Going to graduate school can pay – literally. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, bachelor’s degrees holders earned $1,334 per week and had an unemployment rate of 3.5% in 2021. Those with master’s degrees, however, earned $1,574 and had an unemployment rate of 2.6% that same year.
The growth of online programs gives students and working professionals increased access to master’s degree programs. That said, getting into a master’s program — whether online or campus-based — remains competitive and still requires being chosen from a field of highly qualified applicants. This guide can help you get into grad school by providing an in-depth overview of what to expect during the application process, along with tips and expert advice to improve your chances of getting accepted into your school of choice.
What Are the Required Components of a Graduate School Application?
The contents of a graduate school application depend on both the school and the program. An application for a master’s-level business school, for example, might take a different entrance exam than one for a psychology or social sciences program. Your personal statement or essay prompt is also different depending on your area of study. However, most of the major application components are the same and include the following.
Application & Fee
Besides providing information to the admissions office, the application starts the admissions process and gets you into the system of the school. Although the application is a near-universal requirement, the application fee is not. Many online programs have no application fee or waive it for certain students, such as those who show financial need or meet certain conditions for applying.
Most admissions offices require confirmation that applicants graduated from accredited bachelor’s degrees or other qualified programs. Transcripts also verify your undergraduate GPA. Official transcripts, ones verified and clear of tampering, are usually sent by the school where the degree was earned. This typically happens via the post office or through an electronic service. Occasionally, the school where a student obtained their bachelor’s provides the transcript in a sealed envelope for the student to submit in their application packet.
Letters of Recommendation
Applicants should expect to obtain at least one but often two or three letters of recommendation. These are letters from someone other than the applicant who can attest to the applicant’s abilities, accomplishments, and characteristics. They can be written, sealed, then handed to the applicant to include in their application packet but are sometimes sent directly by the recommender to the graduate school. This process often happens electronically now.
Entrance exams (e.g., GRE, MCAT, etc.) provide a quantitative way to review an applicant’s thinking abilities and skills. These tests can focus on a specific academic area or may broadly examine reasoning, writing, reading, and thinking abilities. Most graduate programs used to require entrance exams, but many programs have dropped this requirement. Now, some schools only require them from students under certain conditions. Often, they suggest them for bolstering a student’s application if needed.
Personal Statement or Essay
The personal statement or essay allows applicants the chance to show a side of themselves not reflected in other parts of their application. Depending on the essay prompt, applicants can explain parts of their admissions application that might be unfavorable or potentially taken out of context. This is the only part where you have full control over how you present yourself, and it is a great way to show how you are a fit for a particular school or program.
Resume or Portfolio
This is usually more common for programs catering to applicants with significant research or work experience. It’s also more likely to be required when an entrance exam test score or GPA gives a small picture as to the abilities of a student. Artistic or creativity-driven graduate programs are classic examples of where a person’s body of work includes more than test scores or academic accomplishments. A resume, curriculum vitae, or portfolio gives applicants a way to show other facets of their professional and personal experiences.
Many graduate programs don’t require an interview, some make it optional, and others require it only under certain conditions like when making an exception for an eligibility requirement. Interviews give the admissions office an additional view of an applicant and allow them to key in more on personality and interest in the program. They also give students a chance to make a good impression and ask questions to learn more about the program.
What Do Colleges Look for in a Graduate School Applicant?
Entrance exam test scores and GPAs help weed out less-than-promising applicants and make the admissions process more manageable. However, most admission offers aren’t purely made by numbers, though numbers do help indicate a strong candidate. Soft factors like personality, diversity, commitment, and work ethic also play a major role in whether you receive an acceptance letter. We discuss these and other factors below to help you better understand what colleges look for in a graduate school applicant.
Compatibility & Personality
As much as programs appreciate amazing grades, a top entrance exam test score, and plenty of relevant experience, they also want someone who fits into the academic culture of their school and program. Compatibility and personality speak to how well you work with others, especially on collaborative projects and research. They also indicate how you’ll settle differences and accept constructive criticism from professors and peers. A pleasant and agreeable personality that makes a student well-liked by others makes a candidate stand out.
Most schools make diversity a priority and understand what unique perspectives – whether from growing up in a certain socio-economic group, country, state, or unconventional family – can bring to a program. An admissions committee might accept a student with a slightly lower GPA or entrance exam test score if they bring a unique perspective to the program since it will challenge others to think creatively.
From an academic perspective, a school wants someone who’ll stay in the program through graduation since dropping out wastes the school’s resources and takes a spot away from another student. A high dropout rate also hurts a school’s ranking and reputation. Beyond merely completing a program, a committed student also puts forth maximum effort and gives back to the school even after graduation.
Enthusiasm & Interest
Since schools and programs have limits on how many students they can accept, they want smart, diverse students who want to be there. The more interested and eager to learn someone is, the more likely they’ll excel in a program. A highly-interested student also learns better and produces better-quality work.
