Graduate Application Guide

Graduate school marks a major step forward in a student’s educational career. Advanced degrees open new career paths, and can lead to increased earning potential. However, applicants typically find the graduate school admissions process significantly more competitive. Thorough research and proper preparation will greatly increase your chances of success.

While exact requirements vary via each institution’s internal policies, you will typically submit the following when applying to graduate school:

  • Application Form
  • Academic Transcripts From Previously Attended Colleges
  • Standardized Test Scores
  • Application Fees

Many graduate programs also require prospective students to include personal statements or statements of purpose. These are typically short, written essays explaining your reasons for pursuing admission to the graduate program. They often play a critical role in the evaluation process. Similarly, schools often require applicants to offer references or letters of recommendation, which must come from qualified academics or established professionals with experience in the student’s intended field of study.

Another valuable tip to consider: schools may put you in touch with current graduate students who have indicated a willingness to mentor incoming cohorts. If the program you’re applying to is particularly competitive, asking a current student for advice could give your application the boost it needs. Contact the department directly to see if this option is available.

Is Work Experience a Prerequisite to a Graduate Program?

Some graduate schools prefer to admit candidates with several years of related work experience with their bachelor’s degree. Master's of business administration (MBA) programs are particularly known for these work experience requirements, but such prerequisites might apply to programs in any field requiring advanced qualitative analysis skills. Theoretical fields, like the humanities and social sciences, usually place less emphasis on work experience, as do programs leading to terminal graduate degrees like a master of fine arts (MFA).

Graduate schools often look favorably on applicants with related work experience because their skills are more likely to foster academic success. Having several years of professional development also signals a strong commitment to the field of study, and demonstrates the student’s intent to parlay their graduate education into a long-term career. Alternately, some students require knowledge that can only be attained through extensive, hands-on experience.

Most American graduate schools require applicants to submit standardized test scores, with the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) and Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) being the most common. Test centers typically charge between about $70 and $100 for the MAT, which challenges your ability to detect semantic, hierarchical, associative, and logical analogical relationships between multiple items over a 60-minute testing period. Current GRE fees are $205 in most parts of the world, with this widely accepted exam testing your verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills. For a modest extra fee, you can also sign up for official practice tests to prepare you for the actual exam.

By and large, American graduate schools prefer the GRE. However, a growing number accept the MAT as an alternative. You should always check with the schools you’re considering to see which they prefer. In some cases, you may qualify for a standardized test waiver allowing you to circumvent these exam requirements when you apply to graduate school.

MAT/GRE Waiver

If you already have extensive work experience, or a documented condition inhibiting you from performing to your full capabilities on timed exams, you can request an MAT or GRE waiver. Submit your request to the graduate school’s admissions office, explaining your reasons for seeking an exemption. The admissions office will send a waiver petition if one is available, which you must complete and return. Admissions officials will consider your request and inform you of their decision. Having this denied will not negatively impact your application. Instead, you then have to take the required exam and submit your score.

Keep in mind some graduate programs do not require applicants to submit test scores, usually because the program’s designers and administrators do not consider them accurate predictors of student performance. In lieu of the MAT or GRE, schools may consider previous professional experience and academic performance.

Breakdown of MAT Scores

MAT scores are scaled from 200 to 600, with 400 marking the average (mean). Your score is reported within this range, along with two percentile rankings. These indicate the percentage of test-takers you outperformed -- from 1 to 99. If you rank in the 80th percentile, this means you earned a better score than 80% of test-takers.

The first MAT percentile ranking reports how you fared against other test-takers in your intended field of study, while the second percentile ranking places you against all test-takers within the “current norm group.” This consists of everyone who took the MAT exam for the first time within the four-year period ending on Dec. 31 of the previous calendar year.

When you take the MAT at a certified testing center, you can see a preliminary score report at the end of the exam. This unofficial report intends to give you an idea of how you fared, though your actual score requires formal verification. You should receive an official score report within 10 to 15 business days after taking the test.

