A North Central College student applying to grad school.

How To Apply To Grad School

Jacob Imm

Sep 14, 2020

How to Apply to Grad School: Tips + Preparation

Graduate school is a major moment in life. It’s a big decision, with a lot of great potential benefits. Before you can get to them, first things first.

It may have been quite a while since you had to fill out an online college application for a degree program. Just like the classes, the expectations are higher for a graduate student than an undergraduate student when you apply. There’s a lot to remember, and the standards are tougher.

You might need some help keeping it all straight. You might also need to know if what you’re putting on the page is right. Well, we have you covered, with this simple guide to completing your graduate application.

While we are at it, we can also help you with your other needs, like answering the question “What is grad school?”, finding out what questions to ask grad school interviewers, and telling you what grad school interview questions you can expect to get. For now, though, let’s get to the application materials.

The Components of a Grad School Application

A graduate school application is mostly a checklist of documents. These application materials give admissions officers a chance to quickly evaluate you as an applicant. They also, however, give you a chance to show how organized you are and that you can take instruction and finish assignments in an academic program.

Most important are the personal statement and résumé, where you get the chance to show off your creativity and graduate-level thinking. Here’s what you will most likely need, according to Affordable Colleges Online:

Application forms and fees

Some schools need two application forms: one for the college or university and another for the department your program is part of. Be sure to check the school’s website or contact their admission office to find out. An application fee is a one-time charge, usually ranging from $50 to $150. Sometimes you can get a fee waiver if you demonstrate a financial aid need. Get in touch with the bursar’s office of the school where you’re applying to find out if you can qualify for a fee waiver.


You’ll need a full record of whatever undergraduate courses you’ve taken and what grades you got, as well as any graduate study you might have done. Don’t bother with an unofficial transcript—even if you have to pay to get it, make sure you have the genuine document to include in your online application. Depending on the school, you may have to get your official transcript sent right to your future school, or you may be able to send them a copy yourself. Be sure to check the application deadline that you see on your future school’s website and act fast—give your undergraduate school plenty of time to fill your transcript request.

Test scores

Let’s talk for a moment about exams. Just about every graduate degree program requires you to take an exam to qualify. For most programs, it’s the GRE, but there are also specialized standardized tests for certain programs, like the GMAT for management programs such as the MBA, the MCAT for medical school, and the LSAT for law school. Taking one of these tests is like taking the SAT or ACT before college, but even more important. You can look up each exam online to find out when the testing dates are and how soon you have to sign up. Then give yourself a few months to study before the exam. You should get your hands on every test prep guide you can find either online or in print, and it’s a really good idea to take a prep course. It’ll be worth the money, as even on the GRE—which goes over a lot of knowledge you should have picked up in high school—you will need a refresher and some tips. Testing websites should also tell you when your scores will be available based on when you take the test. Be sure you will have your scores in plenty of time to include on your application before the application deadline. While your GRE score will not determine your admission decision alone, you can’t get into a graduate program without one.


Find Out More About North Central College

Letters of recommendation

Again, for as important as these were for getting into college, they’re an even bigger deal for graduate school. For the most part, you’ll want to get these from college instructors who can tell schools what kind of student you are. Their opinion is easiest to trust when it comes to how you will handle graduate work. Letters of rec are not something to expect to ask for and get in a few days. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor David Shorter from UCLA says they should be one of the first things you think about when you want to apply to grad school:

“Early in the calendar year (ideally from January to March) start planning for the two to four letters of recommendation that you will need by year’s end. At least one should speak to your promise in the field(s) to which you are applying. Only by starting this work early can you have a quarter or a semester taking courses or independent studies with those teachers who could write great letters on your behalf.

“If you’ve done your job on this front, when we sit down to write you a letter of reference, we will be able to see that you helped us write glowingly, and with specificity.”

If you aren’t applying from graduate school directly from undergrad, you’ll want to get in touch with some of your former professors and try to start ongoing conversations. Let them know what you’ve been up to and what interests you about grad school. It’s also good if you can send them the assignments you did in their classes to remind them about your work.

Résumé or CV

Pretty simple, but remember a few keys. To begin with, don’t just fire off a copy of the same résumé you’ve been using for years. Make sure it is up-to-date, and that you’ve changed at least something since the last time you wrote it. Prepscholar.com says, “You’re applying to an educational program, so it makes sense that your grad school resume will focus more on your education than a standard work résumé. In a work résumé, you’d usually only devote a line or two to education to explain where you went to school and what degree you received.” The good news is you don’t have to limit yourself as much as you’re used to. Your grad school résumé should have sections talking about your educational credentials, skills, and certifications you’ve picked up work experience, and other things you’ve been involved in, like sports, clubs, and volunteering. Above all else, make sure everything is spelled correctly and easy to read. Lean toward a simple design with clear headings and common fonts.

