Graduate school isn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. It takes years of research and planning before you’re ready to apply to your dream program. Even once you decide on a school, you’re often up against tough competition, especially in highly selective programs such as Duke University. It only accepts one in six applicants.
From your grades to your letters of recommendation, your application needs to show the admissions committee that you’re the right candidate. Then, once you’re accepted, you’ll still have more work to do. Planning for everything from housing to finances can feel almost as stressful as applying.
The reality is every step of planning for graduate school can be overwhelming. Luckily, there are some easy actions you can take to get ready for grad school. After reading this guide, you’ll be prepared to find the right program for you, navigate the application process, find funding options, and prepare for the first day of class. Plus don’t forget to download our handy checklist to keep yourself on track.
Where Should You Start? With a Checklist
With so many critical steps to keep in mind and an all-important timeline to follow, getting organized is vital. A checklist can help you ensure that you don’t miss deadlines. Create your own or use ours to get—and stay—on track.
Before You Apply: Lay the Groundwork
There are many reasons you might want to get a master’s degree, from changing career fields to being a more attractive candidate for promotions at work. No matter why you’re continuing your education, one fact remains the same: it takes years to set the foundation for success in graduate school. Before you start your application, ensure you have the prerequisites, the network, and the right program for your professional goals.
While each graduate program has specific admission requirements, most prerequisites are the same for a degree. Let’s say you want to get your master’s in nutrition. Most likely, you’ll need to have completed specific undergraduate coursework in nutrition and anatomy. If you didn’t take the required classes during your undergraduate career, you might have to take them at a local community college or online before applying. Some programs also will accept job experience or a certificate in place of specific undergraduate courses.
For more experience-based fields, such as a master’s in criminal justice, you also might need job experience before applying. Some master’s degrees are designed for those who are entering a field, and others are designed for those who already work in a field. Finding the correct type of program to match your previous experience is vital. For example, if you want to get your master’s in education but don’t have your teaching license, make sure to find a program that includes licensure. Otherwise, your shiny new master’s degree won’t be as useful as it could be.
Networking and Beyond the Classroom
Along with completing the required coursework, it’s also important to network and pursue professional opportunities beyond the classroom. Graduate school is a big commitment for your time and wallet. Networking and professional experiences can confirm that you’re on the right path before you commit to grad school. Networking could include talking with those already working in your field, students in a desired graduate school program, and professors in a specific program. Start this process two to three years before you’ll apply to graduate school.
For example, if you want to get your master’s in chemistry, you could reach out to your cousin who works in the field, a student enrolled in your dream program, and a professor who could serve as a research mentor. These informational interviews will give you a better idea of if this master’s is the path you want to pursue. Similarly, completing an internship at a chemical production company could provide you with hands-on experience that will help you confirm your decision to pursue your master’s and enhance your application.
Programs and Professors
No two graduate programs are alike, even if in the end they offer the same degree. This is why it’s essential to do thorough research before applying. When starting your research, write out a list of all the program qualities that are important to you and potential programs you could apply to. Research these graduate programs and see how they compare to your list of dream program qualities. Consider how good of a match they are and if they provide the right benefits for your career.
When researching programs, pay close attention to the professors. Since graduate school often involves a thesis or other research-intensive capstone project, it’s essential to identify several professors you’d want to work with in each program you apply to. Consider how their current research aligns with your professional and educational interests. When researching, remember that the program’s national ranking shouldn’t matter as much as if the program and the professors are a good fit for your professional goals.
Ace Your Grad School Application
Let’s say there’s one spot left in a graduate program, and the admissions officers are considering two applicants. Both applicants have an above-average GRE and GPA, but one went above and beyond on their application while the other didn’t follow directions on certain parts. The first student will get the spot. Make sure that’s you by tailoring your application to a graduate program and paying attention to each part of the application, including your GRE score, letters of recommendation, and writing samples. For more information on specific sections of your graduate school application, check out our free resources guide.
