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Applying to Graduate School: Smart Tips and Strategies

July 30, 2021 · 4 minute read

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Applying to Graduate School: Smart Tips and Strategies

Attending graduate school can help some students achieve their career goals, and may even be required in some fields. Applying to grad school does have some similarities to the undergrad application process, think of things like filling out relevant applications and writing personal statements.

For students embarking on their grad school journey, tips and strategies to help them navigate the application process include finding the right program, creating an application timeline, carefully crafting an effective statement of purpose and personal statement, and planning for how they’ll cover the upcoming expenses such as tuition and lab fees.

Four Tips and Strategies to Prepare for the Grad School Application Process

These tips and strategies may help students determine their goals and create a plan to help them achieve their graduate school goals.

Choosing the Right Graduate School

It’s important to make sure you’re applying to the schools that are most likely to suit your needs. Here are a few questions that could help students self-reflect to see if they’re on the right path:

•  Which degree path do you want to pursue?

•  Does your chosen career encourage a Ph.D. or a Master’s degree?

•  Do the schools you’re considering offer that program?

•  What is the cost of tuition?

•  Are scholarships available, either full-ride or partial?

•  Is the degree program accredited?

•  Does this school have excellent professors?

•  Will this degree facilitate your entry into the career of your choice?

Generally, students aim to apply to between five or six schools. Perhaps you’re still in the early stages of exploring schools and are mulling over which graduate program to pursue. Now’s the time to weigh your interests, skills, talents, and career goals to find a few options that may make sense to apply to.

Grad School Application Timeline

There’s plenty of prep work that must happen months before you start applying to graduate school. One way to alleviate some stress and make sure all of the necessary application requirements are met is to start early.
Additional timeline tips offered by Kaplan include the following highlights:

Two Years Before Applying: Research Schools and Programs

Narrow down the programs of interest and your career goals about two years before you plan to apply.

One Year Before Applying

•  Prepare for any standardized tests required for admission. Some programs may require students to submit GRE scores, while others may require the GMAT. Law students will generally need to take the LSAT and future med school attendees can anticipate taking the MCAT.

•  Start gathering application materials. This could include things like college transcripts, letters of recommendation(s), and prepping for any personal statements that may be required (more tips on that to follow).

Year of Grad School

Generally, graduate school applications open up about 9 months before a student would be expected to start classes. Some programs may accept applications on a rolling basis. It’s generally wise to apply as soon as all of your application materials are ready to go.

Refining Your Graduate School Statement of Purpose and Personal Statement

The statement of purpose for graduate school (sometimes called a letter of intent or a research statement) is where you detail your future plans and how the school you’re applying to can help you achieve those goals.

Students who are applying to multiple schools may need to tweak their statement of purpose slightly to meet different application requirements, but in general, there are a few common threads that are included in a statement of purpose. These include:

•  What do you want to study at graduate school?

•  Why do you want to study it?

•  What experience do you have in that field? How would you add value to the existing program?

•  What do you plan to do with your degree once you have it?

To craft a successful statement, create an outline and build a strategic statement that highlights details including your relevant experience and motivation for applying to this specific graduate school and program. You want your statement to stand out and target the school you are applying to; avoid writing the same statement of purpose for each school.

A personal statement, meanwhile, lets the admissions committees see applicants as a person, including their goals and passions and what students are hoping to get out of the program. Personal statements are generally more biographical in nature than a statement of purpose. It may highlight things like an individual’s passion for a particular field or help them demonstrate characteristics that will help them excel in grad school.

Options for Paying for Graduate School

There are a variety of ways to pay for graduate school.

Federal Aid

As a first step, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) which is used to determine what federal financial assistance students may qualify for. Often, people applying for graduate school are considered independent students on the FAFSA. Independent students are not required to include their parents’ financial information on their FAFSA application.

Submitting the FAFSA allows students to apply for all federal aid, including:

•  Federal student loans

•  Grants

•  Scholarships

•  Work-study program

Scholarships and Grants from Your University

Take a look at the aid options available specific to the school you will be attending (or the schools you are applying to). It may be possible to apply for additional scholarships, grants, and fellowships depending on the program.

Universities sometimes use the FAFSA to make financial aid determinations, but some have their own application process. Again, check the graduate school website to find out relevant deadlines and procedures.

Possibilities Beyond Federal or University Aid

Other possibilities include employer tuition reimbursement plans, private scholarships and loans. Private student loans lack the borrower protections offered by federal student loans (things like deferment or forbearance, income-driven repayment plans, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness), so they are usually only borrowed after other sources of aid have been exhausted.

After graduating, some students may consider refinancing student loans. Qualifying borrowers can secure a competitive interest rate or preferable terms. Refinancing federal student loans will mean they no longer qualify for any federal borrower protections or programs, like deferment or Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

The Takeaway

Applying to graduate school doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Start by defining your career goals and determine which programs you want to apply to. From there, review the application requirements and set an application timeline. This should include things like prepping for any required standardized tests, getting letters of recommendation in order, and writing a statement of purpose. Also consider how to pay for the cost of graduate school―options include; federal student loans, scholarships, grants, or private student loans.

Prepared with this information, the grad school application process will hopefully feel much more manageable. Some students may consider refinancing their student loans after graduating. This could potentially result in a lower interest rate or preferable loan terms. Refinancing federal student loans will disqualify them from any federal or borrower protections.

Interested in refinancing student loans with SoFi? Applicants can find out if they qualify, and at what rates, in just a few minutes.


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