Personal statement or statement of purpose

There is a simple fact you need to know: graduate school involves a lot of writing. Your personal statement is a great chance to get started. This isn’t just a cover letter or a brag sheet, though. This needs to go deeper. According to Kaplan, the company that does the most testing of potential grad students, “The graduate school personal statement serves two basic purposes. First, (it shows) whether you know how to write a clear, coherent essay that’s logically and grammatically correct. Second, the application essay gives you the opportunity to present the admissions committee with more of a ‘three-dimensional’ perspective of yourself as a deserving candidate than GPA and GRE numbers possibly can.” In other words, this is your chance to get into the details that don’t fit on your résumé, and that means you can (and should) include things that didn’t happen in the classroom or while you were a student. While you don’t want to push too hard to sell yourself in a personal statement, remember to cover not only why you’re qualified, but why you are a good fit for the grad program and why this is the perfect time in your life to enter grad school.


These aren’t always necessary, but it all depends on what kind of program you’re getting into. If you are going into the arts, but also fields like marketing, architecture, or even teaching, it’s smart to have samples of your work to prove you’ve got the skills you claim. Give yourself a few months to get yours together, and make sure you have it posted online where it is easy to access.


This is the main event. Big enough that it needs its own section.

The Grad School Interview

For as much documentation as grad schools ask for, you might think they can’t expect anything more. But the interview is a school’s chance to confirm what you’ve written, check on things you might have left out, and get to know you. Remember that getting admitted isn’t just about whether you’re qualified, it’s about how well you fit the school’s culture and enhance its reputation. So here are some things to expect and keep in mind.

Do your homework

You can’t go into an interview cold. Your interviewers will expect to you bring something to the conversation beyond what they already know. So research the subject you’re going into and any related news. USA Today says, “The more you know about your chosen field, the more you can demonstrate your passion. This can also help you identify current policy or social issues, ethical dilemmas and hot topics that they may ask about during the interview.” In addition, be sure you know the terms of the conversation you’re entering. USA Today goes on to mention, “Collect information about the interview structure. Each school is different, so review any information they provide carefully. In particular, assess the following: Who will I meet with and how will the conversations take place? (And) will interviewers have access to my application?” Knowing how many people you’re going to be talking to at once, what they’re an expert in, and whether you need to keep reminding them what’s on your résumé will help you practice. Speaking of which …


Whether you’re practicing your answers in front of a mirror to see how you look or asking former professors to test you with example questions, get yourself in the habit of thinking on your feet and being comfortable with what you want to say.

Know how to talk about yourself

It should be easy. After all, what subject do you know more about than yourself? But it can be really hard for a lot of people. Know that most interviews start with an open question asking you to describe yourself. Focus on giving the most important and relevant credentials you have that make you qualified for the program. So while you might be a licensed tennis professional, that’s not the first thing you should mention if you want a master’s degree in finance. Don’t go on and on—and try not to go overboard talking yourself up. But remember, if your interviewers don’t have your CV in front of them, they may need more basic details.

Have a good idea of your goals

Grad school interviews commonly include questions regarding what you want out of life. This is so interviewers can evaluate whether you will make the most of your degree and if it will actually help you complete your plans. Make sure you have a detailed, realistic answer to these questions. It will show you are ambitious, committed, and know how to plan, all of which speak well to your value as a grad student.

Prepare to go over your academics

Whether or not your interviewers have your CV in front of them, they will more than likely ask specific questions about your previous schooling. Have answers prepared on why you took the courses you did, specific things you learned, what knowledge you will bring with you to make your grad school conversations richer, and make sure you can explain any down periods in your career, like a semester where your GPA dropped or time you took away from school. Remember also that graduate school is about research. You won’t always be assigned that research, so you’ll be expected to come up with your own. So be ready to tell your interviewers what you’re interested in learning more about and describe projects you’d like to do.

Think about problem solving and leadership

While these questions are more common in job interviews, being a graduate student is about more than just taking classes. You will be expected to teach, conduct research, intern, or all of these at once. So you will need to give examples of your professionalism when asked how you addressed a difficult situation or dealt with a difficult person.

Your questions for them

Your answers are important but make certain that when you are asked if you have any questions you have something to say. It’s not just about showing how prepared you are or showing off the research you did into the school and its faculty. This is also your chance to get a feel for them and whether you can spend the next few years in their program. Take advantage of it.

Make a good impression

Remember to get plenty of rest the night before the interview, give yourself plenty of time to get ready beforehand, check yourself in a mirror a few times, and to be calm, polite, and professional at all times. Unfair or not, your interview starts from the moment you arrive, and everything you say and do counts. Don’t lose focus before or after the questions begin.

As we’ve mentioned above, every school is different, so be sure you know what their specific requirements are before you apply. That is part of your application process, too—a school that makes it easy to apply bodes well for how smoothly your time goes there. Look for schools like North Central College that provide everything you need to know to apply in one easy-to-understand location. Contact their graduate admission offices to get answers to all your specific questions.

Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 10 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.