A GREat Score
While not every program requires this standardized test, a great score on the GRE can often set your application apart. The minimum score for each section is usually 600, though the higher your score, the better. To ensure you have time to study and take the GRE a couple of times before applying, try to sign up for the GRE during the junior year of your undergraduate degree or, if you’re not applying directly after your bachelor’s, one to two years before applying to graduate school. If you’re looking at medical or law school, this same timeline applies to the MCAT or LSAT.
Letters of Recommendation
You know you’re an excellent fit for a program, but a graduate school committee won’t just take your word for it. They want to hear how amazing you are from others as well. That’s where letters of recommendation come in. When gathering all your materials for graduate school, ask at least three people to write letters of recommendation. At least one should be from your department or able to speak about your knowledge in the master’s program’s discipline.
When you ask someone to write a letter of recommendation for you, make sure you give them at least three weeks, so they don’t feel rushed when writing. The more time you give them, the better. After you ask someone to write a letter of recommendation and they accept, you should also send them a list of any previous work you’ve done together, anything you’d want them to highlight, and which attributes the graduate program is looking for that they can speak about.
Your writing samples are a critical part of the application, especially if you’re applying to a program that involves rigorous research, such as a master’s in psychology or a program that is writing-intensive, such as a master’s in communications. Other subjects and programs, such as an MBA, are less likely to require writing samples.
When selecting writing samples, include robust assignments and past research topics that include methodology, a literature review, and original research. You also want to ensure they present solid arguments and logic, follow the suggested length that the graduate program expects, and follow any other directions on the application.
The personal statement should act as a narrative of your educational past, present, and future. It’s an intellectual plan that showcases how a specific program will allow you to achieve your academic and professional goals. When writing, try to incorporate how you learned about a particular program and why that program is the one for you. The summer before you apply, plan to spend at least a couple of weeks drafting and revising your personal statement.
Along with test scores, your personal statement, and writing samples, you probably have other documentation you need to submit. For example, most programs require you to submit your transcripts. If you’re looking for financial aid, complete your FAFSA and any scholarship or fellowship applications. Read and reread each application’s directions so that you submit the correct supplementary documents for each program.
You’ve Been Accepted. Now What?
Phew. You got through the graduate school applications and have secured a spot in a fantastic program. Now that you’re part of the next cohort, what should you do? There are a couple of actions you should consider taking right after you get accepted and the summer before you start graduate school. If possible, make a to-do list of everything you need to take care of before the semester begins.
As soon as you’ve accepted your spot in a graduate school program, send thank you letters to your recommendation writers. You also should make sure to read any admitted student information. Take notes on different deadlines for payments and scheduling courses, important details on the program, and the date when the program starts.
If you haven’t visited the campus, now is also a great time to schedule a visit. You can even email the program and see if any professors or students in the program are willing to meet you during your campus visit. This is also a great time to figure out the easiest way to get to campus, whether by car, walking, biking, or public transport.
Use the summer before graduate school starts to figure out the logistics of your program. During this time, you’ll most likely be asked to create a class schedule. Make sure it meets your professional goals and degree requirements.
Additionally, consider your finances and if you want to get an on-campus job for additional cash. Spring and summer are the best times to apply for on-campus employment for the fall semester. Once you’re accepted, you also may be eligible for other scholarships and financial aid to make your program more affordable.
Cost and Funding Your Grad School
While getting a master’s degree is an amazing intellectual and career-building experience, it isn’t always so great for your wallet. Funding graduate school can be a challenge and can cause additional stress. Luckily, there are a variety of solutions available to you. Let’s review eight of the most common and how you can take advantage of each. If you’d like to learn more, check out our guide to funding graduate school.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) is a program open to all Americans pursuing college or graduate school. Once you fill out the form, the federal government assesses your financial need and provides need-based scholarships and subsidized loans.
Unlike the FASFA, merit-based aid doesn’t consider your economic situation. Instead, these programs look at your grades, extracurriculars, and other academic considerations. Merit-based assistance takes the form of scholarships, reduced tuition prices, and fellowship programs.
Other than student loans, scholarships are the most common form of financial aid. They’re given by universities, nonprofits, and professional organizations to students who meet specific criteria. Award amounts vary, and each program has its own application process.