While a score of 400 is at the 50th percentile, a score just 10 points higher vaults you to the 70th percentile. Anything above 425 is considered exceptional. Exact score requirements vary by school, ranging from about 375 at the low end to 405-plus at the high end. You will usually meet the minimum score cutoff at most graduate schools with a score of 400.

MAT Scores and Percentiles
Score Percentile
400-404 50th percentile
405-409 60th percentile
410-415 70th percentile
416-420 80th percentile
421-425 90th percentile
430-440 95th percentile
450-600 99th percentile
Source: Pearson Assessments

Breakdown of GRE Scores

GRE scores are a bit different than MAT scores. The GRE test contains three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. Each section is scored separately.

Verbal and quantitative reasoning scores range between 130 to 170, and rise in one-point increments. Analytical writing scores range from 0 to 6, and scale up in half-point increments. You might see test results of 158 on verbal reasoning, 155 on quantitative reasoning, and 4.5 on analytical writing. If you do not answer any questions within a given section, your report indicates no score (NS) for that section.

Certified testing centers deliver official transcripts of your results directly to the graduate schools you are applying to

Your GRE score is available 10 to 15 days after completion. Certified testing centers deliver official transcripts of your results directly to the graduate schools you are applying to, and you can view your scores online by logging in to your Educational Testing Service (ETS) account. The ETS is the official developer and provider of the GRE. If you opt out of the computer-delivered GRE and instead take a paper version, you instead receive your score by mail.

It is difficult to generalize about GRE score requirements, given that arts, humanities, and social sciences programs usually place a higher premium on verbal reasoning and analytical writing. Mathematics and science programs are typically are more interested in your quantitative reasoning score. Graduate schools specify minimum GRE score requirements for verbal and quantitative reasoning in their application information materials, so consult these before taking the test to be better prepared.

Current GRE score averages are as follows:

  • Verbal: 150
  • Quantitative: 152
  • Analytical Writing: 3.5

Performing at or above these levels often satisfies application requirements at graduate schools with moderate expectations. More competitive programs usually favor applicants with verbal and quantitative scores in the 160 range.

GRE Score Percentiles for 2017 – 2018
Scaled Score Verbal Reasoning Percentile Rank Quantitative Reasoning Percentile Rank
170 99 97
160 85 76
150 47 39
140 11 8
Source: ETS

Transcripts

As you learn about applying for graduate school, you invariably encounter requirements to submit your transcripts. Transcripts are official records of your academic performance at schools you have attended, and include itemized lists of the final grades you earned in every class you took as well as your cumulative grade point average (GPA). Graduate schools usually want transcripts from all postsecondary institutions you attended, regardless of whether you completed your program.

Graduate schools look at your previous coursework, grades, and GPA to gauge whether you have the right academic background for the program you’re applying to, and to ensure you have an acceptable history of scholastic performance. Admissions officials consider these factors strong predictors of academic success at the graduate level.

Graduate schools look at your previous coursework, grades, and GPA to gauge whether you have the right academic background for the program you’re applying to

Many American colleges now authorize the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) to obtain and deliver official transcripts for graduate school applications on your behalf. If the undergraduate schools you attended are not signatory to NCS authorizations, contact the registrar’s office for help. Transcript costs vary by school but are usually nominal. You should start the process early, as it can take some time to complete and it is beyond your control once initiated.

As with standardized test scores, GPA requirements vary widely. At the low end, you need a GPA around 2.5 to qualify for graduate school, while highly competitive programs only consider applicants with GPAs of 3.5-plus.

Test Scores

The MAT and GRE follow similar score submission processes. On test day, you can specify schools to which you want your scores submitted. This occurs automatically, once the testing center tallies your official results. The MAT allows up to three schools, while the GRE permits four. No additional fees are required for this service for either test if you stay within those maximum limits.

If you exceed those limits or have not yet decided which schools you’re applying to, you must order additional transcripts at a later date. Currently, additional MAT transcripts cost $25 each and GRE transcripts cost $27.

