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Graduate School: 8 Tips to Help You Get In

Getting into graduate school is a lot of work — finding a program that fits your interests and goals, applications, the GRE exam, letters of intent, coordinating recommendation letters. If you’ve determined that going to graduate school makes sense for your future career, this article will highlight eight ways you can increase your chances of being accepted into the program you have your eye on.


1. Get involved in undergraduate research

Once you’ve determined what you will study, actively seek out opportunities to get involved in undergraduate research as early on as possible. Sometimes professors will announce these opportunities to their students, but you will have to be proactive and approach professors after class or during their office hours.

The advantages of doing research as an undergraduate are enormous. When it comes time to apply for graduate school programs and write your letter of intent, having research experience will highlight your readiness for a research-intensive program.

Additionally, developing relationships with faculty members will ensure you have strong, personalized letters of recommendation. Most graduate school applications require three letters of recommendation, so it’s a great idea to begin identifying faculty members who know you well enough to speak to your skills and abilities as soon as possible. If you only have one or two faculty members who know you well, and you aren’t sure who else to ask, consider approaching faculty members who do work you are interested in, and ask how you can get involved in their research. Let them know you are planning to apply to graduate school, and that you need additional experience to make you a more competitive applicant. If they have additional work to be done, chances are they will be more than willing to help you out.

2. Identify your specific interests

Once you have determined graduate school is a good choice for you, try to become more specific in your research interests. Take a moment to ask yourself: what specific topics and problems interest you the most within your field?

If you identify specific interests early in your undergraduate career, you can focus on those topics for class projects or your senior thesis. Having an in-depth focus and understanding of a particular topic or issue will work to your advantage you apply for graduate programs that align with your interests.

3. Find a program that fits your interests

Finding graduate programs that fit your interests is a very important aspect of increasing your chances of being accepted. Having a great GPA, GRE scores, and a solid resume won’t necessarily mean you’ll be accepted to any graduate program. If faculty members cannot advise or support you in your work as a graduate student, your application might be rejected.

Additionally, by finding programs that align with your demonstrated research interests, you are more likely to be offered forms of financial assistance that have been granted to the department to carry out specific research projects.

4. Contact faculty members you want to work with

Once you have identified a handful of programs that seem like a good fit, it can be advantageous to reach out to faculty members whose research interests you.

Before contacting faculty members by email, take some time to familiarize yourself with work they have done: read a few articles they have posted on their faculty page as a start.

Once you have some knowledge of their work, send a brief email explaining who you are, where you currently study, and that you are interested in applying for the graduate program they are part of. Highlight your research interests, and relate those interests to their past and current work. Ask if they have any plans for hiatus in the near future, and if they will be accepting graduate students to advise in the term you plan to enroll. Finally, let them know you would like to the opportunity to talk to them over the phone (or in person, if you live nearby).

If all goes well, this proactive step could influence your application process at the graduate program of your choice.

5. Ask for letters of recommendation as early as possible

The letters of recommendation component may seem like the easiest part of your application, but it requires a great deal of organization and diligence on your part.

Once you’ve identified the three faculty members you would like to use as references, arrange a meeting with each one during and ask in person if they would be willing to write you a letter. If they agree, be prepared to tell them about where you are looking to apply and about your long-term goals. This is a good chance to ask for advice about specific programs they know of that might be a good fit for you. Even better—if they have personal connections with faculty members in those programs, this may give you a better shot at being given strong consideration.

Make sure you’re organized for this step of the process — for your sake and for the sake of the faculty members writing your letters. Print out three copies of instructions for the letter of recommendation, and organize them in folders to personally hand to each of your faculty references. In each folder, include a reference sheet with a numbered list of each program you are applying to and the due date for each, as well as your CV outlining your past experience.

6. Study for the GRE

The GRE can play a big role in making you a competitive applicant, especially to top-rated programs. Many graduate programs have cut-off GRE scores, below which they will not consider applications. Other programs might state that they look at the entire application, and GRE scores are only one component taken into consideration. In any case, it can only benefit your application and chances of getting into the program you want by taking the time to prepare yourself for the exam.

Definitely get practice books, and take online practice tests. Although it’s not possible to study for the specific questions on the GRE, being familiar the way the test works and the kinds of questions you are likely to be asked will make taking the exam significantly less stressful.

7. Write a killer letter of intent

Writing your letter of intent (also referred to as statement of purpose) is perhaps the most important part of your application. Make sure you take the extra time to polish it and make sure it stands out.

Each application you submit should have a letter that’s specifically catered to the program you are applying for. Although there are general points pertaining to your academic, research, or work background, be sure to provide specific reasons for why you are applying to each program.

It would be wise to talk about any prior communication you’ve had with faculty of the department. Use your knowledge of their work and research as a talking point in your explanation of why you are interested in the program. Discuss how your own work will mesh with the work of faculty members in the program. This will demonstrate that you are a serious candidate, and one that can contribute to existing and future research projects of the department.

To make sure that your letter of intent is strong and speaks to the right points, get as much feedback as possible once you have written a draft. Take it to one or more of the faculty members you’ve been working with and ask that they read it over. Once you have an improved version, consider dropping your letter off at your college or university’s writing lab and have someone proofread the content for grammar, punctuation, spelling, clarity, and sentence flow. You definitely don’t want to ruin a time-consuming application with careless mistakes!

8. Pay attention to application requirements

Simply paying attention and staying organized in terms of the specific requirements of each application is the easiest thing you can do to ensure your application will not be tossed into the trash. Applications are expensive, so keep a list of all your applications and their individual requirements to make sure you don’t overlook something. Here are a few of the most critical components to pay attention to:

  • Due date – Each application is likely to have a different due date, so be sure to plan accordingly. Prioritize applications that have an earlier due date.
  • Letter of intent instructions – Make sure that you answer any questions they require you to address in your letter of intent and that it follows any additional format requirements.
  • Letters of recommendation instructions – Different programs have different instructions for submitting your letters of recommendation. As mentioned earlier, make sure that you know these requirements and communicate them to the faculty members providing your references.
  • Application materials submission requirements – Although most of your application components will likely be submitted electronically, others (e.g. GRE scores, transcripts) will likely need to be submitted by mail. Triple check you have the correct addresses before you submit these components. A simple mistake could result in your application being incomplete and rejected.

Even though getting into the graduate program of your choice may seem daunting and a lot of work, keeping these tips in mind will go a long way in helping you stay organized throughout the entire process. If you have any questions or need any additional advice, feel free to leave a comment below!

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The Author

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman, SHRM-CP, has a background in human resources, anthropology, and international education. His experience teaching English abroad during a gap year as an undergraduate student in Spain ignited his passion and advocacy for student travel. As a human resources professional, Dave is interested in helping students prepare for future career growth, and for helping facilitate social & cultural inclusion in the workplace.