How to apply to grad school

This page brings together some of my best advice on researching and applying to grad schools. Like all the pages on my site, it’s a work in progress. So, if you find a helpful resource that you think should be added, or if there’s a topic that you want addressed (or addressed in more detail), please send me an email at Omar(dot)Hussein(at)csulb(dot)edu.

Also, keep in mind that the advice offered here is meant to be generic and applicable to all disciplines, meaning that some of what I say may not be 100% applicable to your specific circumstances. For that reason, it’s always a good idea to talk to people in your field. Ask questions of your program and advisors and faculty mentors. Try to connect with current grad students in the programs you’re interested in. Talk to recent graduates from your undergrad institution who’ve been admitted to programs that interest you. Read tips and comments online – Reddit, Quora, and Grad Cafe (especially the Forum) can all be informative, but of course practice critical thinking when reading online sources.  

Topics Covered

  • CSULB-specific Resources
  • Researching Grad Schools: Some General Advice
  • Applying to Grad School
  • Further Reading and Other Helpful Resources

CSULB-specific Resources

If you’re interested in applying to a graduate program at CSULB, here are some helpful resources to be aware of:

  • The CSULB Graduate Center (GC) where I work. If you’re a prospective student interested in applying to a CSULB grad program, you can request a graduate advising appointment here. Advising appointments can also include individualized feedback on statements and résumés/CVs. Graduate advising through the GC also offers a materials feedback service.
  • CSULB’s Graduate Programs and Academic Advisors page. That page lists every graduate program at CSULB, the deadlines to apply, links to the programs’ web pages, and contact info to the programs’ current graduate advisors. Graduate advisors are university faculty who spend some of their time answering questions and providing guidance to prospective applicants to their department. The advisors are listed on the page alphabetically by the name of the program. Finally, the page offers some brief information on applying to the CSU (scroll down “below the fold”), including a link to the Cal State Apply application portal.
  • The Graduate Center also has 2 pages on funding for grad school:  (1) External funding, (2) On-campus funding (includes info and links for travel grants, fellowships, and research funding).

Researching Grad Schools: Some General Advice

Before you can apply to graduate school, you have to do some thinking and fact-finding to determine what your goals are and what graduate programs can help you best meet those goals.

On those points, I’d recommend watching this brief (8min) video by Dr. Amanda Bittner, a political science professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland: Apply to graduate school: key points, tips, and suggestions.

While it’s not from CSULB, that video gives a great overview of some of the things you should think about when researching grad schools to attend. Some of the topics covered are: Reasons to go (or not to go) to grad school; factors to consider; picking a program; prerequisites; requirements; and finances. I highly recommend it.

If you’d like a longer (36 min) take, Dr. Anne Lapour, a career advisor at Willamette University, has a very detailed and informative video accessible here: Grad School Workshop Series: How to Choose a Program.

As Dr. Lapour states, you should strongly consider creating a spreadsheet, table, or other file to keep track of the pros and cons of specific schools that you’re interested in. For instance, the Duke Graduate School “What to Look For in A Graduate Program” page has a helpful example in Word doc format available here (direct download link).

Furthermore, the UC Berkeley Career Center offers the following list of factors to consider when evaluating grad schools, which I quote below (because it’s good):

Evaluate programs – factors to consider

  • Reputation of the faculty – What are their academic degrees/credentials and research specialties? What is the student/faculty ratio? Look at faculty websites if available.
  • Quality of the program – This is measured by many different factors, many of which are mentioned below. You may choose to look at graduate school rankings to help you assess a program’s quality; however, the rankings may be based on criteria that are different from your own. In addition, many scholars, deans, and advisors question the validity of such rankings.
  • Financial costs – What are the opportunities for fellowships, assistantships, or scholarships? What other sources of financial aid are available?
  • Admission requirements – GPA, test scores, undergraduate coursework, specific entrance examinations, etc.
  • Available course offerings – Are courses you need to fulfill degree requirements frequently offered? Will the course offerings help you meet your professional or educational goals?
  • Employment – Where are graduates of the program working, and how much are they earning?
  • Facilities – Consider the quality of on-site facilities such as libraries, computer labs, and research facilities.
  • Geographic location – Will studying in a particular location help you meet personal or professional goals?
  • Student life – Consider the diversity of students, student organizations, housing, and campus support services.” (Source)

It’s also important (especially for online programs) to avoid scams and ensure that any programs you consider applying to are reputable and accredited. On this topic, US News and World Report has a helpful article called How to Tell if an Online Program Is Accredited. You can also search school names and look up their accreditation status on this page by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

I recommend searching on the web for programs that fit your interests and goals. For example, if you are interested in MBA programs in Southern California, I’d recommend googling combinations of terms like “MBA Los Angeles,” “MBA Southern California” and so on to see what comes up. Once you find some programs that look promising, start reading about them on their websites. Similar to what the videos above suggest, I recommend trying to find answers to questions like:

  • How do I apply? What are the prerequisites to admission? Do I need to take any particular courses or standardized tests?
  • What are the admissions deadlines? Based on those deadlines, what steps do I need to take (e.g., scheduling a standardized test) to prepare myself to apply on time?
  • How long will the program take? What courses are offered?
  • How much does the program cost? What funding and financial aid are available?
  • What is the program’s mission and vision? What are its stated values? Will this program prepare me for the types of careers I am interested in?
  • Does the program advertise what its graduates go on to do? Do they discuss job placement numbers or information about successful alumni? If so, does this information match the kinds of things I’d like to do after graduating from the program?

