The Do’s and Don’ts of Applying to Graduate School

Everything you need to know when you’re considering a Master’s degree.

When finishing up the last two years of college, something that crosses every student’s mind is the idea of graduate school and the glory of the master’s degree. That piece of paper that tells you congrats! You pulled off another two-three years of college! Of course, going for a master’s isn’t for everyone or every major, but perhaps you are considering graduate school and all the wonders it entails.

First, however, you need to dive into the grueling application process and stress about everything that needs to be done—what all do you need to do to get into grad school? And what should you avoid doing in your application? How important is the GRE? How will you pay for the GRE? How are you ever going to get into grad school?

Chill for a second. I’m about to enter my second and final year of graduate school, so I have been through the application process before, and I am here to put you at ease and make your grad school adventure a little less stressful. Here’s what you need to know about applying to grad school.

Do: Research Your Choices

Always. Always, always, always. Just like undergrad, you need to do some research on the potential schools you’d like to attend. Where are the schools located? How many grad students do they admit? What classes will make up your next two/three years at that school? Will you have to teach a class? Will your tuition be covered? Low residency? High residency?

Schools will be looking to see if you’ve done research on their programs when they read over your application. Talk about the college in your “statement of purpose” letter. Let the school know that you’re excited to work with them in the particular programs they offer for certain majors, especially if the school system you’re applying for is very specific, like studying online criminal justice colleges in Kansas. Your potential schools want to see specific names, people! The application is your chance to show programs you really love them.

It’s imperative you look into what the school will expect out of you. The last thing the school wants to hear is an accepted grad student complaining about something they have to do as part of their course work. Hey man, if you really looked into the program before applying, you would have known what to expect. You could have gone somewhere else, kiddo.

Don’t: Visit Potential Schools

Agree to disagree here. When I was doing research on the schools I applied to, most of the school’s websites discouraged visits to their campus unless you had been accepted there. I highly agree.

Your visit to a grad school will be a lot more beneficial if you have already been accepted there. You can meet the faculty you’ll be working with and have all of your questions answered. Visiting schools for graduate work is vastly different than visiting schools for undergrad.

You’re not going to see the campus life, you’re going for the work you’ll be doing and the faculty you’ll be working with closely for the next couple years of your life. Plus, it would be a bummer if you visited a potential school, fell madly in love with it and found out later you were not accepted.

Do: Make Your Portfolio Materials the Strongest They Can Be

Whatever you’re pursuing your master’s in, each program requires different materials. When I applied for MFA programs in fiction writing, I had to submit a portfolio of twenty-thirty pages of my short stories. This portfolio was more or less the deciding factor of my acceptance to the schools I applied to.

Some Master’s programs ask for a portfolio of your work, others ask for your thesis/seminar paper/research paper to show that you can research and write effectively. So whatever the school wants from you, make sure you put a lot of time and effort into it.

Go through your paper—how can it be improved? How can you make your portfolio stand out? Have your friends, family, or instructors look your work over. Get feedback. Revise, revise, revise.

More importantly, don’t ever doubt your portfolio materials. Don’t ever look at your writing samples and say, “This isn’t good enough. They’ll never accept me.” Don’t set yourself down the wrong path. Early in the fall semester of my senior year, I was talking to some of my friends in my fiction workshop. I expressed doubts on the stories I chose to be part of my application portfolio because the schools might think my writing was “too weird.” One of the girls in my workshop, someone who was always criticized heavily for the choices she made in her writing, looked at me and said, “So what if they think it’s weird? You write what you want to write. That story is you, and if they can’t accept that, then there’s a better program out there for you.”

She was right. She built my confidence right back up in my work, and I submitted my portfolio with pride to five different schools. And like she said, there was an amazing program that wanted to work with me.

Don’t: Wing the GRE

Ah, the expensive, stressful, time-consuming Graduate Record Examinations. I always referred to the GRE as the ACT on steroids—it’s a real doozy. This test isn’t necessarily looking at the subjects you covered in college, but focuses on your critical thinking skills. My biggest tip for the GRE is to prepare for it over the summer. I went out and bought “The GRE for Dummies,” and I think I would have done worse on the exam if I hadn’t used any kind of prep at all. Fortunately, there are all kinds of books and sites you can use to help you prepare for the GRE. The Princeton Review helps students find test prep courses, and ETS offers example tests for students as well.

If you find yourself unable to afford the GRE, or perhaps you know you’re not good at taking tests (like myself), you don’t have to completely panic. Some of the schools I applied to did not require me to take the GRE. In fact, some of the schools I applied to that wanted my GRE scores said my scores don’t determine if I get accepted or not, but rather the school wanted to see that I took the GRE. Of course, don’t assume your scores won’t matter when applying to schools. Scores can mean a lot more if you’re going into something dealing with math and sciences, as opposed to creative writing.