Resume

Some schools will request a resume or curriculum vitae (CV) with your application. These documents allow admissions officials to more thoroughly evaluate your candidacy by considering your extracurricular and professional activities. Strong resumes are:

  • Clear, focused, and easy to follow
  • Organized into sections (education, work experience, internships, etc.)
  • Presented with items in reverse chronological order, with the most recent undertakings at the top of each section
  • Free of grammatical and spelling errors
  • Relevant to the graduate school program, with irrelevant information omitted

Good resumes also use formatting aids like bullet points to organize information and use strong action verbs explaining activities. Beyond violating these best practices guidelines, weaker resumes fail to convey a compelling summary of the applicant’s activities, usually because they are light on information or contain wide gaps.

You can mask areas of weakness with extra emphasis on your resume’s strong areas. If you have a diverse, comprehensive education but lack work experience, go into deeper detail by elaborating on specifics. Highlight noteworthy achievements, like making the Dean’s List or landing a prestigious teaching assistantship.

To cover gaps, use year ranges instead of narrower, more specific ones. You can say you worked a job from “2016 - 2017” instead of “September 2016 - January 2017.” Rather than leave a wide, years-long gap on your resume, dig deep to find something relevant to include. Volunteering, community service, extracurricular activities, professional development undertakings, and certification training all offer valid, relevant options for filling in gaps.

Professional feedback always helps, so consult the career center at your undergraduate college if you want reliable advice on how to build a better graduate school application resume.

Essays and Personal Statements

Graduate schools frequently ask prospective students to submit an admissions essay or statement of purpose. These two terms actually have subtle, but important differences. Admissions essays provide a chance to distinguish yourself from other applicants by explaining exactly your fit for the program. Statements of purpose take a more precise focus, asking what you specifically hope to get out of the program, how you plan to use the school’s resources, and how your graduate school experience will bridge where you are now and where you hope to be in the future.

Some schools give applicants wide latitude in deciding what to discuss in their essays, while others provide prompts. Common prompts include:

  • How do you plan to use your degree to further your career objectives?
  • What are your long-term professional goals?
  • Where do you see yourself five or 10 years after graduation?
  • How do your academic or research interests align with the interests of our faculty members?
  • Discuss a personal or academic achievement you are particularly proud of, and explain why

Be sure the content of your essay does not meander off topic, and use these tips to write a more engaging and compelling statement:

  • Craft a thought-provoking opening that grabs the reader’s attention
  • Design the first paragraph to set up the rest of the essay, and use the body paragraphs to support the statements you made in the opening
  • Provide examples and evidence to back up claims you make about yourself
  • Build the essay so it concludes with a meaningful explanation of why you are a good candidate
  • Make the essay an accurate reflection of your personality

Avoid cliches, insubstantial or superficial filler content, and presenting yourself in an overly idealized light. Admitting some of your flaws and explaining how you hope to overcome them in graduate school can actually strengthen your work.

Some schools make the essay optional. In such cases, it is a good idea to submit one, especially if you want to convey something your other application materials do not communicate.

For examples of good graduate school admissions essays, check these samples from Purdue University’s online writing lab.

Letters of Recommendation

Admissions officials often ask for multiple letters of recommendation. They typically request at least three, with many programs requiring at least one to come from someone other than a past professor. For this outside recommendation, schools tend to favor letters from working professionals who have built successful careers in the same field as your graduate program.

The people you approach for recommendation letters should have solid, verifiable credentials. While it is tempting to seek out highly accomplished professors and professionals that you have crossed paths with, it is actually better to get letters of recommendation from people who know you well and can authentically vouch for your skills, talents, and dedication. A detailed, specific recommendation from an adjunct faculty member is better than a few vague, generic words of praise from a world-renowned professor you met once in passing.

Ask your references to discuss your early and recent achievements. If necessary, provide them with a list of things to reference in the letter. Many schools require references to submit letters directly to the admissions department, rather than having you submit them. You should follow up with your references a week or two after they agree to write the letter, and at least a month or six weeks before the submission deadline.

English Proficiency Tests

If English is not your first language, or if you are an international student from a country where English is not the official language, you must pass a proficiency test to attend an American graduate school. The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is the most common test, but your school may require one like the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) or Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC).

These tests evaluate your mastery of four key language skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing, and your ability to synthesize these skills. During the test, you will answer questions related to written passages and spoken lectures, discussions, and conversations. You will also be asked to write compositions on factual and opinion based topics.

