Grad school isn't easy. Neither is applying for it. Here are 10 simple steps for applying to grad school, from finding the right program to showing up for the first day of class.
Step 1. Decide on at least 9 schools.
Three of these schools should be schools that you dream of, the tops in the field. They are your reach schools.
Three of these should be schools at which you have a solid chance. This means that you fit the requirements (GRE scores, GPA, good letters of rec, etc.) and would be a good fit. Think of these as the schools you'll most likely end up going to. These are your target schools.
Three of these schools need to be schools you'll most certainly get accepted to. You more than fulfill the requirements. These are your safety schools.
Note: Of all these categories, if you're going to add schools, add to the 'fair chance' schools. There's no need to spend more time on the safeties or the dreams.
Step 2: Make a list of requirements
Now that you have your schools all picked out, make a list of all that you need to do for each school. You'll see that there are requirements that overlap. For example, all schools will need your transcripts. All schools will want letters of recommendation. All schools will want your GRE scores. Now, make a spreadsheet or a checklist that has the requirements for each school, so that you can check them off. This will also allow you to be more efficient. Each school is going to require a personal statement. They most likely will give you a prompt or a list of prompts. Check to see if any of these prompts overlap. (It's very likely that they will.) This way you can spend your time on writing one or two GREAT personal statements, rather than 10 mediocre statements.
Step 3: GRE scores
On your list of requirements, you can write in the average GRE scores for each school. Write in the 75th percentile and the 50th percentile averages. Find them by clicking here, searching for the school, and then clicking on the Admissions tab for each school. Take a practice GRE. (Both Kaplan and Princeton review offer free online GRE tests. You need to take an online test. The real test is on the computer; you need to see what you'd get on a test as close to the real thing as you can. The paper and pencil tests are good for practice. ) If you are in the 75th percentile range for the 'fair chance' schools, you're good to go.
What if you're not in the 75th percentile range? Prep!
You can either study on your own (a good practice in discipline) or you can sign up for a course or get a tutor. If you're really far away from the score you need, a course or tutoring is pretty much the only thing that will get you to where you need to be. Some programs also require GRE subject tests. Check here (again, take a look at the Admissions tab) and see whether your program requires this (it should be posted along with all the other requirements). Again, look at the 75th percentile and see how you do. The caveat is that these subject tests actually test your knowledge of a subject area. To study for these, you need to get a book and brush up.
Step 4: Write your personal statements
Your personal statements are very important. Things to keep in mind:
Make sure that the first paragraph is GREAT. You need to catch the readers' attention. Remember that the admissions boards read tons of these. If yours is boring or like all the others, you won't stand out.
Make sure you position yourself in such a way that touts how you will add to the strengths of each school. (This means that you will have to tweak each one specifically to each school.) Basically, you need to flatter a little bit. This works especially well if there's a professor with whom you want to work. They want to know WHY you want to work with her or him and why you want to go to that school. Tell them.
Give a copy of your personal statements to those whom you've asked to recommend you. This way they will know what you have already said and won't repeat the same things.
Make sure to ask others to read your statements before you send them out. It's inevitable that you'll have typos or little errors that you've missed. Others can catch these.
Step 5: Letters of recommendation
You'll most likely need three letters of recommendation. The schools will either ask that the recommenders complete the recommendation online, or they will give you a form that needs to be filled out. There are two really difficult aspects to recommendation letters. The first is that you need to make sure that each recommender will say something different. Therefore, you can either ask them what they are going to say or you can tell then what others are saying. I know that this is not an easy conversation. However, professors write these all the time. It makes their lives easier if you're upfront and talk to them about what they are going to say. The other difficult aspect of this is getting the recommenders to actually write and send in the letters. They are writing these as a favor. Therefore the priority of your letter of recommendation is low. You will most likely need to pester them to get the letters in on time. DON'T be afraid to do this. To that end, make sure you give your recommenders plenty of lead time. Don't ask them just a few days ahead of time; give them several weeks (or even months), and give them a deadline. Oh, and make sure you pad your deadline; ask for it at least a couple weeks before you actually need it, so that if they're late, you'll still be on time. Read instructions on how to get great letters of recommendation.
Step 6: Transcripts
You will have to send transcript requests to all the colleges and universities you've attended. This is the only way to get official transcripts. You may be able to do it online through the schools' websites, or you can call the Registrar's office. Be prepared to pay between $5 and $10 for each transcript. Arrange to have your schools send the official transcripts directly to the graduate programs you're applying to, as some programs will not accept transcripts that have passed through your hands first.
Gathering all of your transcripts can take months. Don't procrastinate.
Step 7: Examples of work you've done.
If you have to submit work you've done, ask one of your professors to look over it. It needs to shine. Also, it's very possible that in your interview, they'll make reference to this work. Know it well, and be ready to talk about it (including any secondary sources you reference!) in more depth.
Step 8: Revising and sending in your application
First, make sure you have all the requirements checked off. Second, if possible, send in your applications at least one month before they're due. Most people wait. Your application will be read with better care if it's early.
Step 9: Hearing back and interviews
Most schools will get back to you before April 15th. If you hear back, you may be asked to visit or conduct a phone interview. In the interview or visit, you need to be ready to ask questions about the program. Your questions need to show that you've researched the program and have thought through how you can contribute. Make sure you practice beforehand with a friend or professor.
Step 10: Go to graduate school!
While you're applying/when you get there, check out this must-read book for a clear and accessible overview of how to get the most out of your studies.