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Applying to Graduate School: Smart Tips and Strategies

September 05, 2018 · 6 minute read

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Applying to Graduate School: Smart Tips and Strategies

Perhaps you’re getting closer to completing your bachelor’s degree, or maybe you’ve already graduated and after a few years in the workforce, you want to further your education.

In either case, the process is basically the same as applying to undergrad—and this guide provides insight for every step in the process, starting with choosing the right school. What questions should you be asking yourself? How many schools should you ideally be considering?

We’ll also share information about the five most lucrative graduate school degrees to pursue, along with how to proactively plan your application timeline to give yourself the best chance of getting into the school of your choice.

We’ll offer strategies on creating the most effective statement of purpose and personal statement (along with how they differ) and last, but far from least, provide multiple methods to strategically finance your education.

Before we get started, we have one suggestion. If you’re feeling nervous about what grad schools might accept you, it’s important to address your doubts so you can confidently apply and get into the best school possible for your needs. Now, let’s get started.

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. suggests you ask yourself the following questions to make sure you’re headed in the right direction:

• Do you definitively know which degree you want to pursue?

• Do you ultimately want to have a master’s degree or a Ph.D.?

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

• How much does tuition cost?

• 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? suggests you come up with a list of your preferred five to eight schools, including a couple that are “top-notch, even if you don’t think you will get in. You never know if the admissions committee at any given school will like your statement of purpose, grades, and academic and personal bio.”

Perhaps you’re still in the early stages of exploring schools and are mulling over which graduate program to pursue. If that’s the case, we suggest you check out our post about the grad school degrees that typically lead to the highest salaries. They are, as follows:

• Medical degree

• Dental degree

• Law degree

• Pharmacy degree

• MBAs

Grad School Application Timeline

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education was written by a man wrapping up his eight (and final) year as graduate admissions chair in his department. With his in-depth knowledge of the process, his first tip is only two words long: Start early. There’s plenty of prep work that must happen months before you start applying to graduate school. So, start early.

Additional timeline tips offered include the following highlights:

• Between January and March of the application year, start making plans to get two to four letters of recommendation that you’ll need by the end of the year; get them from people—ideally academics—who can provide insights into your work, with at least one of them specializing in what you plan to study.

•Consider whether you should take a course to prep for the GRE test.

• From June to August, search out your ideal institutions for graduate work.

• During that same time frame, read plenty from your area of interest, so you can be as current as possible about what is being researched right now in your proposed specialty.

• Determine which of your potential school choices require GRE scores. Then, make sure you register to take the test early enough that scores will arrive before application deadlines do. Not having the scores in time will likely make you look unprofessional and may even cause your application to be considered incomplete.

• In August and September, email probable future advisors to see if they plan to continue their work in the areas that intrigue you and if they expect to still work with graduate students.

• This is also when you should contact people to see if they will write you letters of reference and to ask for help in reviewing your statement of purpose.

• Meet your deadlines with all required documents at the lengths specified.

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.

If you are applying to multiple schools, you may be asked for your statement of purpose in different ways. But as an article in points out, they are all typically asking for the same four pieces of information as quoted in the following bullet points:

What you want to study at graduate school?

Why you want to study it?

What experience you have in your field?

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

To craft a successful statement, be “substantive and direct” and strategically selective about details included. You want your statement to stand out and target the school you are applying to; Don’t write 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, what you’ll bring to the program, and what you’re hoping to get out of the program.”

It differs from the statement of purpose, as described in , by being more personal, sharing your “life experience and personality assets.” Before you provide this information in a grad school application, be ultra-clear on which of these they’re asking for.

Options for Paying for Graduate School?

This may feel like a stumbling block to you. If so, keep in mind that there are plenty of ways to pay for graduate school. And we’d like to suggest that, instead of looking only at the cost of getting an advanced degree, consider its potential for a massive return on investment.

As a first step, fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine what federal financial assistance might be available to you. Often, people applying for graduate school are considered independent on FAFSA; if that’s true for you, you don’t need to include your parents’ financial information on your FAFSA application.

When you get results from your FAFSA, you’ll know if you’re eligible for federal:

• Student loans

• Grants

• Work-study programs

• Income-based repayment plans

As another avenue to pursue, what financial aid options are available at the university of your choice? You should be able to look at each graduate school’s website to find out what scholarships, grants, and fellowships might be available to you.

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.

Other possibilities include employer tuition reimbursement plans, private scholarships and loans, and loan forgiveness programs such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.

Refinancing Your Graduate School Loans

Refinancing student loans with SoFi can be a great option for many people. Some of the benefits include:

• There are no prepayment penalties or hidden fees.

• You can select between fixed rates and variable rates.

• We are one of the few lenders that allow you to consolidate and refinance federal and private loans.

Steps are this simple:

1. Check your rates here.

2. Select your rate and term; by doing so, you can choose to either save on your monthly payment or save on total student loan interest.

3. Verify your info.

4. Upload screenshots of your information and then sign electronically.

5. Switch to one low-rate monthly payment. SoFi pays off your servicer(s) and issues you one loan.

Student loans can get complicated—SoFi is here to help. From helping you finance your education to helping you get out of your college debt, we’ve got you covered.

Check out what kind of rates and terms you can get in just a few minutes.

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The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.
SoFi private student loans are subject to program terms and restrictions and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See for more information. View payment examples. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change. Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs.


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