Fulfillment of Requirements
GPA and test scores help admissions officers decide if an applicant can succeed in a program, and undergraduate accomplishments indicate what a student might do in a master’s program. A program made up of students with high entrance exam scores and GPAs also ranks higher compared to other programs. The higher the school is ranked, the more publicity and respect it receives. This leads to more students applying, which allows admissions offices to be more selective in who they accept as well as to ensure class allotments are filled.
Master’s degree programs, especially those involving research, love students who can think for themselves and come up with original ideas. Accepting students who think independently improves the overall learning experience for everyone in the program since it helps foster new ideas. The more novel concepts produced by students, especially with published research, the more recognition a program and its professors receive.
Professors and administrators in academia know there are always students who get good grades and meet program requirements almost effortlessly. While this brainpower is a great asset, admissions committees also want students to have a good work ethic. Schools want their graduates to be known as hard-working and willing to go above and beyond expectations.
6 Tips to Boost Your Application
By the time you begin thinking about graduate school, some aspects (e.g., grades, related experience, etc.) of your graduate school application may be set with little you can do to change them. However, there are likely still elements you can change and improve to increase your chances of getting an acceptance letter. Below, we discuss tips for boosting a graduate school application that can help just about anyone.
You must depend on others for many of the components – elements like taking an entrance exam, getting official transcripts, and obtaining your letters of recommendation – of the admissions packet, so start early and allow extra time. Consider setting deadlines and putting them on your calendar, then stick to them. Not only are you building skills that will help you in grad school, but you are also giving yourself the necessary time to develop a solid application packet.
Give yourself time for test prep
Giving yourself plenty of time to prepare for an entrance exam (e.g., GRE, GMAT, etc.) increases the likelihood of only having to take the test once, which saves both time and money. Enough time to prepare also lets you utilize resources like taking a test-prep class and participating in a study group if needed. Additionally, many students retake entrance tests if they aren’t happy with their original scores, and giving yourself plenty of test prep time allows for this.
Nail your personal statement or essay
Start writing the essay or personal statement several weeks in advance, then use the extra time to revise and edit. Also, see if you can get a friend, colleague, or family member to read it over. Not only can they let you know what kind of impression it made on them, but they can also give you editing suggestions. Nailing your personal statement or essay also means spending plenty of time getting to know the school and crafting a document specifically for that school.
Be prepared for your interview
Many graduate programs don’t require an interview or make it optional. A fair number of schools still require it, though, so it’s a good idea to be prepared for one. Preparing for your interview involves researching the school and coming up with potential questions and answers. You’ll also want to practice for the interview, perhaps by having a friend conduct a mock interview with you. This gives you the chance to get comfortable with your answers and to work on any physical or verbal crutches that make you sound less professional. Practice will also increase your confidence.
Get solid letters of recommendation
You can’t tell your recommender what to say or how to write your letter of recommendation, but you can give them plenty of time to write the letter. When the recommender doesn’t feel rushed, you’ll likely receive a more thought-out, accurate, and positive recommendation. Additionally, asking for letters well in advance of when you need them gives you time to follow up if needed.
Add some experience
Volunteer experience or extracurriculars can definitely make a difference in your application, especially if you don’t have a standout test score or GPA. Experience helps reinforce your interest in an area of study and gives you opportunities to support other qualities, like leadership and community service. Some schools place special emphasis on these traits and are always looking to admit students who show these qualities.
What to Consider When Applying
As you begin applying to graduate school, step back and look at the bigger picture. Instead of asking what you need to do to get accepted into a particular program, ask yourself if you should even apply to that program. Consider if it’s a good fit for your time, money, and effort. Assessing the following elements before actually applying can save you time and money in the long run.
While you want to apply to a program that offers the degree, classes, and training to help you meet your academic and professional goals, there are other elements that matter just as much. For example, consider if the school has the student services, career advising, and academic assistance you need. Also look at how much travel is required. You might be enrolling in an online program, but there could still be on-campus intensives each semester. Program fit may also be determined by the availability of financial aid. Some of the best scholarships and grants are from schools and are only available to current students.
Number of Schools
The number of schools you apply to depends primarily on program availability, program selectivity, and cost. If you want to get a degree that’s not widely available, for example, there may be a limited number of schools to apply to. Additionally, applying to more schools increases your chances of being accepted into at least one of them. If money isn’t an issue, application fees and transcript costs won’t be a concern. Most students have a limited budget, though, and need to be selective.
Some schools have rolling admissions where students can apply any time during the year while others are more limited. Depending on when you begin the application process and how much time you need to complete your application, some programs may be out of reach because of time constraints. You can also consider pushing back your planned enrollment date to make sure you can apply before a given deadline and use the extra time to gain valuable work or volunteer experience.
