Surviving the Graduate School Admissions Process

Timeline: Generally speaking, you will start graduate school in the fall. You should begin collecting materials and taking entrance exams from the spring semester of your junior year to the beginning of fall semester your senior year. Application deadlines for a fall start date are usually January to February.


  1. Examine your reasons for wanting to enroll in graduate school. Are you driven by high professional goals and standards?
    • Are you challenged by the rigors of academic inquiry?
    • Are you interested in an occupation that requires a graduate degree?
    • Have you just spent $60,000 on education and still aren’t broke?
    • Do you enjoy stress?
      * If you answered “yes” to any or all of the above proceed to the next step! If you are simply applying to graduate school to avoid job searching, visit the Center for Career Development to discuss your goals with a counselor.
  2. Meet with your academic advisor and discuss graduate programs that may meet your academic goals. Survey other members of the department, too. Talk to faculty and staff members about their graduate school experiences and perspectives.
  3. Check Peterson’s Graduate Programs series for additional information on graduate programs. (Center for Career Development, Level 2 Student Union)
  4. Check the Internet for websites appropriate to your interests.
  5. Decide if you are looking at a master’s degree programs (2-3 years full time) or doctoral programs (5+ years). Some programs allow you to work from an undergraduate program straight through to a doctorate. (Beware! Some of those programs award a master’s degree after a certain number of hours have been completed. Others do not. In the programs that do not award a master’s degree, you leave with no degree if the doctorate is not completed.)
  6. Find a minimum of six schools to which you can apply. Choose a range of selectivity, from moderate to highly selective, based on your realistic appraisal of your undergraduate academic record and graduate admission test scores. If you are concerned about getting accepted due to lower scores or GPA, apply to more than six schools and choose some with lower admissions standards.
  7. Narrow your region of interest geographically. Are you really willing to go to the University of Alaska if they have the best graduate program in your field? If not, do not apply. Graduate applications are expensive and time consuming. On the other hand, if you are flexible, do not be afraid to look at a new region of the country. This could work to your benefit.
  8. Check the Internet for online applications. If the material you need is not on the web, call the university graduate school and ask for the following materials:
    • Graduate bulletin (catalog) – You may have to pay for this!
    • Graduate school admissions forms
    • Financial aid information and graduate assistant application (sometimes applications are separate and have different deadlines)
    • Housing information if applicableNote: Some professional degree programs such as medicine and law have centralized application clearinghouses. Familiarize yourself with those procedures.
  9. In the admissions material check for:
    • Minimum GPA
    • Required graduate admissions tests:
      • GRE General Test – generic for many programs
      • GRE Subject Area Tests – required by some programs
      • Millers Analogies Test – odd substitute test; 100 analogies
      • GMAT – MBA and other business related programs
      • MCAT – medical school
      • LSAT – law school
      • Others
    • Letters of Recommendation
    • Undergraduate transcripts (Contact Registrar Office). If you took classes at other colleges, you may need to send transcripts from all institutions.
    • Essays or personal statements
  10. Record deadlines for the submission of materials. Apply a few weeks early if possible.
  11. Work to raise your GPA to its highest possible level. This is the most practical step you can take to improve your chances for admission to graduate school.
  12. Collect registration booklets or visit the appropriate website for all required admissions test. Record registration deadlines for all tests.
  13. Pursue opportunities for graduate test preparation through registration booklet, self-help manuals, computer software, and intensive test prep courses. Try to complete all test in the fall prior to admission for the next fall semester.
  14. Circulate all letters of recommendation to faculty members far in advance of deadlines. Provide self-addressed, stamped envelope and deadline for completion (make it early). It is also helpful to give them a photocopy of your transcript, academic achievements, and resume so they can be more specific in their letters.
  15. Work on essays early. Have them carefully proofread for errors and quality of writing. This is important!
  16. Check with your graduate program office and your section of the graduate bulletin to see if there are specific undergraduate course requirements. Make sure you have scheduled these for your senior year, if you have not already completed them.
  17. Check for foreign language requirements. Take them now.
  18. Have $300-$500 on hand to cover application fees ($50+ each), test registration fees ($50+ each), and test preparation expenses.
  19. Make contacts, if possible, at the schools to which you are applying. This means e-mailing professors to let them know you are applying and that you are interested in their research, etc. Also, see if professors you know have connections with those professors at schools in which you are applying. Networking is really important in a lot of Ph.d. programs!
  20. Plan to visit schools and set up interviews if possible. This may help your chances of gaining admission and help you decide where you want to attend if you get multiple offers. Some programs

Now, sit back and wait for your letters of acceptance. If graduate school is not a certainty, visit with the Center for Career Development to develop alternate plans. It may be wise to conduct a job search in case you do not get accepted.

Contact the Center for Career Development at 974-5435 if you would like to make an appointment with a career counselor to discuss your graduate school plans. Visit our website at for additional graduate school information and links.

Information adapted from a resource developed by Career Services at Pfeiffer University.