How to Apply to Graduate School

How to Apply to Graduate School

Half the battle in graduate school admissions is choosing the right PhD program for you, which is closely related to choosing the right advisor.

In fact, that’s where it all starts, so go read that post first, then come back here for our advice on the actual application.

Read it? Ok, good.

Now that have you figured out what kind of graduate program and which schools you want to apply to, you’ll need to articulate your reasons to each graduate program through the various parts of your application. From the recommendations to the transcripts to the essay, your entire application should tell a coherent story about your motivations for graduate study and your unique fit with the particular program to which you are applying.

Some elements of the application may seem less under your control than others, but with an early start, long-term planning, and a strategic approach, you can maximize each part of your application.


Ask early (ie, not two months before the deadline) and ask immediately. If you had a phenomenal spring class with a professor you really liked, ask for a recommendation while that professor’s memory of you is still fresh! Then, once you’ve determined which schools you’ll apply to, send the official recommendation form to your recommender along with a copy of your CV and personal statement. This will make your recommender’s job easier, as well as nudge him or her towards the narrative you are presenting in the rest of your application.

 Standardized Tests

Take a practice test as soon as you think you want to apply to graduate school, and determine as early as you can whether you can study on your own or whether you need outside assistance. A high score can not only help your chances of admission, but it can also help you win additional funding.

Writing/Research Samples

Sift through previous work to identify solid pieces of writing or research that demonstrate your capability for independent research at an advanced level. If something is close but not perfect, put in additional work and revise it until it’s right!


If your program requires an interview, enlist a friend or colleague to help you with mock interviews and give you feedback. Even if there are no interviews, some programs may invite you for an admit weekend and make funding decisions based on how you are in person, so always be on your best behavior! You are always being evaluated (and get used to this, because that’s how the rest of graduate school will be, too).

Personal Statement

Now, when it comes to the personal statement, you must remember that your fit with the school is not based on personality and values in the way it was with college. No, no—your fit in graduate school is all about your academic interests. Your statement, accordingly, should describe your interest in the field to which you are applying, your preparation for higher-level study, and how graduate training is an absolute necessity for achieving your goals. Mention any potential advisors you’ve connected with and discuss in detail how their work might inform yours.

In the end, remember that programs do not like to admit PhD students without being able to fund them. Your description of your academic interests should make the case that you are worth the investment, so demonstrate your professionalism, qualifications, and intellectual rigor.

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Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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