Similar to a scholarship, a fellowship provides funding to those who meet certain criteria. Unlike a scholarship, a fellowship often includes additional requirements once you’re at school, such as attending certain events, conducting research, and other activities that contribute to academic life on campus.
Graduate and Teaching Assistantships
Many programs have assistantships to help students fund their graduate studies. An assistantship can consist of helping a professor with a research project or taking on some teaching responsibilities in undergraduate courses.
If you’re currently employed and interested in attending graduate school, your employer might offer financial assistance. Check with your human resources department if an employer assistance program exists, the specific requirements for the program, and how much they’re willing to reimburse.
If you’re serving in the military or have served in the past, you may be eligible for financial assistance. Consider joining ROTC or a similar program where the military pays for your education in exchange for training during your studies and agreeing to serve for a specific period after you graduate or during the summers.
If your program is research-intensive, you may be eligible for a grant, which is money set aside to support the costs of conducting research. Sometimes grants also can be used to offset the cost of tuition. Check with your specific department and larger academic bodies in your discipline to see what grants are available.
Loans are one of the most common ways to fund graduate school. If possible, apply for student loans, as they often have lower interest rates than other types of loans.
Still Need More Aid?
When you get accepted to graduate school, your program will most likely send a financial aid package. But sometimes that package doesn’t meet all your needs. If this is the case, you have several steps you can take. First, you can report updated financial information to your program and try to appeal your offer if your financial situation has changed. Additionally, you can apply for scholarships, grants, assistantship positions, and on-campus jobs to offset tuition costs.
Keeping Up with a Social Life in Grad School
Graduate school has a way of sucking up all your free time and leaving you without a social life. While you should devote significant time and effort to your studies, you don’t have to sacrifice your social life. A healthy social life can support you emotionally during your graduate school journey.
But how exactly can you balance graduate school and social life? Here are our top 10 tips:
- Combine your studies with friendship by starting a study group. Meet weekly in the library or common space in your department.
- Invite classmates to work out with you at the university gym. This allows you to stay healthy and socialize at the same time.
- Attend departmental events to meet others who share your academic interests. (Bonus: Often these events include free food.)
- Join an on-campus club or organization. The group you join might be related to your major, or it might support a hobby completely unrelated to your program. For example, a math major who is passionate about painting might join an art club.
- Stay in touch with your current friends by scheduling regular calls or times to meet up in person if you live in the same geographic area.
- Invite other members of your cohort to attend a concert or other university-sponsored event with you.
- Create a tradition in your cohort where you all get together to celebrate birthdays.
- Ask other graduate students if they’d like to attend a university sporting event with you, such as an upcoming football game or tennis match.
- Join an online support group for graduate students—or even one specifically for graduate students in your major.
- Attend research conferences to network with those in your discipline from other institutions.
Five Tips to Finding Graduate Housing
If you plan to head out of town for your master’s degree, you’ll need to look for housing. Your university may offer on-campus graduate housing. To find out, search the university’s website or ask your admissions counselor. However, many students want to live off campus since it’s often cheaper. If this is the case for you, check how far in advance you need to secure off-campus housing.
As you’re looking for housing, keep these five tips in mind:
- Set your housing budget before you look.
- Join a Facebook group for graduate students at your university to find roommates.
- Consider asking others who are entering the cohort for your program if they’re looking for a roommate.
- If it’s an option, apply to be a Resident Assistant (RA). RAs often get free or reduced-price housing.
- For tips on off-campus housing options, reach out to current students who have the inside scoop on your university town.
Expert Discusses Overlooked Planning Steps
For a more in-depth look at the planning process, we interviewed graduate school expert Alexandria Duffney. Check out their insider tips for those applying to and attending graduate school:
Alexandria Duffney has spent the past 14 years in higher education enrollment management and worked with many student types, including traditional undergraduates through graduate and doctoral enrollment. Duffney is an active member of the higher education enrollment management community and has presented on enrollment strategy, data infrastructure, and team optimization at national conferences, including the Graduate Nursing Admissions Professional Conference, the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals, and the Slate Innovation Summit. Duffney served as director of admissions at the University of Rochester School of Nursing and joined Elon University as dean of graduate admissions.
