Before getting into any particulars, it’s important to know that it’s difficult to generalize about the components of an application.
Every graduate program is different, sometimes radically so, and much of the burden is on the applicant to figure out the weight of different parts and how best to approach them. That said, there is some good general advice to be given.
The Graduate Application
Undergraduate GPA will always be important. If your undergraduate major is related to the graduate degree you plan to pursue, schools may view your major GPA separately from your overall GPA. Programs will often isolate the parts of your GPA that are relevant—for example, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs may only really be interested in your STEM GPA, whereas a humanities program may not care about results in any STEM classes you’ve taken.
If you’ve done any graduate work before, your graduate GPA and research will be considered only insofar as they are relevant to the field you’re pursuing.
Always ask the programs you’re applying to which parts of the GRE they care about. It’s often the case that programs will only care about Math or only care about Verbal (and sometimes the Essays). Many programs will actually tell you what you need to score for your application to be considered, and use the GRE as a kind of “you must be this tall to ride” standard.
If your scores fall short of the minimum needed for the program, you will obviously need to retake the test. If they just reach the minimum score, you still may want to retake the test in order to make yourself stand out from other applicants. That said, the GRE general test scores rarely have a major impact on admissions once they reach a given program’s minimum required levels; other parts of your application are far more important.
Some programs also require GRE subject tests, particularly STEM, Psychology or English programs. If you are applying to a program that requires a subject test, be sure to ask how important these scores are and whether there’s a minimum expected for a viable candidate.
Letters of recommendation tend to play a more important role in graduate programs than they do in undergraduate programs. Your letters should, whenever possible, come from professors or employers who can speak to the work you’ve done that’s relevant to the degree you want to pursue.
Some potential recommenders may have connections at programs you’re interested in; academia is a small world, and professors tend to have strong networks within their particular fields. It may be worth having a slightly less impressive recommender write a letter for application to a school where that recommender has a strong connection.
If you can’t find a strong connection, you should evaluate potential recommenders based on how important their scholarship is within their field. A recommendation from a tenured professor with multiple publications and awards for scholarship will carry far more weight than one from a newly minted professor or a graduate student.
That being said, make sure your recommenders know you well enough to write a strong recommendation and that they are excited to do so. You don’t want a recommendation to lack specifics or contain lukewarm praise. It may be helpful to provide recommenders with a copy of work you’ve done while in their classes to remind them of the quality of your academic production.
Statement of Purpose
For most graduate programs, the primary essay you’ll be asked to produce is called a Statement of Purpose, and it’s a very different essay from the Personal Statement you wrote when applying to college. What do schools want to see in a Statement of Purpose?
What you plan to study? The statement of purpose should lay out, as specifically as possible, what exactly you want to research while you pursue your graduate degree. While you will probably not be expected to know the precise topic of your future thesis or dissertation, you should at least be able to articulate the area within your discipline you plan to explore, and to give some indication of the form that exploration will take.
Why you are drawn to your field? A good Statement of Purpose will also give the admissions committee a sense of why you want to study this particular topic. What is it you find so fascinating about research, scholarship, or practice within the area you want to study?
What experience do you have in your field? Have you done research in the field already? Have you delivered scholarly papers? Published an article in a peer-reviewed journal or received an author credit on a publication? What you have done to show that you are bringing a strong background to this degree?
What will you do once you’ve completed your degree? Do you want to become a professor? Work as a researcher? Work for a corporation, a think tank, or an NGO? What will you do with your degree, and how will the degree help you to achieve your goals?
A strong Statement of Purpose is essential for an application to PhD programs. It will allow programs to determine if you fit well with the priorities of the school and, in some cases, will lead to a particular professor fighting actively for your admission because he or she wants to work with you.
The Statement of Purpose is less important for Master’s programs, as you are not expected to have as thorough a sense of what exactly you plan to do within your field. They are also typically not as competitive as PhD programs. That said, the guidelines above still generally apply for a good Master’s program essay.
Many programs will ask for an example of your work to date. You should submit the strong piece of relevant scholarship you’ve produced. Note that many programs put a limit on the length of these samples, which may prevent you from submitting, for example, an entire honors thesis (but may still allow you to submit a portion of your honors thesis). Always pay attention to any guidelines for the length of the writing sample.
When a writing sample is requested, it will be an important part of the application. Make sure to submit a piece that has been revised, has been read and commented on by at least one professor (ideally a recommender), and has some relevance to your intended field of study.