At Christian and secular institutes of higher learning, the process of applying to graduate school is similar. Check application opening dates and deadlines carefully, and leave yourself plenty of time for delivery. If you discover the application deadline for a graduate school program is just a few weeks away, it is likely a better idea to prepare for the next application period rather than scramble to put together a substandard dossier.

Unlike undergraduate programs, graduate schools typically avoid CommonApp to manage student applications to multiple institutions. Interfolio is the closest equivalent, but given the competitive nature of graduate admissions, you should give each application thorough individual attention.

Application fees generally fall between $75 to $100

Most graduate schools allow applicants to submit most or all of their materials digitally, but exceptions apply. Always check with each school, and never assume that digital delivery is an option; leave yourself ample time to mail materials to schools.

Application fees generally fall between $75 to $100. No-fee application processes are rare, and some can cost $200-plus. However, you might qualify to have application fees waived if you belong to a low-income bracket or disadvantaged population group. Contact each school for further waiver information.

Rolling Admissions

Rolling admissions feature wide-ranging time windows during which schools continuously accept applications. This application window typically spans six months or more, and some schools even offer admissions all year, assuming they have adequate space to welcome incoming students. Successful applicants qualify to commence studies at the beginning of the next semester instead of strictly during the fall, and schools with rolling application schedules typically make admissions decisions relatively quickly. Undergraduate programs tend to offer rolling admissions more often than graduate programs, but some graduate schools offer them.

Rolling admissions benefit students who need time to assess their options, complete standardized tests, or prepare application materials. graduate schools with rolling admissions tend to have more inclusive admissions standards, so they also serve as useful fall-back options if you are not offered admission to your preferred program(s).

Rounds Admissions

Graduate schools tend to use a system known as rounds admissions more frequently than rolling admissions. With rounds admissions, students can apply during multiple timeframes during the academic year. Most rounds admissions specify three cut-off dates: one for each of the fall, spring, and summer semesters. However, some offer more than three, and effectively accept applications on an ongoing basis throughout the calendar year.

Applying during the first round -- for fall entry -- sends a strong signal you have been considering the school for quite some time and wish to launch a serious bid for admissions consideration. Statistically, graduate schools usually accept a higher percentage of applicants from this first round, and as such, you can slightly increase your likelihood of success by applying for fall entry to the program. As with rolling admissions, rounds admissions benefit students weighing multiple program options, as well as students in need of more time to gather application materials and complete application requirements.

If you’re like most graduate school applicants, waiting on the results of your efforts will leave you compulsively checking your mailbox while holding back fears of bad news. It is normal to experience these anxieties, and preparing for the worst while maintaining cautious optimism can help you bounce back if things do not turn out as you had hoped.

Graduate schools typically do not start making admissions decisions until after application windows have closed and all forthcoming applications are in hand. Schools also must allow successful applicants plenty of time to make necessary arrangements, as incoming students may be moving long distances to attend. You can reasonably expect to hear back sometime after admissions have closed, but at least six to eight weeks before your intended program start date.

Weigh your options by evaluating the school’s reputation, the costs and logistics of attending

Some admissions decisions neither accept nor reject you, but rather place you on a waiting list. Many students describe this as the most difficult position, as it leaves you in limbo. Schools may not tell you exactly what position you occupy on the waiting list unless you reach the very top and can expect an admission offer imminently. Should you end up waitlisted, follow the school’s instructions carefully to avoid jeopardizing your position if you remain interested in attending, and find out as much as you can about the likelihood of receiving an admissions offer.

Rejection never feels good, but you can use it as a learning and growth opportunity. Contact the school to see if they can offer any insights into why they turned down your entry bid so you can strengthen future applications. Remain professional, polite, and positive in doing so. Otherwise, you risk closing doors that might otherwise have remained open.

If you receive multiple offers of admission, congratulations! Weigh your options by evaluating the school’s reputation, the costs and logistics of attending, and how each choice might impact your future career prospects. In the end, choose the school that feels right for you while offering the optimal balance of affordability, accessibility, and educational quality.