Q. What is the biggest factor people overlook on grad school applications?
A: Each school and program may have a different process by which they review and admit students. Some schools enroll more frequently, and others only once per year. So really understanding the unique parameters of the application process at each institution can help applicants compile a compelling application for review. Many programs request written responses in the form of personal statements and, more and more frequently, short answer responses. Taking time to read the prompts fully and addressing them completely can go a long way in the application review. Generally, written responses are used to better understand individual perspectives and motivation as well as provide context or continuity within the application. While personal statements aren’t typically evaluated as formal academic writing examples, it’s important to be intentional and authentic with your tone, structure, and grammar in your responses. Don’t be afraid to use specific examples about why you’re interested in pursuing this degree, how you intend to use your education, and examples of growth that define the type of student you will be in this new academic setting.
Q. If you could give those who are applying to graduate school right now one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Take some time to connect with the admissions team to learn about the application and evaluation process, as well as research and engage with faculty or prospective students. Finding a program to meet your educational goals and needs is a big part of finding the right program. Attending open houses or visiting with admissions and faculty is a great way to get a sense of the learning culture, but if there are no events available, or offered in a time or format which you can attend, ask to be connected to the community to learn more about the experience of being in the program.
Q. What’s one thing you wish applicants knew after they accept a position in a graduate program?
A: Most students understand the significance of entering graduate school, and it is certainly an impressive thing to see students grow and become empowered to transform their environments and lead within their industries through the acquisition of new information and skills. Something new graduate students may not completely understand after accepting a seat in a graduate program, though, is how their perspectives, needs and experiences actively inform the future of the learning community, casting a reach far beyond their individual time in the classroom. The growth and innovation I have seen stem from student perspectives being incorporated into active teaching, learning, and inclusion practices are quite impressive!
Q. What’s an underrated way to help fund graduate school?
A: Many institutions provide merit scholarships or stipends for graduate students. However, there are often externally funded scholarships available for students interested in attending graduate school. These opportunities vary in amount and are often niche-based. There may be scholarships or grants for which graduate students can qualify based on the program(s) to which they are applying, as well as various experiences, attributes and metrics they individually possess. Depending on individual circumstances, financing may also be available through education savings programs, veterans’ benefits, or through employee tuition benefits/remission. Graduate students also are eligible to borrow federal student loans to help finance their education. So if students are able to enroll at least part-time, this may be a financing option to consider. There are instances where inquiring about private educational loans can also help to cover the cost of attendance. Graduate students can often leverage many of these resources to finance their education in consultation with financial aid offices, their local banks and credit unions, and other personal financial resources. Many institutions also offer payment plans where students make installment payments throughout the year, which can help break tuition into more manageable payments, but this process can sometimes feel overwhelming. Reaching out to the institution(s) to which you are applying and working with a financial aid counselor is always a great place to start.
Q. How can graduate students balance work, life, and school?
A: There are a few great things to keep in mind to ensure success and balance while enrolled in graduate school. Generally, identifying strategies for time management, organization, study skills, and self-awareness of your own learning style tends to promote success in graduate school. There are a few other things which help a lot, too, including identifying/cultivating a support network, be that classroom peer, family, or friends who can support you not only academically but personally through your period of education and growth. Graduate school is an amazing investment in yourself but introduces new elements to balance in what is oftentimes an already complex and demanding mix. Having integrity partners to help motivate (or sit with) you during challenging times, support you emotionally through struggles, and celebrate your successes is a major resource for graduate students’ success. Lastly, a graduate-level study is often grounded in content, ideas, and concepts which are already deeply interesting to those pursuing their education. The challenge of graduate-level study is rewarded by gaining knowledge and skills about things which are specifically and intrinsically motivating to students. Growing in this capacity within a community that values similar subjects, who are in a similar growth chapter, is very rewarding, albeit challenging at times.