How Applying to Grad School Works

You have your bachelor's degree; now it's time to start looking at grad school. See more college pictures.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education

For most people who pursue higher education, a college degree is the end of the line. It's typically enough to secure a good job and achieve a general sense of intellectual fulfillment. But for a select few, there's more -- three to seven years more, to be exact.

A graduate-level education, or just plain "grad school," is the next step after finishing college with an undergraduate degree. There are lots of reasons why people decide to pursue a graduate degree. It may be for career advancement, to reach an increased pay grade, to become a doctor or lawyer or college professor, or for the sheer joy of continued education. The latter is somewhat rare, though -- attaining a graduate degree is not a simple task.


Going to grad school typically requires significant time and effort, not to mention pre-planning. Good college grades and test scores are crucial. The classes are advanced, and depending on the type of program, graduate study can be a full-time job. Many master's programs require a thesis, and Ph.D.s require a dissertation, both massive undertakings involving heavy research and writing, as well as self-driven study. So most of the people who go that route have a good, concrete reason for doing so.

If you're one of those people, you may already know that getting into a graduate program can be a complex, daunting task. In this article, we'll address the basic steps involved in beginning the pursuit of a graduate degree. We'll find out how to go about choosing among the various degrees, schools and programs, what type of preparation is involved, what the application entails and how you might finance a graduate education.

The first step in going after any type of degree, graduate or otherwise, is deciding where to apply. How do you know which graduate program is right for you?


Choosing the Right Grad School Program

Medical students at the University of Miami work with Harvey, the cardiopulmonary patient simulator.
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Master's or Ph.D.? Two years or five? Part time or full time, public or private, and how on Earth are you going to pay the thousands (and sometimes tens of thousands) of dollars per year it takes to attend grad school?

All valid questions, and there are no right or wrong answers. It all depends on your goals, interests, financial status and availability. Let's go through the most basic initial decisions involved in pursuing a graduate-level education.


Choosing a Degree

There are a variety of graduate degrees available, including M.D. (medical doctor), J.D. (juris doctor, aka attorney), master's and Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy). The degree you choose is determined by your goals and interests. If you're aiming to be a medical doctor or a lawyer, you'll of course go for the M.D. or J.D., respectively. If you're getting into something like social work, counseling, business or elementary or secondary education, or you're looking to bump yourself up a pay grade in your current job, a master's degree is the most common choice. To pursue a career as a college professor or a scientist, a Ph.D. is typically preferred.

Your choice may also be guided by time constraints, since a master's will take two or three years, while a Ph.D. can from five to seven years (or more, depending on whether you're part-time or full-time), and by the amount of effort you want to expend -- a Ph.D. is a more intensive course of study than a master's.

Choosing a School/Program

There are several factors to consider when selecting which schools you'll apply to: location, school reputation, program reputation and faculty.

If you're tied to a specific location because you have kids in school, a spouse with a job or own a home, you'll probably want to look at schools close to home, and possibly online. Commute time and availability of public transit may also be considerations. If you're right out of college with no particular ties to a community, your search can easily be regional, national or international.

School reputation is an obvious factor: You'll want to apply to the best schools you can realistically get into. A degree from a more impressive school will carry more weight in the job market. But the reputation of the school's program (Master of Social Work or Ph.D. in Russian literature, for instance) is even more important. An impressive school may not necessarily have an impressive program in a particular area. It's important to research the program's regional and national reputation and faculty. Faculty is especially important, because you're going to want someone to work closely with (like a mentor) during your time, especially if you're pursuing a Ph.D. Finding a faculty member whose work interests you is a prime consideration.

Once you've made your choices, the heavy lifting begins. Your application packet is going to determine where you get accepted.


