Applying to Graduate School

No matter at what stage of applying to graduate school you are, I’ve got some advice for you! I am also planning on having more information for international applicants soon.

Disclaimer: I am going to graduate school for physics, and therefore write about graduate school here from a research and science perspective. Some things are bound to be universal, but when in doubt, if you are thinking about an MBA or a similar degree, consult someone with experience in this field.

Before Applying Part I: Looking Ahead

Whether you are still years away from graduate school or about to apply, I have compiled three questions (and a lot of sub-questions) you should ask yourself before you get the ball rolling. There is no need to stress out too much if you have lots of time, but the earlier you start thinking, the more relaxed the process will be later.

Why do I want to go to graduate school?

Is graduate school a mandatory requirement for your desired career? Are you really enjoying your studies? Do you enjoy doing research? Do you think there are no other options for you? Are all your friends or is your significant other going to graduate school? Do you feel pressure from your parents?

Applying to graduate school takes a lot of hard work that should not be wasted. Therefore, think about the reasons you want to go to graduate school – write them down! Lots of graduate schools will want to know about this in your essay(s) anyway, so having this information on paper will already save you some time. If you find yourself thinking graduate school might not be right for you, (calmly) think about other opportunities and interests. Here, I speak from personal experience: You will thank yourself later for having done so, because you will either find something that is much more appealing to you or feel more confident in choosing to go to graduate school.

What do I want to study?

Are you planning on staying in the same field or area that you studied/researched in during undergraduate? Can you exclude any subject or field that does not interest you at all? What topics fascinate you the most? What are you good at? Is  your field or topic of interest well-funded (so that you might also be funded)? What sort of jobs would you get afterwards?

The best way to determine what you want to study in graduate school is to have gained prior experience. Even a “bad” research experience can help you exclude a certain field or type of work. If you cannot rely on previous experience, talk to professors, researchers, or anyone else that can help you understand what a day in their life during and after graduate school looked/looks like. Often, actual work may differ from what you expected. Finally, do not worry if you are applying to do research in a (sub-)field you do not have experience in, especially if you have not been able to do so – for example, if there was no research group doing this type of work at your undergraduate institution. Think about transferable skills and some ways you may be able to build up your exposure – summer research opportunities, independent projects, conferences, etc.

How am I going to pay for graduate school?

Are there any fellowships to which you plan to apply? Are teaching and research assistantships commonplace in your field? If not, how difficult is it to obtain one? Do you have money saved? Can you rely on family or do you plan to take out loans? Do you want/plan to work during graduate school?

In some fields, like physics, teaching assistantships (in which you work part-time for the department teaching classes and receive free tuition and a living stipend in return) are very commonplace, although it does vary between schools. Some graduate degrees – like those in engineering, which often yield a much higher salary after completion – can be harder to finance. The good news is that, in addition to loans and any money you bring to the table, there are a lot of ways to finance a graduate education. Fellowships are very prestigious scholarships, in which you are being paid to conduct your own research – gather information about fellowships for which you qualify, including the opening and closing dates of the application, early. You might also have a better chance at school-specific fellowships if you attend graduate school at your undergraduate institution, since you can take advantage of existing relationships and research endeavors.

Before Applying Part II: Right Before Applying

This step is all about communication, but before you can do that, you need to choose to which schools you will apply.

Choosing the Schools

  • Realize that applications (unless you can get fee waivers) cost money ($60-$90 for domestic students and more for international students), which will limit the number of schools.
  • Only applying to highly ranked schools can be a great way to reduce your chances of going to graduate school to zero. That said, realize that the quality of the individual program to which you are applying – not the whole school – is a much more important consideration.
  • The most important consideration will be the type and quality of the research at the school, but there is so much to think about! Here just a few questions you might ask yourself: What are the course requirements? Are there collaborations between the group/school and nearby or far away laboratories/government agencies/companies? Can you see yourself living in the location for the next few years? Do you have any existing professional connections? What support do students in the program receive?


Finally, if you have not already – you will need to talk to people. I know that, in the digital age, this is becoming harder to do, but there is no getting around this one.

Figure out who will/can write you a (good) letter of recommendation.

You need letters that speak to your ability to do research. The standard number for these is three, but up to five is fair game. If you have not had three or more research mentors, do not despair – this is most people. Focus on having one or two strong letters about you as a researcher, and supplement as needed. The writer deserves at least a month’s notice (and if you can, more). Maintain these relationships and keep the writer updated about impending or changing deadlines.

Get in touch with professors or research groups at the schools to which you are applying.

These people do not know you personally, so keep your email short and to the point. A few sentences introducing yourself, your prior research experience, and why you are interested in their group, with an accompanying question or two, under the subject line “Prospective Graduate Student Interested in Your Group”, suffices.

While Applying

Get organized. Keeping everything in order will make the process a lot easier – and it does not have to be complicated. I kept everything to do with graduate applications in a special folder on my laptop, with individual folders dedicated to each school. Finally, I made an Excel spreadsheet in which I kept track of deadlines, requirements, professors to whom I had reached out, and application IDs.

Check your email regularly. This is just proper adulting – not much more needs to be said.

Beware of “hidden” requirements. Depending on your status (e.g. international student) or on other factors, your program might require more material or even a second application. The latter genuinely surprised me, and I had only a day to hand in my (albeit short) departmental application – thank goodness I had submitted the first application early!

For information on writing application essays, check out my advice about undergraduate scholarships – the same things apply!

After Applying

Be patient

Most of the time, a quick internet search tells you when you can expect a response to your application, but you will receive a general date at best. The waiting period might be correlated with the application date, whether you receive a rejection or not (for example, you might receive acceptances quicker than rejections because you had been placed on a waitlist in the latter case), or other factors, but my responses were really all over the place. Be prepared to wait between a few weeks and a few months. And yes, you should still be checking your email regularly.

Realize you might have more to do.

One school I applied to included an unofficial interview component, where I met with a research group that was interested in having me join them, after I had indicated my interest on the application. It was only after this conversation that I received my acceptance letter. Another school only issued acceptances after a selective open house (the letter I received indicated a strong, but not guaranteed, likelihood that I would be officially accepted after the open house).

Look out for separate acceptance letters.

You might receive a letter from both the graduate school and the department to which you applied. Some information will be similar, but often only one of the two includes information on if you have received funding. Finally, you might have to respond to both letters individually, saying yes to the graduate school, and also to the specific department to which you applied.

Keep up/wrap up communication.

Write thank you letters/cards to your recommendation letter writers! Email the professor(s) you were in contact with at various schools and let them know about your plans – thank them for their help.

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