Those are just some of the questions you might try to answer by carefully reading/browsing the programs’ websites. The videos and other resources discussed above offer further ideas.

Applying to Grad School

Note: Much of this section is adapted (i.e., updated and/or lightly edited) from a handout created by Jose Miguel Martinez, the former Assistant Director of the CSULB Graduate Center.

A complete graduate school application usually consists of the following application materials:

Click on the linked items above to visit my full pages on those topics.

Of course, requirements and prerequisites vary from program to program, so check individual program websites for more info. Also, most programs will not review your application until all parts of the application are submitted. So, it’s important to start preparing the application components early and submit your completed application before the deadline.

Grad School Application Timeline

The process of applying to grad school can be time-consuming and stressful. So, you should begin the application process early, preferably one full academic year in advance. Keep in mind that preparing for an entrance exam like the GRE or securing letters of recommendation can take months. So, the timeline below is just a rough guide: each graduate program has specific deadlines for admissions and funding applications. The timeline is also a bit biased toward first-time grad school applicants applying toward the end of their undergrad program. Obviously, the timeline might look a bit different for non-traditionally aged students and people returning to school after an extended absence.

Fall and Spring of Junior Year

  • Research disciplines, institutions, and programs aligned with your personal, career, and educational goals.
  • Seek out research, internships, and employment opportunities to prepare you in your field of interest (ideally, begin this step prior to junior year).
  • Develop a system (e.g., a spreadsheet) to organize information regarding programs, deadlines, and requirements.

Summer Before Senior Year

  • Begin drafting your admissions essays (i.e., statements of purpose, personal statements, supplemental essays if applicable).
  • Review options for graduate programs in your field and develop a “working list” of programs to apply to.
  • Review costs and funding options (e.g., scholarships, fellowships) available for each program.
  • Research graduate fellowships for which you might apply and prepare applications in time for early fall due dates. Typically, funding application deadlines for fellowships and scholarships are the same as general application deadlines.
  • Determine which standardized tests (e.g., GRE, LSAT) you will need to take and when. Consider taking a prep class for your respective exam.
  • Make sure your undergraduate transcript is accurate and complete. Contact Enrollment Services and request corrections if needed.
  • Start meeting with faculty mentors to discuss programs of interest and request letters of recommendation.

Fall of Senior Year

4 months prior to graduate school application deadline
  • Start filling out online applications (e.g., CSU Apply) and familiarize yourself with the application process.
  • Meet with faculty mentors to discuss programs of interest and request letters of recommendation.
  • Seek out and attend information sessions for your program(s) of interest.
  • Complete first draft of statement of purpose and supplemental essays, if required.
  • Complete entrance exam (e.g., GRE, LSAT).
  • Continue researching funding opportunities, including fellowships, scholarships, and internships.
  • Review the requirements for the FAFSA (financial aid) application.  
3 months prior to graduate school application deadline
  • Request transcripts from your university’s enrollment services. Determine which programs need transcripts early (before fall grades are posted) and which don’t need them until after fall grades are posted.
  • Edit your admissions essays. Request that faculty mentor(s), advisors, and/or others in your network review them and provide feedback.
  • Re-take entrance exams (e.g., GRE, LSAT) if necessary.
  • Begin drafting essays for scholarship and fellowship applications.
  • If relocating, research housing options near the school campus
2 months prior to graduate school application deadline
  • Secure and send off final transcripts.
  • Follow up with recommenders and secure letters of recommendation.
  • Finalize admissions essays.
  • Complete the FAFSA (financial aid) application and finalize essays for fellowships/scholarships.
  • Begin submitting completed applications.

Further Reading and Other Helpful Resources

Here are a few other resources that might be useful:

The Muhlenberg College Career Center’s Graduate & Professional School Guide:

UChicago GRAD Guide to Applying to Ph.D. Programs.

The Thesis Whisperer: Should I Do a PhD?

Karen Kelsky: Should You Go To Grad School?

The Impossible Decision By Joshua Rothman. This New Yorker essay is a bit abstract and cerebral, but it brings up some valuable points, including the “sample bias” that often affects advice about graduate school.

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