Applying to Graduate School

The graduate school application process has surface similarities to applying to undergraduate programs, but behind the scenes it’s quite different.

When you apply to an undergraduate program, you’re one of hundreds or thousands of applications all of which are being received by the institution’s undergraduate admissions office. There, admissions officers ensure that you’ve ticked all the boxes: official transcripts, letters of recommendation, application essay, SAT or ACT test scores, and so on. If you meet the formal requirements of the application process, then they’ll begin to look at your qualifications: GPA, courses taken, difficulty of course work, strength of your extracurricular activities, and so on. Maybe you visit campus, sit-in on a class or two, and have an interview with the admissions officers.

Graduate admissions offices serve only the first set of purposes: making sure you’ve submitted all the required paperwork. Once that’s done, at most institutions your application and those of other grad school applicants are sent to the department to which you’re applying. There, a subset of the department’s permanent faculty will have been designated as the graduate admissions committee for that year. That’s right: the faculty you’re hoping to study under and work alongside are the people who review your materials and make the admissions decision.

The graduate admissions process is much more about personal connections than the undergraduate application process. It’s important to research the departments to which you’re considering applying. You want to develop an understanding of the kinds of questions and methods valued by that department. If they are asking the kinds of questions that interest you and are trying to answer them using methods you value, then that may be a good fit. If you’re having a difficult time staying engaged as you read abstracts and papers from that department, that could spell trouble.

Ask yourself:

  • which faculty members in the department seem to be aligned with the questions in which you’re interested?
  • can they advise students? (in many departments, pre-tenure faculty either are not allowed to or are discouraged from advising students, so that they can focus on building their tenure portfolio)
  • can they chair dissertation committees? (in many departments, only full Professors—not assistant or associate professors—can chair committees)
  • what papers have been published by that research group?
  • what dissertations have been completed under that faculty member?
  • is there current activity in that faculty member’s research group?
  • are graduate students well-supported to teach classes, publish research, and present at professional conferences?

Once you know something about faculty and their work, consider reaching out to individual faculty members to present yourself as a prospective applicant and to engage them in a discussion of their work. You’re trying to understand whether they’re approachable, interesting, and interested in you. After all, this is a person you’re considering as a potential advisor, mentor, co-author, dissertation chair, and future professional colleague.

From the faculty member’s perspective, they’re thinking about you in exactly the same way: is this someone they could work with, write with, trust, and support? From the first time you contact a faculty member, you’re being vetted as a possible junior research colleague. If you visit campus and sit in on their research group meeting, the way you comport yourself from the moment they meet you to the moment you wave goodbye is judged in terms of professionalism.

The importance of that relationship can’t be understated. If a faculty member finds you interesting and is willing to speak on your behalf to the admissions committee or offer to fund you as a research assistant, that can go a long way to support your application.

Faculty admissions committees consider a number of applicant-related factors when reviewing applications:

  • among the department faculty—not only the committee members—is there a faculty member who has flagged the application as promising and has stated that they are willing to provide mentorship or funding to the applicant?
  • does the applicant have appropriate background to be successful in the program?
  • does the applicant make a strong case for why they want to study in that particular department?
  • does the application reflect a correct understanding of the research focus of the department? of a particular research group in the department? of a particular faculty member?
  • does the applicant present a clear vision for how a degree from that department will further their career goals?

as well as some department and logistical concerns:

  • does the program have enough faculty members to supply the number of seats required in courses for all students?
  • does the department have funding to provide financial support to the applicant in the form of graduate research or graduate teaching work?
  • are faculty members the applicant has identified as wanting to work with expected to take sabbatical, other leave, or to move on to another institution during the 5—7 years during which the applicant would be there?
  • is there a faculty member with the right expertise to mentor the applicant who will be available for the 5–7 years during which the applicant would be there?

The admissions committee is working to see you as a member of their department and a junior research colleague. If they can see you in that role, that’s very good for your prospects. If they don’t think the department has the expertise to supervise your training, doesn’t have the funding to support you, or don’t find the kinds of questions you’re interested in or how you go about gathering evidence compelling, then your application doesn’t stand much of a chance.

Your job as an applicant is not only to submit transcripts and test scores, but to help the faculty admissions committee to see you as a promising research colleague. Your communications with department faculty, your cover letter, and any essays you may be asked to submit help them to understand how your prior experience and future training will enrich their department’s research efforts.

At some point, the decision stops being about your merits as a person or a scholar and becomes about the department’s ability to support your professional training and accommodate you in the finite number of class seats available.

Don’t be discouraged, if you receive a rejection. Prepare yourself so that you can present the best case for why you are ready and a good match for the departments to which you apply.