Developing an Application Packet

More than just your undergraduate performance will be counted in your grad school application. Your program will also consider test scores, interviews and letters of recommendation.
Photo courtesy of Durham County Government

When it comes to getting into the graduate school of your choice, a good deal of the work happens well in advance of your actual application. Your undergraduate grade point average (GPA), coursework and independent pursuits (such as research or publications) contribute significantly to your quality as a grad-school candidate.

But there are also other aspects a program is going to consider: Test scores, faculty recommendations and interviews can help to make up for less-than-stellar undergraduate performance. Not all master's and Ph.D. candidates graduated summa cum laude.



To attend grad school, you'll have to take at least one GRE (Graduate Record Exam) test. This score is an important aspect of an application. Some programs require only the GRE general test, and some require the GRE subject test (such as GRE Literature in English or GRE Physics), as well. A law school candidate takes the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), and for medical school, the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is required.


You'll need to include letters of recommendation in your application packet, typically at least three. They'll be mostly from faculty members who know you from undergraduate school (you may also have one or two from employment or extracurricular activities). What your professors say about you is important, so be sure to not only remind them of who you are and how and what you did in their classes, but also come right out and ask if they feel comfortable giving you a glowing recommendation. If someone says no (this happens sometimes), choose a different instructor.


Lots of graduate students visit their prospective campuses and meet with faculty members. A formal interview with one of those faculty members can be a big asset if it goes well, because graduate-level professors have a say in admissions to their programs. If you can afford the trip, arrange for interviews at all of your first-choice schools (you should apply to more than one, since competition for slots is often fierce).

One of the most important things to remember when applying to grad school is timing. The early applicant often gets the worm, so don't procrastinate. Deadlines for Ph.D.-program applications are usually in January at the latest, and master's programs will often want applications by January, February or March. See the Princeton Review Web site for a recommended time line. You'll want to start assembling your application materials as early as May, eight to 10 months before the deadline.

If you're lucky, you'll find out by the end of April that you've been accepted into your first-choice program -- and you'll start worrying about how you're going to pay for it.


Seeking Financial Aid

Higher education ain't cheap. Graduate school can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year. The tuition for the 2009-2010 school year at Harvard Medical school is a mere $42,500 [source: HMS]. Pursuing a Master of Science degree at the University of Illinois runs $12,000 for 2009-2010 if you're a resident of Illinois, $18,000 if you're not [source: UofI]. That's a big factor in choosing between a public institution and a private one. Public typically costs less, and it's sometimes easier to get government financial assistance for a state school.

Every student can apply for financial assistance for graduate school. The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is offered by the U.S. Department of Education. Federal Student Aid applies to all students seeking post-secondary education (i.e. beyond high school), but not everyone qualifies. To get federal assistance, you need to need it. Federal loan opportunities for graduate students include Perkins Loans, Grad PLUS Loans, Stafford Loans and Direct Loans. Some are offered directly through the government, and others are through private institutions like Nellie Mae or USA Group. You do need to repay school loans (as opposed to scholarships and grants). To get started learning about these types of government assistance, check out the FAFSA Web site, Nellie Mae and GradLoans.


You may find you're offered an aid package by the individual institution and graduate program you plan to attend. For instance, many programs will cover all or a portion of your study costs in exchange for your work as a teaching assistant, or TA. TAs help professors teach undergraduate classes.

To give yourself the best chance of qualifying for a student loan, be sure to separate yourself from your parents' finances if you're applying straight out of undergraduate school. This entails not being a dependent on their tax forms. If you have your own financial status already and you happen to own a home, you can make yourself a better aid candidate by moving a good portion of your assets into home equity, which often isn't included in aid consideration [source: GST].

Once you've secured funding, you're ready to begin your pursuit of a graduate degree. Don't forget to let your chosen school know as soon as possible that you'll be attending, and let the other schools know that you won't be -- there are other students waiting for that slot.

For more information on graduate school and related topics, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Grad School Application Timeline. The Princeton Review.
  • Grad School Tips
  • A Primer on Applying to Graduate School. University of Pittsburgh.