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Applying to Graduate School: What to Expect (and Tips & Tricks)

6 Extremely Helpful Things to Know Before You Apply to Graduate School (Plus Tips and Tricks)
This winter I applied to graduate school. For most people that’s a fairly time-consuming and stressful experience to begin with, but for me it it was extra-stressful due to the fact that I could not for the life of me find a comprehensive list of what to expect. The entire process would have been a whole lot less complicated if I had been given all the necessary information needed for a smooth application process.

Here are the six things that I wish someone (or Google) had told me before I began applying to graduate school:

1. Prepare financially.

Your actual schooling is not the only thing for which you’ll be shelling out big bucks. I really wish someone had warned me that it costs $200 just to register for the GREs. Throughout my grad school application journey hidden costs kept jumping out at me. I strongly recommend that you save at least $350 for total costs.
Aside from test registration there’s also a school application fee, postage, a charge for your college to send grades, books for test prep, gas costs, espresso shots for studying, and the list goes on.

2. Understand the application requirements way ahead of time.

I gave myself more heart attacks than was appropriate for my 26 years of age due to the fact that I didn’t read the application guidelines carefully enough, which resulted in me misunderstanding a number of requirements.
I was able to fix these mistakes (paying exorbitant amounts for next-day shipping definitely helped), but it is not a predicament you want to find yourself in. If you’re a list person like me, it might help to write down exactly what needs to be done and the dates that each item is due.

3. Know the tests you need to take and prep accordingly.

While most schools require that you take the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations), some will require a specialized test, such as the LSAT (Law School Admission Test). Once you know which one is required, you should register immediately for a test in your area since spaces fill up very quickly.
When choosing a test date you should keep a few things in mind: What time of day do you think best, morning or afternoon? Do you want to allow enough time to take the exam a second time in case your scores don’t measure up to what you’d hoped?
Also keep in mind the school’s deadline for receiving test scores. Automated scores (when the test is taken on a computer) typically take about 10 – 15 days to be sent in, but it is recommended that you allow 6 – 8 weeks between the test date and the deadline.
This is especially important as graduate programs vary in the tests you need to take. For example, this Strategic leadership MBA requires no specific test scores, however, other programs may.

4. Gather the necessary documentation.

Typically you will need to provide proof of citizenship, proof of graduation from high school and college, college grades, and miscellaneous content such as your picture or a photocopy of your driver’s license. I was homeschooled which means that getting ahold of my high school records was as easy as flipping through my school files.
Unless you’re in the same situation it’s going to be a little more time-consuming to acquire such documentation since it will be in the possession of your high school.

5. Contact professors about letters of recommendation.

Unlike job references, you cannot just ask a peer or your local pastor to write some kind words about you – you’ll need at least three letters of recommendation from undergraduate professors. The application guidelines tell you what your professors should discuss in their letters.
I’m not sure if this is standard, but I was required to send a waiver to my professors essentially confirming that they were not responsible if I didn’t like what they said, basically just a precaution on the part of the university to make sure that nobody would be suing anybody else. (Joking, I’m joking! …Sort of.)
Something that I was not aware of until the last minute is that asking a professor to write you a letter of recommendation requires a formal request. No matter how buddy-buddy you were when you chatted at homecoming, you should maintain an academically appropriate manner and a proper format. This is my favorite example of what your request should look like. It’s not perfect, but it helps give some ideas.
Lastly, it’s likely that at least one or two of the professors you choose won’t respond to you or won’t have time to pen a glowing letter, so you should expect to have a “back up” choice.

6. Get an outside perspective on your application essay.

Ah, the dreaded essay. Some schools want a few hundred words, others a novella, but your approach should be the same: Understand what’s expected of the essay and answer the questions honestly in a passionate but academic tone.
When I was applying I was so stressed out that I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid that my reasons for wanting to attend my university-of-choice were not good enough. Finally I went for a drive (always gets the thought juices flowing, amiright?), turned on my phone’s voice recorder, and just started chatting up a storm about why I was passionate about the school’s mission. Once I’d transcribed my ramblings into a Word document I spruced it up and read it to a friend. His point of view was unmarred by anxiety about sounding perfect (cough cough) and he was able to give a completely objective assessment.
In the end, my essay went from sounding contrived and anxious to sounding natural and sincere. Oh, and proofread, proofread, proofread! A forgotten comma would be a tragic reason to be turned down for a master’s program!
It’s stressful enough wondering whether you’ll get accepted – give yourself a break and follow these tips! I promise it will make your life a whole lot easier. And… good luck!

About the Author

Clare Behe

Clare holds a B.A. in History from Christendom College. She enjoys philosophy, personal style, Oscar Wilde, and ancient history. Her long-term career goal is to be an editor for a meaningful publication. Along the way, she would also love to creatively use her love of drawing for a good cause.