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Applying to Graduate School

By Abhishake Dixit


The first thing you need to ask yourself before you begin the application process is that are you absolutely certain about your future plans? Because graduate school is not the place to start figuring what you want to do and how you want to do it. That is what undergraduate classes are for. Graduate schools do not want some random person who is still undecided about his career goals. They want determined leaders who can make a difference, do research, and publish major works. If you think you are that person-read on…


The application process for graduate school begins more than a year in advance to the time you want to start graduate school. The minimum requirement for applying to graduate school is that you must have had at least 16 years of formal education before you begin graduate school (Internationals from India, Pakistan etc with 3 year degrees cannot apply). It begins when you start researching target schools and request application materials from them. Most graduate schools have a common application form for all their programs and a set of application requirements (which may be different for various departments). The application will consist of different parts like LORs, SOP, etc which are explained later. Unlike undergraduate colleges, which receive thousand of applications, graduate schools receive these in a much smaller number. Hence, each application is scrutinized more heavily and it becomes all the more important to project yourself as a serious candidate to the admissions committee.

Your Application will consist of the following parts:

GRE Score

Almost all graduate schools require that you take the Graduate Records Examination or the GRE. The GRE is administered throughout the year by ETS. You can obtain more information on the GRE from Some departments may require you to take the Subject GRE also-it is a good idea to check this with the department in which you are interested. The GRE standard test consists of three sections:

Verbal Reasoning: 30 minute section having 30 questions Quantitative Reasoning: 45 minute section having 28 questions Analytical Writing: This is further divided into two parts: Present Your Perspective on an Issue-45 mins Analyze an Argument-30 minutes

The verbal and quantitative sections are scored in the 200-800 range. You can view the unofficial verbal and quantitative scores at the test center; however, because of the essay scoring process, you will not view your Analytical Writing score at that time. Official Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical Writing scores are sent within 10 to 15 days after you take the test. Different programs give different weightage to the GRE score: for example: Engineering departments give much more importance to your quantitative score than your verbal score. Similarly, for a Classics major, the Verbal score will carry a much greater importance.

It is a good idea to give the GRE much in advance because if you do not do well, there will be time left to retake it (Keep in mind that you can only take it once per calendar month and it takes a further 2 weeks to get your scores sent to designated institutes).


Each department has its own deadline. These can be anytime from December to February. Make sure you have your Application material and the scores sent to that department as early as possible (This especially helps students who need financial aid). Also, it is a good idea to confirm with the department whether they have received all required documents or not.


Most graduate programs require your college transcripts or the transcripts of all courses you have attended after High School. The department may require the transcripts to be signed by your counselor or registrar and sent directly to them in a sealed package. Some international transcripts may have to be translated and signed by an authorized person before being sent.

Letters of Recommendation

These are certainly one of the most significant parts of your application. Application packets include recommendation forms that require a professor/recommender to rate your abilities in various categories and ask for their opinion/comments on the applicant's personality and potential. Most schools require two or three letters. Make sure, when selecting a recommender, that he/she will write you a nice recommendation and is well aware of your abilities. A good recommendation might just tilt the decision in your favor if the admissions committee is stuck on a Maybe. If you have worked for more than a year after college, you can submit 2 LORs of your Superiors and 1 from a professor who taught you in college.

Statement of Purpose

This is the most important part of your application. It is your chance to impress the admissions committee. The SOP must contain your motivations, goals, previous achievements, personality etc. The SOP must also tell how a graduate degree from the school you are applying to will help you attain your goals. Spend a lot of time on your Statement of Purpose and check it for spelling errors- these do not put a great impression on the committee people. Get it critiqued by your college advisor, family, friends etc. it usually takes 2-3 tries before your SOP is good enough to be sent to the school you are applying to.

All said, Graduate admission is a very different ball game than college admissions. There is less emphasis on Scores or GPA or any one criterion. Graduate schools want a well-rounded applicant who is serious about his area of expertise and is eager to make a difference. Lastly, because this is asked so often, Extracurricular activities will not help you get into graduate school if they are not directly related to your intended area of study.

If you are a college freshman or sophomore and you are considering graduate school, it would be a good idea to nurture relationships with your professors, seniors and advisors. Join a research group, work on a couple of summer internships, get an article published- the opportunities are endless. Apply to at least 5 schools- 2 Target, 2 Reach and 1 Safety. It is always better if you can apply to more. Keep in mind that completing each application will require at least 36-48 hours. So make up your mind early and get working on the applications.

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