Regardless of how the school looks at your results, prepare for the exam. Get a prep book, sign up for a course or take a practice exam. You’ll learn how each of the sections of the GRE works and how to work out common problems given to you during the actual test.

Do: Brag About Yourself

Most schools want you to submit a statement of purpose with the rest of your application, and the statement of purpose is where you cannot hold back. Don’t be afraid to brag about yourself here when it comes to your academics and achievements. Bragging is super awkward, but schools want to know about everything you did in undergrad pertaining to your desired field of study. The statement of purpose is your chance to show schools why you’d be a perfect fit for their program.

When I was preparing my applications, I had a current grad student look over my statement of purpose and she told me to talk way more about myself and all of my experiences in undergrad that would show schools I’d be a great addition to their program. So, I talked more about how I interned for a literary magazine, how I spoke at creative writing and academic writing conferences, and how I worked as a teaching assistant for academic writing courses. I spent a little time on each to really show schools that I have experience in my chosen field that I would probably do in their graduate program.

Don’t: Get Too Personal in Your Statement of Purpose

Drew C. Appleby and Karen M. Appleby have a great article on the “kisses of death” in applications for grad school, available as a PDF through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s website. In their article, Appleby and Appleby talk about not getting too personal in your statement of purpose, as it can harm your chances of getting into the school of your choice.

They break up the kiss of death in four parts: personal mental health, excessive altruism, excessive self-disclosure and professionally inappropriate. According to Appleby and Appleby, schools don’t want potential students to be drawn to their programs because of a trauma in their life. This can make schools believe that you are not looking to be a part of their school for the right reasons: “Graduate school is an academic/career path, not a personal treatment or intervention for problems.”

So yes, brag about yourself and your accomplishments during undergrad, but make sure you don’t go too overboard and make schools think you might not be capable of the work they will drop on you once accepted. Keep it professional and you’ll be fine.

Do: Get Your Reference Letters Ahead of Time 

You want to make sure you give your letter writers enough time to write out your letters, so ask them far in advance of when the applications are due. I didn’t ask my references until November if they would write me a letter. Fortunately, they all said they would, but if I could go back, I would have asked them at the beginning of the school year, rather than mid November when the semester is beginning to enter the period of final projects, research papers and exams. Give them lots of time to write those letters. They have work and lives, too.

Moreover, make sure you have letters written from “appropriate sources,” as Appleby and Appleby state in their kisses of death article. You definitely want someone who has been involved in your education to write you a letter of reference, as opposed to a relative or an employee/supervisor. (Unless the job was directly related to your education and desired field of study.) Avoid going the route of having family friends/ministers/significant others write your letter. You definitely want instructors and the like here.

Don’t: Send Anything off Without Having It Looked over First 

Something I tell my writing students is to read their essay out loud before turning it in to be graded, because they’ll be able to catch more mistakes when hearing the essay read. Reading out loud is something I also do myself when I’m working on stories for my fiction workshop class, and it easily pertains to looking over your application materials for grad school.

So, before you submit all of your materials to a grad school, make sure you look EVERYTHING over. Read your statement of purpose out loud. Look over your portfolio materials. Have a writing tutor, a friend, an instructor, just someone, look everything over. Schools want to see that you are able to write, so little mistakes can really bite.

Do: Keep Application Deadlines in Mind

Not all applications are due at the same time. My first application was due mid-November, while my last application was due early February. Sometimes, schools take applications until July, as I found out from a college friend last summer who decided to apply to grad school at the last minute.

So while you start doing your school research, look to see when all the application materials are due by, and keep that date in your head—better yet, write it down somewhere. I would constantly get deadlines confused with other schools deadlines and cause myself to panic from November to February. Remember those deadlines! They will sneak up on you fast.

Don’t: Pay for Graduate School 

My mom always told me to never apply to any grad school that wasn’t going to pay for my tuition. I already have undergraduate loans to pay, and I don’t need my anxiety spiking any higher with the thought of graduate loans. I kept this in mind and decided to only apply to schools that would pay for my tuition, as well as offer me a paid assistantship. What’s better than free grad school, right? So instead of worrying about more loans to pay off, I now only have to pay my tuition fees, which can be completed by a monthly payment plan each semester. Kudos to you, Bowling Green.

So while you being your grad school research, look to see what each schools offer—paid tuition? Assistantship stipends? Housing? Every school is different, and each one has different experiences to offer, so request some information and be sure to talk with your past instructors and see what they have to say. And of course, best of luck on your grad school adventures!

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