Budgeting for the application and other fees is a good idea. Consider the cost of official transcripts and application fees, for example. Depending on the amounts, you might want to adjust which and how many schools you apply to. Maybe you drop a school with an application fee of $80, for example, but instead apply to two schools with $40 application fees. While your costs are the same, you’re applying to more schools and increasing your chances of acceptance.
Thank You Notes
Often a forgotten part of the application process, thank you notes can not only help you get accepted but also make a lasting impression. Not only does sending a thank you note to someone who interviewed you help you stand out, but it also establishes a networking contact you can take advantage of later in your academic or professional life.
When preparing for an interview, dress professionally and simply. Make sure you come across as presentable. No expensive suit or outfit is necessary if whatever you wear is clean, wrinkle–free, and neat.
When choosing which programs to apply to, this might be one of the most important factors to consider. Ideally, you should only consider programs where you can quickly and persuasively answer the question, “Why this particular school and program?” If you can’t answer that question, you may want to reconsider submitting your application to that school.
Interview With an Admissions Expert – Tips for Getting into Graduate School
Rachel Coleman is an IEC (independent education consultant) at College Essay Editor. She has worked for over seven years in the undergrad and graduate college counseling field, helping students across all disciplines (e.g., medical school, MBA, law school, Master’s, Ph.D., etc.) navigate the application process and especially improve their essays. She received her B.A. in Comparative Literature from Stanford University where she was the head tutor of Stanford’s Hume Center for Writing and Speaking. She then received her College Counseling Certificate from UCLA and is now an active member of the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
Q: There are several components to graduate school admission. If you had to rank them in order of importance, which elements are at the top of the list for better chances of getting in?
A. 1. Work experience. This is essentially the student’s resume, but it’s the best predictor of success because it shows how prepared the student is for the field, they say they’re interested in. For example, if the student wants to study Sociology, the work experience should include academic research plus professional experience plus interesting summer internships. Ultimately, if the student’s essay is saying “I want to study x subject,” the resume is the evidence backing up that interest. It’s very obvious when a student has no experience in the field that they say they’re interested in, and that’s a red flag.
2. Unique personal narrative/motivation articulated in the essays. This likely ties with work experience. In my mind, they’re the top two factors. Students need to write compelling personal narratives backed up by concrete actions taken to achieve clear educational goals. For example, “I had x encounter with the legal system. I decided to educate myself to see if pursuing a legal career was right for me, so I took a, b, and c steps. I concluded that law was for me, and law school is the next logical step in my education.” This is very basic, but admissions committees are looking for more than just a resume of accomplishments. They are looking for a purpose/intention to show them that the student is a good fit for the field.
3. Testing (e.g., MCAT, GRE, LSAT, etc.) This one is self-explanatory. Testing may have played a reduced role since COVID and the rise of test-optional applications, but it’s still a significant way to show academic merit.
4. Recommendation Letters. Last, but certainly not least, recommendation letters can play an important role in a student’s application, especially if the mentor or teacher knows the student very well and spends the time to articulate the student’s unique strengths.
Q: Who is the best option to ask to write letters of recommendation? For instance, does a letter from a former employer hold more or less weight than a letter from a former professor?
A. The best letters are the ones where the author can share specific, concrete stories about the student. The more detailed the story, the more credibility the author establishes, and the stronger the letter. Ideally, students should ask for letters from multiple sources, so both a professor to speak to academic work plus a mentor to speak to professional experience or a research head to speak to lab experience in the case of med school. Students also need to read each program’s recommendation letter requirements carefully and know the details, such as whether the school allows three letters or five.
Q: Just how important is the graduate school admissions essay (or personal statement)?
A. The essay is essential. It’s the centerpiece of the entire application and ideally connects all the pieces of the student’s application in one unifying package. It’s also the place where students can include all the personal details that wouldn’t otherwise make it into the resume or academic profile, details that even teachers or friends don’t know. So, when writing the essay, students need to decide how personal to be and which elements of their identity are connected to the field they want to pursue. For example, include a parent’s time in jail when describing a motivation to attend law school, discuss the slow death by cancer of a best friend in high school when describing a motivation to attend med school, or include the transformational impact a teacher had when describing a motivation to get a master’s in education. All these stories work well as introductory hooks in the main essay and are crucial to helping the student’s application stand out. A student is much more than their resume, GPA, and test scores, and the essay is the place to articulate their story.
Q: What advice would you like to give those who are starting the graduate admissions process?
A. Plan ahead. Like any large and complex task with a multitude of different deadlines and requirements, the sooner you start and get organized (think excel spreadsheet), the less stressed you’ll be. Also, in this organization process I always recommend students create a master list of every single essay prompt. Then, analyze each prompt and color code them by topic. That way, a student might have 20 essay prompts to answer but only six actual essays to write that they tweak to fit the 20 prompts. With good planning, this process can be streamlined.
Dig deeper into the admissions process and get help on some of the most important aspects in these topic-specific guides: