secure recommendations that accurately reflect your qualifications and aptitude for graduate work. Most of these letters will be from professors in the department where you got your undergraduate degree. The recommendations can also be valuable from supervisors of research projects, full, part time, or volunteer positions relating to your area of intended study. Choose people who can write thoughtful, detailed letters about your capabilities and accomplishments. Discuss your educational and career goals with them. Once you’ve asked for the letters to be written, provide those individuals with the information below:

  • Copy of your resume
  • Copy of your personal statement
  • Recommendation form from each graduate program
  • Self addressed stamped envelope for each program (as appropriate)
  • Deadline date for each application recommendation
  • Request for Letters of Reference form (can be found at the back of this booklet)

The individuals writing your recommendations are doing you an incredible favor. Provide them with all the necessary information and ask for a letter well before the date it is due. You’ll not only make it easier for them to write the recommendation but you’ll receive a more solid recommendation to present with your application.

It is important to follow up with those writing your recommendations to ensure that the letters have been sent. Contact the graduate schools to guarantee that the recommendations letters were received.

Lastly, send a thank you letter to each individual who wrote a recommendation for you.

Application Timeline:

The application process for graduate school is a time consuming and lengthy process. The following timeline is designed to provide a brief overview of the application process. It assumes you are applying for fall admission. Please keep in mind that not all of the steps will pertain to all graduate programs. It is advisable that you check directly with the schools of interest to obtain specific entrance requirements and deadlines.

Junior Year:

  • Research graduate programs; identify appropriate schools; narrow the search
  • Talk with faculty members in your field of interest about your graduate study goals. Meet with professors you’ll request letters of recommendations from
  • Talk with Career Services and your professors about application requirements
  • Begin preparing for the graduate admissions tests. Stop by Career Services for exam materials.
  • Investigate fellowships, grants and graduate assistantships

Summer before Senior Year:

  • Request school catalogs and application materials from the graduate programs your targeted
  • Organize the application process; use the “Graduate School Application Information” form; highlight application deadlines
  • Take practice exams and or test preparation courses for required admissions tests
  • Register for fall exams
  • Collect the necessary applications and forms for financial aid, fellowships, and grants

Fall of Senior Year:

  • Complete Applications
  • Arrange for official transcripts to be mailed
  • Take required graduate admissions exams; ensure that the scores have been sent to the appropriate schools
  • Write your personal statement; have Career Services, your advisor or professor critique it
  • Ask for letters of recommendations to be written
  • As appropriate, complete financial aid paperwork; Remember that this information needs to be sent in EARLY.
  • Send in all application materials at least 30 prior to the deadline
  • Double check that all the application materials have been received by the schools
  • Send thank-you letters to people who wrote your recommendation letters

Spring of Senior Year:

  • Develop “Plan B” in case you are not admitted to your program (s)
  • Visit universities that accept you
  • If you plan to live in university housing, apply for space
  • Send a deposit to the university of choice
  • Notify other universities that have accepted you of your decision to attend another institution

If you follow these steps you will be able to complete the application process in a thorough and timely manner. If you need any assistance in the graduate school process don’t hesitate to contact a Career Services counselor.

Southwest Minnesota State University
Bellow Academic 156
1501 State Street
Marshall, MN 56258

Phone (507) 537-6221
Fax (507) 537-7979

Web Services:

Our Staff

Ginger Kaufman, Director
Sheila Risacher, Associate Director
Linda Kruse, Office Manager

Last Modified: 3/29/23 5:29 PM | Website Feedback