Applying for Graduate School: Tips for Success

By Julia Califano · September 15, 2023 · 6 minute read

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Applying for Graduate School: Tips for Success

Attending graduate school can help some students achieve their career goals, and may even be required in some fields. While applying to grad school is similar to applying to college, three are some key differences to keep in mind. Graduation school programs also tend to be more competitive than undergraduate degree programs.

If you’re thinking about going to grad school, read on. What follows are some simple strategies that can help you navigate the graduate school application process, including how to find the right program, create an application timeline, write an effective statement of purpose and personal statement, and make a plan for covering the cost of tuition and expenses.

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

Below are some simple steps that can make it easier to find and apply to the right graduate school program.

Choosing the Right Graduate School

It can be a good idea to apply to four to six graduate schools, and include both safety and reach schools.

If you’re still in the early stages of exploring schools and 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.

Here are some questions to ask as you search for the right grad school:

•  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?

💡 Quick Tip: You’ll make no payments on some private student loans for six months after graduation.

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. Here’s a timeline to keep in mind.

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, 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 nine 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 graduate school statement, you’ll want to create an outline and make sure you highlight 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 you as a person, including your goals and passions and what you 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 your passion for a particular field or help you demonstrate characteristics that will help you excel in grad school.

Recommended: Graduate Student Loan Limits: How Much Can You Get?

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.

Recommended: How to Become a Graduate Assistant

Possibilities Beyond Federal or University Aid

Other possibilities include employer tuition reimbursement plans, private scholarships, and private graduate student loans. Private student loans usually don’t have the borrower protections offered by federal student loans (things like deferment or forbearance, income-driven repayment plans, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness), so you may want to consider them only after you’ve exhausted other forms of aid.

After graduating, some students may consider student loan refinancing. Qualifying borrowers can often secure a competitive interest rate or preferable terms. Refinancing federal student loans, however, will mean they no longer qualify for any federal borrower protections or programs.

💡 Quick Tip: Master’s degree or graduate certificate? Private or federal student loans can smooth the path to either goal.

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. The steps involved in applying to graduate school include taking any required standardized tests, getting letters of recommendation, and writing a statement of purpose. Also consider how you will pay for the cost of graduate school. Options include federal student loans, scholarships, grants, and private student loans.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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