Most graduate programs require applicants to submit the items described below by a certain deadline. Programs in some fields may require additional items, such as a curriculum vita, or a portfolio or dossier, but the five components described here are the most common.
Expect to fill out either one or two application forms for each program. For those requiring two forms, one is usually a university-wide application form, which is filled out by applicants to most or all graduate programs at that university. The other application form is for the specific department or program to which the student is applying. Much of the information requested will be the same on both forms. Still, be sure to fill out all of the line items on both forms. They will be going into different files in different offices, so both forms must be completed.
In addition to standard biographical data, any application form is likely to indicate the particular program to which one is applying, details about the applicant’s academic history, and the names and contact information of two or three references. Information about employment history and relevant professional and research experience may also be requested.
There is more to properly filling out application forms than simply providing the right information. Many students make mistakes while filling out application forms without realizing they are doing anything wrong. The consequence is often a bad first impression, which can lead to early rejection.
Transcripts of undergraduate grades
Not surprisingly, an applicant’s undergraduate GPA is a heavily weighted factor in the decisions of most admissions committees. However, the admissions committee is not always responsible for making the final decisions about who gets in, and their concerns might be simply whether the applicant has, at least, the minimum grade requirements and any other prerequisites needed to be eligible.
Unless there is something very special about an applicant with a GPA below the minimum criterion, that person will be eliminated from the competition. Minimum grade requirements range from quite high in some programs to surprisingly low in others. Higher minimum entry requirements are characteristic of programs that receive a large number of applications each year and can accept only a small fraction. Relatively few applicants fail to meet the minimum grade requirements, so the admissions committee is likely to rank applicants at least partly according to GPA, paying particular attention to those with exceptionally high grades.
Letters of recommendation (a.k.a. Reference letters)
Most programs require two or three letters of recommendation from people who can attest that you possess qualities that will enable you to excel in graduate school. The most effective letters are from professors who are familiar with you and your scholarly or research capabilities, or from professionals or other qualified individuals from outside your college or university who have a good basis for being able to provide such an assessment. Few students anticipate far enough in advance that they will need two or three reference letters, and most end up scrambling at the end to find someone, perhaps anyone, who will write one for them. It takes time and planning to ensure that you receive effective letters from the right people. Without knowing what makes a letter of recommendation effective or ineffective, many students end up asking the wrong people for them.
The personal statement (or essay)
Another criterion for assessing an applicant’s potential is the personal statement (also sometimes called the statement of purpose, letter of intent, or biographical essay). One purpose of this statement is to explain why you want to enroll in a particular graduate program. Another of its purposes is to describe your qualifications.
The admissions committees are not so much interested in your specific reasons or qualifications as much as they want to ascertain from your statement whether you have realistic goals with respect to what the program will do for you and what a career in this field would be like.
Admissions committees look closely for evidence in the personal statement that the applicant possesses important positive attributes that tend to be needed for success. Importantly, they are also looking for evidence of negative attributes, and when such concerns are raised by the content or style of the applicant’s personal statement, it can lead to a quick rejection.
Not all graduate programs require a personal statement. Some programs, particularly professional degree programs, ask applicants to write a few short essays in response to specific questions. Other programs instead have sections on the application form that ask for the same information that one would normally provide in a personal statement.
Scores on standardized tests (GRE, LSAT, GMAT, etc.)
Most graduate programs, but not all of them, require applicants to submit official scores from one or more standardized tests (a.k.a. entrance exams). These tests provide an objective basis for comparing the academic aptitudes of all the applicants. They are designed to assess academic knowledge and skills relevant to graduate studies. The scores are thought to be one measure of academic aptitude that is not influenced by the huge variation that exists in the grading standards and procedures of different courses, professors, departments, faculties, and schools. The rationale is that everyone writes an equivalent test and all tests are graded the same way. Thus, the playing field is level for all participants.
After completing all components of the graduate application, consider having an academic advisor at your school look it over for any discrepancies, omissions, or typos that you may not have detected.