By Megan Driscoll
Polishing Your Graduate Application
You've chosen your programs. You're on the path to fulfilling all your prerequisites. Now it's time to actually put together that application packet.
The first thing you'll need to do is plan your schedule. Get out your application checklist for each school and your calendar and start setting yourself deadlines for each task. Buy yourself a little breathing room by making sure that you'll be on track to finish your applications at least a month before the final deadlines.
Once you have a schedule set, you'll want to dive in right away. Here are a few tips on managing some of the most common application tasks:
Letters of recommendation.
It's courteous to give your letter writers as much time as possible, so you'll probably want to start here. How many recommenders you need and what type (academic or professional) varies depending on the school, but most programs will want two or three letters that include at least one professor.
Of course, you'll want to ask people who know you well and have good things to say about you. This may include professors or an employer with whom you developed a mentoring relationship. If you wrote an undergraduate thesis, you should also ask your thesis advisor.
If you thought standardized testing was over with the SAT, think again. Almost all grad programs require at least one entrance exam. The GRE is the most common one and is used for most non-professional programs. Other exams include the GMAT (business), MCAT (medical) and LSAT (law).
Studying for these exams is a lot like studying for the SAT. Find a book or course that fits your schedule and budget and start putting in a little time every day. With persistence you should do fine, but it's still important to make sure that you schedule your first try with enough time to retest if necessary.
Another thing that college and grad school applications have in common is the personal essay, also known as the statement of purpose. The difference is that graduate schools expect you to have a much more concrete idea of what you want to study.
The essay performs several functions: It demonstrates your writing ability, it represents who you are as a scholar to the faculty of your prospective department and it shows that you're able to express yourself in the parlance of your discipline.
Many people write a base essay, then customize it for each school. Make sure that you're familiar with length requirements (there's more likely to be a maximum than a minimum) and any specific information that the institutions want you to include. It's also important to include a section that explains why you'd be a good fit for that particular program and mentions at least one faculty member with whom you'd like to study.
Another common piece of the grad application puzzle is the writing sample. Strong writing skills are essential for almost any discipline, and the sample gives your prospective department another chance to scrutinize your abilities.
Do not send something that you wrote just for the application - this should be some of your best writing from college. If you've held any professional writing positions since graduation, you may also want to include a supplementary writing sample if it's allowed.
Send It In!
Once you've filled out all your forms and gathered all the pieces of your application puzzle, it's time to submit those applications (finally). These days, most schools allow - or even require - you to submit online. But some departments ask that you mail copies of your materials directly to them, so make sure that you've read over the application instructions very carefully.
One thing to remember as you near the finish line: Graduate applications can get expensive. Many applications cost between $70 and $100 each. If you think you may qualify for a fee waiver, apply early. If not, make sure you start saving money as soon as possible, because your application won't be considered until the fee is paid.
Now that you've sent in all of your applications, you're probably playing the waiting game. Find out if any of your schools have rolling admissions - these programs are likely to get back to you within a couple of months. You'll have to wait for the rest until decision season, which is typically mid-springtime.
Be aware that some schools will contact you for an interview before they make their final decisions, but others won't be in touch at all until you have a yea or nay.
For some people, this is the most stressful part of the process. Don't let waiting make you miserable - you've done everything you can and now you just need to focus on living your life. If you keep doing well in your field, you'll be that much more prepared if you need to send out a second round of applications next year.