Grad School Application Process

Making The Decision To Go
Researching Your Options
Requesting and Submitting Application Materials
Taking Admissions Tests
Writing The Essay
Obtaining Letters of Recommendation
Investigating Financial Aid Options
Submitting Completed Applications

Making The Decision To Go

Evaluate your interests and goals and be very clear about your reasons for pursuing a particular degree. Advanced degrees are required if you are interested in areas like medicine, law, or college/university teaching. Another excellent reason for continuing your education is that you may have an interest in specializing in a discipline where it’s apparent that a higher degree would be advantageous to your career goals. Pursuing a graduate or professional program as a fall-back plan or without a specific outcome in mind can be a costly mistake. Grad school should not be an option if you are unsure of what else to do, and it does not allow for the exploring that takes place in a liberal arts curriculum.

Researching Your Options

The internet is full of sites to help you find a graduate program that will meet your educational and career-related needs. Try a few of our favorites by clicking on searching for schools. Once you’ve narrowed your choices, viewing individual web sites of institutions that interest you is a great way to gather specific information related to each school’s admission criteria.

Printed materials such as the Peterson Guides, Princeton Review publications, and specialized publications list schools and programs and can be found on shelves at the Piper Center. Academic departments on campus as well as various national associations may also house specialized materials for graduate and professional programs.

Asking faculty or alumni for advice can give you inside information on individual programs and the qualifications required. Graduate students studying in your field may also give valuable advice, especially on the strengths and weaknesses of their particular program. If possible, visit the institutions that interest you and talk with faculty members and currently enrolled students. If a visit isn’t feasible, try to make contacts by phone or email. Each program should be able to supply you with current students’ contact information.

Before you prepare your application, brush up on communication fundamentals.

Requesting & Submitting Application Materials

Once you’ve identified graduate programs that will meet your education and career goals, request application materials or submit your application online. This can be done by linking to each institution’s home page and emailing respective admission offices. As you receive materials, keep track of what each institution and program needs from you to complete your admission file, as these requirements will vary.

Make sure to note deadlines. Most graduate school programs abide by the following rule of thumb; application materials need to be completed and submitted between the months of December and March prior to the fall you wish to start your program. Schools using a rolling application policy review applicants as they apply up until the deadline; in these cases, it is best to apply early in the cycle. Application deadlines for a winter or spring start dates vary; contact the institution(s) of your choice for specifics.

Taking Admission Tests

Graduate programs usually require at least one admission test, and some require additional subject tests. Allow ample time to prepare for and take the tests needed for admission; include in your planning the time it takes for scores to be sent to the graduate institutions of your choice. Note registration deadlines for each test date and plan to send your registration early – Test sites fill up quickly in the fall.

You can obtain application forms and booklets for a variety of graduate and professional admission exams at the Piper Center. Register online for admissions exams and learn about preparatory courses from Kaplan and the Princeton Review by clicking on graduate exams and test prep information. Test preparation books can be borrowed from the Piper Center or purchased from any major bookstore.

Writing the Essay

Most graduate and professional programs have a set of questions prepared for you to respond to in the form of an essay or personal statement. The essay should be a clear, succinct statement showing that you have a definite sense of what you want to do and enthusiasm for the field of study you have chosen. Your essay should reflect your writing abilities; more importantly, it should reveal the clarity, the focus, and the depth of your thinking. The Piper Center has several good books on writing a graduate/professional school admission essay. Feedback is one key to developing a strong essay, so seek out the various resources on campus for advice. The Writing Desk offers in-person writing help with most kinds of writing assignments. Faculty members and the Piper Center career coaches offer writing support services as well.

Obtaining Letters of Recommendation

Most graduate schools will require two or three letters of recommendation. Recommendations from faculty members are essential for academically-oriented programs; professional programs may seriously consider nonacademic recommendations from professionals in the field. It is important that the people you choose to write your recommendations know you well enough to compose a meaningful letter. Once you’ve identified likely candidates, make an appointment to talk with them. Explain your goals and why you’ve chosen the potential writer as one of your recommenders.  Share with him/her information about the position(s) you are applying for.  Ask whether the person is able to write a strong letter for you. Bring materials such as a copy of your transcripts, a resume, a copy of related coursework or projects, and/or a copy of a research paper which will assist them in commenting on your strengths. Be sure to bring the official recommendation forms (if needed) along with stamped, addressed envelopes for convenience. NEVER put a request for a recommendation in a professor’s P.O. without first having a conversation about your request. 

Steps you can take to ensure the success of your inquiry:

  • Read the St. Olaf English Department’s ”How-to”
  • tutorial on asking for a recommendation
  • Natural Science/Math students requesting a recommendation for summer programs, please use this form.
  • Ask the writer in person whether they’re willing to write you a positive letter of recommendation.
  • Talk to them specifically about the potential routes you’re considering, and ask them if they’d be willing to write a general letter now, and keep it “on file” for you for when you’re ready to apply.
  • If they are willing, provide the following– a cover sheet that details your name, contact information (phone, email, home address), a summary of your goals, what you’d like them to specifically address in the letter (research skills, writing skills, your contribution to classroom discussion, TA skills, professional skills and characteristics, etc.), your relationship to them and how long you’ve known them, etc.  If you had them in class, you can attach a piece of work that you’re particularly proud of that you produced for their class as supplemental information. Fill out this Request Form to give the recommender this important information.
  • Attach a copy of your resume/CV so that they’re aware of all of the additional things in which you’ve been involved.
  • Attach a copy of your transcript, highlighting the relevant course(s) you’ve had.

Investigating Financial Aid Options

Financial aid for graduate school typically comes in the form of scholarships, assistantships, fellowships, and loans. The Piper Center’s web site contains several links to financial resources for graduate/professional schools; books containing special scholarships and grants for graduate study are also available at the Piper Center. Be sure to request financial aid information when requesting admission information from the institutions of your choice. Note that applications deadlines for many forms of aid and assistantship positions can be earlier than the deadlines for applying for admission to your program!

Submitting Completed Applications

When you have completed all of your parts of the application, make copies of all the application materials as a back-up. Once all of your materials have been submitted, contact the graduate admission office to see that all have been received. It is your responsibility to make sure your file at the graduate school admissions office is complete.

Other websites that provide general information about applying to grad school include: