As with the job search, your graduate school application process starts long before you actually apply. This may include taking prerequisite courses and standardized tests, or building relationships with faculty. So, plan ahead!
If you’ve clarified your goals and researched programs, you’re probably ready to dive in! Remember, these applications may be time-intensive, so start early. As a rule of thumb, be sure to allot at least one month to prepare them. Even better, start working on your application materials the summer before you apply.
Showcasing Your Metrics and Motivation
In your graduate school application you’re aiming to show the admissions committee two things:
- Your motivation: why you’re interested in this school, in this field, at this time
- Your metrics: that you’re ready for graduate-level work
What’s in the Application
Each element of the application adds a new dimension to your motivation and metrics. Here’s what they are and how they fit into the application as a whole
Personal Statements and Statements of Purpose
Some graduate programs will ask you for a personal statement, and others for a statement of purpose. What’s the difference?
It depends on your field and program of interest.
- Statement of Purpose. If you’re applying for a masters or PhD program, you’ll likely be asked for a statement of purpose. This statement shows your experience, interests, and goals in the field. These should, in turn, make clear your fit for the department. You’ll also want to clearly articulate your motivation for pursuing an advanced degree, and how it will influence your career path. For PhD programs, this statement will center on who you are as a scholar and researcher. Remember, the committee wants to know how you’ll contribute to their academic community.
- Personal Statement. If you’re applying for a medical or law degree, you’ll probably be writing a personal statement. A personal statement usually has a stronger narrative element, which may integrate an anecdote or scenes from your experience. As with the statement of purpose, you’ll want the reader to come away with a clear sense of your commitment to the field. In addition, you’ll aim to showcase the qualities you have that will help you succeed in that program or that field.
Keep in mind, this terminology and guidelines are not set in stone. Pay attention to what topics or questions the application asks you to answer in your statement, and be sure to address them. And when in doubt, consult your advisers and mentors. Your preprofessional adviser will be able to provide insight into statements for graduate programs in medicine, public health, law, or business. For programs in the humanities, social sciences, or sciences, your professors will likely have the most valuable advice.
Whatever type of statement you’re asked to write, take advantage of the opportunity to bring your story to life. Make sure your essay is concise and clear, and does not simply restate your resume.
Finally, begin drafting early—ideally, the summer before you apply. This will ensure that you have plenty of time to seek feedback from professors and advisers and revise, revise, revise.
Resume or CV
Your resume or CV will help show the committee your academic achievements, work, and extracurricular experiences. They are another piece of the story you craft to show the admissions committee why you want to attend their program and what experiences have prepared you for it. These documents can also be a place to put in something fun about yourself to remind the committee that you have additional interests.
Follow the instructions about which type of document to submit. As with your essays, you can seek field-specific feedback from your faculty mentors or preprofessional adviser and generalist feedback from CCE advisers and the Writing Center.
Letters of Recommendation
You’ll likely be asked to submit two to five letters. Usually at least one academic reference is required. In some cases, an employer or supervisor may serve as a reference.
Your letters of recommendation can speak to both your motivation and your metrics. Make sure that you provide your recommenders with any information they’ll need to write a strong letter specific to your unique story and interests. This may include:
- Your application deadlines
- Your transcript
- Your resume or CV
- A draft of your personal statement or statement of purpose
- If the recommender is a professor, the grade(s) you received in their course and a sample of your work, if applicable
- Your contact information
- Instructions about how to submit the letter of recommendation
- A stamped and addressed envelope so that the recommender may send the letter directly to the school(s) you are applying to, if the letter will not be submitted online
Because at least one of these letters will be from a professor, it’s ideal to build relationships with faculty during your time in school. You can do this by taking multiple classes with the same professor, attending office hours, writing a senior thesis, and even seeking out research opportunities with them, like independent studies.
Remember, faculty members write letters of recommendation as a courtesy. Occasionally, if a professor is uncomfortable writing a letter, they may decline. If this happens, you should look for another reference rather than try to convince them to change their mind.
Finally, don’t forget to give your recommenders plenty of time to write! We’d suggest requesting recommendations at least one month before the deadline. Be sure to always thank your recommenders and keep them apprised of the outcome.
GPA and Transcript
Your GPA and transcript demonstrate your academic preparedness for the program. If a particular issue affected your grades, you may want to briefly explain it in your statement or an addenda essay. If so, explain it concisely—do not be defensive.
Current students and recent alumni can order transcripts through Student Services Online (SSOL). If you graduated before 2001, you can request your official transcript from the registrar. There is no charge for either service. You may want to request that your transcripts be sent out after your fall grades have been calculated into your GPA.
Many schools require specific standardized tests for admissions, such as the GRE, MCAT, GMAT, or LSAT. Another metric, these tests may be more or less important depending on the program. In addition, depending on the test, a significant amount of studying may be necessary. It may be easier to take these tests while you’re in student mode, rather than years after graduation.
While planning your application process, identify test dates and how long it takes to score results. Consider taking your tests over the summer before you apply, or even the previous spring. This will build in time in case you want to retake them.
- Undergraduate Research and Fellowships: This office at Columbia has great worksheets and resources for brainstorming your story, tackling your research proposal, requesting letters of recommendation, and preparing for interviews.
- Drew University Career Center (Graduate School section): A comprehensive overview of all phases of the graduate school application process
- Admissions Essays: Guidance on writing admissions and scholarship essays