How to Apply For Graduate School: A Step-by-Step Guide

Filed in Tips & Tricks by on February 4, 2019 1 Comment

Between the first time you say “I’m thinking about going to grad school” and your first actual grad class, there are a few decisions to make—and a few procedural hurdles to clear.

As with any new task, there is a learning curve. Unfortunately, applying to graduate school is something few people do often enough to get good at.

So to help you along, here’s a guide to the steps you’re most likely to take in completing your grad school application, including a few pro tips.


Step 1: Test Scores

What’s Required: Depending on what graduate degree program you’re applying to, you may be required to submit scores from a standardized test like GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, GATE, MCAT, or LSAT.

How to Get It Done: Depending on which test is required, the first thing you’ll need to do is plan out enough time to study for it. These tests cost money and time, so do your best to do well on the first try.

Typically, you’ll need to contact the administering body to schedule a testing session. After you nail your test of choice, you’ll need to contact the testing service to send your scores.

Pro Tips: Many grad schools, including WPI, now consider most standardized graduate-school test scores “optional,” so double-check with the places you’re applying to ensure you need to sit for these tests in the first place.

If you are taking tests, knowing each grad school’s institutional code (WPI’s is 3969) is a very pro move.

If you’re less confident that you’ll want the testing service to release the official score of your first attempt, you can wait to get the results before making that call, but there may be an added fee. Go ahead and send the first attempt, and if you’re disappointed with the results, re-take the test and send those, too. It’ll speak well of you that you tried again.


Step 2: Transcripts

It turns out that “permanent record” your elementary school teacher warned you about is a real thing. It just didn’t start until college.

What’s Required: Unaccredited certificate and professional education programs might not require official transcripts of your entire undergraduate and prior graduate study, but it’s likely that you’ll need them to complete your application for any grad program that gives you a degree. Basically, you’ll need to send out a complete academic record—combining transcripts of every class you took that you ever got college credit for, whether for an associates, a bachelor, or an incomplete graduate program.

How to Get It Done: Get in touch with the registrar’s office for each institution you attended to request an official transcript, and they’ll each send it to the graduate institution you’re applying to.

Your prior institutions should have official transcript request procedures listed on their websites. If not, call or email their listed contact, and they’ll walk you through it. If, for some unfortunate reason, your old school doesn’t exist anymore, you’ll have to do some Googling to track down transcript request procedures. You won’t be the only person wondering.

Pro Tip: It’ll be best to have a full list of grad schools you plan on applying to before you reach out to the registrar’s office. Make sure you list out any logistical requirements that are important to the school you’re applying to; for example, WPI does not accept paper mail submission materials. It’s worth a longer conversation with each of your prior institutions to make sure the requirements of each of your grad school applications are met—and then you’re done!


Step 3: Letters of Recommendation

What’s Required: Most grad schools will want to get a sense of your basic qualities as a student and/or person before signing off on your application. After all, it does them no good to accept anybody who will make classes more difficult for the rest of the student body.

Requirements for letters of recommendation can vary in number or kind (personal, professional, academic, etc.), according to the program you’re applying to, so keep an eye out for those to make sure you haven’t left anything out.

How to Get It Done: Choose carefully and be polite. Reach out to people who can speak to any relevant skills and talents you have as a student or professional. The more impressive their name, title, or letterhead is, the better for your case. Managers, directors, and former professors are most recommended.

Pro Tip: Depending on how busy your references are, and how many other letters they’re having to write, the process of getting recommendations can be the longest piece of the grad application puzzle. Give yourself, and your reference, plenty of time so it’s an enjoyable process for everyone; this increases the chances that you’ll have a reference in the future should you need it.

A follow-up thank you-card or small gift is a nice touch for these folks who helped you complete your application!


Step 4: CV/Resume/Statement of Purpose/Essay

Up until now, you’ve been checking off boxes on stuff that shows what other people think about you—what your standardized scores and grades are, what it’s like to work with you. This is your chance to speak on your own behalf.

What’s Required: Not every program will demand supplemental application materials such as a professional or academic resume or personal statement. But few will forbid them.

How to Get It Done: Go ahead and brag about yourself. Showcase your journey. Tell why you decided to get a graduate degree, and why you’re interested in the school you’re applying to. Highlight your accomplishments and outline your goals. In particular, take the time to mention any obstacles you faced that could explain less than stellar results in your other application materials, such as a GPA or test score, then share how you overcame them.

Pro Tip: Unless you’re applying to a “Master’s of Professional-Quality Personal Statement Writing” program, there’s no need to obsess about how great your essay is as a piece of writing. Obviously, you’ll want to run a spelling and grammar check, but don’t worry about making your personal statement sound academic. Just relax and be yourself. Think of the ideal tone as “first email you’d write to a friend of a friend after having been properly introduced.” Remember, your personal statement is about you and should feel like you. It’s not going to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.

WPI has a great Statement of Purpose Guide download it here! 


Step 5: Interviews and Other Supplementary Materials

What’s Required: A few programs require an interview and may also require supplementary materials such as writing samples. Depending on the degree you’re seeking, these can range from a fifteen-minute Skype chat with an admissions representative to an exhaustive showcase of your tap-dancing ability (dance conservatories are a real thing).

How to Get It Done: As you proceed through your applications for various programs, list out any requirements that extend beyond Steps 1-4 listed above. Given your area of interest, these should not be too extensive or unexpected. A prestigious dance conservatory will want to see you dance, and a top business school may want to see you ace an interview, for example.

Pro Tip: Ask for help. Any grad program should have admissions or program representatives who will gladly talk you through the finer points of how supplemental application materials are evaluated. If any of the additional requirements make you uncomfortable, find out why they’re listed as requirements or if there’s any other way to provide them. If not, you might be able to cross a name off your list of schools to apply to!


Applying to grad school is something you can do; it just takes a little determination. By reading this, you’re already on the right track.


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  1. Donna says:

    Decided to share the application checklist. Hope it will be helpful for someone 😉

    • Set up a filing system with a folder for each school to which you are applying.
    • Create a checklist for each school in order to keep track of what you have sent.
    • Decide the order in which to work on your applications.
    • Request letters of evaluation to be written.
    • Arrange for your standardized test scores to be sent to your colleges and appropriate deparments.
    • Write multiple rough drafts of your personal statement and allow as many eyes to review it as possible.
    • Make copies of your completed applications for your records.
    • Double check the name of the institution, program, contact person, and address before submitting your application.

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